Monday, 21 November 2011

Swn 2011

My Top Eight Picks

Cardiff’s 2011 city hopping festival Swn was even bigger this year. Instead of legging it from electronica band to acoustic artist to folk singer for three days, in 2011 the event allowed gig goers to do so for four. Whilst upping the chances of needing rehab, it offered an entire extra day to choose from a plethora of hand picked acts. For those not in the know, Swn means sound in Welsh, and the fest is organised by Radio 1 DJ Huw Stephens and Cardiff based super promoter John Rostron. Using only city centre venues to host its events, it is easy peasy for customers to navigate. Instructions: buy a wristband for the whole weekend. Choose the acts you want to see. Wear your wristband to get into any venue. There’s even an iPhone app to help plan your schedule, and you get to sleep in your own bed at night - or hotel if you’re visiting – with no tents or toilet cubicles in sight! Out of over one hundred and fifty acts on offer, I saw eighteen, and here I’ll highlight my top eight. I only wish I could relive it a few times over, changing my gig combo each time!



Alt-J :named after the short cut for the delta sign. A triangle-loving band.
Alt-J’s friendly frontman Joe Newman (we chatted post-gig) has chameleon like vocals he uses to change styles and pace regularly, his sound quirky, engaging, scratchy, like a Paolo Nutini/Thom Yorke hybrid who can sing to send a shiver down your spine, yet deliver hip hop sounding tracks with ease. I cannot pin a genre onto this Leeds born band, their sound outside a single definition. Theirs is a complex mix of quick heart-poundy jumpy tripping beats, folky sounding harmonies, beautiful guitars, xylophone, percussion and bass - tracks which simultaneously made me want to cry and dance at this magical Swn performance. Oh, and their track ‘Tessellate’ makes triangles sound seductive – surely a stand-out skill worth mentioning.

Slowly building layers of instruments combine to create captivating, enrapturing soundscapes which are the Among Brothers’ signature sound. All five members of the Cardiff band crammed onto the tiny stage in Undertone for their Swn gig, whilst the anticipative audience mirrored with shoulder to shoulder positioning, beautiful music enveloping the tiny, packed space. Their sound is emotive, dreamy, dancey. It has depth you can lose yourself in, and I certainly got lost in this performance.

The London based purveyors of spiky, jagged, lo-fi dance-making music were a fantastic surprise, their great recordings translating into a stunning live performance in the intimate venue space in Dempseys. The guys tested out their Welsh on the audience and when Sean, the super shy bassist, confessed to being lost for words, he received lots of supportive banter from the crowd. To summarise: bendigedig (wonderful)!

The Herman Dune brothers. Pic taken from www.leedsmusicforum.co.uk
The French John Peel approved anti-folk band presented the audience with sometimes dance-inducing, sometimes beautiful heart-rending harmonies, with romantic titles such as ‘My Home is Nowhere Without You’, and ‘I Wish That I Could See You Soon’, all delivered via lead singer and guitarist David-Ivar Herman Dune’s slightly odd, are-they-or-aren’t-they-off-key tones. Theirs is happy-making music, and in spite of the fact David-Ivar happened to wear the tightest jeans I have ever witnessed on a male, this was a happy-making gig.

Joshua Caole. Photo taken by Pippa Bennett.
Joshua Caole is Wales’ answer to Ryan Adams, but with a gentler, more mournful sound. Hailing from The Forest of Dean, but Cardiff based, his brooding brand of bluegrass details love, loss and wisdom beyond his youthful years, delivered with feeling and gorgeous guitar playing. Josh’s Ten Feet Tall Swn gig was particularly eventful, as he suffered several mishaps including a stage stepping trouser split, and a nastily cut finger. He still played beautifully and bantered with the crowd, continuing to drink beer, despite visibly paling. Very rock and roll! If you’re a fan of Americana, I recommend catching Mr Caole live, and have a future song title suggestion for him…Blood on the Guitar Strings?

My friends and I just about made it into the Trinity Street O’Neills venue, the one in one out entry policy working in our favour minutes before the Swedish duo began, releasing us from the queue into the packed to capacity room. We filled the only apparent gap in the crowd, which was right at the front, resulting in me standing so close to Gustav Karlof I could have reached out and touched him were I a stalker type fan. Thankfully for us both I am not, and I concentrated instead on the other worldliness of Niki & The Dove’s sound and presence. Malin Dahlstrom was a smiling vision of big hair, strong make up, facial glitter and shoulder pads, her male partner in music looking rather more serious and slick. They have quirkiness in spades, their music an assemblage of stacks of synth, changey beats, pulsating electronic sounds and enchanting vocals which combine to be instantly winning whilst complex.

I walked into the downstairs space of Clwb Ifor Bach mid-Al Lewis’ set to be instantly blown away by  the beautiful melodic music being played with the accompaniment of Al’s band. His stuff is low key and subtle, emotive and touching without being sentimental, a mix of English and Welsh language acoustic folk. The hushed crowd who had gathered for the performance obviously shared my love of his music and whether already familiar with Al or an instant fan like me, the atmosphere was electric, everyone mesmerised by the allure of the North Walian born musician’s stunning sound.

David Dondero. Pic taken from www.swnfest.com
To listen to David Dondero’s songs is to be entertained, and his live performance offers even more fun. The American folk singer who has recently joined Conor Oberst’s Team Love label, weaves amusing tales of people and places, delivered via his deadpan style, dry sense of humour, and melodic, sometimes pretty, sometimes rugged guitar playing. Examples of his tracks include Not Everyone Loves Your Doggie Like You Do and Please Hand Me Over To The Undertaker. He’s not all about comedy however, he also belongs to the traditional school of Americana with songs about heartbreak - not surprising then US’ National Public Radio declared him one of the greatest living songwriters. This was one of the most fun Swn gigs due to Dondero’s connection with the Ten Feet Tall audience - and amusing anecdotes aside, he makes amazing Americana.