sat 20/07/2024

theartsdesk at the Laugharne Weekend | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the Laugharne Weekend

theartsdesk at the Laugharne Weekend

Report from the post-punk festival of words and music in Dylan Thomas's Carmarthenshire village

Cerys Matthews: 'I never thought I’d be singing pop songs in a church, next to the grave of Dylan Thomas'All images © Emyr Young

The Laugharne Weekend has become a fixture in the crowded calendar of festivals that now punctuates not just high days and holidays but the whole six months that make up British Summer Time. Carving a niche for itself as a halfway house between literature and music, Laugharne’s success is built on two key factors.

First, its remarkable natural location in a remote corner of Carmarthenshire, southwest Wales and the village’s associations with Dylan Thomas, whose Boathouse, writing shed and the string of local pubs with legendary stories of the poet’s drunken antics make up Laugharne’s year-round tourist trail. Second, the energy and vision of the organisers, music promoter Richard Thomas and writer John L. Williams, whose line-ups bring a laid-back, post-punk attitude to proceedings of which the town’s most (in)famous resident would have been proud.

One ever-present part of the Laugharne line-up, since the inaugural festival in 2007, has been the infamous Welsh drug-smuggler turned author Howard Marks (pictured). Punters know what to expect from Marks: irreverence, foul language and controversial views; unfortunately this year, after a spirited am-dram performance of “Buggerall” – an updated version of Dylan ThomasUnder Milk Wood ­­– the self-styled “Mr Nice” turned in a drunken onstage performance that was more reminiscent of the last sad days of the Welsh poet’s life than the occasional brilliance that made him world famous. Marks’ incoherent ramblings led to heckles and a mass walk out but fortunately disgruntled punters were able to stumble across to The Fountain pub, where Keith Allen compered a “live karaoke” talent contest.

The following day a couple of other performers referred to Marks. The Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson promised foul language and irreverence, but also a pledge to “remain coherent throughout” before delivering a blistering lecture on the history of satire. It is a rollicking ride through the aftermath of Diana’s funeral, Blair’s wars and into the Cameron-Clegg years of what Rowson sees as “total incompetence”; he is full of righteous, indignant anger and it is easy to sense between the presentations on Hogarth and the rants about Blair (illustrated by impressions worthy of Rory Bremner) the wellspring of Rowson’s satirical genius.

Over the road in the Millennium Hall, two very different kinds of writers took to the stage. First, the affable Stuart Maconie – one of many Laugharne returnees, surely the sign of a good festival – delivered an offbeat guide to the 20th century, trailing his latest book Hope and Glory with a talk that drew on all of his previous jobs: sociology teacher, cotton mill worker, NME journalist and popular broadcaster. Then A L Kennedy (pictured) read from her novel The Blue Book, and answered questions about the art of fiction; “it’s a nice thing to do,” she said of writing, “making beautiful things for strangers.”

Of which there was more going on all over Laugharne as the drizzly afternoon morphed into a beautiful red-sky-at-night evening. Welsh villages are known for their multiple places of worship and Laugharne is no exception: the Congregational chapel was the venue for a poetry gala featuring the veteran Cardiff poet Ifor Thomas performing a striking sequence of poems about stalkers alongside fellow Welsh poet Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch and the inimitable Simon Armitage, yet another writer making a repeat performance at Laugharne.

The highlight of the weekend came on Saturday night over at St Martin’s church, the final resting place of Dylan Thomas. Cerys Matthews - singer-songwriter, radio presenter, poetry lover and Welsh national treasure – could hardly believe the circumstances. “Life’s a strange thing,” she said before launching into a version of “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash, “I never thought I’d be singing pop songs in a church, next to the grave of Dylan Thomas”. It was a homecoming gig of sorts for Cerys. Although she had rarely been to Laugharne (she shares Swansea as a hometown with the poet), “I’ve driven past it millions of times.”

The pop songs were the exceptions in a set that had more in common with her support act – the wonderful singer-songwriter Julie Murphy – than her days as frontwoman of Catatonia. These days, Cerys is mellow and multi-talented, at home in front of a microphone as much for spoken word as for song. “Words are the important thing,” she said, “as long as they are good words.” Reading from her favourite writers - Burns and Yeats, Hemingway and Lorca - as well as inevitably from Dylan, Cerys couldn’t exactly go wrong. It was an intimate, special kind of show. Inevitably though, it was her singing voice – by turns sultry, husky and sweet – that the crowd want to hear, and she doesn’t disappoint. We get American country and flamenco-tinged numbers before Cerys brings it all back home with “Sosban Fach” and a moving finale of the Welsh hymn “Arglwydd Dyma Fi” (Lord, Here I Am).

Sunday saw the mix of Welshness and internationalism continue with North Walian surf-rocker Y Niwl playing into the early hours and then theartsdesk’s Jasper Rees talking about Bred of Heaven, his book about searching for his Welsh roots, in the afternoon, while spoken word veteran John Cooper Clarke (pictured above right) made his pilgrimage to the Boathouse. At times mildly shambolic, at others almost spiritually uplifting, the Laugharne Weekend 2012 never failed to be entertaining. As it now says on the website, “See you next year. Roll me home, boys!”


Hi. Just like to add... Yes Howard Marks' "talk" was disappointing - mainly because he didnt command the audience (which even if you are Howard Marks, it is still a professional requirement at such an event). We all wanted to hear what he had to say. I hope he gets the chance to rectify this for next year. Highlights for me were: Chuck Prophet talking and singing a few songs "from the road"; Professor Steve Jones on genetics and hermaphrodites!; Huw M; Laura J Martin (two musical artists to watch for); a wonderful magical Sunday afternoon session with Robin Williamson in the chapel; and a festival closing and totally sonic experience in the village Millenium Hall with Jah Wobble and Keith Levene's interpretation of Metal Box in Dub. Incredible. A wonderful weekend.

A great time was had by all! For me the highlight was Robin Williamson who really epitomised the spirit of the whole event. I have just done a review/homage to Dylan Thomas on my blog.

I've been to every festival since 2008 and one of the best things is you never quite know how it will turn out. Each year has a different 'feel' and this year was no exception. Personally, I just think Howard needs to be there and that's enough and I secretly delight in his drunken irreverance. John Cooper Clarke is just fabulous - he's real and so utterly untouched by fame. It was great at Laugharne's got talent when he got up and did a song cos Keith spotted his 'bouffant lurking at the back of the room' Maybe my group of friends don't have the requisite thirst for culture as we were really disappointed with the Cerys event and wanted her to 'play the hits!' - i listened to enough keats and burns when I did my A levels. Highlights for me were Simon Day ( I could have listened to him all day), James Fearnley (Pogues), anything and everything on at the tin shed, eating at the wonderful Cors restaurant and the stellar performance had to be the Jah Wobble and Keith Levene set on the Sunday night. I also loved just looking at the audience there, most of whom clearly were back in the late seventies in their heads watching it. And thank you Richard for taking the chairs out - it was like an old school disco and all the better for it. May this darling little festival continue rolling on

Keith Allen and his band were brilliant! Loved the female singer with them Cerys she had an awesome voice. Will be back next year

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