thu 05/12/2019

Sŵn Festival 2018 – a welcome return to form | reviews, news & interviews

Sŵn Festival 2018 – a welcome return to form

Sŵn Festival 2018 – a welcome return to form

Cardiff's crown jewel festival hits stride with four nights of music and delight

The party erupts for Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard at Cardiff's O'NeillsOwen Richards

It’s been a tough few years for Sŵn Festival. Once a genuine rival to fellow urban festivals Great Escape and Sound City, recent events have fluctuated between one-dayers and a string of ticketed gigs. 2018 marked the biggest change yet, but also a return to the multi-day, multi-venue format. Founders Huw Stephens and John Rostron announced they were handing over the reigns to Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff’s leading music venue. This fresh injection of enthusiasm and experience was just what the festival needed. 

This year, Sŵn was spread over four days: large single gigs on Wednesday and Thursday, followed by city-wide events on Friday and Saturday. It’s a format that suits its host city Cardiff: a music scene large enough to support such a festival, but compact enough that no venue is more than a 20-minute walk away.

The festival launched at one of the city’s newest venues, the Tramshed, with a night of multi-lingual psych-pop. There’s more than a drop of Melody’s Echo Chamber in the French openers Halo Maud, but it never slips into plagiarism. Instead, the songs were carried by outstanding musicianship and a magnetic performance that proved a perfect start to the evening.

The Welsh-language music scene is fiercely vibrant, and Adwaith (pictured below) are one of its fastest-rising stars. With their debut album Melyn released only last week, the crowd was expectant and rapturous on their arrival. Purveyors of high-end, lo-fi alt-pop, it’s music that makes you want to learn Welsh; occasional snippets in English indicate the wit and depth of their lyrics.Adwaith at Swn FestivalWelsh isn’t the only language required to understand headliner Gwenno’s lyrics, with her sophomore album Le Kov composed in Cornish. Backed by a hallucinogenic video feed of her own performance, it’s a euphoric set: her album’s unique production is realised live with impressive scope and clarity. It caps a launch night that promises you’re in good hands for the following days.

The next evening, the coolest students in Cardiff assembled at The Great Hall for a night of vintage clothes, symmetrical haircuts, and chemical-enhanced bopping. First up were The Orielles, who only played Clwb Ifor Bach a few months previous, but a new keyboard player has raised the live performance considerably. The band now cut a line between Elastica and Talking Heads, with an irrepressible show that surpasses their sound on record – full, confident and varied.Drenge at Swn FestivalThey were followed by Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, who had just arrived from homeland Australia via Singapore and Dubai. However, the jetlag had not yet caught up with them, bringing a slice of Americana rocket-powered by a driving rhythm section and three guitars. They set the BPM of the room in perfect anticipation of returning Sŵn favourites Drenge (pictured above). The adoring crowd swayed to the band’s apocalypse-laden riffs, Eion Loveless’ lyrics drawling over the top. By the time “Backwaters” hits, it’s an eruption of flying pints and crowd surfing.

Friday saw the launch of festival proper, with gigs across five venues. The destination of choice for most was back to the Tramshed for the night of three headliners - first up, Gaz Coombes. Flanked by a trio of mod singers, the maestro had the crowd in the palm of his hand from the off. Possessing a voice that never waivers, and a band of the highest order, it’s almost cruel to put on such an established act on first – very few could follow.

But for Cardiffians Boy Azooga (pictured below), this was a homecoming. Many of the band’s members have played the festival before, none more so than frontman David Newington, who’s drummed for many acts throughout the years. Now though he fronts his own music, and it’s perhaps the biggest set of the festival. The room was packed from wall to wall, and the band thrived from their unwavering support. Sporting a sound that could be best described as slacker-glam, Azooga powered through a set of huge riffs and intimate moments. There were singalongs, there were mosh pits, and the risk of stage invasion by the finale of T.Rex’s “I Love To Boogie”. The perfect send-off before the band head to America.Boy Azooga at Swn FestivalIt was down to The Go! Team to send everyone into the night, and they did so with aplomb. Best described as a collective of joy, the band swap across instruments to create an eclectic live indie/dance experience. Singer Ninja asks the crowd to shake their booty at one point, but the invitation is not needed – it’s involuntary to rhythms like that.

By Saturday, the preceding nights’ excesses begin to take their toll. At a field festival, the discomfort of camping draws you outside, but in the city, leaving your own bed is a lot harder. Still, the music must go on, so a pint and Mellt at The Moon is the perfect pick-me-up. Kitted out in Welsh band tees, the trio produce a sound that channels both The Clash and The Cribs.

There was little time to rest as the Sŵn app reliably informs that Kongs was nearly at capacity for Dream Wife. The venue is rarely used for live music, and it’s easy to see why – the stage appears to be the lowest part of the room with no sign of the band. However, rising beyond a sea of heads was a great wall of sound: all grungey riffs and righteous anger. It was boiling hot in every sense, only lessened by the sudden appearance of aircon halfway through. The head of Rakell Mjöll appears over the crowd to conduct a singalong of “I am not my body, I am somebody” to cap off an excellent show.Warmduscher at Swn FestivalThe allure of the secret set was calling, so it was back to the festival’s hub Clwb Ifor Bach. Awaiting was Warmduscher (pictured above), a supergroup of Fat White Family, Insecure Men and Childhood members. Despite being billed as debauched, the band first appear surprisingly well behaved. Their music, however, is anything but – everything is distorted, from the guitars, to the vocals, to a theremin that soars above like a satellite that’s long lost control. These are songs that seek to conquer, with a volume that physically moves the air. For some it’s too much, but for most, resistance is futile.

The eardrums hadn’t been finished off just yet, so it was time to prepare for Estrons. As is traditional with the most popular acts, the band were placed in a tiny venue to create a mad rush and inevitable queue. For those who managed entry, they were met with a 1000mph set on the edge of control. The band’s debut album You Say I’m Too Much, I Say You’re Not Enough is only two weeks old, but already the crowd are singing along to every word. Each head banged to the bass drum hit, and moshed at the drop of a chorus. The band are far more than punk, with a varied and melodic set that never stops for breath. By the time we reached “Drop”, it seemed our ironic fate was sealed as the floor began to physically buckle from the jumping. Mercifully the music ended before it gave way, but like those wooden floorboards, everyone left permanently altered.

To finish the festival, it was up to the local band with so much buzz they put it in their name, thrice: Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard (pictured top). The packed crowd caught more surf than a Hawaiian beach, as the band played their signature brand of bluesy alt-rock. It’s the perfect end to a festival that celebrates the future of music, and confirmation that Sŵn is firmly back on the map.

@OwenRichards91

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