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A week back, CCQ's Rhiannon Lowe went to Sŵn, Cardiff's full-on town centre music festival. Here she reports on what has become a mainstay of the capital's music calendar. Eric Aydin Barberini went with her, taking photos as he went.


Island's bassist. Photo: Eric Aydin Barberini

I’m a little tired. This last long Cardiff weekend has been a biggy. What started off with Artes Mundi 7 opening at the National Museum Cardiff and Chapter, continued into Cardiff Contemporary at g39 and The Angel and all over the city; and then turned into Sŵn music festival, which this year celebrated its 10th year. Parts of me are complaining, but after four days of cultural extravaganzarama, which ended on a massive high seeing Dreamwife downstairs at Clwb Ifor Bach, I feel all the better for it.

My weekend of music began with Bad Vibes and their barely disguised chaotic maelstrom. They were somewhat distracted, first by their bassist turning up late, and shortly after deftly catching his guitar as it escaped its strap, all to loud cheers; and second by their singer appearing to bust his ankle on falling and landing flat out, after, what I am told reliably, was an ‘awkward wall twirl’. The depths of Fuel bar suited this early afternoon raucousness perfectly; disorganised hollering fun; I’ve seen them play much better though.

I moved swiftly by Mumbleman, which sounded occasionally like a mix of an Arctic Monkeys’ White Wedding, and ignored Ellie Makes Music, whose rather youthful delicate prettiness had the ears of a captive audience, just not mine. Next however I was lucky enough to catch Garden Centre's guitarist do a blistering solo set, which brought to mind a Sarah Mary Chadwick-esque ferocity. Their full band gig later on in the afternoon, was full of their typically screwey-balled-up high-pitched tales of public toilet sharing, and gung-ho-gang fun.

Quiet Marauder

Quiet Marauder. Photo: Eric Barberini

Between, I had hopped briskly over to Gwdihw, to catch the utter delight of ACCÜ, whose loops and bounce reminded these ears of Molly Nilsson, but with extra delicate and spectral light and steadiness of hand. Visuals supplied by the wonderful Nic Finch/Chamelionic were beautiful, but could have been four times four more; just more, bigger, brighter; possibly lack of space and strong autumn sunlight didn’t help. I’m going to go see ACCU again soon, in the hopes that the two match one another layer for subtle layer.

I was back at Fuel in a jiffy to see Lower Slaughter, whose new(ish) singer I thought held her own very much in front of the pummelling bass guitar, chinks of sprightly lead, and, as one would surely have it, relentless drums, that shifted fluently in rhythm and time. A rammed upstairs at the Moon Club prevented my staying to watch more than one song of a rare Truckers of Husk appearance. By the way, what is it with people who try to force their bodily way down a narrow stairway desperate to insert themselves into an already full pit, when there are some of us smaller types, trying to escape and make room for their fat heads? Just asking. Instead I went to see Broken Hands in the hope of catching elements of their Bedhead-style thrumming, dragging and dredging up, of lurid whorls of noise. The guitars were on it, but the caterwauling singer rather slew their appeal for me, sadly.

I missed Mclusky’s revival gig that evening; Sunday held out greater promise for me, and I was determined to make the most.

The next morning was broken in by duo Right Hand Left Hand (Welsh Music Prize contenders, ahem – they and the buoyant crowd will see some delight at least in my mentioning of this, the winner of which is due to be drawn in November). RHLH have their steely professional spot-on performance so down; they are clinical; even their movement and teamly-joy in exchanging instruments, looping and re-looping of their guitars, is a display of shared and intimate knowledge of what the other is playing, and where the other one is on stage. Balletic is the wrong word, and tights would be plain wrong; but the giddiness and wall of rhythmic movement instilled by their ferocious playing and switch between instruments, was hypnotic.

The shift in mood from RHLH in Clwb to Quiet Marauder at Four Bars upstairs in Dempsey’s, was extraordinary, and just proves the delight to be had in smaller city festivals such as Sŵn. There’s a story-telling, mariachi-style to Quiet Marauder; anti-folk it might be; an upbeat early dusky Calexico, or Puerto Muerto, maybe… possibly; a song titled I wear a moustache darling in awe of hero Burt Reynolds, helps a desired comparison to Jeffrey Lewis; and a self-proclaimed drunk but focussed bassist, mix of tight rhythm section, sparky brass, and rambling sunny narrative, sure make for fabulous mid-afternoon fun.

Sonny Double 1

Sonny Double 1. Photo: Eric Aydin Barberini

I then went to see Living Body, expectant of their cover of long-lost Leeds band Empress’ song Don’t give up on me (Sŵn’s writers of their programme occasionally knew exactly which buttons to press, for me anyway) When it came, the cover, I wished I’d been in a different venue watching Living Body, their mix of the hush of Low and washes of the harder side of Devastations, quickly outgrowing the little standing-room only space.

Back at Dempsey’s, the crowd came expectant for a treat, with Andy Fung’s live collective Mandy playing not quite the entirety of recent album release Universe, written and recorded by Andy and his late wife Mel. A continually changing line up on stage, with, amongst others Richard James, Euros Childs and Angharad Van Rijswijk (ACCÜ) making their way to the front, brought extra heartfelt depth and whirling sheer guts to the perfect, almost poppy songs.

Tender Prey. Photo: Eric Aydin Barberini

Tender Prey were next on My (twice-lost) List along the road at O'Neills, and, as ever I was totally consumed by Laura Bryon’s heady gruel of clipped, blues-rock-song, artfully-shaped sparse guitar angles, and occasional yowl. What’s not to like, especially as Casey Raymond, too, is on guitar in a dark corner (and has produced delightful drawings and words for a limited edition artwork/download single collaboration). There was not enough of a crowd; but the competition was heavy: Bad Breeding at Gwdihw, Rattle at Fuel, Little Arrow at Four Bars, Vryll Society and She Drew the Gun at Clwb… Jim Ghedi and Toby Hay at The Big Top! Hmmmmn.

I was enjoying a (medicinal, you understand) brandy and orange by now, but I have to say that two of my new favourite bands brought my Sŵn experience to a close. The first was Bamboo. Who would have thought that a banjo, softly spoken songs, and a couple of (occasionally unashamedly dancey-offy) keyboards would work so majestically? I happily made a very favourable comparison to Ela Orleans to them later. But there were moments of Empress (yes, again) I thought, though heavily ramped up; thinking back now, there might have been the swoon of Grouper in there too. But there was heady 80s synth, driving spotted beats, crisp and mixed, circling around and over the pick of the banjo and vocal murmurs. The gig clashed with timings of several other bands sadly, shaving the audience way too close to thirty odd; I wouldn’t have missed it for the world…

… or I might have missed it for Dreamwife, possibly, who, while wildly different, were equally as stunning, and a great end to my four days of frollickery. The screw-you/screw-you-again lyrics, singsong-come-hither/back-the-fuck-off-or-I’ll-break-your-legs delivery, excellent deft guitar-work, and repressed, refined bass and drums, were a magical combination. Perhaps they are a gang, the three up front anyway, and they produce a sound that is complete, even styled with polish. But there’s a frankness to what Dreamwife do that deprives those ungainly descriptions of any certainty. It’s not artschoolglamrock, nor riotgrrl; it’s not Bowie, nor Peaches, though they have a cover of the latter. I am going to try catch them again; I’d love to see them do a show with HMLTD (formerly Happy Meal Ltd), because they’d bring houses down all around.

Sŵn is over and done; check out the bands on Sŵn’s website, follow them, try see them somewhere/elsewhere. Look out for BBC Wales’ coverage when it happens; crews were around at every stage. Our pictures here as it says, were taken by Eric Aydin Barberini, thanks Eric

Cardiff’s music scene is so sparky at the moment... I’m looking forward to Los Cripis next weekend...