November 3, 2009
Live Review: SWN Featival
Los Campesinos!, Girls, Islet and the pick of the best new bands at Cardiff’s premier indie fest. Various venues, Cardiff, Thursday October 22-Saturday October 24
Pop into Cardiff’s Toucan Club for a midday Guinness. There’s former Boo Radleys man Martin Carr clasping his baby, who playfully swipes at his beard. Refusing to be funnelled off into designated trendy spots, plaid-swathed bands down drinks offers in Irish bar Callaghan’s. In every other pub a Super Furry Animal DJs. True, we’re far from the manic(s) years of Cool Cymru, but the Welsh capital is still a place where music is considered equal with breathing on ‘must-do’ lists.
Typifying this is S?n. Organisers Jon Rostron and Huw Stephens haven’t the cash to haul in the usual roll-call of hype-bands, instead relying on genuine intuition. Hence it’s press-profile-phobic local kids Islet who’re drawing early-doors attention on Thursday. Their shadowy presence – no MySpace, no releases, no compromises – is heightened by the way they squish their sprawling set-up into
a deliberately dark Dempseys. Drums litter the makeshift stage, a shamanic percussive offensive powering the truly unique quartet through a spellbinding half hour that bleeds impassioned improv spirit.
Variously evoking a veritable ABC of forerunners – Animal Collective, Battles, Clinic – they flood inspiration with perspiration. ‘Iris’, in particular, embodies their DIY-meets-ADD approach inside five minutes, Emma Daman’s damaged crystalline melodies at gripping odds with buzzing bass manoeuvres and wired guitar flourishes. Amp-scaling, audience-invading multi-instrumentalist focal point Mark Thomas breaks the trance temporarily before throwing his face to the heavens with almost religious fervour. “Fuck yeah”: as a euphoric endorsement, it’s impossible to summarise Islet in two words with any greater accuracy.
Cardiff’s Threatmantics might not be stamping their names on the top of any buzz lists either; that Y Fuwch Goch is chocka at the time on Friday when most punters would be taking their Ginsters out of the microwave is a deserved tribute. Sometimes frenetic and hoedown-y, sometimes honey-sweet, their bulked Gorky’s-esque clatter is a treat, if not quite music to get naked to – making drummer Taliesyn Eurys Källström’s decision to play topless a touch odd.
Creating a theme for the night at Clwb Ifor Bach are Leeds hardcore types Pulled Apart By Horses – also showcasing a very Biffy attitude to shirt-wear. Their Fucked Up, racked-up racket is a tuneful one, although we’ve pretty much seen what they’re about after 20 minutes, so head back to Y Fuwch Goch to queue for Girls and miss PABH frontman Tom Hudson spraying beer vomit into the crowd. Ah well.
The rain pours, the Womanby Street queue shuffles and we file in to see the biggest hype band here – over to play their last UK gig until February. The San Franciscans tune up 15 minutes before stage time, playing through some numbers to sort levels. Everyone bustles for beer. But Girls don’t stop. By the time they play ‘Hellhole Ratrace’ we realise it wasn’t a soundcheck. No intro. Frontman Christopher Owens says nothing. Then after a few more stabs of dreamy indie-warble it’s over. And we wonder if that genuinely was the band whose ‘Album’ makes us swoon. surely not.
The next day we’re back for Cate Le Bon. Beginning with debut album title track ‘Me Oh My’, within one song she’s murdered any chit-chat. Her Welsh warble is so perfect she barely has to open her mouth to start cracking hearts – the folky ‘Sad Sad Feet’ sending all Girls-related disappointment drain-wards.
Over at Roath’s theatre-esque The Gate, Cardiff-born Los Campesinos! are also in a world of their own. The new songs from forthcoming third album ‘Romance Is Boring’ showcase a bolstered build that could see them transcend their previous annoyingly contrived tweeness, though Gareth still does those cringey monologues. But later, as Huw and Jon DJ at a silent disco in the Student’s Union, we concede that LC!’s show was about rampant fandom rather than criticism, waves of crowd-surfers demonstrating that for all their schmindie snappability it’s impossible to deny that they’re becoming a big deal. Almost as big a deal as the sad fact that the next S?n is 12 impatient months away.
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