Preview : Sŵn 2017 : Sep 22 - Oct 21A look at the 2017 edition of Cardiff's annual new music festival by special guest contributor Kevin McGrath
Since its launch, in 2007, Cardiff's Sŵn Festival has played a decisive role in transforming the city's live music scene. The innovative multi-venue event, co-founded by Radio 1 DJ Huw Stephens and his comrade-in-arms John Rostron, captured the imagination of Welsh gig-goer's by bringing together the hippest of local artists with trailblazing performers from further afield. Having firmly established their pet project as one of the nation's best-loved festivals, the good folk at Sŵn have, somewhat out of the blue, decided to re-imagine the purpose of the festival itself.
For starters, this year's Sŵn will be a month-long jamboree - stretching from September 22nd to October 21st and its ambitiously expanded programme will incorporate a series of individually ticketed events, featuring international acts such as Songhoy Blues and the ultra-cool Courtney Barnett (playing as part of the Jen Cloher band), as well as a one-off performance in Swansea by ska punks The Skints. Further proof that this year's changes to the festival are truly dramatic rather than purely cosmetic, comes in the form of an intriguing new partnership with The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. The college will be hosting off//Kilter (Oct 7th), a day set aside for more introspective, minimalist and experimental acts. This year's groundbreaking line-up includes the much-hyped troubadour, Richard Dawson, the captivating singer/songwriter Rhain and New York's Vorhees. In addition, Sŵn 2017 will be hosting a unique event, Hush-Silent Disco at the National Museum of Wales (Sept 30th) as well as collaborating in a series of special events with Snowcat Cinema under the umbrella title Pale Blinds, extending the reach of the festival into the world of film.
While Sŵn's already fine reputation is sure to be enhanced by this more challenging, more forward-thinking focus on growing the festival, those of us who relish the annual challenge of crisscrossing the capital in a mad dash to catch as many of the upcoming artists playing across the city as is humanly possible (2016's "wristband weekend" involved 130 acts spread over 10 venues), can rest assured that the festival's centrepiece is still in place. It has, though, been revamped and considerably downsized. Re-christened Discovery Day, the weekend treasure hunt to unearth shiny new musical gems (both local and international) has been condensed into a single Saturday, although it still serves as the climax to this year's moveable feast. At the time of going to press the headcount for the last-day line-up stands at 45 acts, a not inconsiderable drop-off, especially at a time when long-established and much-loved music venues are being lost to the city. Despite the changes, though, Discovery Day remains the maddest 24 hrs to be found anywhere on the pop map!
Ultimately, original thinkers like Stephens and Rostron should be congratulated for taking such a bold step in an attempt to keep Sŵn fresh and at the forefront of an ever-evolving festival circuit. The 2017 programme is a genuinely bold and ambitious one, particularly in its partnership-based approach to the arts and its refreshing willingness to re-imagine how Sŵn itself can develop to play an even more vital role in the city's cultural life in the decade ahead.
Here are my must-see acts for Sŵn 2017:
Dan Bettridge is playing one of Sŵn's fifteen individually ticketed events (Sunday 8th October, in The Big Top) and with a debut album nearing completion, the country/soul balladeer will have a set full of new songs with which to convert any latecomers to his cause. Having witnessed his cameo appearance in Newport on Record Store Day, I can personally vouch for the top-notch quality of new material like "Heavenly Father", as well as other superior numbers "NYC Midnight Train" and "Hello Caroline" that he road tested that day. Arguably, the best singer-songwriter in Britain right now! [More : Web I SoundCloud]
Part of Folkstock Records' mightily impressive roster of upcoming singer/songwriters, Danielle's intrinsically pure voice has earned her comparisons with legendary figures like Karen Carpenter and also led to her being dubbed the 'Welsh Joni Mitchell' (by yours truly!). If aliens landed on my front lawn one morning with the sole intention of destroying life on earth, the best chance I might have of saving the planet would be to spin them Danielle's sublime track "West Coast Sun". If those 3 minutes and eleven seconds of perfect folk-pop couldn't convince the invaders that our war-mongering species had a gentler, more peaceful side then surely nothing on earth could! Alien invasion notwithstanding, Danielle is playing Discovery Day on the 21st October, venue still to be confirmed. [More : Web I Bandcamp]
Newport's La Forme, a 3-piece band presumably named after the classic Kraftwerk track, sculpt luxuriously portentous synth-pop vignettes, all topped off with dolorous vocals that revive memories of Tel Aviv's Minimal Compact and Moscow's Human Tetris . If that wasn't enough to pique my curiosity, the band's latest release "Birds in An Aviary" features a Cathlan Coughlan style vocal that takes me right back to seeing the legendary Microdisney at Cardiff's Hanging Gardens on the 5th of March 1988. Sweet memories! La Forme play on Discovery Day. [More : SoundCloud]
How to categorise the thrilling Bristol-based singer/songwriter Rhain? Well, her haunting falsetto gives you no option other than to reference Kate Bush, while Joanna Newsome, Joni Mitchell and Bjork are usually part of the drunken debate too. Not that Rhain loses any sleep over which genre music critics might want to ascribe to her startling compositions - 'It's either good music or bad music' she casually informed Bristol 365.com in a revealing interview last December. Fresh from supporting Rufus Wainwright, Rhain plays off//kilter, an evening of experimental, edgy music at The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama on the 7th of October. [More : Web I Bandcamp]
The brainchild of Tibet bassist and multi-instrumentalist Tom Rees, Buzzard was initially conceived as a studio-only project dedicated to re-creating the classic vibe of 70's rock. Cream, Supertramp and John Lennon have all been mentioned in dispatches, while the band has recently re-tweeted an N.M.E. post declaring Abba to be the 'best band in the world ever'. It all sounds damned fine to me, as does their debut single "In Vain". The Cardiff based combo will be playing on Discovery Day.
Keeva is the anglicised form of the Irish name Caoimhe, meaning gentle, beautiful and precious. All adjectives that could be applied equally to the pair of superlative country/soul ballads that constitutes the young singer/songwriter's entire body of work thus far (aside from a fine cover of Patsy Cline's "Crazy", that is). Recently signed to Downtown Music Publishing, the home of Natalie Merchant, Jason Isbell and Bruce Springsteen, and presently recording her eagerly awaited debut album in Texas, Keeva could be the sleeper hit of this year's Sŵn. [More : SoundCloud]
She Drew The Gun
With debut album Memories of another Future (re-issued and slightly re-named after the band won Glastonbury's emerging talent competition in 2016) winning new admirers far and wide, She Drew the Gun arrive at Sŵn with a reputation as undisputed music press darlings. For once, though, the hype is justified; fronted by rabble-rousing singer/songwriter/guitarist Louisa Roach, whose politically-charged pop takes no prisoners, the combo is about to set off on a major UK tour before playing the SWSX Festival in Austin, Texas. Uncut evocatively describes their sound as 'junkyard scouse soul'. She Drew the Gun play Clwb Ifor Bach on Tuesday 10th October. [More : Web I SoundCloud]
All the latest Sŵn news can be found here - http://www.swnfest.com/
You can find more of Kevin McGrath's writing on music and politics on his blog and in Wales Arts Review, as well as PopMatters, Buzz, Plugged In, Red Labour and Mystic Avenue.