Focus Wales Music Festival and Conference: Wrexham – live review

Focus Wales 2013
Music Festival and Conference, Wrexham, Wales
April 25th to 27th, 2013

By the sounds of it, LTW’s Dave Jennings had an incredible time at Focus Wales 2013 seeing some amazing bands. Here, Dave relives the weekend with great fondness.

The good news is that the countdown to Focus Wales 2014 has now begun. The bad news is that we’ve got a year to wait! To sustain us however, we’ve got some amazing memories from what has been an outstanding 3 days. Neal Thompson and the rest of the Focus Wales team deserve the freedom of the borough for their efforts in putting together a programme packed with diverse talent and fascinating conferences, and ensuring the whole thing ran like clockwork. No easy task when we’re talking about more than 100 bands across venues that include a medieval church, pubs, bars, a museum and the main venue of Central Station.

In addition to the headlining by Michael Rother, this was an amazing 3 days and all I can offer is a brief heads-up of the acts I was lucky enough to catch and regret the ones I missed.

Keys, one of a number of outstanding Cardiff based acts kicked it all off for me on Thursday afternoon at Glyndwr University with their electrifying brand of psych-rock that showcased some of their ‘Bitten by Wolves’ release of 2011. Into town slightly later, ably assisted by Rob, we took in See Monkey Do Monkey label-mates of Keys Houdini Dax. The melodic twists of this young Cardiff three-piece was reminiscent of some ‘60’s influences but still with a vital originality that made a pleasing impression. From here a quick dash across to St. Giles’ Parish Church, an ancient environment where the promoters had skilfully picked acts to complement the ambiance. We caught the tail end of Little Arrow with a sound so arresting and unique that Rob was straight in to purchase the new album, ‘Wild Wishes’. From one extreme to another with the sonic assault of ‘Orient Machine’ in The Bank and then back again to the Parish Church for Heal The Last Stand and some of the most gentle, yet uplifting music any mood may need. Kicking off with the massed ranks of Wrexham Community Choir to back them, this was one of the many golden moments these 3 days would provide.

 

Time and tide, however, waits for no man and we had to exit early for one of the most anticipated performances – the mighty Terminal were about to take the stage in South Central and this was definitely not one to be missed. Thirty years ago, Terminal stood on the threshold of success, constantly gigging, played by John Peel and backed by a fiercely loyal local following. That was another time however, well before the vibrant local music scene that Focus Wales so ably showcased. The local cognoscenti knew this was the place to be at 9:30 as the irrepressible Phil Heym launched into the set that was a personal highlight and left the throng baying for more.

Upstairs for an all too brief listen to the sweeping guitars of Swnami before decamping to Central Station for the evening’s climax. The intriguing Baby Brave and the Love Bites provided a most interesting and unexpected diversion with their harmonies, dance routines and quirky lyrical content. ‘Take Your Castle to Spain’ seemed to examine the psyche of caravan owners in a way that personally I’ve never seen before and the band are possibly a ‘Stealing Sheep’ meets ‘Half Man Half Biscuit’ scenario…or possibly not. They’re good though!

 

From there we crowded in front of the smaller second stage for the outstanding Shy and the Fight. Great band, great performance, shame it wasn’t a bigger stage. The main stage was set for the first night’s headliner, Charlotte Church, and her stage entrance revealed an outfit you don’t see very often in Wrexham nowadays, but we did see in gossip columns of the nationals within hours. In fairness to her, having achieved what she has, Charlotte Church does seem keen to support the Welsh music scene and came across as a thoughtful and humble person who was genuinely pleased to be performing here. Her voice is a given and the music is different, challenging and a world away from the middle of the road rock/pop that may have been expected. Good luck to her.

Friday promised to be an international cracker with artists from Canada, Korea and Snowdonia following an afternoon conference where a number of music experts such as Paul Gray and John Robb discussed issues facing the industry. We eased into the evening with the easy melodies of Canadian Ingrid Gatin who managed to hold the audience in the Parish Church spellbound for the whole set. This was good but meant we only caught the end of Korean rockers Goonam in the nearby bank. But what an end it was as the venue was jumping with punters who were hooked by the infectious rhythms and obvious pleasure of the band in performing.

Things were getting very tricky now and the logistical problem of being in two places at once was more difficult to overcome than first thought. The folk-country of Sam Airey was a pleasant and soothing contrast to the onslaught we were about to face on our return to The Bank and the next installment of “Korea Rocks” in the shape of Apollo 18. Houston we have a problem, I think I’ve gone deaf in my left ear! Crawling out, we sought sanctuary within the ancient walls of the Parish Church and the headliners, the excellent Camera. Great songs, great musicians, great band! You will hear a lot more from these as they are one of the finest bands in Wales at the moment and that is saying something.

Over to Central Station for Chester groovers The Suns and a good dose of a rockabilly infused feel-good sound that got the punters dancing. Saith Seren was next up and the promise of Welsh language legend Gai Toms, a man of impeccable song-writing and performing skills with a ska and folk background. Sadly, delays in the stage set-up meant we only saw the start of this set and made a reluctant exit to head for The Bank and Galaxy Express, the final Korean act of the evening. Word had clearly spread as the venue was rammed and what a scene as punters were drawn in by the exuberance and power of Galaxy Express who were urged on by their entourage. Their set flew by in a deafening and all too brief blur and was probably best described by Goonam’s singer as “totally amazing”.

 

The second evening closed at Central Station with the current must-see Wrexham band, The Maydays. These guys are described as between The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys but maybe we can add a touch of Housemartins in there and it was a great performance for the loyal local following. More locals, The Roseville Band, turned in a polished and high octane performance that spoke volumes for what they have already achieved and what they undoubtedly will. The dreamy, hypnotic tones of Gulp, Guto Pryce and Lyndsey Leven’s project, gave ample warning that the album, due for completion later this year, is one to anticipate. Man Without Country’s varied and individual sound was the perfect end to an amazing night.

Saturday was a day I’d been anticipating for weeks but it posed a real challenge. After the mellow beauty of Trwbador early doors, it was necessary to split the troops. I was desperate to see Michael Rother in conversation on one end of town, so Rob deployed to South Central where math-rockers Samoans as, in a different style, were Greta Isaac and Esther.

However, listening to Michael Rother discuss his early influences, time in Kraftwerk, working with Klaus Dinger in Neu! And the legacy of his innovative work was utterly compelling. An hour went by in a blink and personally I could have listened to him all day.

Besides Michael Rother appearing in my hometown, the other reason to anticipate Saturday was an appearance by the magnificent Golden Fable. By stage-time of 5:15 the venue of Wrexham Museum (the old court building) was packed solid as no one wanted to miss one of the highlights of the festival. Kicking off with ‘Always Golden’, followed by ‘Sugarloaf’, the band were in top form. Having been commissioned by Focus Wales to write a song for this weekend, the band were unlikely to disappoint and the premiere of ‘Southern Climes’ revealed a magnificently crafted piece of work. Guitarist Tim also pointed out one of the main strengths of the three days is the sheer pleasure the artists take in each other’s performances and this was backed up by the presence of so many in the audience here. A feature of Golden Fable performances is the unplugged part of the set and tonight this meant Rebecca not using any mic as ‘The Chill’ was delivered to an engrossed crowd. Also notable is the ability to rework tracks and today ‘Crossfire’ was delivered in a stripped back format that was both unforgettable and revealing of the continuing innovation of the band. It is released as a single in June and you can hear it below.

 

The weekend was approaching a climax and the excellent By the Sea got the crowd nicely warmed up for the headlining appearance of the legendary Michael Rother of which more elsewhere.

If there was one thing that was equal to the brilliant array of music on offer across the town, it was the atmosphere in all the venues as festival-goers happily soaked up music of such diversity and talent. A fantastic three days and here’s to Focus Wales 2014.

Check out Focus Wales on their official website or their Facebook page.

Words by Dave Jennings. More writing by Dave on Louder Than War can be found here.

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