Various Venues, Wrexham
23rd – 26th of April 2014!
Louder Than War reports from the heart of Wrexham as the brilliant Focus Wales gets under way.
The first full day of Focus Wales 2014 offered the usual wide range of brilliant bands and conferences. In fact, the festival had kicked off the previous evening with a Drum With Our Hands showcase of some of the best local talent including an edgier Baby Brave, the blast of power that is Orient Machine and the outstanding Camera.
Thursday saw discussions in the afternoon that focused on ways that independent artists can gain wider exposure. Delegates including Huw Stephens, Pete Bailey, Adam Walton and Louder Than War’s John Robb took part in a fascinating and wide ranging discussion. A couple of gems to pass on include Adam Walton’s advice to anyone thinking of hiring a plugger, which is to ask them to write a biography of your band first, that way you’ll soon know if they are really keen on you or just blagging. The other was that sometimes it’s best to submit tracks as demo’s rather than call it your new single. That way it can show potential rather than have you written off if someone doesn’t like your production.
The debate continued around the age-old argument of what we should hear on the radio and when, but offered some great ideas in the process. A fascinating discussion with the legendary Alan McGee followed to wrap up the first day of interactive conferences.
However, enough of the talking. With so much music the obvious problem is where to be, who to see. Today is quite frankly a bit too challenging as the juggling fiends of fate have seen several must sees on at the same time; i.e. John Cooper Clarke up against Damo Suzuki and Georgia Ruth. With so much to see, it’s inevitable that we would also be missing out on a number of great acts, so what follows is a summary of what we saw and is tinged with regret at what we missed.
We kicked off in St Giles’ church with The Mexican Walking Fish and what a start! Some great country sounds beefed up by the spaghetti-western style trumpet that combines perfectly. If the evening had ended there it would have been a success, but Central Station called us for the finely crafted acoustic guitar of The Gentle Good, Cardiff’s Gareth Bonello. With original tunings, some of which he apparently discovered by accident, his songs are a captivating folk-based pleasure.
From here we nipped round the corner to Un Deg Un and caught the end of Hunting Crows, a highly promising local bunch who managed to conjure a sweeping soundscape at the climax. Our next stop was South to witness the outstanding Blues-style, Scottish passion of The Black Diamond Express. Dressed to kill, these guys could have walked straight off the set of Peaky Blinders and, from their soulful intro, revealed a talent that demands attention. Performing here as a four-piece comprising guitar, harmonica, fiddle and bass, they are a compelling sight. Breaking away from the stage, they perform an old chain-gang song that in a flash has the whole crowd accompanying with claps and stamps and provided one of the high points of the festival for me. Watch these if you ever get the chance, they are brilliant.
Now we catch the end of local seventeen year old, and hugely promising, Cara Hammond, back in St. Giles’. A sizeable audience had been captivated by her acoustic performance and huge potential. However, it was now time to leave town and head to Glyndwr University’s William Aston Hall for an unmissable visit from poet, wordsmith, raconteur, world-citizen and now adopted-son of Wales, John Cooper Clark. It’s impossible not to be in total awe of this one-off genius. Most mortals would settle for writing poetry of this quality, but to deliver it in such machine gun fashion in a set of observational, offbeat and tangential hilarity that most stand-up’s would kill to call their own, demonstrates the brilliance of the man. We get classics like Get Back on Drugs, Evidently Chickentown, Twat, Beasley Street and I Wanna Be Yours interspersed with banter, anecdotes and limericks that don’t rhyme during a masterful monologue that is over all too soon.
‘Sleep is sweet to the labouring man’ but this was not the time as less than a mile away the town was jumping, and nowhere more than Un Deg Un and the fantastic Wrexham noiseniks, Doppleganger. This was a much needed shot in the arm as the adrenaline fuelled four piece channelled aggression through a power-packed set in which no quarter was asked or given. In fact, if I was told I had to watch Doppleganger live at 10.30 every Thursday night, it would be a lot easier to get through the working week. A brilliant and therapeutic prescription of noise! However, the attack of time was relentless and as ever, would be the only winner, despite our best efforts.
Central Station was to be the venue where the revellers chose to make their last stand and the evening’s survivors began drifting in in increasing number to rally around the flag of Seazoo. Describing themselves as Post-Teddycore, the original riffs and power-packed melodies were going down a storm and were over all too soon.
Another of the landmark performances was delivered by Cian Ciaran who informed us the previous time he’d done this show was on top of a wind turbine before issuing a powerful denunciation of nuclear power. Billed as a reworked version of his album TANWU in a “suicide meets Kraftwerk versus King Tubby style” the hypnotic sounds and irresistible rhythm drift across this venue as easily as the dry ice and the former Super Furry maestro is in complete control. There is a power and beauty captured in his sound that is the perfect climax to the day, which is rounded off by the soulful groove of Liverpool trio All We Are and a DJ set by Huw Stephens.
One day is over, two remain. For those who have not yet made it here, now is the time to change plans and head up to Wrexham. For those who have; “to sleep, perchance to dream”. Bring on Day two!
All words by Dave Jennings whose Louder Than War archive can be found here.