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Stripped Down ‘Dim’ Swn Festival Still Full Of Surprises

Usually at this time of year, the Swn Festival in Cardiff would still be going. There’s every chance that I would now be leaning against a wall, staring intently at my 43rd band of the festival on Womanby Street, Cardiff’s musical hub. Not this year, however.

IMG_1924The Amazing Snakeheads

For various reasons, a festival which usually covers four days and boasts 15 or so venues was stripped down to a single Saturday. It was a much more muted affair, but one that still managed to cram in many great acts in several venues dotted around the Welsh capital.

There was a wide array of (almost) unknowns rubbing shoulders with more established acts such as Martin Carr, Blaenavon and The Wytches but there were none of the huge names from festivals gone by. The plus side to this of course is that one was much less likely to be standing outside in the wind and rain accompanied by scores of other disgruntled festival-goers which was a downside to the previous year.

So, to the music. Obviously, this reviewer was not clever or handsome enough to build some kind of machine to watch all 60+ of the bands, but he did manage a more than respectable thirteen and also had time to eat some chocolate cornflakes for tea and attend a birthday party.

First up, following several tip-offs were Grumbling Fur. Many of the attendees had clearly misjudged the unseasonable warmth of the venue and Four Bars was full of some dripping hipster beards and discarded sweaters. Not that Cardiff was particularly animated for the duo’s Depeche Mode-style antics but then it is quite difficult to get any Cardiff gig crowd within 6 feet of the stage, let alone getting them to move anything from the neck down.

A mediocre start, but given that we only managed two and a half songs before having to move on, that might be a bit harsh. So it was off to Undertone to see Luvv. I had no idea what Luvv were going to be like, but the name did not suggest 4 men dressed in black churning out some incredibly loud hard rock.

The diminutive frontman’s words were lost behind a mix of crunching guitars and feedback and the venue simply didn’t suit them. The songs, what I could hear of them were pretty well crafted but a slightly larger venue would have made things ten times better (just hopefully not ten times louder; my poor eardrums!).

IMG_1902Kizzy Crawford

A swift jaunt across town then, to GwdiHw and the fabulous Titus Monk. Performing solo to an almost empty room (which gladly started to fill up once they’d heard his voice), Adam started his set with an acapella version of an old blues number before treating us to a few of his own making; self-deprecating yet amusing interludes in between the songs won him a few new fans no doubt and the promise of a full band gig in the near future is certainly one to relish. Keep an eye out.

Yo-yoing to Womanby Street to take in the set from ex-Boo Radley and Brave Captain, Martin Carr. Performing with a full band to a surprisingly half full Four Bars, Carr somewhat shyly ploughed through a half-dozen country-tinged indie tunes, all warmly received. The problem is with festivals is the planning, and I have been reliably informed by Carr’s keyboard player for the show, John Rea, that I left before ‘the biggies’.

The reason I left was because m’colleague for the day was itching for a Wytching. Upon entering Clwb Ifor Bach, it appears that she wasn’t the only one. This 14+ gig from Brighton-based trio The Wytches had seemingly brought most of Cardiff’s teenagers out from underneath their fringes.

By the time the band took the stage (twenty minutes late, good rock timing) the room upstairs was crammed with around 250 souls. The band were tight, sounding like a cross between Nirvana and Led Zeppelin and they belted out a set of eight tunes in their half hour slot. Throughout their show, I experienced a weird mix of being both awestruck and indifferent – not one I’d recommend. Summing up, I think if I was 14, it would have been my show of the year. But I’m not 14, so perhaps they’re a grower.

Turning the volume down from eleven to a much more reasonable six, we stumbled across Jagaara; a five-piece band featuring three sisters up front. Less annoying than Haim (it’s not a lazy comparison, I’m sure everyone was thinking it) they sounded very promising during the ten minutes and are a band definitely worth looking out for.  Especially pleasing were the line of male fans queuing up to tell the sisters how great they were. Bless ‘em.

A long-standing favourite was up next as Kizzy Crawford took to the Horizons stage in the Cardiff Fashion Quarter (NB. Cardiff has about 7 or 8 different ‘quarters’ so don’t read that much into it). Some facts about 18 year-old Kizzy; she should be much more famous than she is, she has done 4,377 gigs this year alone and the lady sure can use a loop-pedal. Another pitch-perfect set; I’ve yet to be disappointed by a single song.

IMG_1915Y Pencadlys

I have a habit of missing Trwbador despite being a fan for the last couple of years. I was all geared up and ready to watch them at Dim Swn but sadly, due to illness, they had to cancel. This actually turned out to be something of a godsend given that Welsh-language anti-pop maestro Y Pencadlys was drafted in as replacement.

Due to the late change, there was just a blank space in the programme so it was something of a treat for the 50 or so people that stumbled in by accident. It’s hard for some electronic artists to make their performances a visual feast, but Y Pencadlys does this by bounding around the stage, shaking his fist/the microphone/whatever comes to hand in the air. Such energy. So shout. Wow. He even did an encore – first time I’ve seen that happen at Clwb!

And so ladies and gentlemen to the "Outstanding Achievement Award For Totally Owning A Crowd". And the award goes to… The Amazing Snakeheads. What a performance it was from the Glaswegian three-piece. What’s surprising is that the band have only recently been given an overhaul, with both the bassist and drummer only joining the group a few months ago and yet the set still sounded incredibly tight.

Dale Barclay is a superb frontman – arriving onto the stage shirtless and with a scowl towards the audience which suggested that he meant business. The Snakeheads’ brand of Psychobilly/Rock’n’Roll harnessed the energy from the Y Pencadlys set and distributed it with force upon a very receptive, appreciative rabble. Forty minutes and several visits into the crowd later, it was all over; the perfect set.

And so to bed? Not quite. There was still the small matter to attend to of seeing Cian Ciaran in action. His two solo albums over the past couple of years have been criminally overlooked and under-appreciated so I was looking forward to seeing his performance especially.

It is well documented however, that Mr. Ciaran does not really do live shows that often. And so it proved, as I walked into the venue and found nothing but a man in a flat cap with some electronic gadgets at his side. It was a DJ set at best (sadly not mentioned in the accompanying schedule) and ended up being a slightly disappointing cherry on a cake that had been sitting out for a while. The less than a quarter full Four Bars was testament to that.

IMG_1945Dale Barclay of The Amazing Snakeheads

What happens with Swn Festival in the future is still a mystery. The chief organiser is moving up north (north Wales that is), so maybe a change of scene for next year? Cardiff has suddenly become a music festival city with HUB and Holy Boredom proving more than a match for this year’s Dim Swn and plenty more snapping at its heels. If this is the end, then it certainly wasn’t a bad way to bow out.

Words by Ben Gallivan