It may have been a rainy and stormy weekend in Cardiff, but Sŵn Festival brought its own brand of sunshine to the Welsh capital, with three days of quality music taking over the city centre. The multi-venue festival, the biggest of its kind in Wales, has finally returned in its full-scale incarnation, and in spite of some technical glitches and a few last-minute cancellations it proved to be an exciting showcase of the artistic variety and the sense of community the grassroots music scene has to offer. Bringing packed line-ups to some of the most popular clubs in Cardiff, centred on the city’s music heart of Womanby Street, Sŵn has gained a reputation both for showcasing local Welsh artists and for engaging a broad range of different voices from the UK and beyond. The 2022 edition proved to be in keeping with this trend, offering something to suit everyone’s taste.
The celebrations started on the Friday night at the Tramshed, one of the most iconic Cardiff venues and a perfect space for bands and crowd alike to get loud in. A well-tailored line-up kept the attention and the energy high through the long evening, starting with the softer balladeering of Prima Queen, who stood out for the clever harmonisations and touching lyrics, bringing something of a Stevie Nicks-like vibe to the stage. They were followed by an excellent set from Brighton’s Lime Garden, a personal favourite with some of the most innovative composition heard throughout the festival and an excellent, tongue-in-cheek stage presence, and by an explosively energetic appearance by Panic Shack, whose set felt somewhat like a throwback to the uproarious fun of the pop-punk of the Noughties—and what’s not to love in that? A last-minute announcement it might have been, but the headline set by Katy J Pearson rounded up the evening perfectly: there is a reason she is one of the most intriguing voices on the UK scene right now, and she definitely closed the first day of Sŵn on a high note.
Saturday saw an afternoon of blustery weather and exciting rock performances, with Welsh bands often providing the highlights. We started the day in the rooftop terrace at Jacobs, just in time to catch an early-afternoon set by VOYA, one of the most innovative new Welsh bands with regards to both their sound and their aesthetics: the latter are pure art-rock, the former is a New Wave callback infused with a heavy shot of electronica. With their perfect balance of retro and contemporary, there could hardly have been a better introduction to a day of music which included a surprising amount of clever referencing of ’80s glories. Sticking with Jacobs—with three rooms running at once, this was a bit of a hub throughout the Saturday—the day went on with another Welsh band as Mellt put somewhat of a bilingual spin on Britpop, getting the room dancing to the tune of both English and Welsh-language tracks. After all that energy, a more mellow breather was perhaps needed, and singer-songwriter George O’Hanlon was more than happy to provide: his heartfelt balancing of rock chords and classic ballads created a perfect intimate bubble in which to decompress before moving onto the second half of the day, while also providing some of the most impressive vocals seen this Saturday.
Again in Jacobs, we jumped back into the fray for what was easily the most intense set of the whole festival. Priestgate always give it all they’ve got every time they get on stage, and their Sŵn appearance was no exception, packed with loud guitars, crowd-diving, and vocalist Rob Schofield displaying once more a stage presence intensely reminiscent of a young Iggy Pop. The crowd loved it, and the whole set felt like a proper classic rock experience. We then moved on to Clwb Ifor Bach, one of the most beloved Cardiffian clubs, in time to catch another Welsh act: Plastic Estate, keeping faith to their name with well-engineered synth-rock, and the clear love of the Cardiff crowd for their music was reflected in the enthusiastic audience participation. The set was a little shorter, but no less sweet for this; that retro vibe resurfaced once more, this time tinged with pop. Last stop of the day was Clwb’s upper room, to end the night with two of the stand-out acts of Sŵn ‘22. First came Glaswegians Walt Disco, excellent purveyors of a heady mix of art-rock, glam rock and post-punk and one of the most exciting bands in the UK right now; their previous Cardiff visit this year in the wake of their debut album release had already been a roaring success, and now they positively lit up the room with an explosive mix of synths, guitars and expressive vocals, getting the crowd to dance and sing along to a selection of their best tracks. Another last-minute addition to the line-up, Pale Blue Eyes wrapped up the evening with quality pop, a tinge of psychedelia and even a pinch of Krautrock.
On the Sunday, Cheap Teeth offered an excellent chance to shake off the tiredness with an early set of sharp garage rock, firmly establishing themselves as one of the most interesting revelations Sŵn ‘22 had to offer in terms of new artists. Keeping up with the energetic theme, the next stop was in a tightly packed back room at Jacobs, to delve into the bopping pop-rock notes of Peaness, who managed to get the crowd remarkably buzzing for an early afternoon set, thanks to a charismatic, easy-going stage presence and a few earworms from their repertoire. As the afternoon got into its full swing, we visited another iconic Cardiff venue: also located on Womanby St., the Moon has seen the rise of many artists destined for great things, and now it offered a set that was loud, cheeky, and full of proper punk spirit courtesy of SNAYX. With political lyrics, engaging tunes and a lot of attitude, they summoned an echo of old punk glories, though firmly adapted for the present. Back at Clwb Ifor Bach, this somewhat political theme continued, albeit through the medium of a completely different genre, as Jelani Blackman took to the stage to offer a charismatic mix of grime and R&B influences, supported by starkly sincere lyrics which struck a perfect balance of intimate and ingenious. It was a poignant set which also proved to be deeply personal, showcasing a great deal of technical ability.
The last leg of the Sunday evening had the upstairs room at O’Neill’s as its backdrop. Here The Lovely Eggs returned once more to Cardiff to give the Welsh capital another taste of what they do best: dirty and fast guitars, clever lyrics spiced up by a good dose of humour, an easy-going, engaging charm, and enough fast-paced rock to get everybody on their feet. Vocalist Holly Ross has one of the most charismatic stage presences seen through this festival, and no qualms about using it to her advantage; it’s hardly surprising that the crowd loved every moment. The energy stayed high for the final act of the night as Billy Nomates took to the stage: as loud and explosive as a one-person-show could possibly be, this was a perfect example of the magic that can happen when an artist knows how to fully own the stage, with the help of a good deal of memorable lyrics, catchy arrangements, and a delivery tapping straight into the best of the punk tradition. It was an appropriately buzzing ending to an intense three days of good music.
Even with the impressive range and variety it touched upon, this was barely a selection of what Sŵn ‘22 had to offer: while slot clashes are part and parcel of the festival experience, some of the choices this time were nothing short of excruciating—even with the few cancellations, so much was on offer that picking was often a tough call. Once again, Sŵn Festival can be said to have proved how lively and interesting the alternative music scene is at the moment; all we can do is now wait for next year’s edition to be surprised some more.
For more information on Sŵn Festival, head to the Official Website.
Photo Credit [Panic Shack]: Nadine Ballantyne