LIVE REVIEW: Sŵn Festival 2023

Sŵn Festival has by now become a cornerstone of the Welsh music scene, attracting artists (and fans!) from Wales, England, and further afield for three days packed with music and fun. It is a truly joyous event, much needed at a time when the Cardiff weather feels grimmer than ever, and in its 2023 edition the multi-venue festival has managed once again to light up the dark October nights. Even more so this year, in fact, as its list of venues expanded even further, its line-up became ever more intriguing, and even Cardiff Castle was lit up with the festival’s distinctive bright pink.

As is by now tradition, the festivities were opened in the Friday night with a gig at the Tramshed, one of the most beloved venues in Cardiff—and for good reason: it is such a great space for dancing, and one that works perfectly for acts that have a strong performance element to them. This year, rather than go with a theme, the line-up for the opening night managed to include a bit of everything, yet still avoid a discordant effect. Rather aptly, the first band to play at Sŵn 2023 was a Cardiff act that has been taking the local scene by storm and proved at the Tramshed that they can tackle a bigger stage and command it with natural effortlessness: Slate, an intense grungy rock band who incorporate spoken-word elements in their sets and whose single ‘Tabernacl’ has been one of the most interesting releases from a Welsh band recently. It was the perfect opener, high energy enough to get the crowd buzzing and attuned to the grassroots ethos of the festival. A more mellow set followed with the indie ballads of Bill Ryder-Jones, but the evening fully got into its swing on a bouncier, dance-infused vibe as the last two acts took to the stage. Pip Blom are by now well known, and beloved, by Cardiff gig-goers; the Amsterdam trio are guaranteed fun, with their immediately recognisable synth sound and vocals and their light-hearted delivery. There was a touch of Eurovision to their set—this is the kind of band that makes you wonder, in fact, how have they not shown up on the Eurovision stage yet—and it felt like the perfect mood for an opening party. The headline set was sadly cut short by the delay accumulated in previous soundchecks, but that’s not the only reason why it seemed to breeze by: from the second the set started, Lynks delivered something truly hypnotic. This was not just cheeky electropop (although it is some of the best cheeky electropop released recently), it was true performance, with impressive showmanship, a trio of backing dancers who were almost mesmerising in their stage presence, and a delivery quite unlike anything else we have seen in recent years, or possibly ever: something like hyperpop on acid, but with a clear punk edge. The audience didn’t know what hit them, but they certainly liked it.

After such a strong opener, the Saturday line-up left plenty of space for people to catch their breath and enjoy a bit more of an intimate atmosphere. Excelling in this are Pale Blue Eyes, returning to Sŵn for a second year with their hazy, synth-infused rock-pop. For a band named after a Velvet Underground song, it is not surprising that there are echoes of Reed & Cale both in their sound and in their live delivery; it is the kind of slow immersion that makes you forget how complex the music really is (and some of the vocals in this band’s setlist were truly challenging, making it all the more impressive how smoothly they were performed). The basement at Jacobs is a perfect space for them, too: this is somehow exactly the kind of band you’d expect, or want, to see perform in the basement of an antiques shop. For those who like their rock music louder and grittier, another highlight to the day came from Death Cult Electric, a Welsh supergroup that pairs classic hard rock guitars and drums with a quick-fire bass line that has something of two-tone to it. The band was perfectly at home in Fuel Rock Club, known for hosting the best hard’n’heavy night in Cardiff, and delivered a series of memorable tunes matched by a charismatic stage presence; there is something particularly pleasing in a rock act that can engage in a bit of banter with the audience without making it feel forced. And speaking of audience participation, this was taken to a whole new level by Jessica Winter, who delivered her one-woman-show to the top floor room at Clwb Ifor Bach. She is one of the most interesting voices in recent pop, and her set—complete with multiple costume changes—was an excellent demonstration of the reasons why. On the purely technical level, her distinctive vocals somehow manage to sound the same in the recording room and on the stage, which is no small feat; this is coupled with an instinctive command of the room that is rare in a pop artist, and owes much to the rock/punk grassroots scene from which she comes. By-now-familiar tracks like ‘Clutter’ and ‘Like a Knife’ got the audience dancing, and then a number of lucky people (myself included) got dragged onto the stage as improvised backing dancers – it was a truly joyful, liberating experience, live music at its very best.

With such a high bar to match, it is all the more impressive that the Sunday sets more than satisfied all expectations. Here, too, there was something for all tastes: starting with a no-nonsense punk-rock set brought by Bristol’s Saloon Dion, an up-and-coming band with a very good idea of what they want to sound like and a vibe that couples echoes of Brit-pop with a sharper, heavier sound. Firmly established in the “ones to watch” category, they delivered the tricky mid-afternoon set with ease, giving what is perhaps the most important impression in a live performance: that they too, and not just their audience, were genuinely having fun. For an odd but effective juxtaposition, all it took was to climb down the stairs to the basement at Jacobs to catch a sweaty and rather tongue-in-cheek set courtesy of Acid Klaus, the latest musical endeavour of semi-legendary synth wrangler Adrian Flanagan. This was one for the lovers of old-school EDM, as there was more than a whiff of the rave not just to the tunes—synth-rock and an echo of spoken word grafted onto a solid house structure—but to the atmosphere in the room as a whole; but also for the lovers of the unexpected. It is not everyday that you hear hardcore dance music sung in Welsh, but the result was truly rousing, and almost a summation of what Sŵn is about. Also for lovers of the unexpected, The New Eves brought one of the most peculiar, and most emotional, performances of the weekend. The Brighton four-piece does something that doesn’t quite yet have a name, but ‘post-folk’ might be a good approximation: taking ideas and sounds from folk music and running them through a rock filter with a hint of Riot Grrrl for good measure. The result is atmospheric and entrancing, especially impressive in that it comes across so visceral when it is also at the same time so technically complex. The red lighting in Fuel added a touch of the underworld to the mood, which was a brilliant fit for this unusual and beautiful set. 

Switching to a less reflective vibe, lovers of chaos will have enjoyed the dancing—and the moshing—filling the top room at Clwb Ifor Bach in the later Sunday afternoon. Fat Dog have by now built up a reputation for creating mayhem, and their Sŵn set gave further evidence, if any was needed, that this is entirely deserved. There is possibly nothing more quintessentially South London than this band, whose stage presence teeters between antagonising the audience and playing with it, and whose sound defies definition: put a sax solo on a dance bass and layer punk vocals over it, and you will only have started describing it. Once the set started, it was a breathless cavalcade to the very end, one song fading into the next: exhilarating and more than living up to the hype. Equally powerful, and equally successful in getting the audience to its collective feet, was the set by Opus Kink, quite possibly one of the most interesting live bands to see in the UK right now, and not just because they have a full brass section, or because they manage to blend pieces of punk, jazz, country, and classic rock into their own unique voice; what would, for another band, feel like a very crowded stage becomes here a triumph of adrenaline, in which it is clear that the band members are having the time of their life, just as much as the audience is—which is the best thing that can happen at a live gig. Tracks like ‘I Love You, Baby’ and ‘The Unrepentant Soldier’ are made for live performance, and they take on a life of their own the second they are brought to the stage. There was a bit of black magic in the air, and everyone in the room felt it.

Looking past the highlights, Sŵn 2023 shone for its variety of voices, for a smoother organisation than previous years (the occasional soundcheck glitch notwithstanding), and for its mounting ambition: an excellent trait to have for a festival that is increasingly cementing itself as the ambassador for grassroots music in South Wales. It is not by coincidence that Sŵn is attracting ever more numerous crowds and ever more attention year on year. Championing local voices and bringing UK and international artists alike to the Welsh streets, the festival felt like a celebration of a music scene that is not only very much alive, but growing and daring to explore new avenues of sound. Now all that is left to do is to wait for it to come back in 2024, no doubt even bigger and better.

For more information on Sŵn Festival, head to their website.

Photo Credit [Slate]: Jamie Chapman

Chiara Strazzulla
Chiara was born in Sicily and lives in Cardiff, where she is a freelance journalist and teacher of Classics. She is an internationally published novelist and has collaborated with a variety of publications both in English and Italian. She has been a music lover her whole life, and her taste in music ranges from glam rock to punk by way of blues and country.

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