Saturday and day 2 of the inaugural Swn festival dawns with myriad promises. Edwyn Collins plays the Chapter Arts Centre tonight, but the prospect of a whole day of new music at Tommy’s Bar excites me just as much.
We saunter down towards Tommy’s at dinnertime in the hope of maybe seeing Zach Condon spending a second day busking on the streets of Cardiff, but there’s only really the local legend (not Everett True) that sings My Way through a Fisher Price microphone.
Tommy’s Bar is busy even at this afternoon hour, Cardiff’s indie faithful having turned out early for The Voluntary Butler Scheme, one guy that plays classically-tinged pop ballads that remind us that the lineage of T-Rex and The Beatles needn’t be that bad after all.
The Voluntary Butler Scheme provides a grand, melodic and uplifting half hour, which the next band, Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring, build on with an air of utter magnificence. THWFOS emanate romance like a summer rose, their shaven-haired, white-jacketed, Morrisey-esque front-man singing from behind his flower-strewn microphone with glorious languor.
Handclaps, violin lines and tambourines shake, the whole Hearts sound ebbs with a blinding orchestral grace, and one particular track has a three-part vocal harmony to absolutely die for. Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring are the real package, and this fact is more than enough reason to spell their name out in full one last time.
It’s mid-afternoon when The School take the stage, a variegated bunch of instrumentalists gathering behind lead-singer Liz with quiet intent. A drum rhythm joins a humble piano line, and they leap into a twee subversion of Apples in Stereo‘s Can You Feel It? that reigns melodic cheer. The School have been signed to respected indie label Elefant since the last time I saw them in Cardiff’s small O’Neill’s, and today they sound a little more robust without losing the intricacy that makes them such a pleasure.
Camera Obscura comparisons have reigned a little freely and lazily (yours truly being a prime culprit), and while one epic new track does steer into Razzle Dazzle Rose-like territory, it’s in tracks like Valentine and Let it Slip where they brilliantly find their own feet, the latter in particular bounding along with a quite irresistible shimmer and beautiful sense of Pop heartbreak.
So far so very, very nice, so when a charge of “what the foook are you looking at?” comes from the stage to the general audience, it makes for quite a contrast. There’s been a little bearded Scotsman stalking Cardiff since last night in a Russian hat, and at last he’s got his hour in the limelight. The Bobby McGee’s are the twee’est riot in the history of twee riots, and Jimmy demands our attention with a cheery snarl.
A friend has already been duped by Jimmy’s story that he’s currently working on a project of “68 Love Songs”, and now here he is on stage, introducing himself and girlfriend El as “you know, that band that isn’t absolutely shite…” and treating her with a little bit of that charming Groucho-esque bite, which of coarse she loves him for. The Bobby McGee’s are where dreams meet on stage with decorum terrorism, where a man in a sailor uniform exchanges sweet nothings and harsh quips with his true love whilst a giant of a man wields his cello like a bass. It’s affection and swearwords, banjos and ukuleles, belligerent anti-folk with an irresistible tinge of romance, and when Jimmy at the end promises to play a set out in the beer garden in the middle of the following bands, we make our plans to join him.
Monkey Swallows the Universe have no chance of competing with Jimmy on the barbed romantic level, but their songs are undeniably lovely things, shimmering with a countrified sadness that brings us all down to earth a little, and that’s just fine. The band have an unassuming presence, relaxed and effortless as they take us through a quirky set of charming Pop pillaging that ends in a fantastic version of Jonathan Richman’s Ice Cream Man.
Outside in the beer garden soon after we go from Ice Cream Man to 99 Ways to Make My Girlfriend Cum in a matter of seconds. The Bobby McGees of course are not playing during bands but between them, serenading us in the open air like troubadours from a lost age, and seducing us one by one into buying them drinks. I stand around for a while, before realising it might be my turn to go to the bar, so I slink back inside just in time to see Kelley Stoltz, who to my surprise are not in any way indiepop or folk but more a robust, hairy psychedelic rock band, who’s music broadly shimmers in a manner that varies brilliantly with the fare thus far.
It’s dark now and it’s a shame to have to sneak out as Emmy the Great plays a genuinely beguiling set of ghostly folk gems, but the other side of Cardiff is calling. As always, I’m reluctant to leave the present excitement of Tommy’s Bar for an encounter with the past, especially as The Clientele are on next, but there’s something inside compelling me to do so, and I shouldn’t have trusted it… I’m a huge fan of Orange Juice, but this isn’t Orange Juice in any shape or form.
The venue, an immaculate, if somewhat soulless “studio” based outside the Chapter Arts Centre itself, is full of curiosity of the type that doesn’t sit well with me. There are a few of the people that had spent most of the day down with us in Tommy’s Bar, and they’re okay, but the rest are kind of museum gapers, looking on with that gormless gaze that says they wouldn’t give the time of day to Orange Juice if they appeared on the underground as it is now.
Collins himself is fantastic of course, ploughing on with one side of his body paralysed after two cerebral haemorrhages in 2005, which is so touching. His voice is soulful and quite stunning, but a part of him must be hurting inside at what the two musicians by his side are doing with his music. The sharp Orange Juice hooks are elongated into a muso’s wet dream, and the combination of this and the curiosity of parts of the crowd, and the venue itself, makes time hang heavy, and I just have to get out.
It’s been a fantastic day of new music at Tommy’s Bar, and we should really have spent the end of it in the company of The Clientele and the kids.