In theory part of the 25h birthday celebrations of Heavenly Records, a co-headlining tour from H Hawkline and Gwenno was always likely to turn out as more of a celebration of some of the most original and exciting music to have recently come out of Wales. Hawkline – Huw Evans to his friends – captures the more wistful end of ’60s psychedelia through a slacker lens; while Gwenno is a former member of The Pipettes whose more recent solo material reminds that behind the superficial polka dots her former band had shrewd hidden depths.
H Hawkline is up first: apparently the two acts have previously agreed that he would headline the northern dates while Gwenno tops the bill in the south. His set draws heavily on his recent album In The Pink Of Condition, a beguiling indie pop record that finds Hawkline unleashing his songwriting in all sorts of directions, at its most straightforward channelling fellow Telecaster enthusiast Graham Coxon, but sometimes recalling Ariel Pink in its eccentricity.
Live, the songs sound a bit more homogenous than they do on record, and very occasionally it feels like they are constrained by his band’s classic three-piece setup, but the understated assuredness of tracks like Rainy Summer and Moons In My Mirror shines through. However, the noisier, more droning material that comes later in his set sees the performance stepping up a gear, while Evans’ solo performance of his whimsically melancholic new single It’s A Drag brings a somewhat chatty audience round to rapt attention.
Gwenno makes an understated start to her set, wandering onstage and nonchalantly firing up her first arpeggios on her synth. She has no need of a grand entrance though; her songs immediately demand attention. Her set is derived entirely from her first full-length solo album, Y Dydd Olaf, initially released last year and now picked up and re-released by Heavenly. It’s such a clever and confident record that it almost seems unfair to say that the most striking thing about it is that it’s sung almost entirely in Welsh (with one song in Cornish) but its use of that language is certainly integral to its character.
The songs are made significantly meatier by live performance, with electronic beats thumping in contrast to airy vocals and silvery synth lines. For the bulk of the set Gwenno is joined by a live rhythm section, who do a fantastic job of lending a pulsing Krautrock vibe to the material. The music feels simultaneously organic and mechanical; it’s warm but it seems to speak of coldness and alienation.
Those are themes that feature powerfully in the lyrics: Y Dydd Olaf is based on an obscure sci-fi novel by the Welsh writer Owain Owain, in which human beings are turned into robots. With a language barrier presumably being an issue for most of the London audience, Gwenno’s introductions to the songs are crucial, with a typical explanatory line going as follows: “This song’s called Sisial Y Môr. It’s about bad town planning; another romantic subject.” She addresses her bleaker subject matter with an aloof wit, but gritty back projections and the peculiar warmth of certain analogue synth sounds – almost like a human trapped inside a machine – make for a suitably dystopian mood. Yet the overriding atmosphere is celebratory, as though it’s only great music that stops up from turning into robots.