The reddening of the trees, the deepening of the sky, the erection of a giant Christmas tree on Queens Street. It’s Autumn in Cardiff, and the weekend of the inaugural, Huw Stevens-conceived Swn festival.
It’s 7pm as we make our way out on the opening Friday night, and the streets are quiet for now. Clwb Ifor Bach is still locked in preparation, and back on Castle Street Bar Europa, the small independent cafe that’s also involved has not yet opened. It gives us a chance to speculate a little, and confirm that the line-up is good, the premise is noble, and, hopefully, the people will come out.
Clwb Ifor Bach opens its doors at 8pm and Jimmy from The Bobby McGees stalks the floor in a loony Russian hat. Downstairs at Clwb has no stage, just a platform enclosed with a wooden rail. As a result it’s a more intricate venue than upstairs, and as Winston Echo open up with some wistful indiepop dreaming the 15 or so of us in attendance are hooked.
The Wellingborough trio are a gift from the higher end of Tweedom, singer Steve East full of witty allusions and quirky stories, his female friend sitting next to him infusing the sound with smily rhythms and handclaps, and the opening of the festival is in this way a lot like getting up to your favourite morning cartoon.
We’re standing there at the bar reading Winstone Echo’s surreal fanzine afterwards when Crayola Lecturn rouse us with some cascading piano and guitar play as arch as the castle innards, before the lovely Mertle draws us in back into cartoon land with a set of startling acoustic songs, one and two-minute beauties that float out with a blindingly shy charm.
The crowd are starting to seep in now, and Larry Pickleman (the self proclaimed “dog’s dick of anti-folk”), takes the stage next like the Tasmanian Devil. Pickleman’s mini-guitar screeches; his microphone tries to escape, a background laptop throws out all sorts of quaint melodies, and the extraordinary effect is a bit like opening a musical box and getting a foul-mouthed serenade.
We know we’re in the minority here, worshipping at the alter of Brighton anti-folk when most others are worshipping at the alter of some fully-blown Balkan magic going on over at Cardiff Bay, and we work out that we can get over there and back without losing too much time. We hotwheel it across in a roaring taxi to find the place heaving, and by a minor miracle we manage to get in, the melodies of Beirut immediately coating us with an amazing Eastern European wonder.
The songs get heavier and more festive as Beirut get more and more into it, Zach Condon fuelling his band with an air of wilful virtuosity. The majesty of Beirut lights up the old church like a blazing comet, and as we have to leave just before the end it’s like we’re doing something quite perverse. Condon himself was apparently on Queens Street busking this afternoon, and I think even I in my current financial austerity would have put 50p in his hat.
It’s back down to Clwb Ifor Bach, where Everett True (aka The Legend!) is morphing from event organiser/DJ into musical performer (the morphing consists of making three small steps onto the stage platform), and the place, now three-quarters full, takes a collective breath. A dramatic falsetto takes us back and blows my friend towards the bar in alarm, but I kind of like it. For anyone who doesn’t know, True is most well-known as a crusading underground music journalist, but isn’t it only natural and noble that he tries his hand at creating music as well?
True on stage is awkward and charming, and I find myself really rooting for him. He’s like a dignified uncle up there, trying desperately to give himself up to the devil of music but finding Apollo’s whispers hard to overcome. The Legend’s musical accompaniment works off his robust yet soulful voice with spontaneous shards of horns and guitar, and it works, it really does, as something more than a karaoke tribute to the underground.
Day 1 of Swn ends with True the DJ’s retro-pop disco, the slightly more manicured Beirut throng having joined our anti-folk haven from outside, and really, it’s been quite a fantastical night.