FOCUS Wales 2017 review: best bands and what we learnt from Wrexham

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Exit International @ central

Exit International at FOCUS Wales – Picture: Brent Jones

As waves of emerging bands from across the country descended on Wrexham for the weekend, Getintothis’ Luke Chandley was there to catch the action.

When discussing a music and arts festival in Wales, one may be unsure where it is that this festival is being held. Across the most part, Welsh music, within British pop at least, is pretty underrepresented. This too is reflected in the Welsh festival scene. Festival No. 6 and Wakestock are probably the standout events in the calendar, yet these still aren’t on the level of a lot of other music festivals across the British Isles.

FOCUS Wales this year celebrated their 7th edition. Boasting an impressive array of artists coming from Wales and beyond (honourable mention to Canada), the bar had seemingly been set before a note was even struck on the Thursday.

This festival wasn’t merely about music. Music was the bedrock and structure to the festival. During the three-day extravaganza, though, there was poetry, comedy, workshops and drop-in conference sessions. This type of offering is impressive, as a lot of the industry expects involved in the conference sessions offered great, detailed but also personal insight. But more on that a little later.

The stage, geographically, was set in Wrexham across a number of pubs, bars and clubs. Wrexham is not the first place you would expect to find a music festival. Upon arrival, the thought of “where exactly is this festival?” was tickling our brain. Entering the city by train or car offered little by the way of evidence to show that you were entering a city that was hosting a successful festival. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover, though. And that we didn’t.

The first day of the festival offered much by the way of music, but also offered probably the best of the conference talk, too, so this is where we stayed for most of the day.

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The first session – Building a Music Career From Your Bedroom – was an insightful discussion, with five panellists from a different array of digital service providers offering their thoughts and opinions on how someone could do exactly that – build a music career from their bedroom. We found this insightful enough, yet there weren’t really any huge tips of the trade, more confirmation of a few things you may know. But hearing this from industry-heads themselves is always interesting. One negative was that it did feel slightly sales-pitchy – at one point one of the panel suggested using each panellist’s services to best prepare yourself. This wasn’t intended to be the hard-sell, but it did come across that way slightly. Still, it was fun to listen to.

One of the most popular session’s that day was the DIY PR session. This session brought together a really exciting level of panellist, from BBC Radio 6 Music (and more) show presenter Chris Hawkins, Dom Gourlay of Drowned in Sound and more. The pure industry knowledge here was undoubted. A highlight was their telling of what is and isn’t a good idea when trying to promote your act from a DIY perspective. Hint: do your research first, not after. Some moments of this talk did, however, feel slightly pretentious, almost giving off a ‘we know this, so why don’t you’ vibe. Many of the points rung true, especially with their frustrations with bands’ approaches to promotion, but it came across more aggressive than anything else. All in all, though, it was a great experience to be part of.

The main event for the Thursday in the conference room was Don Letts in Conversation with John Robb. Don Letts was a seminal, iconic figure in the punk rock movement during the late 1970s. Hearing his stories of ‘way-back-when’ and how he, at the time, knew little about his influence (as humble as you like, yet still likely true) was one of the highlights of the three days. There’s something special about listening to a raconteur regale tales that is all encompassing. The buzz that came from both Robb and Letts was extremely refreshing. There really is little replacement for pure passion and energy. This was a must-see hour.

Day two came about and this was all about the music. Which was unfortunate because across at the William Aston Hall, an evening of comedy was to take place that clashed with most of the night’s acts and a choice had to be made. For us, we chose the music. And although that didn’t disappoint, it would have been nice to spread the comedy element across a couple of days so there was less of a feeling of finality in the choice between the two art forms. Alas.

First up at the Royal Oak venue was an artist who was suggested to us by way of overhearing another festival-goer in conversation: “She’s on at 5.20 at the Royal Oak” – is she? Who! we wondered? So across we went. Who this person turned out to be was Laura Dickenson, from folk band HEAL, playing an acoustic set.

We really, honestly, properly can’t overstate how much we enjoyed this set. Seriously, it was exceptional. Laura’s voice is show stopping, and she can play brilliantly, too. Our favourite part of her show was – other than the major talent on the go – the combination of music and the great big smile which shines every time she sings. It was heartwarming and it genuinely made the show a lot better. As did the insertion of two covers (Bjork and Lauren Hill), but it was arguably the best that was saved until last in her cover of Tears for Fears’ track Everybody Wants to Rule the World. A massive favourite on the ground and huge applause as she left the stage. Two huge thumbs up from us

Next was Katie Mac, from our very own Huyton. With a huge and unique voice, it was truly a shame that much of the Laura Dickenson crowd had dispersed as Katie took to the stage. Her unique voice was a breath of fresh air. She could sing, but the best part was the freshness of voice. It wasn’t typical and that’s what caught our attention on the day. Her sound on record and live match together really well.

Skipping ahead a couple of acts, we found ourselves at the Central Station stage with indie youngsters Bermusa. The Wrexham three piece had a huge stage and a little crowd, but handled the session well. Their brand of songwriting didn’t pull up any trees, but they could perform. One critique would be that while their drummer was the singer, the bassist and guitarist offered little in the way of entertainment. This, however, will surely come with age and experience.

Miller Blue was the next act to catch our attention at Central Station, with his brand of soft RnB, which reflected as yet another face of FOCUS Wales festival. During the set, Blue told us that he was supposed to perform with a whole band, but the drummer had to drop out last minute. The greatest compliment we could offer is that his set sounded great with merely vocals and guitar. Newest single Pieces is a heartfelt slowjam with emotional lyrics and ambitious vocals.

Fast forward a few sets and Seoul techno-pop act Love X Stereo were a big drawer to the side stage in Grand Central. Unfortunately for the audience, the band kicked off their set 20 minutes late after some technical difficulties and only played a few songs, to the disappointment of the crowd and ourselves.    

CABBAGE @ CENTRAL

Cabbage at FOCUS Wales – Picture: Brent Jones

The final act of that day for us was headliners Cabbage. Before heading towards the main Grand Central stage, we were unsure what we would get. One of the hottest properties right now, Cabbage are well known for their live performances, and in this respect, they did not disappoint. They’re a throwback to a time when a rock performance was a sweaty, ferocious and hardcore affair. There was no standing by, no shoegaze and allowing the event to pass the band by. In this case, they lived up to the billing. Necroflat in the Palace rung out like a call to arms, “I was born in the NHS, I want to die in the NHS” belted out, and throttling through their set like a raging train, this band have shown North Wales exactly what they’re about – a career build on steaming through their live performances.

Day three started out with a performance from the festival’s stand-out act – HEAL. HEAL are a folk rock band who absolute stomped through their setlist. They were beautifully harmonised and sung tracks that could only be born in the hills of Wales. Throughout their whole set, they spoke well. Their brand of songwriting is fantastic, and each band member has their part to play. Each of the four members sing, which comes together perfectly. We left their set genuinely believing they were one of the best, most likeable acts we’ve ever seen live. A must see.

Over we moved to Bar No 7 and South Wales singer Eadyth. Unfortunately for her, the venue had few punters, but unfortunately for those who weren’t there, they didn’t get to see her perform, to hear her voice. It was soulful and gentle, but worked well with the lone guitarist she was performing with. For someone who was only 18, she had an excellent sounding voice, a voice that deserved to be heard by more people than were at that venue.

At 8pm at the Fat Boar venue was Canadian artist Nick Faye. Faye, who had performed at two other separate times at the festival, was playing in what can only be described as a modern gastropub without the food element. A tough venue for an acoustic artist to perform. But perform he did, and it was really enjoyable. His chat with the audience who were watching was fun, coming across as a super affable guy, with some solid tracks and a great singing voice. His enthusiasm for the festival was touching, with his cover of Eagle Eyed Cherry’s Save Tonight a personal highlight. Trekking all the way from Canada to play this show hadn’t jaded Faye at all. A hugely enjoyable set.

Pop-indie kids Peaness were next up at Central Station. Much is being made of Chester’s newest exports, and for good reason. They were clearly highly anticipated by everyone at the festival, as the room was packed to the rafters. This was this writers first time listening to the act, but they offered hints at how they’re becoming more and more popular. Simple, approachable songs with meaning and class. We liked.

The final two acts of the festival were pop performer Betsy and British Sea Power. This writer had never heard of Betsy before, if truth be told. Yet apparently, everyone else in the room had, as the venue was packed all the way through. The observations from this set were that her voice was booming, sounding quite unusual for a female performer. She clearly had experience on stage as she commanded it fantastically, and between her and her musicians behind her, she filled every single crevice of the darkened Central Station venue with her bright, thoughtful pop set.

After a small wait, on came British Sea Power. We were excited for this act, and as the main headliner to the festival we expected much. Unfortunately, the performance was mixed. The sound in the room was poor, sounding more like an inexperienced set-up than what you would expect at an indoor festival. It really was tough to look past this. Fan favourites such as Remember Me were played, and as an audience, the packed house looked pleased. But as neutral onlookers, we couldn’t help but feel a little let down.

Getintothis left FOCUS Wales in high spirits. Holding up the flag for Welsh new music must be a hard feat to manage, yet FOCUS Wales, for seven years now, has managed this expertly. The festival, in our view, should be considered a huge success. The set-up was perfect, easy to navigate and the array of talent was really awesome. As the festival grows year-on-year, in size and offering, we can only see it becoming more prestigious. We had a hell of a load of fun, and will be returning again. If they can expand the art section of the roster, we feel this would take the festival to the next level. Until then, we had a blast. Well done all. See you next year.

GetintoThis’ top eight picks for FOCUS Wales 2017

Don Letts

Don Letts was one of our top highlights from the festival. The punk movement was one of the most important social, cultural and musical movements in Britain, and its influence still runs strong today. Regaling tales of Johnny Rotten, capturing videos of the Clash and talking about the birth of the punk scene was awe-inspiring. He’s a larger than life character and brought some real character to proceedings in the conference room.

Cabbage

No matter what you think of them as a group of people, their performance at FOCUS Wales was one of zest and rock and roll. A real firecracker. Packed tight into a room they could probably sell out over again, there is a ruthless streak about this band that proves why people are getting hyped up about their emergence. They’re a band that wears their performance on their sleeves.

HEAL

What an excellent surprise. The whole reason to go to events like this is to discover music and art that speaks to you. And the pure folk-rock joy of HEAL spoke to us massively. A music steeped in Welsh tradition ringing around the heart of Wrexham is exactly the type of thing needed to inspire the festival to further success, and that’s what HEAL brought. Bravo to them.

Nick Faye

This Canadian guitarist from band Nick Faye and the Deputies played a whole number of solo shows during the event. 3 shows, for clarification, and each one brought along new fans. We only saw one, the event at the Fat Boar venue, but plenty were chatting to us about each event. The attraction to this show was the music, of course, but also Faye himself, who was much more than an artist, but a performer, talking to the crowd, asking for questions and regaling tales of home. Top behaviour and thoroughly enjoyed.

Peaness

Chester band Peaness brought their distinct array of upbeat indie to the city of Wrexham and drew one of the biggest audiences at the second stage in the Central Station venue. And for good reason. This act are going places, and it’s their meaningful lyrics and the softcore sunshine sound that is infectious, and their fun and upbeat performance left me wanting more and more.

Baby Brave

More pop goodness, this time in the form of North Wales quartet Baby Brave. They were sparkly indie-pop with a rawness and a little attitude. They were a great live act and certainly inspired us to look into their records and listen to them away from the festival – which has got to be the main aim of the festival. Their noisey but catchy tunes fit right in amongst the other awesome new acts laced throughout the festival.

BETSY

Betsy was a really interesting performance and is a really interesting artist. Not someone we had come across live before, but she commanded the stage and her band really well, with a strong performance and her surprisingly bold vocals to boot. It would be interesting to see whether she ends up making her home on larger venues and festival across the next few years, as her voice, her music and her band are set up perfectly for pop success.

FOCUS Wales Conference

The final highlight of the few has to be the conference events that took place across a number of time slots during the whole three day event. There was industry experts, personalities (again, see Don Letts) and plenty of interest. It was a nice departure from music and arts, and super interesting too. We were a big fan of this style of set-up. Two massive thumbs up.

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