FOCUS Wales, 23-25 April, Wrexham 1

FOCUS Wales, 23-25 April, Wrexham

crowd 1 resizedWhen I ask you to think of an international music showcase conference-style festival, where does your mind immediately take you? To Austin, Texas, for the sun-soaked South By Southwest? To the seaside setting of Brighton, perhaps, for The Great Escape? Or maybe to the streets of Liverpool, steeped as they are in rich musical history, for Sound City?

Wrexham probably wasn’t top of your list.

I’d heard plenty of good things about Focus Wales, with its impressively broad line-up and unequivocal commitment to Welsh music, I decided to take the three-hour drive up north and see what all the fuss was about.

What I discovered last weekend in Wrexham was a real gem in the festival calendar. With over 130 Welsh bands on the line-up, you can’t say Focus doesn’t live up to its name; artists from all corners of the country and all styles of music were brought together in a showcase of Wales’ finest. Established names like Sweet Baboo and Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog were celebrated alongside brand new acts. I witnessed bright Cardiff talent Ellie Makes Music play her first ever Wrexham gig, and she captivated the crowd at The Old No7 with her flawless guitar pop and dynamic, emotive voice.

As well as comprehensively championing the best that Wales has to offer, the Focus team have an ambitious global appetite. International discoveries included Canada’s harmony-rich, hook-laden HIGHS and the exciting Aussie loop pedal performer PHIA. Japanese band Bo Ningen were, of course, a highlight: their transcendent, esoteric, acid-noise-fuckery has to be seen to be believed, and it was exhilarating to see them share the same headline slot that Welsh rock heroes Future of the Left had enjoyed two days previously.

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The beauty of hosting a metropolitan festival in a town as small as Wrexham is that the next venue is always only a stone’s throw away. In South bar, we found alternative North Walian psych-wizards CaStLeS (the new incarnation of brothers Cynyr and Dion Hamer of We//Are//Animal, joined by Calvin Thomas on bass.) Their tribal drums and scrappy noise-rock was at times reminiscent of a Super Furries-meets-Django Django hybrid; it was dead, dead good. Meanwhile, across town at Galeri 3B, the BBC Wales and Arts Council initiative Horizons had set up camp showcasing their fresh crop of artists across two stages. Dolgellau’s indie darlings Swnami were on top form after a successful year as part of the last Horizons 12, and new faces HMS Morris wooed us with their fuzzy electro kraut-pop, despite missing a drummer. Bonus points for the delicious craft beers served in 3B.

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Whether you were discovering new names or tracking the progress of familiar faces, Focus was wholly accommodating to help you make the most of such a diverse line-up. Hats off to the perfect organisation of Central Station’s two stages: as soon as one band finished in the main room, another started up right around the corner, and the whole crowd seemed to ping-pong between the two areas. Saturday evening was a particular treat: HMS Morris played an electrifying full-band set before Wrexham wunderkinds Baby Brave took to the main stage, followed by the unapologetic surf-thrash of Tender Prey, with singer Laura howling into her microphone like a little wolf-child.

Focus bills itself as a festival of “music/interactive/comedy”, and while I didn’t get the chance to see any stand-up, the conference was definitely worth a mention. The team must be applauded on the comprehensive interactive programme, firmly targeted at helping young bands get their music to the next level. Over the course of the weekend, they could attend sessions on how to find funding; on composing music for film and TV; tips for promoting at a grassroots level; even a rights clinic with representatives from PRS, BPI, Musicians Union and PPL. I sat in on a discussion panel to die for, with big names from Radio 1, 6Music and the NME, plus queen of Welsh PR Elin Rees and established music journalist AP Childs giving their top tips on how to crack the mysterious music industry. I also had the pleasure of attending a gorgeous Keynote speech: Ritzy Bryan of North Walian success story The Joy Formidable in conversation with BBC Radio Wales’ Adam Walton. It was a joyously candid affair, offering a semi-biographical insight into Ritzy’s musical upbringing, updates on their eagerly-awaited third album, and a real sense of “if we can do it, so can you”.

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Saturday night brought the weekend to an unforgettable close with two after party shows in 3B (in my head it was an after party, anyway.) The modest gallery was one-in-one-out for Zefur Wolves, the intergalactic new band from Super Furry Animal Cian Ciaran, his missus Estelle Ios and their grungy trance-folk comrades. Focus reached its climax with Tokyo two-piece MOJA, a blistering fusion of punk, rock and high-speed dance beats. Drummer Masumi and bassist-vocalist Haru play with a furious passion; their adrenaline-fuelled stage presence and thundering sound felt like a surreal dream (especially when we met them afterwards and they were incredibly sweet.)

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It was clear to me that a generous amount of love and care had gone into this festival, and this was reflected in the blissful sense of community that blossomed throughout the weekend. I got a truckload of good vibes from the organisers, the bands I met, the industry folk, the gorgeous venues and especially, the dedication of the music fans. Clean-cut Cardiff trio Houdini Dax had Central Station singing and dancing along to their feel-good tunes while a hometown show for the irresistible Seazoo was nothing short of giddy. It’s a testament to the Welsh music scene that two bands from opposite ends of the country can both be received with the same ecstatic delight.

Focus Wales is refreshingly global and strikingly efficient at placing hot Welsh talent in the forefront. At its core is a firm pride in great Welsh music, and Wales can be equally proud of this excellent festival.

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Photo credit: Brent Jones.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.