Focus Wales was delayed for nearly 18 months due to the pandemic, it’s a testament to the team at Focus Wales for a heroic effort in staging this year’s event despite the challenges and uncertainties.
This year, Focus saw a cavalcade of artists descend upon the venues of Wrexham over the week of Wednesday the seventh to Saturday the ninth of October, with relish, many playing live for the first time in nearly two years! While conferences, mixers and networking events, allowed musicians, industry delegates and those with an interest in Welsh music to forge deeper links. Whilst it might have been a slightly stripped back edition for obvious reasons: travel restrictions and well lockdowns: there were still 200 acts to enjoy at this year’s Focus.
It was damn great to be back experiencing live music again with some familiar and new faces.
With such a compact town, with its mix of historical buildings, arcades and a market, it’s great fun to explore Wrexham and to be able to experience Welsh legends like Gruff Rhys, stalwarts, up and coming local acts and artists from Canada and Sweden.
There’s always the chance to walk down the main street and stumble upon acts you have never heard of before and fall in love with. Even more invigorating given how long we had to wait for it, this was another special edition of Focus Wales that highlighted the great music coming out of Wales right now and proving it’s one of the best multi-venue festivals in the country!
Here is a selection of our highlights, as is traditional with a festival featuring so many artists, there were many more acts that we could have mentioned or wish we could have seen!
Rona Mac is holding court in the Ty Pawb arts/market venue, the central hub of Focus Wales. Mac kicks off Focus Wales for me this early afternoon, with an affecting set showcasing her deft poetic lyrical ability and her wonderful vocals. The recent single ‘Weapon‘ is a standout, she apologises for the swears, but none of us care. The West Walian artist holds us in her spell, her tone is haunting, her delivery effortlessly shifting from lilting to fearsome and defiant in a moment, her songs are vivid, raw and emotive they show a remarkable maturity beyond her years.(Bill Cummings)
In the imperious setting of St Giles church, Edelweiss captivates. Her hair has a life of its own, two huge bunches on each side of her head that she swings rhythmically in time her playing, with a beguiling voice, she sings wittily and with surreal imagination about living with (literal)cockroaches and an ex-lover who became her best friend. When she brings out the accordion for ‘The Secret Garden’ the set scales new heights her wonderful tone matches the primal screeches of the choruses. With smiles on our lips and song in our hearts, we have witnessed something very unique and something special the unusual missing link between Kate Bush and Joanna Newsom? Somewhat, but really Austrian based Eldeweiss is a sheer one-off. (Bill Cummings)
I was squeezing myself through a worryingly unmasked pub throng at the Royal Oak, to catch a glimpse of a stripped-back set from Emily Magpie. Dreamy poppy and cinematic yet somehow intimate at the same time. Layers of harmony swirl beat punctuate and Magpie’s swooning vocals envelop amidst plucked notes and punctuating heartbeats. The soundtrack to the starry night sky over Wrexham. Beguiling.(Bill Cummings)
Nipping over to the Town Square venue for a burst of Yammerer. Frenetic and frantic, Yammerer hail from near these parts, Merseyside to be precise and unlike some of their peers, their songwriting always possesses a sideways off-kilter approach. Surfy twangs and a hollered rifle through frustration and confusion with the world, litter tracks like the brilliantly titled ‘Poisonous Reptilians Colleagues’ or the visceral howling Talking Heads-style diatribe of recent single ‘Ancient Astronauts Believe’. Unhinged in the most glorious ways.
I’d waited two years, a pandemic to see them and even then Panic Shack’s set was delayed I hung around the Penny Black venue, firstly I couldn’t work out which floor was which, I was also informed by a member of Thumper that they were running late. So I went and sat in St Giles Church and watched some American/Welsh folk until the Shack, took to the stage.
Thankfully, they were worth well the wait and did not disappoint. This girl gang from Cardiff are brimful of attitude, sarcasm and kickass takedowns of sexist men(‘I Don’t Really Like It’, ‘Jui Jits You’, and one where vocalist Sarah Harvey screams “do not tell me to shush in the cinema!” repeatedly. What’s more, they know how to put on an unmissable set. Replete with dance moves, garage band riffs and giddy basslines, each member with a definable look, and a lead singer in Harvey who commands the crowd with her spiky vocals and Cardiffian put-downs. The room is a quarter full when they start by the time they finish with their frantic and most well known single so far ‘Who’s got my lighter?’ it’s jam-packed! Certainly one of my highlights of Focus Wales.
After interviewing the brilliantly talented West Walian songwriter Eve Goodman (piece to come), we venture into the performance space to watch Canadian MC Haviah Mighty. It’s an electric, playful and bloody fun set. The Canadian artist delivers a mix of frenetic rhyming and smile-inducing dancing, also has us thrusting our fists in the air to call out injustice. Effortlessly retooling Dr Dre‘s ‘Still D.R.E’ and making it her own, her dexterous quickfire delivery goes into overdrive on the skittering ‘Tesla’ while she’s riffing about her favourite fruit ‘Avocado’. She has us in the palm of her hand and is a magnetic, talented star who surfs through hip hop beats, reggae sway and popping singalongs. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her on bigger stages in the very near future.(Bill Cummings)
With the stage running late, there is a growing buzz for global-psych adventurers Flamingods, with people milling in and out, and others giving up and moving on. But for those that witness the whole set, not being one of the many who are drawn in later, they bring the most insane party possible. By the end the room is packed with sweating, dancing bodies lost in the energy of the aural patchwork unfolding on stage. Dragging in sounds from the globe over and melding them into pure bangers, one after the other, Flamingods is one of the most inventive bands on the plant. Psych, acid house, indie rock, various Middle Eastern folk styles, reggae – you can hear it all in the mix. For anyone with a soul, Flamingods might just be the ultimate live music experience. (James Thornhill)
It’s one in one out for Bob Vylan in Ty Pawb flexible space, it’s absolutely rammed, the decibel levels may be a bit above my liking but he bursts through a fearsome set that surfs the lines between grime beats and punk abrasiveness. Topless and with his dreds swinging he delivers a visceral sound, at one point climbing a microphone stack he bawls above barreling drums and buzz saw guitars, that incites the front row into a bounce along. He takes the piss out of the Wrexham kit and the two Hollywood superstars who own the club which triggers a round of Wrexham chanting. Vylan smiles impishly at this reaction.
But his songs are incendiary, ‘We Live here’ and ‘Pretty songs’ are righteous takedowns of Brexit Britain a land of prejudice, racism and inequality. I only stay for half the set as I need to get home and to be frank, I find his sound a little too in your face for my tastes, but maybe that’s the point?!(Bill Cummings)
The Honest Poet
There’s a big Welsh MOBO and hip hop presence at Focus this year, it’s heartening to see such diversity at the festival this year. The Welsh hip hop and mobo scenes are exciting and vibrant and Tumi Williams of Skunkadelic did a great job scheduling many of the best emerging talents in Wales including Mace the Great, Eadyth, Minas, Afrocluster and more. Read more about this in Kaptin’s excellent report from Focus Wales here.
One of the stars of this scene is South Wales’s The Honest Poet replete with stirring warm vocals and positive wordplay, the songs from his Letters to my queen album shows off his big heart on his sleeve and pleas for unity. With his set at No 7 bar, he doesn’t disappoint, with an ability to connect and enliven the early afternoon audience with his mixture of buoyant beats and his soulful singalongs such as ‘Purpose‘ and ‘Red Light‘. His songs delivered with an easy sway, touch on growing up and facing down racial prejudice but have pop accessibility, yet retain his redolent influences of soul and hip hop. A refreshing uplifting delight. (Bill Cummings)
The Bug Club
The Bug Club are great fun, this three-piece from Newport trade a tangle of guitars and hyperactive percussion with duelling sardonic boy/girl retorts, that echo the C86 fuzz-pop of the likes of The Vaselines or The Wave Pictures. They have tunes and plenty of them and they’re crammed into the Parish this early evening to hear them. ‘We don’t need room for loving‘ is insatiable, catchy and hilarious, while the recently playlisted by 6 Music ‘The Fixer’ has muscular Thin Lizzy like riffing, colliding with irony-laden, endearing sing-along lines like “buy me the house plant that makes the most oxygen/ help me breathe breathe breathe” before collapsing into a heap on the ground. All aboard the Bug Club bus!(Bill Cummings)
My feet are rebelling by now but I still make the effort to trek to the Llwyn Isaf venue, a new huge and impressive tent Focus have been erected this year, in their locals, Kidsmoke are weaving their power-pop spells. The chiming riffs and soaring melodies of ‘Rising Sun’ are exciting, a knowing quip about Wrexham’s football team’s self-sabotage is followed by a fantastic rendition of ‘She Takes Me Under‘ that has me singing along and dancing. This evening, Kidsmoke pull off the impressive task of investing this entire big top with their anthems.(Bill Cummings)
South Wales trio Chroma is a total revelation! The bass and drums driven rock, while incredibly played and powerful, isn’t enough to make them stand out. It is the power of vocalist Katie Hall that makes this band special, as she commands the stage entirely. With a mix of soulfulness, raging power and intense vulnerability her performance draws a big crowd by the end of the set. While the recorded tracks sound great, nothing can prepare for the impact of this band live – the queue of people wanting to find out more as the last track ends is testament to that. Chroma should be huge, it’s as simple as that. (James Thornhill)
I had a good chat with Francis before her set(interview to come), and to see her in full flight to a sparse but rapt audience was brilliant. During a stripped-back set with just an organist to accompany her, Francis’ delivers spellbinding vocals, that ripple with emotional brevity. The slow-burning ‘Carelessness causes Fires’ is naggingly heart-tugging, while the enveloping melodrama of ‘Orange Rose’ is as anthemic live as it is on record, her voice rising to drown out annoying talking stragglers. Karima Francis is a voice you need to hear. (Bill Cummings)
Kelly Lee Owens
Welsh electronic auteur Kelly Lee Owens delivers a transcendental, spiritual experience in the Llywn Isaf. Everything about the show is beautifully crafted – the trippy visuals, the choreographed moves to the performance, the seductively turning her back at the end of each tune – and it draws the crowd in 100%. From moments of calm where Owens sweet, soaring vocals elevate near dream-pop tunes to those of pure acid techno euphoria, this is a masterclass in live electronic performance by one of Wales true shining lights. (James Thornhill)
Pictures by Bill Cummings apart from Bob Vylan and main image of Kelly Lee Owens by Bev Craddock