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FESTIVAL REPORT: Focus Wales Highlights 2022

Focus Wales is the best multi-venue festival in Wales. For one weekend over 200 acts, a core of Welsh artists reflecting the new Welsh wave, a strong representation from the best of new UK music and artists from Canada, Sweden, Japan and beyond descend on Wrexham. That’s not forgetting the film showcases and conferences, this year headlined by a brutally funny conversation between Self Esteem aka Rebecca Taylor and Jude Rogers that touches on sexism and ageism in music, and her fantastic growth as an artist. Bill Cummings, Cath Holland, and Stephen Birch are here to bear witness along with photography from Beverly Craddock.

In Llwyn Isaf aka the big tent in the Library field, Public Service Broadcasting are attracting a sizeable and growing audience. As the professorial Willgoose, Esq and his merry men and women take us on a voyage in space and time. Not quite boldly going but with impressive Kraftwerkian visuals and a rotating cast of players and newsreel snippets sourced from past decades they take us from a tour in space, with the propulsive Kraut rhythms of ‘Go!‘ to charting the slow demise of Welsh mining valleys at the hands of a callous Thatcher government, out to an anthemic and pulsing swell of ‘Progress‘. It’s an epic and insightful trip in sound and history in keeping with the setting.
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Honeyglaze are hardly your typical night ender this trios brand of subtlety slowcore brings to mind the likes of Slint, with gently enveloping melodies gradually reaching around you like a snug hug, rather like early Low. Theirs is a subtle and gentle sound perhaps not the rousing end of the night headliner the patrons upstairs in Penny Black were maybe expecting. But they hold rich promise.

Wrexham is so bursting with people tonight that you can’t get a taxi for thirty minutes tonight so I stumble into the heart of the dark recess of the Parish, Splot’s own Benji Wild holds court, his fiery brand of grime, mashed with electric hip hop, twitchy breakbeat and jagged riffs is delivered with a glint in his eye. Popping beats rattle with his frenetic visceral freestyles that are both intensely personal and witty, bouncing around the room taking themes around in his mental health, brushes with the law and his huge belief in music as art. The breakbeats of Freestyle is urgent, ‘Loose‘ two steps with confidence. When he spits ‘I dont chase clout /I am chasing dreams’ on ‘Chasing Dreams’ we are staring up at the stars with him.

I’ve been a fan of trio deep tan for the last year or so, their tightly wound brand of and although their singer is battling with her voice tonight in Ty Pawb, their taut sinewy post-punk laced with darkly humourous and menacing tales inspired by memes and nights out, is as captivating as I wished they would be. ‘Rudy yayaya’ spits and grinds, while ‘Camelot‘ s clanging middle eight, with its tangle of jagged guitars and twitchy percussion, puts me in mind of Television live. While the deadpan delivery of gives off a dissonant cool that sketches out the underbelly of society. Believe in deep tan they will leave a mark.(Bill Cummings)

As with other multi-venue festivals, some of the most enjoyable acts can be found floating around the fringes. The Parish is one of the smaller venues hosting this year and it doesn’t take much for hotly-tipped COW to fill it to capacity. By the time the band launch into Weezer-like opener ‘All My Friends Are Dead To Me’, the place is rammed and operating a one-in one-out policy. Having just released new E.P When The Darkness Gets You Down, there’s a swagger in their set that stays on the right side of the fine line between confidence and arrogance. There’s a beautiful moment too when they play recent single ‘On and On’ and a small, passionate crowd in the front sing back in full voice – it’s almost worth the sweaty mess I’ve turned into by the end of the set.(Stephen Birch)

Penultimate act of the day on the big tent at Llwyn Isaf is a big task for Dutch Indie Rockers Pip Blom, but they prove very much up to the task. The band have an exuberant stage presence that wins the sizeable crowd over from the off. Their smiles are broad as they play a mix of tracks from their two L.Ps to date – 2019’s Boat and 2021’s Welcome Break. The set keeps going at a relentless pace and their concise take on the Alt Rock blueprint is also laden with hooks and an instinctive pop sensibility – songs like ‘Daddy Issues’ and ‘Keep It Together’ the perfect examples. (Stephen Birch)

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In truth I am exhausted by my fourth day in Wrexham, I am not used to going out four nights in a row and my energy levels are flagging, luckily the magnificent setting of St Giles church is enlivened by Balimaya Project formed in 2019 by percussionist Yahael Camara Onono, they are a West African collective from London. They joyfully merge tribal beats, splashes of jazzy horns and chanted refrains into a set that gets hips swaying and the audience dancing in the aisles. I sadly have to bid the set farewell before I depart for the evening as I want to catch one last act this weekend.

Such is the scale of the bill at Focus, clashes are inevitable its also impossible to see everything you want to, so its best to set your own schedule with the brilliant App, you may also stumble on something you didn’t expect to love as you walk through the town. While most have scarpered off to watch Echo and the Bunnymen, but having only seen them recently back home in St David’s hall I am determined instead to finally catch Aderyn live in Ty Pawb. Ty Pawb is a awesome multi purpose arts place, a renovated market space with two stages, you can also pick up a cup of tea, a waffle covered in ice cream or a curry. In sound space two, backed by her full band Aderyn doesn’t disappoint delivering a gleaming set of bittersweet indie-pop songs underscored with a wistfulness. The power pop of ‘Scotty’ soars while the sea sawing dynamic, ‘Yearning’ distils unrequited feelings into a direct diary-like verse that grows into an infectious chorus it deserves a bigger audience. Aderyn is a star in the ascendency! Here’s to next year’s Focus! (Bill Cummings)

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Self Esteem on Friday in conversation with author Jude Rogers mid-afternoon was nothing short of inspirational. Rebecca Lucy Taylor is living the dream in so many ways. She is the dream. Yet her story of tenacity and persistence until winning success has a flipside. Even when a woman makes it, so to speak, in music or creative industries she still must push back, to ensure she is represented exactly how she wishes.  In the big tent later Taylor and show any new and emerging artists present how to be a pop star onstage too. Prioritise Pleasure indeed.

Big names aside, Focus Wales carried out its role of showcasing, offering space and opportunities to artists in the most spectacular manner over the weekend. Bookhouse (pictured) from North Wales but currently Manchester-based whilst members are at university there, played the HWB Cymraeg tent in the afternoon. What an impressive outfit this foursome weaving together space rock, synth wizardry, psychedelia – of course – and exuding an effortless shoegaze cool, are. Enjoyed them so much we headed over to the sterile surroundings of the upstairs room at Wynnstay Hotel later to catch a second set.

Briechiau Hir
on the very same stage later performed entirely in Welsh and blew the room’s comfortable curtains and carpets right off. A wall of guitars and passionate vocal delivery. Proper rock n roll.  They released debut album ‘Hir Oes I’r Cof’ a few months ago and more than deserve to be heard outside Wales.  Reflecting on this and noting Adwaith’s tweet of defiance mid-week, we at God Is In The TV do cover music performed in languages other than English a lot, especially that sung in Welsh.

It is very much worth bearing in mind, industry folk, one week on from Briechiau Hir’s appearance at Focus Wales that Kalush Orchestra, Ukranian’s winning entry at Eurovision triumphed thanks to the public vote across Europe. The song – a celebration and expression of Ukrainian traditions and culture – was performed in Kalush Orchestra’s mother tongue and proves there is an enthusiastic market for different languages in music. So get wise to it.

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In the stunning St Giles Church, teenager Cerys Hafana’s (pictured) love for the triple harp is infectious, the chatty crowd on the other side of the wall silenced once they elect to listen instead of sharing what they got from Curry On The Go. She easily won hearts and minds with her interpretations of traditional folk songs, and her own work. Cerys charmed us with her stories. Magical.

Rapper Minas delivered two sets on the Saturday. His daytime offering was stripped back and solo – although Rona Mac did join him at one point – with surprisingly sensitive and intimate expressions of vulnerability.  We did not expect that. At all. His second set was full on slap in your face, take me as I am or do one. Always very impressive when an artist can show the sheer depth and breadth of what they can do.

KEYS totally rocked the children’s TV presenter look on Saturday night at Central, but more importantly gave us a masterclass in the skill of classic songwriting. ‘I only Want You For Your Rock N Roll’ and ‘The Strain’ total crowd faves. If there’s a prize going for the happiest audience of the festival, they’ll storm it.

Estonian oddball/secret agent/eccentric avant pop star (delete as applicable, or take them all) Mart Avi never disappoints. He wouldn’t know how to. Mart’s refusal to compromise is his superpower, and he shared a strange, theatrical, danceable performance at Ty Pawb. We wouldn’t have him any other way.  His experimental avant-garde RnB is something the world will catch onto. Eventually. He’s incredibly ahead of the curve. (Cath Holland)

Self Esteem & Cerys Hafana photo credit: Beverly Craddock
Bookhouse & Deep Tan : Cath Holland

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.