“There’s people walking around like it’s Glastonbury; this is Wrexham, mate!” scorns one of the local residents as FOCUS Wales takes over the entire town. There’s apparently some confusion as to what FOCUS Wales is (the festival is still relatively young in its eighth year). But as one of the delegates points out to me, once this showcase festival and conference event is described in some detail to those who don’t know about it, the general reaction is ‘oh, that sounds good’.
And quite right. You can’t help but feel what FOCUS Wales is bringing to North Wales is a triumph. Having grown up in the area, the opportunity to see big bands was relatively thin on the ground. Central Station - one of the many venues used at FOCUS Wales - held gigs for some of the bigger acts but there wasn’t a huge amount. Back in the early 00s’ you’d get INME and Skindred but not Limp Bizkit or Papa Roach. And once a year a festival called Wakestock would bring the good to fairly nearby Pwllheli. On the whole, though, we were crying out for something like FOCUS Wales to take place; something to go in the local paper that you’d see and go, ‘yeah that looks ace’ that would stimulate a bigger music scene as a consequence. Something that competed with the rest of the world in terms of current good music without having to travel to Manchester or Liverpool. And it’s taken a few years to arrive, but FOCUS Wales is the answer: it’s up there with the likes of Eurosonic, The Great Escape as a place to discover new music and learn from industry speakers. Moreover, it benefits from being a lot easier to get around as nearly everything is within 5 minutes walking distance.
Such is the quality of what’s been put together by the core organisers Andy Jones and Neal Thompson, the Welsh government have been backed by them financially. The government are proudly funding some of this festival on the basis there are high number of Welsh acts performing. They recognise FOCUS Wales as an essential stepping stone to grow the careers of musicians, for musicians out there to become fully fledged recording and touring artists. The fact the government turned up to inaugurate the festival and use FOCUS Wales as the venue to announce the government partnership with PRS Foundation to fund new acts in Wales, emphasises their respect for FOCUS, too. It is their way of acknowledging how much of a galvanising impact the event has had in the decision to invest more in bands. The government know that music is healthy for the country: it brings morale, growth to the economy – and FOCUS have proved that; there are now four times more bands in the area than when they started in 2011. The growth of FOCUS also has a parallel to the town’s recent surge in venues and new eateries. The town was hit hard by the 2008 recession. Walking around you can see a number of shops boarded up. But things are definitely on the rise: creative space projects like the Undegun venue, Ty Pawb, and Town Square, alongside, new eateries such as the Fat Boar, and Lot 11 demonstrate there's a new confidence building in Wrexham.
But the long term impact aside; what music stands out this year? Is there anything to truly convince us that it’s got its finger on the pulse? Well, yes there is - and in abundance.
First up for Gigwise was Canada’s Wake Island who are bringing the feel of late night Montreal to the Far Boar pub garden at twilight. The electro pop duo, who are originally from Beirut and formed at McGill University, use electronic music equipment to trigger beats and samples and weave in live guitar and vocals. The mood of the vocals is somewhat reminiscent Win Butler's, and it suits the propulsive dance party feel beautifully. The invigorating, pounding beats that hit you right in the chest are met with a subtle trippy overtone that adds depth and mystique. The rich technicolour soundscape envelopes us and gets the festival feeling going.
The next gig of note that we see tonight is Gengahr. The East London band’s most distinctive trait is by Felix Bushe’s psych pop falsetto, his high register provides the contrast to make with deep bass drum kicks that emanate from Wrexham Central station PA with might seem all the more dramatic. Their bassist Hugh Schulte roams around the stage with stage moves somewhat similar to Rhys Webb of The Horrors, as their lead guitarist John Victor adds intricate licks soaked in effects to add colour without veering too far from the original tone of the guitar. It’s rare to see an indie band as well drilled as this lot. Every bar is meticulously orchestrated and they’ve the song to keep it entertaining and make time fly by. The latter half of the set is definitely the best with well-known singles - including ‘Fill My Gums With Blood’ - getting the initially stiff crowd loosened nicely.
One of the best places to see a band in Wrexham is Atomic, a small room above a bar named Rewind. It’s decorated with classic rock merch everywhere you look and the 80-cap space proves perfect for Hull band Vulgarians. The unhinged punk three-piece are immediately a hit with the crowd, and Gigwise spends the time right at the front moshing away as the lead singer manipulates his lead vocals using his table of effects. Adding an experimental element to the vocal is refreshing and doesn’t take away from the direct hard-hitting nature of their music. It’s chaotic on stage and the guitarist’s equipment starts to fail. Unsure what to do to fill in the gaps they proceed to chant Damo Suzuki’s name along to a bleak yet driving post-punk-y bassline (the Can singer is clashing with their set on another stage). The prolonged rotation of this section adds charm and the band appear to enjoy the improvised section that suggests much of their music is borne out of their natural cohesion they have. The band are set to play some big shows in support of The Horrors and Slaves at Zebedee's Yard, and it’s no wonder they’re getting high profiled bookings given how enthralling they are to everyone here.
Friday kicks off with local hero John Lawrence. He used to be in cultishly adored Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and has since forged a name for himself as a solo artist singing folk-y psychedelia to Nick Drake-esque guitar. He’s playing in a pub with little more than two microphones and has the entire room full to capacity to the point people are spilling out the door. It’s the artists first gig in two years and it's long overdue by the look it. He’s modest about his own success and jokes about going on a world tour to no fans. He’s not a careerist, more a hippy who lives in the Welsh mountains and plays intimate gatherings to people in his local community. Gigwise once saw him play a yurt at the foot of Tryfan mountain and the singer captivated the room then and continues to do so now. Having broadened his sound a lot since that gig, which was well over a decade ago, we’re treated to a cover of a Spanish song where his north wales accent compliments the language brilliantly.
Canada have a big presence at FOCUS Wales with numerous showcases of bands from all over their fascinating country. Of note tonight are nêhiyawak – three indigenous musicians band formed in what’s known as Edmonton on the atlas, but miskwacîwâskahikan on treaty 6 territory to them and their ancestors. They’re rightfully proud of their heritage and doing their bit at promoting a culture that’s been subordinated due to pressures of modernity. They merge stories about their culture and language with huge shoegaze sounds. Guitars reminiscent of Nick McCabe’s on early Verve filter through the audience as people dance like they do to their favourite psych-y alt rock bands: hips swinging, hair flailing at the most intense parts. The set ebbs and flows, though, offering quieter introspective moments that beguile. An act thoroughly worth delving deeper into.
Next up over at Atomic are Brummie punks Table Scraps who are an absolute treat. With nods to The Stooges, Cheap Trick, and UK punk they have the perfect references to tear up a small club like this. Propelled by fully cranked live drums and bass to his left, the singer and flash lead guitar player, Scott Abbott, has an adrenaline fuelled stage presence and a slightly demonic look in his eye that suits that all-guns-blazing approach. Despite being louder than nearly any band at the festival there’s a gifted top line melody writer that helps his vocal cut through and give the crowd something to grab on to. To be listenable and twisted is not easy to pull off but they manage it.
A steadier pace and cleaner sound is emanating from the Rock Suite venue. It’s a bar, basically, with a small stage in the corner, and incredibly attentive fans who are watching Devarrow play their first ever UK show. The haunting, intimate pastoral folk of the band’s song ‘Little Road’ has been one of the most played on the Gigwise office of late and we couldn’t resist the chance to see them. What was immediately different compared to the recording is they’ve amped the electric element a lot more than his recordings suggest and there are prog-y solo parts not too dissimilar to White Denim’s subtly laid on top of his beautifully crafted acoustic songs, making it appealing to broader section of fans than first thought. With his debut album released back in 2015, the material tonight is all from his freshly recorded, as-yet-untitled album; and the song ‘Unwired’ that he plays from it is easily one of the catchiest we’ve heard all weekend. The set as a whole is well-paced, polished and one of the weekend’s highlights, too.
Over in Central Station, Cardiff’s Boy Azooga have filled out the second stage there and then some. Eager festival-goers cram in to see the tightest live unit on the scene in the UK right now. Their spangled basslines are immense fun and work with the superhuman drummer who provides a solid rhythm and melodic flourish for natural born frontman Davey Newington to bounce off. His vocals are up there with the wonky tunefulness of Super Furry Animals and The Charlatans. The air of familiarity though is only a glimmer as what’s remarkable is hearing the band veer across niche references, with ideas taken from different decades and continents. The multifarious sound nods to krautrock and afrobeat, to name a couple, and that brings a freshness to the indie rock aesthetic. The guitar is not going to die with inspirational heroes like Davey Newington flaunting it on stage the way he does.
Having caught Canadian rockers Walrus at Tallinn Music Week and Nova Scotia Music Week, our first choice for Saturday is easy. They were amazing then and show the consistency they have as a live band yet again. Performing in the newly renovated Ty Pawb, a creative space offering a platform for artists and small businesses to evolve, their taste for the likes of the The Kinks, Pink Floyd and The Doors and Ty Segall shines through. It’s an effortlessly beautiful and soaring sound collage delivered through a classic rock ‘n’ roll backline with unwavering confidence. The room is packed, too, and pure joy emanates around as most of the audience experience one of Canada’s most underrated bands live for the first time.
Next up is Catalonia’s answer to Daughter: Maria Arnall I Marcel Bages. The band name is quite literal with Maria on vocals and Marcel on the instrumentation. Maria has a magnetic stage presence and sings in Catalan in a hauntingly beautiful way. Marcel, meanwhile, produces vast cinematic soundscapes with an ethereal quality that are played live. He creates on a guitar and enough pedals to pawn for a Ferrari; and what he makes complements the singer’s every turn of phrase.
Gigwise’s own showcase at Atomic is next. We were asked to pick two of our favourite new bands to play, so Canshaker Pi kick off their UK tour here, and Creatures play their first ever industry showcase. Creatures’ frontman William Thomas Yates is one of the best in the music business he commands the stage with a Jim Morrison-esque quality. But his strength would be let down if the band behind him weren’t as precise as they are at brining in the melodies. To these ears there’s an element of Link Wray in there that suit their cowboy aesthetic; but they don’t quite sound like anyone - and they certainly aren’t aping any of their contemporaries in London - because much of their influence coming from Tarantino and Bond movies, and there aren’t too many guitar bands nailing that. The level with which they’ve honed their sound appears to leave everyone in the room awestruck as their set is as pitch perfect as you can get. Throw them on Jimmy Fallon or Jools Holland and they could do no wrong.
Next up are Amsterdam’s Canshaker Pi who’ve created a stir with their raucous brand of lo-fi, slacker, indie-rock. Whilst the rhythm section keep it straightforward and powerful, it’s the dynamic Willem Smit and Boris de Klerk that’s that provide the flair. There are inflections in Willem’s voice that transcend pastiche or his national identity and invite the listener into the darkest depths of his soul; perhaps it stems from having to get his vocal to cut above the loud levels of distortion but at the limit of what is physically capable his true character shines. Boris is equally talented on the mic but it’s his guitar skills that set him apart. He fuses feedback and noise solos with hook-y indie riffs and looks like a member of At The Drive In when he’s in full flow.
The most hotly anticipated gig of the weekend for Gigwise is Hippies Vs Ghosts who are performing at Undegun; an arts space that was once a Sport Direct. The biggest surprise of seeing Hippie Vs Ghosts for the first time is seeing they have two drummers on stage. Not a cheap way to run a band but, boy, is it worth it. The band are as visceral and fun as Thee Oh Sees – or Oh Sees as they’re now called. And live and could conquer any main stage on any major festival. The singer Owain Ginsberg is a legend in North Wales with critically acclaimed bands Yr Gogs, The Heights, Fauna Twin, and We Are Animal among many of his past and present projects. He pilots the band, who are based in Snowdonia, with astute sense of melody and rhythm, and as the sermon of rock ‘n’ roll in the area, he and the band get the packed room brimming with the most excitement seen all weekend as everyone dives headfirst into their motorik attack, becoming themselves a visual manifestation of this chaotic trippy thrill. Hippies are a phenomenal way to see out and it’s as sign that FOCUS Wales has proven to be one of the UK’s best festivals – showcase or otherwise.