A heavenly time to be in North Wales’ biggest town – here’s our musical highlights
Cai Trefor
21:00 22nd May 2019

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It’s perhaps what FOCUS Wales co-exists alongside during the May dates it pops up that make it a feast for the senses. One moment we’re at a slick delegate mixer devouring free Caesars (the Canadian equivalent of a Bloody Mary) and kebabs whilst being dangled the next big export hope; the next, we’re stood in a pub, which is famed for all-day karaoke, and doesn’t look like its changed in 50 years, where a burly gent is belting out Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ at the top of his cigarette-scarred lungs. At another point, we’re off to see Wales’ finest producer of a generation David Wrench perform with his band audiobooks; but in the hotel we’re staying at in the town centre there’s a Tom Jones impressionist, whose advert for tonight’s 9.00pm showing has been wryly mentioned over the past few days by fellow festival goers, and he’s packed out the pub.

Ultimately, it makes a refreshing change from going to showcases where urban regeneration has altered the spirit and identity of a town. The proudly nostalgic nature of some of Wrexham’s haunts makes me feel like I’m still able to put on my rose-tinted glasses, re-tread my parents footsteps, who probably too would have been able to get a John Smiths at the Memorial Hall: the flat-roofted concert venue for tonight’s gig with fresh-faced hardcore/math rock three-piece Lysistrata.

But hail the juxtaposition. It would feel pretty Brexit-y to be necking John Smith’s in Memorial Hall – a venue that’s taken over from the permanently closed Central Station as FOCUS’ biggest capacity concert hall – if it wasn’t for the international outlook of its programme. FOCUS Wales is proudly a platform for breaking bands from abroad in the UK  as it is for Welsh bands to make connections and break borders.

With this idea of internationalisation in mind, Lysistrata’s gig in front of 200 or so people is the first performance we see during the festival that feels like a real moment – a debut UK show where they hit the ground running: “I am going to work with them, they are on another level,” gushes one of the room’s best known industry heads to me as soon as they finish. And it’s easy to see why such an instantaneous decision can be made: For an intense 30-minutes, the three-piece from South West France, have a room full of movers and shakers front totally gripped with a dynamic performance with reference points that tick all the boxes for a lot of people: Cure-esque shadowy introspection in certain verses; the fury of Fugazi; Crass; and the complex technicality of early Foals and Battles. There’s a future for this band on some of the biggest stages in Europe.

With our breath taken away there by that sonic intensity, it would be tempting to call it a night if it wasn’t for Blind Wilkie McEnroe, who are one of our favourite purveyors of handmade rock ‘n’ roll, performing at Undegun. Undegun is a former Sports Direct turned arts space with a main room and an upstairs stage. With some of the Sports Direct relics still there, it’s a venue that’s charmingly not overly scrubbed up. Instead, it has the air of an underground club for alternative music, where quality rock n’ roll can exist unpretentiously.

Fittingly, McEnroe are a modest band, ill-concerned with inflating their online presence; they have a modest single track out on YouTube ahead of tonight’s show. And time offline and in the rehearsal room appears to pay off. The Welsh language band, who are one of many at this festival from the North Wales area, are an antithesis to the cliché’d stage moves of chart-storming UK punk bands and offer something deep, psychedelic and musically challenging: a whirlwind through the tapestry of alternative music of the last 60 years and the occasional jazz flourish. Hypnotic cyclical riffs with exquisite dexterity, pounding drums, wistful Americana, kraut wig-outs, ambient piano, psych-pop harmonies, Vines-y squall, are just some of the variables of their expression. McEnroe might just be the most underrated band in Wales.

The following afternoon (Friday) BBC Radio's Huw Stephens and Bethan Elfan are in Tŷ Pawb: a lottery-funded art gallery and commerce space, which co-opted a covered market that’s been there for donkeys years and built a massive extension. Stephens and Elfan are the stars of a panel discussing 20 years of Welsh indie. One of the comments that sticks is about events they put on for EP and album launches in Wrexham. They would have a BBC truck outside Central Station for such events. Of course, the BBC are still key champions of Welsh music; but what if more was possible? Do we have a lopsided appreciation for Welsh music from the 90s and early 00s because we had more coverage budget to reflect the scene at that hallowed time than now? Probably. There’s still avenues for Welsh bands to make a mark on pop culture – and they are doing so – but it's trickier to navigate in the post-Woolworths years. The quality of music, however, is as good as it’s ever been.

A case in point are a new band that would make a great fit for Anskt Records (Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Zabrinski). Named Melin Melyn, the brand new band, whose forthcoming EP will be produced by Dylan Morgan of Boy Azooga, are based in Stoke Newington in London, but from Cardiff, and led by one of the most naturally melodic singers in Gruff Glyn. Their music oozes colour, wit, poetry, and effortless charm. Inside the vibing Royal Oak pub in the heart of Wrexham – where they’re only playing a stripped back set – the BBC and Boy Azooga stand at the back nodding their seal of approval. Meanwhile, Nains and Taids (grandparents) gather closer, lean in to truly listen and lap up their 60sish presence. It sets the mood high.

Later on, it’s off to see Cardiff’s Red Telephone, who sound somewhat like what Blossoms would have turned out like had they gone for an indie label and dialled up the overdrive instead of aiming for the pop charts. They create an atmospheric and evocative rock n’ roll sound with a palpable sense of acid-induced mania and a love of hooks. It’s music for outsiders who also like to sing-a-long to a chorus, and there's unanimous praise from within the room: the collective appreciation is not always as palpable at industry-orientated festivals. 

The next band we see tonight who truly leave an impression are new wave post-punk revivalists Working Men’s Club. The band, whose debut 7” single ‘Bad Blood’ has been a cult hit and is already fetching 45 quid on Discogs, are unsurprisingly drawing a huge crowd to The Parish pub close to midnight. And although I'm excited about seeing the Manchester-based band after this single, I am not as intensely supportive as I will be next time I hear they’re playing. Working Men’s Club are so much better live than on record. The drum machines and synths, which knit together beautifully with the guitars, are cranked up and sound punchy on even this modest PA system. The crowd's limbs are flailing as a reaction with a similar intensity to what they'd give at a massive night club. But here we are in a 100-cap pub. To add to the spectacle, singer Sydney Minsky-Sargeant is provocative and gets in the crowd’s faces, prompting some to sing down the microphone with him, before swiftly returning to his station.

Saturday sees Gigwise involved somewhat more actively involved than on previous days with a showcase back at The Parish with James Acaster-tipped experimentalist Elizabete Balčus and Toronto dream pop starlets Tallies. Balčus, the Latvian multi-instrumentalist and electronic music producer draws from her award-winning Conarium album, performing it live with a fruit (actual fruit and veg) synth, a sampler, flute and her beguiling voice. The unusual stage set up coupled with avant-garde references in her attire result in a sea of mobile phones raised and some committed dancing, which imply the musician's made a connection at the packed out venue. Red Telephone’s Declan Andrew bounds over and says to me: “I’ve never seen a performance that experimental and daring in my life, it's amazing.”

Next up: Tallies. They have their label and management flown over from the States and Canada respectively approvingly nodding along. The biggest fan in the audience though has to be music journalist Dom Gourlay whose love of shoegaze and dream pop stretches back far beyond when I was born – and he’s head-banging with real gusto. What makes you connect with it Dom? “They remind me of some of my favourite bands when I was a teenager [The Sundays, Popinjays, Cocteau Twins] but with a 21st century twist.”

After levels high enough to blow people way in an Academy from Tallies dissipates, Winnipeg-based rapper Malcolm Jay melds upbeats sonics with introverted lyricism and has a house party vibe with a more settled volume. The change from avant-garde dream pop and shoegaze to hip-hop also seems to be a hit with the part of the pub who seem they aren't here for the festival and just for the drinks and good times – those who’ve expressed no interest in music thus far. They come out of their bubble and start giving Jay so much love.

With a quick stop at Tom Jones tribute night, it’s off to see a band with outsider dance anthems that you can’t help but adore from audiobooks, and Aphex Twin-meets Scott Walker awesomeness of Tallinn's Mart Avi. Avi takes upstairs at Undegun by the scruff with a stage consisting of a cinema-sized screen for self-directed visuals and him – a lone, a besuited slender figure with a sampler emitting self-mixed instrumentals, which sound like it can't be long before Warp Records come knocking at his door. After seeing this unique performer in his native Estonia and in Asia before, it's brilliant seeing him get such a strong reaction in the UK.

Meanwhile, downstairs, audiobooks (lower case intended) – the project of David Wrench and Evangeline Ling – are deploying their armour of vintage synths, drum machines, and guitar and angry, powerful off-kilter electronic pop vocals. Wrench likens her on stage charisma to his hero Mark E Smith at some point during an interview him and I had hours earlier, and there are moments of that definitely. But what's perhaps most meaningful to me about them is audiobooks play tunes that lift me and give me that festival feeling. And it's not only me who feels immense gratitude and happiness listening to audiobooks: with their rendition of their single ‘Friends In The Bubble Bath’ blaring, arms are raised and the packed crowd share an elated moment with each other. This is what festivals are about sometimes: seeing off-kilter hits with undeniable universal appeal resonate so strongly. It feels like a headline set even if they aren't technically headliners. After their set, with some of their tunes echoing in my head, I happily ramble on to the after party to draw the curtains on yet another fantastic, invigorating, inspiring FOCUS Wales.

Last year, we said FOCUS is one of the best UK festivals – showcase or otherwise. And without any hesitation we stick to that. The amount of punters over the course of the few days that haven’t been before and are harking on about how much of a buzz it is to be in Wrexham and reeling off lists of amazing music they’ve seen affirms it – it’s a dizzyingly entertaining rollercoaster ride of discovery that Wales would be a lot worse off without. Long may it be a fun few days, but shine as the truly important platform for musicians it is. 

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Photo: Tim Rooney