Live Report: FOCUS Wales 2024

CLASH heads up to Wrexham to sample some Welsh (and global) talent...

Imagine travelling back in time just ten years and explaining to people that Wrexham would become a town of global renown. However, before all the well-documented Hollywood interest, the wonderful FOCUS Wales has spent the last decade putting in the hard graft of imbuing the town and broader region of North Wales with some well-deserved cultural cache. 

Featuring swathes of Welsh and international talent and taking place across more than a dozen venues, including repurposed pubs, hotels and churches, FOCUS Wales also features a film festival and countless talks, panels and mixers. Around 20,000 people make the trip here, temporarily turning the relatively-small Wrexham (resident population: around 40,000) into a global arts hub to be reckoned with. 

This year’s festival takes place on the hottest few days of the year so far. You get the sense it’s bolstered the already-friendly vibe. FOCUS’ hub is the arts centre Ty Pawb and on Thursday afternoon, the place is buzzing with discussion and networking. In the same room as an earlier panel discussion on the future of music journalism (featuring this writer), Gillie’s elegant jazzy indie holds a large audience in a delicate but firm grasp. Her graceful vocals and subtly complex rhythms offer further evidence that she’s developing into a singularly-soulful Welsh auteur. 

A different vibe is provided by W!zard in Ty Pawb’s Room 1. The French band boast a killer stage presence and wield a sound somewhere between early-Idles and fellow French trio Birds In Row. A fun, noisy find.

Around the corner from Ty Pawb is FOCUS’ ‘main stage’. Llywn Isaf is a huge, festival-style tent and tonight’s headliners are local lads The Royston Club. The band have such a staunch local following that separate tickets are sold for their slot, meaning the tent reaches capacity well before the four-piece take the stage. Their widescreen brand of guitar pop is ecstatically received, offering the endearing sight of giddy teenagers on one another’s shoulders and smiling couples singing the choruses to one another.

Next stop is Penny Black, on the other side of Wrexham’s manic town centre. The fantastic Half Happy play the venue’s upstairs room, showing FOCUS why they’re among the most exciting bands in Wales right now. One for fans of Alvvays, Snail Mail and Chastity Belt, their delicate-but-kinetic sound and accomplished stage presence further confirms the five-piece’s status as Cardiff’s next great indie band. Following them on this stage is cult London mob Fat Dog. Highlighted by a thrilling rendition of new single ‘Running’, the band’s raw rave-rock, crowd interactions and even a synchronised dance whips the packed room into a mosh-dance frenzy.

Ending the night in Room 2 of The Rockin’ Chair, Cardiff scene leaders Shlug lay Wrexham to waste. Watched by seemingly half of Cardiff’s musicians, the trio’s noise-punk is gloriously abrasive, a punishing shot in the arm that’s given further potency via a guest appearance from brilliant producer/rapper Minas. 

Friday brings even warmer weather. Panels on topics such as parenthood in music and sustaining a career as a black creative pack out Ty Pawb, while a busy Spanish mixer in Hope St Church delights with sangria and tapas. The good vibes continue into the early evening, with Mali Hâf and her band’s set in the Hwb teepee. Clad in body paint, the Welsh-language alt pop (think a bass-heavy, ethereal take on neo-soul) star channels ancient Celtic mysticism in a short but engrossing set.

Back over Llywn Isaf, Chroma’s incendiary set keeps the evening temperature high. Led by force of nature frontwoman Katie Hall, the alt rock/dance-punk trio burn through a commanding set. Next up on the big stage is East Walian indie eccentrics The Bug Club, fresh off signing with esteemed US label Sub Pop. Featuring Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard frontman Tom Rees on drums, the three-piece’s bouncy set is encapsulated by a ripping run-out of new single ‘Quality Pints’.

Following a suggestion from Chroma, it’s back over to The Rockin’ Chair to check out South Korean riot grrrls Sailor Honeymoon. The band’s fun, witty energy is best surmised by the drummer’s t-shirt, which reads ‘Korean girls invented punk rock, not England’. Preach.

Closing the evening is a Welsh double bill. First up is VOYA; the flamboyant and fabulous Cardiff duo performing here as a four-piece, including excellent vocalist Jessy Allen. Then, at 11pm, Adwaith headline Room 1 of The Rockin’ Chair. The hard-touring (FOCUS have taken the band from Italy to Siberia) indie trio ask the fit-to-burst room “is anyone tired?” before ripping through a strong set, highlighted by several new tracks that tease a stellar third album from the Carmarthen trio.

Seemingly the whole world saw the northern lights on Friday night. The whole world, except for Wrexham. To compensate, Saturday brings plenty of other visual delights, such as Coleg Cambria’s selection of beautiful animated shorts followed by a narrative short film competition. These are of varying quality, the highlight being a funny American fantasy parody.

Not long after, Islet play one of the sets of the weekend. The Welsh psychedelic mavericks enter the Llwyn Isaf stage via the crowd and proceed to tear through a wondrous set rife with percussion and ecstatic dancing. Epic closing track ‘Geese’ is genuinely-gorgeous, capping off a brief but transcendent set. Spiritualized follow and feel a little drab in comparison. Their semi-circular set up leaves a large area of negative space in the middle of the stage and their sleepy, textureless blues rock feels rather uninspired compared to Islet’s more unique brand of psychedelia.

To ensure the festival ends on an energetic high, it’s back over to Penny Black for two acts that provide thrills in spades. Downstairs, Ireland’s CHALK come on late but make up for it with a dark, heavy and somehow-sexy set of techno-channelling noise-rock. Then, upstairs, Benefits serve up confrontational screeds about the state of the country (imagine if Sleaford Mods got into harsh noise and black metal) with intense vigour, despite some sound issues.

A varied, sprawling festival, upon reflection, it’s FOCUS Wales’ affable friendliness that stands out. Everyone wants to talk, promote, discuss and collaborate, stopping each other in the streets and in packed foyers to spread compliments and disclose insights. Like Wales itself, it’s cordial and open-minded, and seems nobly determined to place the nation and its hometown on the map. This is no easy feat, but FOCUS Wales 2024 pulls it off in style.

Words: Tom Morgan

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