Focus Wales, Wrexham, Wales, 4-7 May, 2022 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Monday, May 27th, 2024  

Self Esteem (photo: Tim Rooney)

Self Esteem, Echo & the Bunnymen, Beija Flo, Mart Avi, The Besnard Lakes, Goat Girl, Goddesses, Clwb Fuzz, Chroma, Tallies, Campfire Social, Vagina Witchcraft

Focus Wales, Wrexham, Wales, 4-7 May, 2022,

May 20, 2022 Web Exclusive
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Just six months after a triumphant tenth anniversary (and return after the void of Covid), vital showcase festival Focus Wales returned to the north Wales town of Wrexham, filling multiple venues around the culturally-vibrant streets.

Some 250 artists performed over four days of the festival, with indie-legends Echo & The Bunnymen propping up the bill. The Liverpool band gave a note-perfect run through a career-spanning set that proved them to be amongst the most underrated bands of all-time. Their greatest moments match even the most vital of rock classics, and with the near-perfect sound in the impressive Llwyn Isaf tent, it really was awe inspiring. Try find a more lifting moment than “The Killing Moon”.

But arguably the star of the whole show, was Self Esteem, a “pop” star changing the narrative of women in the music industry with honesty, wit and big tunes. Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s early afternoon conference conversation with journalist Jude Rogers (taking the form of a frivolous Smash Hits Q&A with George Michael from the 1980s), was hilarious, thought-provoking and, at times, devastating to hear as she frankly addressed sexism, the expectations put on women to not age and innumerable other topics. Sweary, enlightening and endearing her star was turned brighter by a million kilowatts.

This talk set up her show, again in the Llwyn Isaf tent, to be something spectacular. And it was. A feminist-pop jubilee, more akin to sermon than a show. The gospel is a middle-finger to patriarchy and a boost for female empowerment. Joined by a trio of backing singers (and dancers) and propelled by a live drummer, Taylor put on a show of choreographed moves and lush intertwining harmonies - in other words perfect pop. With a heavy focus on her poll-topping second album Prioritise Pleasure and an uplifting encore of empowerment anthem “The Best” off her debut album Compliments Please, she left a sea of smiles, emotion and joy in her wake. Self Esteem is finely being heard on a mass scale and what she has to say is unmissable.

Empowerment displayed in a different way, came in the form of two shows from excellently named Canadians Vagina Witchcraft , who pushed their message forward on a tsunami of hardcore and thrash riffs. Kayla Fernandes’ guttral shouts portrayed nothing but anger, relentless emotion that is hard to avoid, especially at the bands second show in the tiny Parish venue. Unexpecting punters walked straight through the pub door and into the belly of the beast, Fernandes screaming in their face. One poor guy had his face held as the sound of righteous anger was expelled inches from his nose. Heavy and unrelenting, Vagina Witchcraft is a force to be overcome by, submission is intense fun.

Vagina Witchcraft (Photo: Brent Jones)
Vagina Witchcraft (Photo: Brent Jones)

Focus Wales would be nothing without the Welsh talent that runs through its fabric, and while many of the acts are regular mainstays of the event, Red Telephone and Adwaith to name but two, each year these acts prove that they deserve their place on a any bill. Campfire Social, for example, just get better, their folky, indie-pop filling the festivals biggest stage with ease. They played a consummate set that let their melodic charms and rich compositions shine.

A heaving late night set from Cardiff three-piece Chroma again proved they are a live force that deserves more recognition. The scuzzy drum-and-bass garage punk is a blast in itself, but with singer Katie Hall commanding the stage they are a much more vibrant prospect. Powerful, personal feminist missives told by an incredible frontwoman ridding big rock riffs. This is again the power that Chroma delivered.

Our own Under The Radar stage didn’t disappoint with Goddesses introducing forthcoming album Alectrona at their first gig in three years. The Radiohead comparisons are unavoidable, especially with opener “Sleepless”‘s echoes of “There There” but as that song meandered into different territory it became apparent there is more to the band. Dancing around the bass and subtle rhythmic nuances the Derby band touched on shoegaze, psych and dream pop. After a lull in the middle of the set, the final two numbers exploded in a uplifting wall of noise and compositional intricacy. This was a great return from an old band starting a new with a great latest album.

With all the lofty “shoegaze” and “noise rock” labels floating around for Clwb Fuzz at October’s Focus Wales, their set felt a bit flat, nothing like the comparisons and not fitting with their connections to Sonic Cathedral records. But, putting that aside, their set in Wrexham this time bristled with a shambolic punk energy. Their retro garage rock vibes more akin to the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the addition of their own frantic, tambourine wielding Bez character, added a new level of shambolic fervour to the set. This is a band still working itself out, but they have great songs, big energy and a fuck you attitude. Boy, are we glad we ignored the issues of October, Clwb Fuzz were worth it!

Elsewhere, while South Londoners Goat Girl continue to refine their sound, and add additional instruments to the live show, there is still something wonderfully fragile and loose about their psychedelic swirls. Their performance in Central was more relaxed than theatrical, the “show” being, simply, the playing of the songs, which carry almost enough weight by themselves. Myriad ideas are contained in their tracks which were performed with a louch swagger that dives into anxiety. Goat Girl make small things seem big.

Across three shows we manage to catch Toronto’s Tallies tick every box in the indie-pop playbook - bittersweet melodies, jangles and inherent charm featured throughout. Fellow Canadians The Besnard Lakes put in a transcendental, world-beating performance with playing and vocal harmonies so tight it felt like the whole thing could burst at an moment. Combining the lush power of dream-pop/shoegaze, with alternative rock darkness and the bombastic optimism of radio-friendly rock the band remained challenging but with a joyous inclusiveness. There was unity and they seem like the perfect entry point to some myriad genres, all at once.

In St Giles Parish Church, genre-blending occured in a global explosion of musical joy with Balimaya Project, the West African collective from London, led by percussionist Yahael Camara Onono. Traditional West African percussion danced with jazz horns, flickers of psych guitar and massive group chant vocals. It was testament to music’s power to connect across borders and cultures, with the isles packed with dancers and an outpouring of enjoyment closer to a religious awakening as a simple show.

Balimaya Project (Photo: Tim Rooney)
Balimaya Project (Photo: Tim Rooney)

The real beauty of showcase festivals is a fearlessness in presenting artists outside of the norm, the worries around commercial constraints don’t exist in the same way. It is in these moments the most interesting things happen. In Wrexham this year, Beija Flo confounded every expectation of what pop could be. At first glance in The Parish, the performance seemed unbearably awkward, strange but in a worrying way - the dance moves clunky, the voice strained. Something was off. Then the beauty of it all unfolded. Every aspect of her performance is carefully thought out and deliberately challenging. Running the gamut from sweet piano ballads to sleazy electro-punk and future RnB vibes, Beija Flo owned it all.

The between song banter made the show flow even more. “This is the best song you’ll hear tonight. Probably ever. Until I write another one,” she said with a smirk and a knowing wink. It was brilliantly funny and wonderfully kitsch. Not everyone will get Beija Flo but for those that do there is something strangely special going on.

And if “special” can be derived from otherness, Estonian oddball Mart Avi is without a doubt one of the most special artists around. Initially marred by a late start, sound issues and a curfew cutting his set short in the Parish (a gaggle of police officers were gathered outside to shut the shindig down), he still owned the night with his solo take on Scott Walker and later stage Bowie, cut to an inventive electro-pop soundtrack. His second show in Ty Pawb went better, allowing him to finish his set, striding the stage as if he owned the whole place. Avi is a singular performer that a lot of people simply won’t get, like all the best boundary pushers of pop.

Of course, there were glimpses and flashes of many other acts in the haze of another incredible Focus Wales event. 11 years in, Wrexham is now home to simply one of the most vital showcase events in the UK, one that shines a light on the regions, and acts, that the London-centric U “industry” often fails to recognise. And for that it is 100% needed. Failing that, it’s the most fun you can have in a small, north Wales town with great music and great people - who doesn’t want that?


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