Last weekend, DiS spent four nights in Wrexham, known to those who inhabit it as the capital of North Wales. There, we witnessed over forty artists from a variety of countries, backgrounds and genres play sets to an assorted gathering of industry bigwigs and punters. All seemingly intent on making the most of what is fast becoming Wales' answer to South By Southwest or The Great Escape. In summary, it's fair to say the sixth and biggest edition so far of Focus Wales was a resounding success, and here's twenty reasons why.
1. Wrexham is a hive of activity
While nearly 10% of its 61,000 population are said to live in absolute poverty, Wrexham is buzzing. Literally throughout the day and night. What starts from the minute DiS opens its bedroom curtains on Thursday morning right through to leaving the town on Sunday, it's a hive of activity justifying its status as host to this prestigious event.
2. Venues, venues and more live music venues!
Focus Wales encompasses sixteen participating venues ranging from the newly established Un Deg Un - essentially a former JJB Sports superstore since gutted and converted into a communal arts space - to the more intimate confines of Saith Seren and Rewind. Indeed, there are probably more venues in Wrexham than most provincial towns and cities across the rest of the UK. What's more, each one finds itself healthily busy throughout the Focus Wales programme.
3. There's something psychedelic in the water
If you're a fan of the errant, experimental and downright bonkers Wales is the place to be. There's CaStLeS from Snowdonia who sound like Django Django beating Animal Collective into a slack jawed frenzy, local heroes The Revolutionary Spirit who have a bar room blues as played by The Black Angels vibe about them and the utterly incredible Hippies Vs Ghosts, more of whom later. By Saturday one guy seemingly off his face on some chemical or another is having a wonderful time dancing with himself which includes everything from rolling around the floor to practicing Rudolf Nureyev style steps to Golden Fable's esoteric dreamgaze.
4. Some things are worth waiting for
Ah, Golden Fable, a band we've been yearning to see since their excellent debut Star Map landed four years ago. Playing the Saturday teatime slot in the Central Station venue works is a perfect booking. Rebecca Joy's ethereal vocals swoon and soothe as her band play an array of deft soundscapes around her. It's a beautiful entree to Saturday's proceedings and one that sets the scene for what follows. Two days earlier, Mold trio Lights That Change provide a similar introduction. Their melodic Cocteau Twins inspired repertoire both sensual and breathtaking in equal measures. Once again justifying our long standing admiration for their wares.
5. Crime statistics don't always paint a clear picture
Notoriously one of the most crime ridden areas in the British Isles according to the Office for National Statistics. Wrexham might have its dark side but we don't witness anything of the kind during our four day stay here. If anything, it seems the polar opposite, with every local person encountered extremely polite, good humoured and at times incredibly helpful. Don't believe all you read in the news.
6. The Sunshine Underground have tunes!
We'd kind of forgotten just how many incredible songs The Sunshine Underground possessed in their armoury before this evening. However, curious as to see whether they justified headline status after all this time, DiS troops along to the Central Station and finds a dancefloor already heaving in anticipation. An hour later, we're under no illusions why. 'Borders' and 'Put You In Your Place' are greeted like old friends returning from a decade long sabbatical while more recent compositions 'It Is Only You' and 'Finally We Arrive' remind us of The Rapture. Really, that good.
7. DiScovering new bands # 1: Winter Coat
There's nothing better than walking into a room, watching someone you've never heard of and seeking them out afterwards to find out more. Step forwards Winter Coat, a four-piece from Cardiff whose box of musical delights range from winsome pop ('Drifting') to opulent soundscapes ('Into The Blue', 'Waiting At The Stop') and beyond. Echoes of Camera Obscura, The Popguns and even Sigur Ros fill the room which is naturally packed to capacity by the end of their set. In the five minutes we chat to singer Jen Dawn after their set they sell every single copy of debut EP Drifting, which kind of tells you just how good they were/are. Check them out.
8. 90s rave classics and Jake Bugg don't mix
It's Friday night and Joy Division/New Order legend Peter Hook is on the decks. Unsurprisingly the first half of his set comprises of Hacienda rave classics. 'Sweet Harmony' by Liquid, Ce Ce Peniston's 'Finally', Rhythim Is Rhythim's 'Strings Of Life', 'Insomnia' by Faithless. Each and every one a classic. So when he then changes tack completely and drops The White Stripes 'Seven Nation Army' followed by some Jake Bugg number several hundred puzzled faces stare back blankly. He redeems himself by ending - somewhat predictably - on 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' and parity is restored. But oh, Hooky. You nearly lost us there.
9. The Welsh love a good moshpit
Which is just as well because Kagoule, God Damn, Doppelganger and Hippies Vs Ghosts** make music that's designed for flailing limbs. So when each band takes to the stage it's not long before a mass of bodies collide. For Kagoule, playing new material as well as a selection of songs from last year's debut Urth it's a particularly heartwarming set. West Midlands duo God Damn are also an enticing prospect, if only for Thom Edward's speaker stack scaling antics.
10. DiScovering new bands # 2: Hippies Vs Ghosts
Already mentioned earlier, Hippies Vs Ghosts is the experimental side project of We Are Animal's Owain Ginsberg. Featuring an assorted cast of players, two of whom are currently based in France. Ginsberg has been releasing material under the Hippies Vs Ghosts moniker for three years now including the excellent 'Wazo' single on Too Pure Records last year. Think Spacemen 3, Neu! and The Brian Jonestown Massacre and you're somewhere near the right ballpark. Astonishingly this was their first ever show and frankly, it rocked. Expect a bidding war from numerous watching promoters over who will be hosting their second.
11. When's the new Los Campesinos! album out?
Having witnessed Los Campesinos! impressive return to the UK festival circuit in Leicester a fortnight ago, DiS is literally chomping at the bit to see their Saturday night headline slot here in the Central Station. As it seems are most of Focus Wales' attendees judging by the huge turnout. Nevertheless, with no new material being aired, the big talking point before and after their admittedly joyful set turns to whether or not there will be a new record any time soon. Nevertheless, a new album does appear to be on the way at some point in the future if this update from the band's website is anything to go by. We're literally counting down the days.
12. Meilyr Jones is the new Jarvis Cocker
When Race Horses split in 2013, very little was heard of their collective members until earlier this year, when frontman Meilyr Jones unleashed his debut album - ironically called 2013 - on Moshi Moshi. With an enormous buzz accompanying of anticipation surrounding his performance all weekend, DiS turns up, arms folded screaming "Impress us!" Precisely sixty seconds later we're bouncing along with the rest of Central Station to one of the most energetic, charismatic and downright captivating shows we've witnessed all year. With a star-studded band featuring Younghusband's Euan Hinshelwood and former Welsh Music Prize winner Georgia Ruth among their number, Jones delivers a performance that's equal parts showman and shaman in this part of the world. Comparisons to Bradford Cox and Jarvis Cocker aren't thrown around every day, and in this case not wide of the mark either. A revelation.
13. Play as many shows as you can
No, seriously. Play as many times in as many places on as many stages with as many people if you have to. You will get noticed. Don't believe me? Just ask Maddie Jones or Darren Eedens. While we bare witness to two of the former's impressive showcases - think primal rock'n'roll sensibility with a deft touch of the blues - it's the latter that wins first prize for sheer tenacity. DiS runs into the Canadian troubadour plying his wares an unbelievable five times over the festival's three days, and if the adage once seen never forgotten rings true, Eedens name is firmly implanted in our collective synapses.
14. Gwenno in a church rules!
I'm yet to meet anyone not transfixed by Gwenno's metamorphosis from Pipette to experimental psych pop chanteuse. And if anyone is still to be convinced of her unworldly greatness, they should have been here. Playing a set largely taken from her incredible Y Dydd Olaf long player in the salubrious not to mention historical settings of St Giles' Church, she's sight to behold and marvel at in such blissful surroundings. Even a request for people to get up and dance isn't so much ignored, but more cast aside in awe at the way Gwenno and her fellow musicians hold the assembled congregation in the palms of their heads. A holy experience of sorts.
15. DiScovering new bands # 3: Peaness
The debate around whether Peaness is the best or worst name for a band will no doubt linger on for a long time to come. What isn't without question however is their exquisitely raucous set rocked Un Deg Un's foundations to close Saturday night's live music programme on an incredible high. Echoes of Sleater Kinney and the Olympia scene are prominent throughout, but in between the riot grrrl bombast Peaness have a propensity to make people want to dance. And how we did for the entire half an hour or so duration of their show.
16. Karaoke is the new rock and roll
Karaoke might not be a thing in most parts of the UK these days but here in Wrexham, it's an inherent fixture of the community. So, after three evenings watching many fine performances from the festival, there was only one place to go for the impromptu "aftershow". The town's infamous New York New York Karaoke Bar, where sixty-six year old local legend "Mad Welsh Mike" Ellis can be seen and heard every night performing unique renditions of 'Kiling In The Name Of', 'Thunderstruck', 'Enter Sandman' and 'Purple Rain' among many, many others. Priceless.
17. Industrial techno + disturbing visuals = bliss
There's a time and a place for industrial techno and the upstairs room of a dingy wine bar is one of them. Nottingham based duo Girl Jaws describe their show as "a unique experience" which is something of an understatement. Adorned in frightening masks and body art that resembles something from Roald Dahl's 'Tales Of The Unexpected', their relentless sonic assault feels altogether more explicit accompanied by such startling visuals.
18. If you're going to make your debut do it here
Why not? Hippies Vs Ghosts did and it went down a storm (see points 3 & 10 respectively). Elsewhere, The Anchoress played her long awaited and eagerly anticipated inaugural live show in Un Deg Un's upstairs (Void) room to an appreciative audience. Playing as a four-piece band, her seven songs set hit all the right spots culminating in a grand finale of 'Chip On Your Shoulder' and 'Confessions Of A Romance Novelist', the title track of her critically acclaimed album.
19. DiScovering new bands # 4: Trecco Beis
Recommendations come thick and fast here at Focus Wales, and one we're intrigued to see are Welsh Fuzz-Fi pop overlords (their words not ours) Trecco Beis. Thankfully, they more than live up to expectations, transforming the lounge of the homely Saith Seren hostelry into a heaving mass of sweaty bodies for half an hour. Elements of Teenage Fanclub and The Posies clash with melodies garnered straight from The Beatles songbook. It's punk rock played by pop fanatics and goes down a treat with those fortunate enough to get in.
20. A good cover is worth its weight in gold
Seriously, it is. So when Bloodflower choose to end their set with a minimalist, lo-fi run through of Bronski Beat's 'Smalltown Boy' to see in the early hours of Friday morning it goes down like a house on fire.
For more information about Focus Wales visit the official website
Wrexham video footage by Helen Griffiths
Photo of Kagoule by Luke Hannaford