Live Report: Focus Wales 2022

Live Report: Focus Wales 2022

Community-minded event with an international reach...

The town of Wrexham in North Wales has enough to be excited for. Not only has it been shortlisted for UK City of Culture 2025, attempts are also being made to gain city status, and in the midst of all that, the annual Focus Wales festival opened its doors.  

With an impressive schedule that covers showcase performances, conference panels where key music topics are discussed, as well as a film festival, the annual event continues to add to its portfolio, expanding on what is already there Established in 2011, the festival name is respected in the industry circles, domestically and internationally.

Having just experienced this year’s schedule, it is not at all hard to see why. With a tight community, the programme has plenty of variety in terms of genre and the range of nationalities that are represented, providing a broad talent palette for discovery and food for thought.

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Folk-leaning singer songwriter Alexandra Alden’s late afternoon performance on the Thursday is engrossing. Currently residing in the Netherlands, originally from Malta, the singer tells her crowd that she normally performs with a full band, but this set is acoustic. Stylistically, Alden’s song material is thoughtful, revelatory in narrative, with songs rooted in psychological observations. The singer’s personable style is smooth and one of ease, as she talks about losing herself in a relationship, but also about idyllic, memorable strolls around Malta.  

Then a completely different sonic picture emerges with Canadian rapper Naya Ali, who is due to perform in Penny Black later that same day. The Montreal based artist, who first emerged on the scene in her home country around 2017, has been making waves ever since. Ali’s live set offers presence and personality, and her distinct flows make you pay attention and remember them. This may only be a short set, but as soon as it begins, you immediately realise that Ali is an act to watch.  

Thursday night’s headliner playing in Llwyn Isaf – the only tent at the festival - requires little or no introduction. The London based alternative electronica act Public Service Broadcasting may have been keeping a relatively low profile for some time, so if anything, tonight serves as a reminder of what is so marvellous about them. With a well-considered setlist that provides enough scope to capture the brilliance, songs from each album are there including ‘Spitfire’, ‘Progress’, ‘Sputnik’, as well as ‘Gagarin’ and ‘Everest’ in the encore.

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As events continue to unfold, the buzz of the festival also spreads through each participating venue, and Friday’s night’s headliner Self Esteem comes highly recommended for a reason. Having appeared in fascinating conversation with The Guardian’s Jude Rogers earlier in the day, Rebecca Lucy Taylor is here to impress, and she does not let the festival crowd down with a strikingly choreographed performance in Llwyn Isaf, the most polished, glitzy show at Focus Wales this year.

Appearing in the same venue are Dutch indie grunge rockers Pip Blom who demonstrate that they really are a band with a mission. Performing with a zesty raw energy that is credible and real, it is obvious that the Amsterdam based four-piece also possess the big tunes to match their bid to give the crowd the proper festival treat it is so hungry for.

The shift between grand European grunge statements and the rap brand of Nigerian-born, Ayrshire bred Bemz, who is about to perform, is easy enough to handle. The young artist has already proven himself to be something of a rulebook breaker. Having just landed after tour dates where he appeared alongside fellow countrymen The Snuts, having collaborated with the band last year, it would appear to be the sort of partnership that could help pave the way for more genre crossovers in the future.

Meanwhile, Scottish-Indian artist Kapil Seshasayee is ready to play a late Friday night set at the Parish. The experimental musician’s absorbing amalgamation is eclectic to the core, a sonic blend rooted in Indian classical, hyperpop, trap, and psychedelic music, sounding more unique than just about anything else heard over the weekend, if not over the entire year. The live set is of a hypnotic quality, and it has the dual benefit of feeling and sounding like alternative rock.

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Before the Welsh festival can draw to a close having presented a seamless flow of events, there is the delivery of Saturday’s schedule to look forward to. Estonian Avant-pop artist Mart Avi is one of the acts to perform in the Flexible Space at Ty Pawb, Wrexham’s main culture and art centre. If Avi’s performance comes across as a bit inaccessible to begin with, you may find that the pop element in the music resonates with you quickly. A fascinating artist, to say the least.

Performing in the same venue is Welsh language indie rockers Adwaith. The Carmarthen band have crafted and recorded some of the catchiest songs sung in Welsh in recent times, and the set places their song material in fine light. The need to tackle some technical issues at the beginning is quickly forgotten once they are able to commence the set. Having previously seen them in England, it’s good to see them play in their home nation.

Although headliners Echo & the Bunnymen may seem out of place, performing at a showcase festival, the Liverpudlian band’s slot is more than welcome and rather appreciated. Frontman Ian McCulloch appears unchanged in almost every respect, his presence, voice, and attitude are the same. If energy levels are less intense, there is no doubt about the band’s sound and musicianship, they sound stronger and better than ever. Highlights include ‘Rescue’, ‘Seven Seas’, ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’, ‘Lips Like Sugar’ and surprise encore moment ‘Cutter’ and ‘Killing Moon’. It has been a terrific to spend some time in their company.

Also from Liverpool is raucous alt-rockers Crawlers, who perform at Central. Continuing to nurture and build on what seems like instant, overnight popularity, the quartet continues to go from strength to strength, and their Focus Wales show is a great moment in their campaign. Frontperson Holly Minto’s relatable style of communication effectively draws you in within a few minutes, and the same counts for songs such as ‘Statues’, ‘Monroe’, and ‘I Can’t Drive’. This band have the potential to become huge, all we can do is try to keep an eye on their progress, and see what they get up to.

Focus Wales provides offers a unique community and networking platform, and the complexity between domestic and international music scenes and industries makes it a distinguishable from other similar festivals. On top of that 2022 offered an unbelievable sense of hope and optimism following two very challenging years, and this opportunity to also take a look behind the scenes has been special. Here is to a great 2023 for Wrexham.

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Words: Susan Hansen
Photography: Tim Rooney + Kev Curtis

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