By Terry Marland, Rock At Night Wales
Review: Focus Wales Festival – Review 5th – 7th May 2022
Wrexham was once again a hive of activity as 15,000 festival goers descended on the town to enjoy the eclectic mix of music on offer between 5th-7th May. Now in its 11th year the festival is a showcase for up and coming acts from Wales and around the world, as well as featuring established headline acts which this year included Public Service Broadcasting, Self Esteem and Echo and the Bunnymen. Over 250 live acts played across 20 stages along with film screenings and music industry conferences.
The town is transformed over three days as temporary structures are set up alongside established outlets to provide a wide range of music venues. The streets of the town ring out with multi-genre music . One of the great things about Focus Wales is that if you’re at a show and the music is not your bag you can simply walk a couple of hundred yards and try another band.
A three-day pass starting at £40:00 (for early-birds) allows you freedom to roam and amazingly includes admission to the headline shows. The music starts mid-afternoon each day and runs through to the early hours. Public transport and road networks are good, there is adequate parking, much free of charge, and plentiful eating and drinking options.
The festival organisation is high quality. As with previous years, all shows I saw started on time, security was pitched at the right level and all festival personnel, many of whom are volunteers, were friendly and professional. The free festival app enables you to schedule your shows, sends reminders and gives you a fighting chance of seeing all your preferred bands.
The venues range from intimate pub settings, to the largest venue Llyn Isaf, a giant big top erected close to the town centre where the headline acts appear. Rock at Night was lucky to be there over all three days sampling a range of acts on offer at various locations, concentrating on emerging artists, international performers and headline acts.
The iconic St. Giles Church hosted a variety of performers including local artists “Igloo Hearts” who delivered an engaging set. John Bramwell, best known for his work with I Am Kloot, gave an intimate high quality solo performance laced with humour. Saturday saw the venue packed to capacity for The Balimaya Project’s transfixing set, incorporating a mix of west African music with jazz that has the crowd dancing in the isles from the start. It is led by charismatic virtuoso percussionist Yahael Camara Onono, who orchestrates proceedings throughout. A true festival highlight.
The Ty Pawb (Welsh for Everyone’s House) building acts as the hub for the festival. As well as being the registration point and the location for keynote conferences, the venue provides flexible performance space. Here Austrian duo Laikka took us on an inspired journey to Electronica with a highly visual display (check out the photo in the gallery) while Welsh solo artist Madtronique delivered an intriguing 30 minutes of what she herself calls “Music For Weirdos”.
Word had circulated about Canadian Garage Rock outfit Sleepy Kicks who had played an impressive gig at the Wynnstay Arms the previous evening. On Saturday they produced an explosive 15-minute showcase featuring tracks from their “Hard Left” EP. Their on-stage energy and power-house riffs had the crowd calling for more. Definitely one of the most energetic shows RAN witnessed over the weekend. Highly recommended and worth checking out on streaming platforms.
Central Station’s two stages hosted a raft of talent including a high quality set from Warrington band The Zangwills, who’s numbers included the infectious “Judas on the Dancefloor” winner of Focus Wales’ award for Best Music Video. This band oozes quality and is worth checking out.
As the Zangwills concluded, North Wales band “The Factory Set” exploded into life in the adjacent room. They may be short on recorded material but they have a spiralling energy that was infectious.
The Canadian band Art dEcco played one of their four festival sets at Central giving a highly theatrical performance. Bookhouse drew a large crowd for their set on Thursday evening.
Elsewhere RAN caught tantalising snatches of sets from Johnny Ash and Holy Gloam at the highly respected Parish Venue and Danish band Moon Pander at Hope St. Church.
The headline acts all performed at Llyn Isaf and there were also stellar performances from supporting acts like The Reads, Aleighcia Scott and festival regulars Campfire Social.
A major talking point of the weekend was the explosive set from Netherlands Indie quartet Pip Blom whose hi octane performance resonated through the venue. Their popularity is gathering momentum. Their recent album release “Welcome Break” entered the UK Record Store album chart at no. 8 and the band joined a European tour with Bloc Party straight after Focus Wales . The reception from the crowd here was nothing short of thunderous.
Thursday’s headliners Public Service Broadcasting produced the most spectacular show of the festival. Themed newsreels interspersed with real-time on stage video projected onto a giant screen together with a stunning lightshow produced a dramatic backdrop for the white suited J. Willgoose Esq and co. Tracks from the coal mining themed “Every Valley” album play out to images of rotating pit wheels and mining footage that resonated with the Welsh crowd. The main set concluded with an emphatic “Go!” from their Race For Space album before the band return for an encore that concluded with “Gagarin” and “Everest”. A masterclass set that reaffirmed the band’s mission of “Teaching the Lessons of the past with the Music of the Future” Just brilliant.
Rebecca Lucy Taylor, AKA Self Esteem brought her highly acclaimed “Prioritise Pleasure” tour to the festival on Friday evening. Due to time constraints RAN only caught the opening of her set but it was a memorable one as she entered the stage clad in red and flanked by three backing singers/dancers to a backdrop that read “THERE IS NOTHING THAT TERRIFIES A MAN MORE THAN A WOMAN WHO APPEARS COMPLETELY DERANGED” before launching into “I’m Fine”. She had the audience in her hand from song one and by all accounts she delivered a towering performance.
8O’s veterans Echo and the Bunnymen headlined on Saturday. Fronted by original members Singer Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant the band is a major pull and the big top is at capacity . Performing faithful renditions of all the crowd favourites including “Seven Seas”, “Bring on the Dancing Horses” and “Never Stop”. McCulloch is happy for the audience to assume vocal duties on the choruses particularly “The Cutter”. Between songs McCulloch reminisces about childhood holidays in Wales to the amusement of the Welsh crowd.
The set is played out for the most part in dimmed lighting creating a moody atmosphere that’s in keeping with McCulloch’s vocal delivery and Will Sergeant’s haunting guitar. Closing with “The Killing Moon” the crowd leave more than content.
Once again Focus Wales demonstrated its standing as a showcase platform for emerging talent from Wales and around the world. A big Thank You from all at Rock at Night. It all starts again next May.