These days, when you tell someone you’re going to Wrexham, they immediately assume it’s something to do with the football. Since Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney bought the North Wales Club this little town only a few miles over the border from England has become one of the most famous places in the northern hemisphere.
But, very kindly, they arranged the open top bus tour for a few days before Focus Wales International Showcase Festival started so now all the attention is on three days worth of brilliant music.
Spread across multiple venues across the town, there is literally something for everybody, be it rock, pop, shoegaze, noisecore, math rock, hip hop, poetry, Q&As, and everything in between.
You could decamp to the big tent at Llwyn Isaf, stick around the community hub at Ty Pawb for a myriad of events, one of their bigger venues like The Rockin’ Chair, or go into one of the pubs and bars like The Parish, Royal Oak or Penny Black.
It all began on Thursday as the Wynnstay Arms Hotel, in a conference room, and a Brooklyn band called Mary Shelley. This turned out to be the first of six shows the post-punk anarchists played as they filled in for every band that were unable to play. By all accounts every show became more frantic and chaotic until the last at The Parish on Saturday where frontman Jackson Dockery was lying on the bar gyrating and screaming into his mic.
We took it down a notch at The Royal Oak as Rona Mac ran round the corner from St Giles Church to do an amazing solo set with her loop pedal and incredible voice.
As it turned out, having Noah and the Loners on the first night was a good thing. These 41 year old legs wouldn’t have coped with the best punk band on the planet on Saturday night. We wait with bated breath for the next single but ‘Teenage Tragedy’ and ‘Protest Anger’ are enough right now. They also reworked The Sex Pistols classic to become ‘God Save The King’. They may have been the first two days before the coronation and it sounded hugely fast and furious.
Opus Kink are as off the wall and avant garde live as they are on record, and maybe surprisingly, as tight and similar to the singles. ‘Dust’ and ‘1.18’ are natural highlights which bodes well for an LP this year hopefully.
The Joy Formidable have been doing this for a long time now, Ritzy now lives in Utah, and this is their first set in Wales for a while. They lean on newer stuff from latest LP Into The Blue including a blistering version of the title track, early doors, and also stand alone single belter ‘CSTS (See The Show)’ but smash through epic renditions of ‘Whirring’, ‘Ostrich’ and ‘The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade’ from their debut LP The Big Roar. Always fantastic.
On to Friday, and like all good Stag and Hen weekends, you go hard on the first night. And so it proved. A lovely Breakfast Burrito from the amazing people at the Music Venue Trust starts to sort us out but we take it easy by kicking off day two sitting down with John Robb in conversation with Sophie McKeand, talking about his new book The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth.
We ventured up the road to a mixer with a Spanish theme after, which is where we find Los Premios, who have a guitarist that has very clearly listened to and been influenced by Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix. Expansive guitar solos and flamenco rhythms are a nice early afternoon tonic.
Down at The Old No.7, the regular poetry group Voicebox were showcasing some of their talent. Sophie McKeand had run round from Ty Pawb and she was followed by Benjamin J Wilson who was particularly emotive and moving when depicting his childhood trauma of abuse at the hands of a relative.
Lemfreck is a different beast live to that on record. He plays with a full soul band and is far more about the groove than the beats and has everyone dancing back at Ty Pawb. Highlights include ‘Who The Fuck is Lemfreck’, ‘Kings’ and ‘Closer’.
Tom Emlyn used to be in favourites Bandicoot but is now a solo artist and performed his first set of the weekend at The Parish on the day his new LP Return Journey Revisited: Scaredycat Vol.1 is released. His Bob Dylan influence is strong and his array of mouth organs large. For the second time in succession, the room is dancing to his upbeat Americana tinged acoustic troubadouring.
Dust are an altogether different animal. Having travelled all the way from the land down under, Dust are brash and bold with elements of Hardcore and Post-Punk bashing away those final cobwebs and the night can officially begin.
Heading off to see the mighty Squid, expectations are high. This is the first venture to the tent at Llwyn Isaf and the beer is noticeably dearer than the pubs and bar at Ty Pawb, even for a pint of Wrexham Lager. Standing and watching them, it’s hard to put a finger on what isn’t quite landing with their set. Squid are a reliably bonkers band, fusing a wave of styles and influences into their own genre but what we may be getting from their forthcoming second LP O Monolith is an ambient jazz affair as even old cuts from early EP Town Centre, have been slowed down and it very much feels like one long medley.
Back at The Parish Cowboyy are so loud beer is coming out of my ears. Their guitarist is a wizard of finger and foot as he dances (literally) around is humongous effects pedal board. He never stops moving. Its knackering just watching him. Especially as the late and over imbibed evening previous is catching up with us.
The next morning doesn’t feel as quite a struggle as yesterday and after several restorative mixer scran, Bethan Lloyd is the right mix of a Capella traditional Welsh folk and ambient electronica. She summons the power of nature to provide spellbinding impromptu vocal chants and has the room transfixed and almost meditative.
Gillie is another strong Welsh language artist, more on the acoustic folk bent but no less affecting. The gentleness and soothing melodies are calming balm to the soul.
Back at the tent again, Kidsmoke are bringing the dream pop with razor sharp pop hooks. Debut album A Vision In The Dark made it to our Albums of the Year list in 2021, and they have promised new music before the end of the year. ‘Higher ‘ and ‘Take Me To The River’ are monster festival hits.
Adwaith are rapidly becoming the name on people’s lips, not least Elis James who has name checked them several times on his various radio shows and podcasts. Last years Bato Mato LP was a trans-Siberian triumph and ‘ETO’ was and is a huge anthem and crowd favourite. It probably won’t be long till they’re headlining the whole shebang.
Shlug are so loud the bar staff at The Penny Black have rolled up bar mats in their ears and people are asking for drinks by making lewd hand gestures towards their mouths. Its less a smell of Roy Keane and more stale lager but the crowd are experienced in the ways of RAWK.
HMS Morris were once just a three piece but now consist of seven lamp shades bobbing around. They pretend they’re in the midst of an argument as technology fails them but provide the packed room in Ty Pawb one last dance.
Alaskalaska close out Focus Wales 2023 for this weary old war horse. Their electronica cum indie dream pop is the perfect way to end things as the feet and knees begin to give way. ‘Still Life’ from the LP of the same name is excellent and leaves everyone to glide into the night.
The thing about Focus Wales, though, is that it isn’t reality. Its a rock’n’roll fantasy. We’ve gone through the looking glass, we’re following the white rabbit. You stay in a hotel, people change your sheets and towels for you, you get fed and watered for free at the industry mixers and talk to interesting people, you watch brilliant music and all you really have to do is write about it and post stuff on the socials. It’s a dream. Then you leave. Back to the real world.
If we all lived in Focus Wales Wrexham we’d fix the music industry. We’d have a burgeoning live scene with thriving venues. We’d have a cornucopia of amazing bands and artists and poets on an equal footing, with no Ed Sheeran’s, Harry Styles’, Taylor Swift’s or Drake’s stealing 95% of the pie.
If only we always lived in Focus Wales Wrexham. But back through the looking glass we go. Until next year.
You can listen to a playlist of the bands above here