I just got back from Wales and my arms are not tired at all. Too much?
When we look back on this global pandemic, we'll be sad (and maybe angry) about the people we've lost, the careers halted or abandoned, and the venues shuttered, but we'll also have to celebrate the resiliency and adaptability our industry has shown. Out of necessity, promoters, venues, and bands have quickly become IT experts versed in broadcast servers, video editing, and green screen technology. These shifts are monumental, and I suspect it will be years before we understand the impact that streamed performances have made to live music. At a minimum it has allowed local artists and venues to reach portions of their existing audiences, but it has also opened up new ones previously limited by audience ability, proximity, and stamina. In an odd way, I have to thank the pandemic for allowing me to to spend a Saturday and Sunday afternoon sitting on my couch in Kansas City attending a Welsh music festival.
First, the festival. Wales Goes Pop is a small family-friendly festival held yearly in Cardiff. Its bands and fans (generally one and the same) are typically drawn from the UK. Consciously, the majority of performers featured have been either women or non-binary people, standing in stark contrast to larger festivals in the British Isles. But while indie pop fans are relatively few, they are devoted — its members recognize their own and the tribe is terribly supportive of those they call family. None of them wanted to lose another year of the festival to the pandemic. To salvage the festival, organizers decided to hold it virtually. Freed from physical constraints suddenly any band regardless of geography was an option, and every fan an expected attendee. Virtual performances also meant no downtime between acts while stages are unloaded and loaded and microphones checked, allowing the festival to accommodate more acts. It wouldn't exactly be Wales Goes Pop, but it wouldn't not be Wales Goes Pop either.
Up against a tight deadline, but aided by years-long friendships, the organizers solicited live sets from bands and labels throughout the indie pop community. When totaled, the festival had selected 25 acts largely drawn from Wales (as I would want to see at a festival called "Wales Goes Pop"), though some were recent transplants from former EU lands, and still others pulled from Sweden, Spain, The United States, Japan, Korea, & Indonesia. Those performances were then sculpted into two three-hour sessions for premiere a Saturday and Sunday evening before an international audience watching on Facebook and YouTube. In addition to the bands, there would be three DJ nights that would serve as both an official kick off and nightly afterparties, allowing attendees to mingle while classic cuts from bands such as Felt and The Pastels played.
A full accounting of each of the performances seems too extreme for a post on a website, but I'll note that acts ranged from folky singer/songwriter types playing ukuleles in their gardens, to raucous indie bands playing full blown sets in empty clubs, to electronic duos gathered around their kitchen tables offering danceable pop. Sometimes full bands could gather (often masked and distanced), sometimes performances were cut together with each band member in a different location, and sometimes songwriters had to go it alone offering a different view of their band's music. Production varied, but it was all tied together professionally by the festival organizers. Most sets were a polite three of four-song showing, a few stretching longer, and a few shorter. Regardless of the length, the associated chat rooms were a flurry of fans sharing their thoughts with each other (and often with the performers themselves) in real time and posting links to Bandcamp sites where music from each band could be discovered and purchased.
At a traditional show I have photographs and videos to share, but screenshots and video of video are unwarrented. Instead I have noted a few of my favorites acts from the weekend, and provided links to their performance. Below are my Saturday fancies:
The gentle disco of Madrid's Nos Miran felt perfect on my sunny Saturday afternoon. Downtempo, yet still pulsing with a New Order-like energy. It was performed by a duo at their dining room table, synthesizer and sequencer set next to a bowl of oranges. Lowkey. Wonderful.
Spain's Cristina Quesada stood against a door in her current Swedish home offering cloying vocals over thick dance tracks that owed a considerable debt to the late 80s. What could have been bad karaoke was instead just adorable. Previous recordings never caught my ear, but in this "live" setting, I think it finally clicked for me.
Nervous Twitch from Leeds was not a new discovery for me, but the trio's full band performance hit all the right notes. Ramshackle and noisy in the right places, big hooks throughout, and without a drop of pretense. This is a band John Peel would have loved — especially single "Tongue Tied."
Drinking Boys and Girls Choir from South Korea were a blast of punk energy, guitar-driven chaos, and pop songcraft that dropped jaws and won hearts. Streaming songs is all well and good, but I think to fully appreciate this band one must laugh and teeter and crash into friends at a poorly attended show.
California's Rat Fancy has been a favorite of mine since its formation in 2016. Seeing the duo (as a trio thanks to creative editing) perform flooded me with memories of Go Sailor and other 1990s West Coast indie pop that first brought me to the genre.
Saturday's headliners were Catenary Wires. Unable to perform with the full band, progenitors Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey sat alone in front of a greenscreen performing their vocals over specially programmed backing tracks. Single "Mirror Ball" is a brilliant (or "brill" as those in the chat frequently noted) tune, and the debut of new track "Always on my Mind" left the audience asking for more. But two songs is all we got. Then it was off to the disco.
[Wales Goes Pop coverage continues on day 2]