The inaugural Festival of Voice may have only lasted just over a week, but it took Cardiff’s music scene by storm.
One hundred performances across 30 venues included everything from sweeping electro to intimate choirs, returning Welsh legends to aspiring young artists. The whole spectrum of amazing vocal talent came to Cardiff, and thousands of music lovers paid attention.
Gwenno and John Cale featuring the Festival of Voice Choir
Welsh-language electro star Gwenno is still riding high from the success of her 2015 album Y Dydd Olaf when she strolls out on stage at St Davids Hall to an already enraptured audience.
Performing with the Festival of Voice string ensemble, the Cornish/Welsh native begins her set by dismantling the patriarchy with the song ‘Patriarchaeth’ but it was ‘Chwyldro’ or ‘Revolution’ that really brought the house down, with Gwenno combining her strong stage presence and amazing vocal skills to create a magical opener for another Welsh legend.
Silence is just as important as noise, and John Cale isn’t afraid to use it during his magnificent festival-opening set.The native Welshman, who famously left for America decades ago, isn’t interested in chatting – even though audience members were desperate to talk to him, the enigmatic man with years of stories to tell.
Instead of talking Cale packed in hours of music, mostly from his esoteric back catalogue – but he did include one Velvet Underground hit, Sunday Morning.Not content to deliver one Welsh legend, Cale was joined on stage a various points by the Festival of Voice choir, a string ensemble, a brass section and two celebrities/activists – and Cale led them all like a master.
Michael Sheen’s reading of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Death Shall Have No Dominion’ felt like the emotional climax of the evening, with the hall brimming over with love for such a Welsh combination. Charlotte Church’s accompaniment during a beautiful soundscape got appetites whetted for her own stage show, The Last Mermaid.
Cale’s performance set the tone for the week to come – that we should come to expect the unexpected.
Venue: St. David’s Hall
Meilyr Jones and John Grant
If you hadn’t seen Meilyr Jones and his band perform before, you’d be forgiven for thinking they wouldn’t be able to fill the Donald Gordon Theatre in the Milennium Centre. Of course, you’d be wrong.
Performing songs from his debut album 2013 Jones opened with ‘Olivia’, instantly bringing the audience into his world. He twists and turns through a mischievous and impassioned set and during ‘Strange Emotional’ he vaults into the crowd, charming his way through the audience with his toe-tapping rhythms.
Whether it’s within big electronic soundscapes or intimate piano-accompanied ballads, John Grant’s voice is overwhelming.
Performing songs from his last three albums, during Grant’s set it’s easy to go from elation on hearing songs like GMF and Pretty Green Ghosts to holding back tears during Glacier and Marz. Throbbing electro is interspersed with melancholy, a combination that’s his forte.
The more intense songs may seem too much if Grant didn’t intersperse each song with his warmth, and the audience gave it right back. His darkly comic lyrics bely a softness to Grant, whose recent album charts his struggles with middle age.
After a long time away from Cardiff, he apologises for not coming back sooner – and it’s easy to forgive him when his return is this good. You can tell that John Grant loves Cardiff, and Cardiff loves him right back.
Venue: The Wales Millennium Centre
Les Mystere Des Voix Bulgares
Festival of Voice has made itself known in venues across the city, from The Globe in Roath to Chapter Arts Centre in Canton. It even reached Llandaff Cathedral, home of arguably the best acoustics in the city – acoustics that were put to excellent use for Les Mystere Des Voix Bulgares.
The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices choir entered the cathedral in traditional national dress and immediately transported the audience to somewhere else.
Their Bulgarian folk and religious songs – some of which date back hundreds of years – are complex and multi-part, just like the women’s voices. All the women – and the choir’s two male members – sing acapella, and with the help of their conductor they combine numerous harmonies to create one amazing sound.
You might expect serious songs about love, marriage, death and God, and while you get those in spades you also get comedy. The women laugh with each other and sometimes it feels as if you’re witnessing a group of friends telling stories over cups of tea.
Beautiful and strangely effortless, Llandaff Cathedral won’t see another choir like this in a while.
Venue: Llandaff Cathedral
Through the week, a theme has been emerging across gigs – performers love Cardiff and especially it’s enthusiastic, full-hearted audiences.
None more so than Laura Mvula, who compares performing in Cardiff to performing in her home city – “It feels like home” she says while telling one of her long – she calls them ‘rambling’ – anecdotes.
If you can listen to Mvula sing for hours, you can listen to her talk too and she regales the Millennium Centre with stories about her new album, losing her heart and embarrassing herself in front of royalty.
Her presence on the stage is warm and magnetic, funny and humble – she’s the kind of woman you’d have a cracking night out with. A bit like local girl Charlotte Church in fact, who is friends with Mvula and who’s in the audience supporting her mate. Mvula shouts out to her between songs, asking the seasoned pro’s opinion on her new material and making everyone wish they could join them for a drink after the show.
Wearing a vintage blue blazer and brandishing a white keytar, Mvula looks like a wonderful mix of the future and the past, just like her songs.
Mvula’s new work is electro and powerful, while songs from her debut album Sing to the Moon are softer and more intimate. Accompanied by a full band – including her brother and sister – she performs the haunting ‘People’, with its mesmeric, chanting rhythm, and the title track from her first album takes on an other-wordly air. By the end of the set she has the whole audience at up and dancing to ‘Phenomenal Woman’, and it’s easy to see that she is.