Thursday, May 31, 2007

Silence (and noise) is golden


As regular readers may well have gathered by now, I'm firmly of the belief that exciting things are afoot in Cardiff at the moment - and I'm not talking about the ongoing development of the new St David's 2 shopping centre. Naturally, the vibrant nature of the city's music scene is primarily attributable to the bands who call it home. But the importance of the supporting infrastructure shouldn't be underestimated.

Cardiff currently offers everything needed to create an extraordinarily fertile environment in which a scene can thrive: publications like Buzz, Kruger and student mag Quench which are quick to champion local talent; DJs such as Huw Stevens and Adam Walton who do likewise at every opportunity; a record shop that acts as a focal point for aspiring bands and musicians; a plethora of venues of varying sizes upon whose stages bands can graduate (my gigging companion tonight, visiting from Portsmouth, is both rueful and envious on this point); and a number of passionate individuals intent on promoting anything and everything they like at considerable personal cost and risk in terms of both time and finances (Lesson No. 1, Forecast, Twisted By Design, Peppermint Patti and FAG Club to name but a few).

But one promoter stands apart - someone who has been one of the lynchpins in the south Wales music scene since before some of the current crop were even born. Paul Clarke promotes Meltdown, which commemorated its twentieth year with a triumphant celebratory gig at the Point last November. The ethos behind Meltdown gigs is that pretty much anything goes, as long as it gets the seal of approval from Paul and his dedicated committee. Rock, folk, punk, indie and more co-exist on the same eclectic bills, while young often butt up against old; Meltdown isn't just about preserving the past in aspic but about giving a platform to new and exciting talent - just ask the likes of The Victorian English Gentlemens Club, Threatmantics, The Hot Puppies, The Physicists, Lily Green and Drunk Granny, all of whom have been thankful to Clarke and co for a leg-up in recent years, and some of whom have since become Meltdown regulars.

In this sense, then tonight's line-up is entirely typical.

We begin with Guto Dafis, one half of folk duo Toreth but this evening performing solo. Dafis often sings in his native Welsh, but the four songs he plays to the accompaniment of his melodeon are all in English, the words all the more striking for being accented. The first three are covers - including one particularly bleak lament which continually circles around images of death and burial, alluding at one point to Aberfan - but it's the fourth, one of Dafis' own compositions, that makes the greatest impact, an ostensibly congratulatory ode to the happiness of an ex-lover which turns out to be laced with irony and bitterness. That Dafis performs before only a handful of people is a desperate shame.

By the time it's the turn of the youngsters to take over, the room has begun to fill up. Silence At Sea are fronted by Laura Janes and Gareth Jones, both of whom are also key to sprawling indiepop collective Little My and involved in Hornby Pylons. I've been looking forward to seeing them - and not just because my comments on their contribution to the Twisted By Design compilation, 'Between Her Fingers', has been used on the flyer! - and they certainly don't disappoint.

Wearing an animal suit minus headgear and playing an acoustic guitar with the words "Cat Power" emblazoned on it like a mark of allegiance, Gareth gives the band its pulse while Laura's crystal-clear vocals are its soul, accompanied by occasional contributions on xylophone and violin from the supporting cast. To someone already familiar with Little My's ramshackle approach to composition, what's most immediately striking about songs like 'Memorise Everything' and closer 'Dead Cowboy Town' is the beautiful neatness and simplicity of their construction, pop in the same way that Camera Obscura are. But don't go thinking it's all sweetness and light - they're not above a little spite and malevolence, as attested by the short and disarmingly pretty song about hoping a girl dies...

This is my first encounter with Pagan Wanderer Lu, an adopted son of Cardiff originally hailing from Bolton who is both a prolific recording artist and something of a Meltdown favourite. So gawd bless 'im for marking the occasion by debuting his new band The Volunteers, who amongst their polo-shirt-and-namebadged number feature - would you believe it? - Laura Janes on vocals. In truth, the transformation of what is essentially a bedroom project into a full live band isn't entirely successful, and the cause is hardly helped by the rising volume of chatter and our seating position towards the back, but there's enough in the way of wry indie/electropop (Hefner would be a reasonable comparison) to merit further investigation.

Shortly afterwards Guto Dafis is back on stage, this time as accompaniment to Rhondda legends Watermelons, who can proudly claim to have played the very first Meltdown event in 1986. Their bluesy roots rock turns out to be a bit too trad for my tastes, but at least they prove themselves to be capable musicians with a sense of humour - at the start we're advised "Have a nice Christmas" and at the end "If you didn't have a nice Christmas, have a nice Easter"...

In the present company Gindrinker are - as is now only to be expected - a thoroughly enjoyable bit of rough, very definitely the yang to Silence At Sea's yin. Tonight a visibly refreshed DC, his hair seemingly out of control, takes particular relish in describing the events of 'Ian The Dog Murderer' and is keen to show those clustered around the stage Graf's new effects pedal, which resembles a stapler. A clutch of new songs get an airing, with 'Tax Exiles' amongst those squeezed out of the set, but there's still room for the "hits" ie 'Hey! Greengrocer' and 'God Of Darts' and the familiar sense of having been violated by the time the drum machine is switched off. Gindrinker, then: far from being Fray Bentos pies of men.

I have to confess that by the time headliners Naughty appear, I'm feeling the effects of my numerous trips bar-wards, and am unable to get the slightly disturbing image of DC's gurning face screaming "WORK IT OUT!" out of my mind - which means the rabble-rousing sleazy pub-punk veterans are all a bit of a blur. Not, I do recall, really my cup of earl grey - but then that's what Meltdown's all about: something for everyone.

Here's to the next twenty years.


Mei Lewis' photos of the gig

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