Steve Prior is a musician who used to be drummer for The Caves and Peter Bruntnell. When he moved to St Davids in Pembrokeshire to open a B&B, he had a dream of setting up a roots and Americana festival. This was the weekend when it all came to fruition.
Almost all the bands made reference to St Davids as being the UK’s smallest city and, to be fair, it was worth mentioning. The place really is tiny but also extremely pretty. It’s definitely worth visiting even when there is no festival on for the exciting experience of walking down the hill below the main square and experiencing the extraordinary vista of the gigantic cathedral and ruined Bishop’s Palace laid out before you like a Welsh Alhambra. It’s quite breathtaking.
I don’t believe the festival was consciously modelled on Kilkenny Roots but the format was strikingly similar, with multiple venues spread out in easy walking distance among the dark slate-built buildings and with similar features such as a trail of free performances and a couple of main venues. I immediately got into trouble by being mildly disparaging about the size of the City Hall. Where I come from, a city hall is a large, plush building with 1000 seats, whereas St David’s City Hall is roughly the size of anybody else’s Village Hall. This mattered not at all, because it was comfortable, intimate and possessed outstanding acoustics.
The other principal venue was what seemed like a converted church called Ty’r Pererin, which had the feel of an arts centre, again a very relaxing and comfortable place. Like the City Hall, it also provided copious supplies of tea, coffee, biscuits and alcohol. It’s possible that you haven’t heard of Cwtch festival. I don’t think I would have even found out about it if I hadn’t known the organiser and some of the artists, yet the first noticeable thing was how extremely well supported it was. I instantly suffered ‘promoter envy’ when it was clear that the local population had got fully behind the event, which was pretty much sold out from start to finish. It’s often noticeable in small, remote communities how a slightly alternative lifestyle flourishes and the keen, friendly, welcoming atmosphere was a strong feature. This was appropriate in that the word Cwtch means ‘cuddle’ in Welsh. We certainly felt a warm, kind embrace from the moment we arrived.
First stop was a packed and lively pub called The Bishops, where a corner had been cleared for performers. Christopher Rees is a familiar figure on the Welsh music scene, who had taken a break from performing for a couple of years in order to carry out childcare duties. Here he was leaping back into the fray in a major way by taking on three separate shows in 48 hours (while suffering quite a severe cold). Cardiff born Rees, now living near Treorchy, is a wizard on the banjo and various vintage guitars and thrived in the pub environment, where a good portion of the crowd gathered round and listened attentively to his set of lyrically astute original songs.
Down the road in Ty’r Pererin it was the turn of Small Town Jones, another artist who has taken a post-pandemic break in order to work on a new album. Hailing from a similarly remote area in North Devon, he pointed out that it had taken him five hours to get here, although, as the crow flies over the Bristol Channel, the actual distance was a fraction of that. Jim Jones is an artist I admire unconditionally and probably one of the best examples of ‘should be huge, why on earth isn’t he?’ performers. He has the knack of writing highly personal and relatable anthems that in the hands of Snow Patrol or Keane would be huge hits. Why he doesn’t share such a profile is one of the many mysteries of the unfathomable workings of the music industry. Jim was performing in duo format with the brilliant Dave Little (of whom more later) on electric guitar.
As I intend to be frank in this review, I am now about to offend much of the readership by saying that my companion and I were only able to stomach four songs of Scott Matthews. This was indeed odd because the packed audience was entranced, hanging on his every word, but for us it came across as technically perfect but ultimately rather bland. There’s no accounting for taste and it is important to state that he was probably one of the most popular acts of the weekend.
Meanwhile, we were on a mission to take in our first visit to the City Hall, where a sequence of up-and-coming Welsh outfits were setting out their stalls. A minor controversy was raging because the Welsh language trio Adwaith had just been announced as the winners of the annual Welsh Music Prize, a prestigious honour which comes with a substantial cash award. The question going round was whether they were really so much better than the competition? They were certainly an engaging act but were promptly blown away by a fantastic performance from Cardiff’s Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard, whose singer Tom Rees, with his Ian Curtis moves and his high-waisted trousers, was arguably the most memorable character of the weekend. This is most undoubtedly an act to watch.
Now we made our first mistake. Emerging into the inclement weather, it was suggested that we should join in the ‘after-party’ at the local rugby club. So often a victim of my own preconceptions, I declined this offer on the basis of my previous experience of rugby clubs: posh rubber-bugger types singing filthy songs and generally being obnoxious. How we regretted that decision the next morning when we heard tales of what an incredible night it had been, dancing away to a programme of Northern soul provided by local DJ Eugene French. One thing we didn’t regret was avoiding the evil hangover that was afflicting everyone else the next morning.
Thus it was that we were feeling relatively chipper and ready to take in an interview with Irish songwriter John Blek, conducted with sensitivity and aplomb by Malcolm Cawley, a Pembrokeshire writer and broadcaster who only goes by the nom-de-plume BB Skone. This segued into a magnificent performance by Blek, who was just coming to the end of an enormous European tour. He is an object lesson in making a career in the music business work, by a combination of being willing to travel long distances and play gig after gig with no let-up in quality. His astonishing finger-style guitar playing was mesmerising every guitarist in town (and I can tell you there were a lot of guitarists around). His convivial storytelling that connects the songs is quite gripping too, and those experiencing him for the first time made sure to catch one of his two other performances.
The other pub doing free music was the Farmers. Yes, I regret to say that St Davids (or is that St David’s?) is a place rife with apostrophe issues, but I was feeling relaxed enough to overlook them. The feel in the Farmers was very much that of an Irish bar, packed tight with attentive music lovers as Seamus Fogarty and his entire family entertained the assembled locals and their dogs.
Just around the corner was the final fringe venue, Grain, a very strange pop-up pizzeria in a large tent. On the postage-stamp stage was Small Town Jones, this time without Davey ‘Lemonade’ Little, for reasons I shall explain shortly. Jim Jones was slightly nervous about his performance (absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the previous night at the rugby club of course) but he needn’t have been concerned, as the assembled pizza munchers adored every note.
At this stage, the whispers around town were an awestruck “The Delines are in town and they’re rehearsing at a secret location.” Yes, Dave Little was demonstrating his versatility by joining the Delines on bass for their European tour, of which St Davids was the first date. The word was that they had actually thought they were going to be playing at St David’s Hall in Cardiff, not realising that the real St Davids was a couple of hours further on down some picturesque but challenging roads. Luckily, Dave had learnt all their songs so conscientiously that rehearsals didn’t take too long. The good folk of St Davids were also slightly concerned about the journey The Delines had taken on for the next day, travelling in their van from the extremities of Wales to Ramsgate, which we calculated would take them 8 hours. For American road warriors, however, this is nothing, and they failed to understand what the fuss was about.
Back at the City Hall it was time for some serious rock action, kicked off by a superb trio rejoicing in the best name of the weekend: Pea-Ness. They reminded me with their inter-song banter of Kenickie, which brought to mind the wonderful Lauren Laverne and in turn made us think of Cerys Matthews. Catatonia, of course, was one of the finest products of these hillsides.
Next up was the utterly fantastic Penelope Isles. Siblings Jack and Lily Wolter and their characterful colleagues are just so inspirational, mixing supreme musicianship, irresistible melodies, psych distortion of the finest kind and the purest fun. The audience was loaded with family and friends and they had clearly struck up a close bond with their heroes, headliners The Magic Numbers, who eventually hit the stage extremely late and gave St Davids probably the loudest and most comprehensive musical thrashing that it had ever had or ever will. As both Penelope Isles and the Magic Numbers crowded the stage for a deafening and thrilling valedictory performance of The Cure’s ‘A Forest’, the feeling in the room was joyful, amazed and highly emotional.
Not willing to miss out for a second time, we joined in the mass procession to the rugby club for a drinking session over which it is best to draw a veil.
At lunchtime on Sunday, The Delines’ Willy Vlautin was being interviewed about his novels in Ty’r Pererin by BB Skone. It is hard to over-emphasise the awe and affection which surrounds Willy, a true literary genius for whom the words self-deprecating could have been invented. He has so little awareness of his own talents and the admiration in which he is held. Just the lilt of his voice and the clarity of his empathy with the less fortunate are enough to make me feel tearful, and looking around the room and hearing the sniffles as he read from The Night Always Comes, I was far from the only one.
Then it was time for The Delines to perform. For many this is a new band, but actually they’ve been going for almost a decade, carving themselves a unique niche. ‘Country-soul’ is the default description but they have a sound like no other, with the emphasis on engaging storytelling, the understated but beautiful voice of Amy Boone and the prominent trumpet of Cory Gray. Now they have also added a new element, with Willy tentatively edging back into the limelight on two new songs written as duets between him and Amy – the sparky ‘Golden State’ and the frankly quite frightening ‘My Blood Bleeds The Darkest Blue’. This was a song that one audience member was so insistent they played that they’d have hardly got out alive if they’d refused. And yes, they did get to Ramsgate in time.
The relaxed downbeat atmosphere in the hall was now conducive to an inspired piece of final programming, handing the evening over to a succession of top-notch Irish musicians. The hard-working John Blek thrived in the packed environment and the entertainment notched up further with a more expansive set by Seamus Fogarty. With his table full of mysterious analogue gadgets, he came across more as a cross between Professor Bruce Lacey and John Otway than a traditional Irish folk singer. It was riveting.
I’m not generally a fan of acoustic singers who spend more time explaining their songs than actually playing them, but Lisa O’Neill is a definite exception. Her beautiful speaking voice makes all the lengthy explanations quite charming and anyone who covers songs by Ivor Cutler is okay by me.
Organiser Steve Prior found himself quite overcome by the occasion and indeed, there generally were few dry eyes in the house as he thanked his family, the faithful volunteers, sound engineers and indeed the house artist Tony Kitchell who had documented the entire weekend (and you can see and purchase his impressions here. It was a total triumph, an unforgettable experience for everyone involved and I have no doubt it will become an annual treat and destination for music lovers.