SWN Festival 2011
Thursday night saw the launch of 2011′s SWN Festival in Cardiff. And what a mighty introduction. Had I not been there photographing it I’d have probably been sitting at home researching another project, and having never been before, I would have had no idea what I was missing. Admittedly, my experience was stuttered slightly due to trying to get around as many gigs as possible – something that became progressively more difficult as the night progressed, but of those gigs I did see (if only for a fleeting minute), I can tell you that if you’ve never been, you absolutely, categorically must.
I was shooting on behalf of an organisation called Creative Cardiff, who have been putting on events throughout the capital during September-November this year. SWN fell nicely into their calendar. As always, my plan was put into action with the use of Google maps and a hastily compiled and heavily sellotaped selection of schedules and maps. Watered, fed, and excited, I strolled into town to collect my wristband and headed over to the first venue to find a cacophony of photographers and film-makers waiting for the first act of SWN to come on the stage. When Greta Isaac appeared on the stage it was like vultures pouncing on the dead corpse of a long-anticipated meal.
The poor thing. It was a really bizarre moment, and one that must have taken her by surprise. As if the nerves weren’t enough to put her off, a wall of paparazzi scrambling and flashing into her face was probably the last thing she needed. But then she played. A voice that could melt butter and giddy even the most stoic observer poured out from her petite frame. It’s the Achilles Heal of photography. No matter how you shoot a gig, it’s basically impossible to convey the true experience through pictures alone. Neither through these words, nor the images here, can you get even a small sense of how her soft voice and sophisticated guitar came together to treat the audience to their first taste of SWN 2011. For this reason, you must search for these people on bandcamp, myspace, or soundcloud, because the bands consistently exceeded my expectations all night.
One other small thing I’d like to mention is about photographer etiquette at these types of intimate gigs. There is a pressure on the photographer to get an image, or maybe lots of images, that will titillate and intoxicate the editor or client we are working for. If you haven’t done this sort of thing before, it’s understandable that pressure turns into anxiety, and you can forget that you aren’t the only person in the room. You can also forget that whilst you are getting paid to be there, the audience have paid to be there, and so when you spend the most of the night standing between the act and audience, it’s not really fair that they are denied the fullest part of their experience due to being distracted by your bonce, circling the singer like an uninhibited stalker whose just got out of jail. Alas, there is a solution within the confines of common sense to ensure that you don’t end the night with the blunt end of someone’s pint glass protruding out of your face.
Your resting position should be on the floor, ducked down on your knees. There’s nothing wrong with changing positions, or getting in close for a portrait of the lead singer, but plan ahead. Get your settings prepared whilst on the floor and think about your composition and timing. The great thing about music is that it’s repetitive, so if the singer makes a particular expression that you like but missed, he’ll probably do it again when the next chorus comes back around. The more time you can spend on the floor below the eye-line of the crowd considering your next move, the better it will be. When ready, get up, get your shot, and get back down again. Aimless shooting in the hope that one shot might stick means a night of sifting through endless amounts of generic photographs, and getting maybe only one or two decent enough to publish, but by this point you’ve probably been blinded to which one works anyway. Remember, the audience have paid – you are being paid. Respect their position and you’ve got a better chance that they’ll respect yours.
I am not, however, exempt from criticism. Most photographers were based in one or two venues, and using single lenses all night. Having to shoot so many venues it was important that I switch lenses often to change the style and keep my images from looking the same. Due to not having a lens belt, it meant bringing my bulky camera bag with me. Add to this the freezing weather outside contrasted with the heat inside, it meant that for most of the night my large winter jacket hung off the end of one of my bag straps increasing the bulkyness of my already heavy frame, so when the venues started filling up I was having to politely push my way through the crowds to get to the front. If you were one of those who got irritated by the bald guy with his travel luggage barging through your already confined space, please accept my sincerest apologies.
In the end the constant change of venue and delayed schedules combined to make my job virtually impossible. Crowd movement changed from a somewhat civilised convection, to gridlock. It prevented me from keeping to my own schedule and I started missing sets. Impatience and tiredness set in so I decided to call it a night. I got round 11 gigs however, and I’m back on the town tonight for day two of SWN, so if you’re out again tonight, or it’s going to be your first night, I’ll see you there. I think we’ll be in for another treat!
As I sit here writing to you, I’m tired, hungry, and all together burnt out. And I’m having one of the best weekends of my life. With that in mind, I’m not my usual self, don’t expect to stay awake until I finish this blog, so don’t expect much from the words. I decided to approach the 2nd night of SWN with a different attitude. Attempting to get through as many gigs as I could on Thursday night ended in failure and frustration, so last night I decided the leisurely approach was the way forward. First gig was at Clwb Ifor Bach, where Two Wounded Birds took to the stage to kick the night off in style. Having grabbed myself a beer and adjusted my settings, I grabbed a pew and waited for the band to come on.
It was here that I met a lovely photographer that goes by the name Dragonfly Jen (Haste)(above right). Unlike me, Jen’s used to these sorts of events being a music photographer by trade. We shared secrets and stories; anecdote’s galore, and met up several times during the night before finally going our separate ways after watching the spectacle at Solus as The Joy Formidable rocked a couple of thousand eager happy chappies in a blinding set.
I’ve never been to Solus before. It’s a cracking venue – probably the best in Cardiff for this sort of thing in terms of production, lighting, space, and very photographer friendly. We were ushered into the only designated press area I’ve seen so far (admittedly the other gigs have been at much smaller venue’s and I would never expect as much), and with 25 minute’s to wait until the band came on we had plenty of time to get accustomed to the space and light around us.
The Joy Formidable lived up to the eponymous expectations. Loud, raucous, energetic, and really, really bloody happy! Seriously, the lead singer was having the BEST time. I suppose I also would be if a few thousand people were singing my own song back to me.
Yes, I hear you. “What happened to Saturday?” Believe me when I say that I wanted to be out. Truly, deeply. But exhaustion caught up with me. Two late shoots on the trot followed with having to work at 8am on Saturday morning, and having to get the images edited and sent off before the deadline meant that when it came to Saturday evening my body wouldn’t let me do what my mind was urging me to do, so I gave in and was in bed by 9.30pm. The up-side to this was that I was refreshed and energised once again for the final night of SWN. And what an eventful night it turned out to be.
People sitting on the floor was a sign of the relaxed tone of music that we were to be treated to in Club Ifor Bach. A lovely lady called introduced herself as Jodie Marie, a singer-songwriter from Pembrokeshire. Her voice was astonishingly powerful, and music accomplished. I am, in fact, listening to her whilst I write this blog.
She’s one of the few bands who, I have to say, sound as good when published as when playing live. I found that a lot of bands were letting themselves down with poor production when it came to their recorded material. I can only think of two bands that I watched who didn’t really impress me, which is a sign of the quality SWN promoters brought to the festival. It’s a shame that (I’m guessing due to money constraints) the live quality of many I watched didn’t also transfer to the production and recording of their material.
Moving downstairs we were presented with a real treat. Sam Duckworth is a funny f***er. He was quite willing to mock the Welsh crowd about losing against France on the world cup, but with the sort of humility that warms you to him. When he played I felt a real sense of awe. The riff’s and technical skill combined with his one-of-the-lads personality gave the audience a real treat and rewarded all those who had made it out on the final night.
Clearly I was getting way to comfortable. Instead of even checking my list of events, I headed straight back upstairs where the crowd was getting ready for Ben Howard. The photographers were armed and ready, and it was one of the only gigs up there were there was absolutely no space whatsoever at the front of the stage. This, of course, made it difficult for us and I could only shoot from one position during the gig, but to be perfectly honest after hearing a couple of songs I just felt privileged to be there.
Tea in hand, Ben arrived to a chorus of appreciation from the crowd. Followed closely behind by his back vocalist, percussion and cellist, and behind her his drummer, they took to the stage and silenced the audience with some breath-taking folky, soulful music. If he really wrote those songs, and I’m pretty sure he did, he’s an absolute bloody genius. I can’t recommend that you check him out strongly enough.
The Witches Drum at Dempseys can be described precisely in one, now highly cliched but widely understood word. Marmite. Looking around the crowd during the gig, people’s faces revealed a decided and diverse opinion. Now, it’s for someone else to review these guys in some kind of thoughtful way, so I kind of want to stay out of it. Lets just say they weren’t really my sort of thing, and I felt the small crowd was a reflection of that feeling. That said, they made brilliant subjects for the camera. I think the pictures tell the story better than I ever could so I’ll let them do the talking.
My final gig of SWN was more personal as I knew the drummer from the punk band, ‘Strange News From Another Star’. Having worked with Harry in the past, it was a gig that I wasn’t going to miss, especially as I hadn’t been able to make his Saturday afternoon gig at the Cardiff Arts Institute with his other band, Denuo, however when I turned up to Undertone I was refused entry as the club was full to capacity. Now, I’m not usually a blagger, but desperate times… After pleading with the door person and lying that I was the bands official photographer she eventually let me in. If it was you and you’re reading this, I’m sorry I lied and I hope I’ve done you proud. This was, by far and away, the most difficult gig I had to photograph.
Getting through the door was just the beginning of my problems. Once inside the club I could see why they have capacity restrictions. How, on earth, was I was going to make it close enough to the band? After navigating and pushing myself around to the side of the stage, I met a seemingly impenetrable wall of people. Beyond them, the crowd were resembling the beginnings of a mosh pit. There was no space at the front, or in fact anywhere for me to get some shots. Somehow, through persistence, rudeness, and downright determination, I managed to push through and get a few shots before an angry, but surprisingly polite man informed me that my flash, which was shooting directly up into his face, was getting “pretty f***ing annoying”. With that, I admitted defeat. There’s a line between getting the shot and ruining some else’s experience. But I got the shot of my main man Harry going utterly berserk on the drums.
The band were brutally fierce and I absolutely loved it. To those of you who kindly let me get these shots, and those of you who had to put up with my flash in your eyes, thank you. Which brings the weekend and my revelatory experience to an end. Thanks goes to the promoters, the bands, the venue staff, and all the people who made SWN an absolutely blinding success. We can sleep again for another year. I’m looking forward to it already.
stumbled across this brilliant blog of photos from Swn Festival 2011! tomashmore.net/blog/swn-festi…
— Huw Stephens (@huwstephens) September 19, 2012