From Now On Festival packed with fans of indie, electronic and experimental music

From Now On – it’s an apt name for a festival that looks set to stick around. The format of the inaugural edition was nothing ground-breaking: just a two-day line-up of live indie, electronic and experimental music at Cardiff’s multi-arts centre, Chapter. The programme placed a strong emphasis on local artists, too; producer Mark Daman Thomas explained that he wanted to give a platform to the “exciting, edgy Welsh-language music scene that’s really vibrant but that doesn’t often emerge into the mainstream”.

Tickets for both days sold out well in advance, so it seems that Thomas gauged audience appetite about right. Hype started brewing via the festival’s website, where instead of the usual slew of artist biographies and slick marketing Thomas wrote passionate testimonials and asked artists to interview each other. The resulting content ranged from the erudite to the soulful to the downright daft.

One of the key challenges was attracting the student crowd. Chapter is located in the heart of Canton, the other side of town from Cardiff’s grungier student neighbourhoods, and has a reputation for expensive drinks, yummy mummies and retirees. I arrived on the Friday afternoon – a day of fierce wind and torrential downpours – and the place was buzzing with parents and babies, business lunches, creative types with laptops, visitors perusing film listings. It was hard to get a seat; the place felt like a real local hub. As the afternoon drew on the festival crowd began to arrive – sure, a slightly different demographic, but nobody seemed out of place.

The opening event kicked off at 7.30pm in the sparse white Common Room, where Gwenno – an elfin lass who sings breathy, floaty electro pop in Welsh and Cornish – stood hunched over a small mixing board. She’s an absorbing, ethereal performer, and the crowded room returned her concentration; the cheers were warm as she ended her set with an anthemic feel-good number, as catchy as you like. Over in the Theatre (acts were programmed in two spaces – the smaller Common Room and the larger Theatre) Rhodri Davies was pulling brilliantly abrasive sounds out of a traditional Welsh harp, thrashing and tugging and hammering at the strings. Fragments of sweet tunefulness emerged from the din, but these were routinely and gleefully shattered.

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The big act of the night was the Los Angeles experimentalist outfit Lucky Dragons. “I knew the festival would be fine once Lucky Dragons were booked,” Thomas said afterwards, clearly chuffed. “They’re so different from anything that ever happens in Cardiff.” The performance was indeed spellbinding. Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara – a long, angular pair – gazed down with monk-like composure at a card table covered with mixing equipment, their music wielding uncomfortable drones, unflinching beats and chilly, faraway voices spun high above. The audience half sat, half stood in rapt attention. Towards the end of the set Rara distributed sound-generating wires to half a dozen members of the crowd, who held hands and grinned as they played around making wacky sound effects. The effect was transformational: suddenly the performance had become a communal experience, with Lucky Dragons effectively playing the audience and the audience effectively playing themselves. Rara stood back, sipped some water and surveyed the interaction. She looked pleased.

It was a tough act to follow for Bridget Hayden, who alone in the Common Room delivered a murky, slow-core set of vocals and feedback including an impressively deadpan take on Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Hair. It was an ambitious piece of programming for a 10.15pm slot on a Friday night and the audience soon started to trickle away.

The night’s closer brought energy levels back to full-throttle. Richard Dawson might play the funny man (and funny he is) but as soon as he starts to sing the impact is anything but trite. This is English folk song delivered, shouted, hollered, cried and crooned from the heart. He accompanies himself on a tiny cheap guitar which he tunes lovingly and sings with a glower fixed on the audience, occasionally eyes squeezed shut. It was a raw, at times willfully grotesque and deeply moving performance.

I only caught the festival’s opening night but I’ve no doubt the second day was just as good. The audience was engaged and excited. The musicians, Thomas later told me, felt buoyed by the elegance of the art gallery setting. It’s little surprise that he and Chapter have already met to discuss plans for next year’s festival. The dates, I’m told, are in the diary.

New Music Plus… a collaboration between PRS for Music and the hub. More reviews here.