The future looks promising for live festivals, but for now we are still in the land of the virtual. Gwyl 2021 earlier this month used this mode to its full advantage. The event was put together by four Welsh festivals, Focus Wales, Festival of Voice, Aberystwyth Festival of Comedy and Other Voices. Collectively, they created a wonderfully diverse event to bring musicians and comedians to wider audiences.

Huw Stephens presented the weekend’s lineup, bringing his enthusiasm and in-depth knowledge of the Welsh creative scene. Highlights were Adwaith who delivered an atmospheric set from Wrexham’s William Aston Hall – occasional shots from the back of the space with its rows of empty seats highlighting the problems that lockdown has wrought upon both artists and venues. No wonder Adwaith have a fond following: vocalist Hollie Singer and crew delivered a confident and forthright set.

Islet have seen their star firmly in the ascendant – as a live act they are mesmerising and fairly energetic on stage – last time I saw them Emma Daman Thomas kicked a row of pints at the edge of the stage, soaking a fair few fans. Harpist Catrin Finch gave a breathtaking solo performance which included Street Tango and Endless Sky– and her interview with Huw Stephens in which she revealed that she had cancelled over 60 gigs during Covid was a reminder of just what performers – and their audiences – have lost.

Islet band, Hackney 2019

An unusual and particularly moving performance was The Death Songbook: a collaboration between Brett Anderson of Suede with conductor Charles Hazlewood and the Paraorchestra. They performed Killing Moon, He’s Dead, Unsung – this was a selection of songs about death but also love and transcendence. Mercury Rev’s song Holes sounded magnificent sung by Anderson, accompanied by Nadine Shah. The 45-minute performance was a majestic and emotional experience.

Gwyl continued till Friday 12th March with the week’s events available on the AM app. Focus Wales, the music industry festival featured The Canada Sessions: showcases from Montreal and Nova Scotia, a rare window on young emerging artists. Tuesday night’s six-act lineup included Le Couleur, a slick, exuberant dance act featuring The Besnard Lakes‘ Sheenah Ko on keyboards.

The 360° sessions. Any methods to make the online experience more like a live performance are to be commended and Focus Wales’ contribution on Thursday night aimed to do just that. Artists from their weekend roster each performed one song, which was filmed for the 360° Sessions. You could then use your phone or headset to direct your focus wherever you wanted. I’m not convinced it’s anything more than a bit of fun, but it did help you feel as if you were occupying the same space as the artists as you moved around the stage.

Performances are all still online and available to watch for one month approx.
360° sessions available on YouTube

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