Many have judged ‘Tŷ Pawb’, Wrexham’s new arts hub, to be a lame duck. Since its unveiling six months ago, the ‘Comments’ section of the local press has been filled with negativity towards it. A lack of atmosphere, disappointing architecture, and few events taking place there have led many, it seems, to dismiss it as a waste of money.
I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt though. So it was with intrigue that I travelled there for a night of country music. I could understand why the hub itself, comprising market stalls, a gallery, shop and small theatre, has received some criticism regarding its general look. Grey stone walls give way to plain wood panelling the further one enters in. Decoration is minimal. Its surroundings are, somewhat, uninspiring. Yet it is by no means dull and depressing.
The space is well lit, bright and breezy. It still feels very new. Still waiting to be taken hold of and shaped into something special.
Local band ‘Blue Genes’ have decided to take a different path to the naysayers. They could think of no better place in the local area to put on an evening of songs and stories from five artists who spanned the genres of Country, Americana, and Folk. On this evidence, I would say that they made an inspired decision. The theatre is an intimate setting, a cosy 100-seater venue nestled nicely behind the main reception. Kay of ‘Blue Genes’ was on hand when I got there to point me in the right direction. She then turned up on stage shortly after to welcome us all. And if ticket collector and compere wasn’t enough, she was then joined by husband Steve and daughter Megan as the first act to kick off the night.
For those who don’t know, ‘Blue Genes’ are a family band whose most recent EP, ‘Named & Shamed’, went to No.1 in the iTunes Country Chart earlier this year. On the more traditional side of the country music spectrum, their songs are always beautifully finished with a harmonic shine. Injecting plenty of early humour into the evening with ‘Something You Can Kiss’ and ‘Girlfriend’, they then turned out the infectious ‘Dime a Dozen’. We then got a stunningly beautiful cover of Cam’s ‘Burning House’ before learning how Robbie Cavanagh was the inspiration behind one of their songs. ‘Bobby’s Song’, as they subsequently nicknamed it, was as captivating and compelling as one of Cavanagh’s own.
In spite of a couple of technical problems early on, ‘Blue Genes’ made it an excellent start to the evening. The £6 entrance fee was looking like a bargain.
Next up was the lead singer of ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’, Stuart Landon. The man with the voice that has drawn comparisons with Chris Stapleton was stepping out solo for this one. Admitting that he was “not much of a storyteller”, he stuck closely to his set list and instead offered a few wry asides between songs. Full of humour and self-deprecation, he struck me as a guy whose hard country-rock exterior contained a soft and humble persona. After hearing ‘I’m Coming Home’, ‘Midnight Man’ and others through those smoky vocals, there was a touching moment where he opened up about his life as a musician. It was both poignant and inspiring to hear him talk about following his dreams, no matter what. It was apt that he finished with his new single, ‘I Can’t Take It Anymore’, therefore, which entered into the country charts at No.1 earlier in the day. This man is destined for much greater things.
After a first half of UK country music, the second began with US-born Lars Pluto. Now based in Devon, he had endured six hours of motorway madness before finally making it to North East Wales. It didn’t seem to affect him though, as he entertained the audience with his naughty sense of humour alongside rousing renditions of his songs ‘Drive Off All This Time’ and ‘Dear Country Music’. There was further hilarity as, during ‘Don’t Take Your Pretty Self Away’, one of his guitar strings suddenly broke. He never stopped though, recovering well and responding with amusement. He seemed genuinely happy to be playing here.
Having finished with his lament song, ‘Dear Country Music’, it seemed fitting that the fourth act, Amy Westney, should continue in a similar vein. ‘Country Music’ is both an ode to the greats of country music and a lament to its current state, particularly where songwriting is concerned. If you haven’t listened to her EP ‘Love Shouldn’t Hurt’, I would highly recommend it.
No further evidence is needed that Amy wears her heart firmly on her sleeve. This performance demonstrated that further, with a set list that, she admitted, was full of sad songs. ‘Bad For Me’, ‘From the Outside Looking In’, and ‘Used’ may be on the melancholic side, but they are true to life, and make for a compelling listen. I don’t think the auditorium was quite as quiet as it was during some of these songs. She did inject a bit of humour at the end however, with an excellent cover of Ashley McBryde’s ‘Fat and Famous’. If the rumours are true and Westney is shortly bound for Nashville, then she will be a big loss to the UK country scene. She is a wonderful talent.
After a whole lot of country, the evening finished off in a whirlwind of folk with ‘MountainFace’, who brought down the curtain on an enjoyable evening with a set that certainly lived up to their name. Wild and wondrously immersive, each song soaked you in nature, whether the high winds of ‘Another World’ or the frosty air of ‘Presque Vu’. In contrast to the vulnerability and fragility that their songs invoked, these guys brought a dry wit in between songs that made them very likable indeed. Country they may not be, but they’d be welcome back any time I’m sure.
For all its perceived faults, I actually think that Tŷ Pawb is a pretty decent facility. It houses a beautifully intimate theatre that is acoustically sound and very comfortable to sit in. Local country music band ‘Blue Genes’ have decided to value such an asset and use it. It’s safe to say that their ‘Summers End Songwriters Show’ was a big success. Here’s hoping that it becomes a regular fixture in the region’s musical calendar. And if no one else wants to make use of this modern facility, then hand it over to ‘Blue Genes’. I’d love for them to make it into a country music hub. But that’s probably wishful thinking on my part. Another evening in the company of country artists would be more than enough. Here’s to the next instalment.
Review by Gaz Williams