Cardiff is a relatively new city for me which in turn means there are still several music venues I have yet to experience. The Gate Arts Centre was one of those venues until Sunday 2nd August when Final Fantasy, Owen Pallett’s one-man musical extravaganza, performed alongside support acts Sweet Baboo and Mariee Sioux.

The Gate, literally a 5-minute walk from Cat On The Wall HQ, is an unimposing church hidden by streets lined with terrace upon terrace of residential houses. Certainly not somewhere you would expect to find a stunning live music venue but that is one of the beautiful things about Cardiff, there are hidden treasures everywhere.

By the time I arrived the doors were already open and the faint sound of first act Sweet Baboo could be heard bouncing off the houses in the streets leading to the church. Sitting next to the entrance doorway was Owen Pallett, cigarette in hand, discussing with some fellow smokers how he was definitely Canadian and not Irish. I chuckled quietly and entered the building making sure I didn’t squash Pallett with the door.

The Grand Theatre is quite something. The wooden seating, panelled ceiling and floor have been restored to a very high standard; the space behind the stage is also impressive towering above the performers – not overpowering them but rather bringing an added dimension – creating a sense of awe for the audience and performers alike.

After searching for a seat I finally focused my attention on the first support act: Sweet Baboo. My initial reaction was to compare the vocal and musical style to that of The Wave Pictures but these similarities were soon brushed aside. Sweet Baboo is the work of Stephen Black – a well-known artist on the Cardiff scene originally hailing from North Wales. Black’s songs, a mixture of alt.country and folk, were accompanied for this event by his brother on guitar and a double bass player who threatened to “go skins” – humour, and when the lyrics were concerned a very dark humour, were a common theme throughout the performance and certainly warmed the hearts of the audience.

The second act to hit or should I say quietly wander onto the stage was American singer songwriter Mariee Sioux. Seated in the centre of the stage she began the set by softly talking to the audience, which for the hard of hearing would have sounded like an incoherent mumble, and proceeded to play folk songs about tongues and dead people in rocks – or something. I must admit that her music didn’t really work for me; perhaps I needed to be in a different mood to appreciate the traditional folk style vocals and Native American story telling. The audience reaction was positive however, nobody ripped off their limbs or attempted to take their life despite the subjects of her songs so she can’t have been that bad.

As the evening progressed I could feel excited anticipation beginning to swell and fill the hall. Everyone wanted to see Final Fantasy and they couldn’t wait much longer…

When Final Fantasy first came on the scene I had just discovered Patrick Wolf, both shared the same record label – Tomlab – and rather than investigate Pallett’s creation I blindly followed Wolf’s career until he self-imploded and started dealing in stocks and shares. For some reason I see Final Fantasy as ‘grown-up’ (read ‘mature’) music although I’m sure his younger fans would disagree. There is a complexity and intelligence about his compositions, which in normal circumstances would require more than one musician to successfully transcribe the recorded track into a live setting. But this is Owen Pallett and he is his own symphony.

I’ve seen loop pedals used before but nothing quite so original and ingenious as during this performance. Rhythm and string sections were meticulously constructed, a tap on the violin would suddenly become a pulsing beat, an intricate keyboard melody would begin to hum and twirl into an electronic backing section – and all this was created with such ease – a true master at work.

Between each track the audience would roar with applause and in response Pallett would joke and chat as though we were sat in his living room. After the sound engineer motioned that time was nearly up and having performed several audience requests Pallett, slightly put out that he couldn’t play for longer, declared that he would continue the show outside on the street corner.

Unfortunately he was too quick for me and by the time I discovered him and the small crowd that were lucky enough to be the first out the venue he was just finishing his last song in the corner of a sports club car park. I didn’t mind, the evening had already been quite an experience and I was happy to have witnessed such an amazing display of musical ability and talent. This was certainly one of the great live highlights of the year.

Review by Jo Whitby
Photography by CB Lux

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