O festival season what ails ye? Why does this fractured summer of 2011 choose to raise its ire with the likes of Truck, Supernormal and the Big Chill? Aye there’s the saturation point, the tough times of the economy, the rising ticket prices; but these were festivals that had dug their own niche, the ones that were presumed solid on the basis that they were doing things “their own way.” The piles of un-stubbed tickets that are left lying in the printers are a metaphor for the festival season, so many would have you believe, ever more available but many fewer taken upon.
Thank God for Green Man then, still a bastion of independence and an example of free form thinking in ways to occupy the customer with music as just part of the solution. That it’s managed to create a space for itself as bewitching as Powys’ rising foothills only helps of course; the sense of atmosphere between home’s still palpable sense of nervousness - the Manchester riots still evident in the nervous darting of its peoples eyes - and the quiet welcome of the Welsh valleys, that gently envelope you the further you travel in, their richly green peaks doing their utmost to persuade you otherwise of a world outside, is substantial. Many festival organisers get a loose grasp on the idea that uprooting city folk and dispersing them out into the British countryside provides, for many, a form of escapism; but many also will take on any field, any patch of green and view that as enough. Here at Green Man the location, finally decided upon in 2006 after three years elsewhere, appeared to be at the absolute fore front of its creators minds. As we arrive into the car park we’re followed by thick woodland behind us, blotting out the route with which we’ve just come, whilst in front yawns the Black Mountains, ironically consecrating the site in a bowl made up of nature’s richest palette, a colour scheme illuminated further when the sun (aye, there’s plenty of that this year,) glides into view atop of it.
It’s almost enough that when you think back to the older lot, the ones who were at the free festivals of the 70s and 80, back further to the early Pilton Farm carnations of the 60s, and how they recall of wistful times when a weekend could change a perception on life, your mind can entertain the possibility that – rather than it owing so a couple of dabs of questionable acid – some of them might actually be speaking an element of truth. Although in the 21st century the machinery behind almost everything is so transparent, at Green Man it’s hidden enough for those who seek to take a mind leap to pretend that it’s not even there – something which, you are about to gather, I readily do over the course of the three days. Topping it all is the Green Man himself, a might in stature, peering over his grounds like a proud deity over a congregation who’ve followed the commandments pertained by him. His twisted wooden frame will eventually meet a swift demise come Sunday night, but for the time before that he stands tall, omnipresent...
By the time DiS throw down camping tools and heads towards the arena, the festivities are already in full swing; Treefight For Sunlight are on the main stage, their electronic pop exoticisms swirling around the naturally hewn amphitheatre that encloses it. The sounds of their clean-ringing guitars permeate the surroundings with a blissful serenity, oozing with that intrinsically and intangible Scandinavian sense of child-like naivety that informs much of their pop-leaning acts. It's a pleasant start, and indeed it is pleasant that we get for the most of the weekend on the main stage. Over the weekend the Leisure Society, Laura Marling, Villagers, The Low Anthem and many of their acoustic-based ilk drift onto the main stage and off again, their presence just part – rather than the focal point – of the organic atmosphere that transcends them. Explosions In The Sky – first of the headliners - are apt to head up such a line-up; their sloping instrumental landscapes and much vaunted six-string histrionics finally seem to have found a physical surrounding to match their monolithic presence, and where inside four walls they’d threaten to burst from their confines, here they interweave with the organic backdrop that’s provided for them.
To stay at the main stage for the whole three days though – as many do – would be to indulge your musical sweet tooth for the weekend; from the sugared swoon of Villagers to the chirping scatter dash folk of the Travelling Band, its saccharine taste would become too much – it says much that Brooklyn’s She Keeps Bees rather jolt the crowd awake on a sunny afternoon with their not overly fulsome two-piece blues-rock – the families gather here, children careering about aimlessly as though animals freed by Sonic The Hedgehog, while parents lazily flick through their weekly newspapers (the connection to the real world still irresistible for some.) Though the families are welcome and the scenario is as picturesque as you could hope for, ultimately DiS begins to ache for more razor-edged sounds, more mind mangling experiences and it becomes clear to us that we are but merely at a starting point.
So we explore further; Green Man is only 15,000 strong in total capacity and yet it feels that you can take a different path from its bottom to top each and every time; sometimes you head through an old gothic courtyard, where a bar selling Spitfire and other real ales fuels a constantly hearty mob. At others it’s through the wonderful Einstein’s Garden, where workshops and displays are set up in the gardens of the estate, curious youngsters gathered round listening to everything from discussions about physics to talks on rearing chickens, with the requisite quota of field given over to healing as well. Further still you can come up through the high-walled enclosure known as the Green Man Pub, again programmed with the acoustic guitar prominent, though often their abilities are skewered and twisted, oddball pop and wonky country as much a staple as the more conventional paeans of the singer songwriter.
Our search for more dissonant sustenance leads us to the largest tent of the festival; the Far Out Stage. Situated atop the hill, its sounds roll ominously down into the rest of the site throughout the weekend, as though a belching cavern from the peak of a mountain. One time we make the trip, various poisons in hand and senses sharpened, to find the patchwork electronica of Holy Fuck spilling out into an audience operating under a different charge from the dozy delights and slow paced meanders of the other congregations. Here we find the more nocturnal creatures that have wandered into the Green Man; most notable is when the sun goes down, families disperse and suddenly we are surrounded by flailing limbs, topless torsos and pinhole retinas.
That Holy Fuck provide the catalyst for this at one point is testament to their ever more noticeable comfort in filling a larger space, the thudding motorik of ‘Stiletto’ the kick start that sets a blinking tent into full strobe. Yet this is nothing compared to another time we, getting the taste for it, return in anticipation for another late-hours nerve numbing. It’s those purveyors and promoters of the experimental and the beguiling, Warp Records, and they’re taking hold of the Far Out tent with an aggression hitherto unseen this weekend. Where earlier the emotional resonance of Josh T. Pearson and the Smooth FM-cum-cinematic 80s dream-pop of Destroyer seemed set to stay with those witnessing it for an aeon, they are now obliterated from memory like dust in a storm with the arrival of that totem of noise, Squarepusher. The sky is overcast with night now and the bass virtuoso comes up as though from underground, rising out of the darkness, bringing the earth, the soot and brimstone with him and unleashing it on a crowd whose minds have been lulled into a massaged sense of inanity. Never mind Holy Fuck, they now seem a life time away, the hour’s pulverising we are given veers into grindcore and noise rock, a vigorous assault that captures its vicinity in a death grip embrace that seems to going on for days, weeks. We are enraptured and conscious of our vertebrae moving in ways not quite seemly, and yet we are powerless to prevent it, and nor do we want to – the sensation thrills as much as it hurts, a sonic beating that our Stockholm Syndrome requires more of.
When we come too, some are dazed, many are sat outside on the green, or further down the hill on large logs set in a circle; DiS’ twisted mind imagines them as survivors recounting their experiences and all feels slightly at a loss as Chris Clark attempts to follow his label mate in distorting senses. Normally a fine exponent of this, even Clark has to bow this evening, the glitch and tumbling structures feeling flat in wake of what it has to succeed.
We stumble away groggily back to safety, and the atmosphere has become strange and incoherent. A robot, we think, sings songs about trying to return to space; slumped burnt out bodies are towed away by festival staff; the laughter of children, the Technicolor costumes we see in the day has been replaced by the raved up atmosphere of night. We sleep.
The next night we are back again, though this time we’re feeling our nationality; Gruff Rhys – Super Furry Animal extraordinaire – is on stage and speaking exclusively in Welsh. A homecoming performance made as explicit as can be, his velvet Celt language increases the feel of otherworldliness that has imbued us since we set foot in the valley. The final full daylight we’ve spent here beforehand has been spent trying to recapture the buzz we felt some hours previously, the many charms of our surroundings now eschewed in the sense for harsher sounds. We find them in the form of Tweak Bird and Suuns, the former a two-piece who would’ve eaten She Keeps Bees alive had they seen them back stage, the latter a menacing presence of stoner rock and industrial tendencies. The sun still shines on though, and so does Green Man; food smells waft hither and thither, from Japanese tempura to stoical British steak pie there’s plenty hear to captivate the full gamut of senses. At one point we feel the need to escape completely and find ourselves in a wood illuminated sparsely by lights, another unexplored routes and pathways – this one finds itself coming out at the feet of John Cooper Clarke, the Salford poet who has unexpectedly apparated, his coarse Northern tones briefly providing a flicker of recognition for a place we might’ve come from to be here.
It takes a fire to snap us back to reality; standing at the edge of a large crowd watching our noble host fall. The Green Man, so solid it had seemed, falls disappointingly quickly, flames licking around his torso at pace, hoisting themselves around him and dragging him to the ground in embers as those we’ve shared the weekend with cheer. We become aware that this feeling of ethereality that’s lingered for what’s felt like months is but temporary, that we return to Manchester tomorrow, that we saw Holy Fuck and Explosions In The Sky on Friday, that Squarepusher destroyed us on Saturday and that Gruff Rhys closed the set adequately this evening. Time comes back into focus, we see the man burn and the festival end. We return to normality, but for a while there we truly felt like we were out in another world.
Headlining the second stage initially seemed like a step too far for the DIY electronica four-piece, the group’s repetitive grooves and mechanical clatters struggling to win over the hordes. Yet once ‘Stilettos,’ with its sharp, concise acceleration turned the warp factor up to ten their ascent was swift and in an instant they switched from a curious car boot sale Battles, to a dance troupe of real potency, ‘Lovely Allen’ the final glorious pay-off of a previous hour that saw Holy Fuck truly step up.
Our Broken Garden
Slightly questionable cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘Breathe’ aside, which turns it into a slightly schmaltzy euro-pop hit, Our Broken Garden – project of former Efterklang keyboardist Anna Broensted – are deserving of a far bigger crowd than those who do turn up to see her. Possessing a voice that’s light of touch yet powerful when called upon, she’s a shy but captivating presence atop her backing band’s shimmering guitar shadows. Tracks like ‘In The Lowlands’ and ‘Seven Wild Horses’ twinkle out of the darkness, whilst elsewhere pop sensibilities remain strong on the strutting ‘Garden Grow.’
A startling beast of the night? No, just a man who happens to be one of the most phenomenal bassists we’ve ever seen. Aided by a drummer of equal intensity, Squarepusher took to the stage late Saturday night and offered something that – if we were nitpicking – was lacking in this year’s line-up; a sense of urgency, a surge of tempo, a heavier atmosphere. Utter viscera attached itself to his set, a thundering hour plus that left shoulders quaking and legs entangled with incoherence.
Opening with the slow burning ‘Armed For Peace,’ Suuns instantly set out their stall for a coldly composed set that saw them bring all their myriad influences into line in a display of taut masculinity and aching cool. Not to sound like a fourteen year-old drooling over his favourite rock n’ roll band, like. The Canadians, though, possess that gang aura, whilst managing to infuse their music with so many more complex twists and turns, calling in through psychedelic rock, kraut and industrial to name just three. When they manage to put it all together – as they do on brilliant set closer ‘Sweet Nothing’ – it’s hard not to get carried away.
Perhaps one of the more surprising sets of the weekend; many, many can do the dirty blues two-piece rock thing, but few can do it with the spontaneity and combustion that Illinois duo Tweak Bird brought to their set on Sunday afternoon. It helps that as brothers they’ve a real synergy between them; it also helps that in drummer Ashton Bird they’ve a part-man part-piston behind the kit, a relentless force that drove every which way through and around diminutive sibling Caleb’s 70s metal-leaning guitar shrieks. A freak cover of ‘Children Of The Revolution’ cemented a thirty minutes of riotous enjoyment.