“[Festivals are] snapshots of an imagined ghost of festivals past, with added corporate sponsorship. And oddly, while the corporate stages and tents get imaginative with their neediness, the thing that's really left wanting is the sense of community and spontaneity. The thing that festivals pride themselves on is long dead.”
The was one of many comments that scowled out from the computer screen on an article over at The Quietus earlier in the summer, written in the aftermath of a particularly grizzly city weekender in the north of England. It was hard to disagree; the festival (which I was also at) was somewhat grim, an end of term student rave minus any of the euphoria that such a term would suggest. Instead, the muddy fields were littered with bodies, discarded like wrappers in the wind, bedraggled, clothes torn, bug-eyed and dribbling. People pushed and shoved, the acts on stage (and the line-up was excellent) were given the most cursory of glances – a community this was not.
Sure, plenty of people enjoy chemically twisting their minds at a festival; I’d be lying if I said I spent the entire weekend of Green Man sober. For me, though, the mark of a good festival, of an event where a true sense of escapism can be achieved, is one where those wishing to bend and mirror their minds through a prism can co-exist with the family with the mobile home and the deck chairs set out at the main stage before noon, and both can come away from the weekend with a positive experience. This is what Green Man - now in its 7th year in its current location and celebrating its 10th anniversary – manages to achieve so well. What was noticeable about the festival mentioned in The Quietus article was the way in which people were losing their minds: boredom. There wasn’t much else to do if you wanted a break from watching acts, little thought placed as to alternative entertainment, whilst the location – a public park in the middle of town usually best avoided after dark in its usual guise – didn’t lend itself to simply just being able to sit and take in the whole thing in (albeit the rain didn’t help either, for whom no one can be faulted.) If all you had was akin to a repeated backdrop akin to a 1970s B-movie, only with featureless burger vans and merchandise stores replacing wallpapered walls and potted plants, to stimulate your mind, then extra chemicals aren’t going to leave you coming up roses.
Green Man, though, is a demonstration in many aspects as to how to “do” a festival. Alongside a handful of other British festivals it provides emphatic proof to the contrary that UK festival culture is on its knees. We’ll get to some bands in a bit; the festival itself, though, when at its best, is the sort where you can almost believe that naïve, and these days rather lost, belief that a barmy weekend in the countryside can genuinely alter you as a person. At the last it certainly put me in a good fettle once the initial mourning period for its finish was over. Rain can spoil the best of them, and it came down hard at the beginning of the weekend, but spirits held firm. The event’s greatest asset is its location, placed at the foot of the Black Mountains in south Wales, a luscious green valley that rises up behind the main stage and makes you feel as though you could shout for a thousand years without the outside world hearing you. Even in a Welsh shower, it’s hard not to feel galvanised by this place.
The main stage opens up into a natural amphitheatre, to its right Einstein’s Garden where scientists and performers run through a gamut of exhibitions, beyond that the Walled Garden stage, secluded and giving off the atmosphere of a rural village street, with the bar and a line of food options surrounded by people amiably boozing and watching the stage placed at the bottom of the walled area. The top of the site sees the Chai Wallah tent, which features a bit of an odds and ends line-up that ranges from turn of the millennium coffee table jazz (The Lund Quartet) to more eclectic fare, such as Senegal-born Nuru Kane, who trawls genres worldwide to impart what resonate as folk tales. The Guardianista force is strong here, but we’re not complaining on the Saturday morning when we’re gathering ourselves there after a night that stretched into the daylight hours.
The Green Man himself, tall and leafy and looking as serene as ever, seemingly unaware that he once again faces a most painful end to his weekend, casts his gaze beyond the Chai Wallahs and up towards the Far Out Stage, where, with my clan for the weekend being in our mid-20s and only able to stomach a certain amount of folk music – Green Man is known for its line-up bent towards it and music of a more acoustic hue - spend a lot of our time. Intersecting the site is a courtyard where the Rough Trade shop is, the likes of Willy Mason or Dark Dark Dark popping up to play surprise sets, and another small part of the site that has a different look and feel to it; indeed, the whole place is small enough to feel intimate, yet large enough and with enough different pathways so as never feel like you’re re-treading the same path too often.
It’s small enough to feel like a community too; the booking is excellent here, structured so that the daytime holidaymakers and families can make the most of the line-up, with the intensity levels being gradually picked up as the evening wears on. It means that the mood within the arena area gradually changes, and that those with opposing views on how much they plan on sleeping over the weekend can spend the weekend together. When the two different camps do mix it tends to be at the burning log fire lit at the top of the hill near the Far Out Stage; crowds gather around on logs, catching their breath before heading to bed, gaining some energy before running off again into the night, singing songs, meeting and making new friends; y’know, being a community. It’s something Green Man does better than arguably all the others.
Errors, Far Out, Friday
The breakthrough’s going to happen for Errors, you can sense it. This wasn’t quite the place for it - a late afternoon slot in front of a half-empty tent - but as the trio’s set grows more and more assured, heavily made up as it is now by cuts from latest day-glo pop album Have Some Faith In Magic, there’s the feel that crossover from instrumental-based curios to latter hours party starters is beckoning. An opening salvo of ‘Pleasure Palaces’ and ‘Magna Encarta’ quickly brings onlookers under their hypnotic spell; ‘A Rumour In Africa’ putting the emphasis further on the rhythms. Their set swirls and swivels, punches and weaves, and ultimately leaves a crowd not expecting as much so early completely sucker punched.
Mogwai, Main Stage, Friday
After the success of Explosions In The Sky in the same slot last year, Green Man seem to have cottoned on to the apt fitting of panoramic, instrumental-based rock to their picturesque setting. It also allows us to find out just how loud Mogwai really are; sure they can tear the foundations down in an air-hangar sized venue, but how about a valley? Have you got the stones to try and fill that one boys? It turns out they do, and more. The band put on a performance that grabs hold of every nerve end in the body and activates a switch to set them all off howling and writhing. They toy between wall of sound histrionics and moments of reflective clarity, sometimes, such as at the beginning of ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’, they leave the song lurking for what seems like an age among a debris of other enveloping sounds, raising it up almost on the sly before proceeding to batter us senseless with it. ‘Fear Satan’ is a highlight, as is Young Team companion ‘Like Herod’. Newer material probes well too, but in all honesty, picking out the songs seems futile, it’s as an all-encompassing whole that Mogwai’s set hits you, a dreamlike state within an already dreamlike world.
Yann Tiersen, Main Stage, Saturday
Far from the delicate nature of his soundtrack to the film Amelie, Yann Tiersen provides something of a similarly breathtaking instrumental experience as Mogwai the night before. There’s nothing like the sheer volume on display, but Tiersen, flanked with a full band largely leaves behind his more classical deviations and opts instead to go for a lush sounding set of space-rock drawn largely from recent albums Skyline and Dust Lane. With the sun setting it provides a fitting aural accompaniment, whilst on at least one occasion sets minds wondering as to how great Jean-Michel Jarre would be playing here. Tiersen himself switches from keys to violin, approaching both with a lightness of touch at contrast with the overall power of the songs, he touches on a couple of Amelie numbers, but tonight really is about the Parisian’s more song-based constructions, tracks like ‘The Gutter’ sweeping over the countryside with a jaw-dropping elegance.
Vondelpark, After Dark, Saturday
The great R+S Records take over the After Dark tent on the Saturday night, and though things get higher in profile and more raucous later on with a James Blake DJ set and Lone, among others, its Vondelpark’s midnight showing that impresses most. The four-piece are a mellow beginning to the takeover, but their sultry, glitch-tinctured set of shuffling grooves set against soaring melodies quickly find favour with the gathered crowd. DiS are currently a big fan of London-based producer Halls, but on this performance Vondelpark go right up there with him for poignancy through rhythm.
Teeth Of The Sea, Far Out, Sunday
I’m ready for some weird by Sunday afternoon. Mogwai satiated the loudness, and then R+S took us into the early hours of this morning with Lone, Airhead and The Chain. But Teeth Of The Sea, well they’re unlike pretty much anything else on the bill this weekend. You can see the reaction as they begin to unfurl a set that’ll become pinioned on tribal drumming, squalls of guitar rushing over it with a ferocity hitherto unseen this weekend. Children look terrified, their parents though, who used to wig out to this sort of stuff, wander into the tent with eyes lit alive and heads nodding. Teeth Of The Sea are wonderful live, a psychedelic rock group in the heaviest sense, theirs isn’t a world of flowers and kaleidoscopes; it’s ferocious, a relentless sonic attack that pulverizes the mind into a lucid state.
King Creosote & Jon Hopkins, Main Stage, Sunday
On the surface of it you wouldn’t have really thought that Green Man were putting much emphasis on this year being their 10th anniversary, yet look more closely at the bill and it’s become clear that many of artists of festivals gone by have returned take part this weekend. Few are considered more quintessentially 'Green Man' than King Creosote’s Kenny Anderson; appearing in his usual guise as well as with projects Fence Collective and as part of The Burns Unit over the years, his saccharine pure Celtic burr the perfect fit for the surroundings. Joined by pianist Jon Hopkins, King Creosote’s set draws from their collaborative album Diamond Mine. A telling indicator in the loyal crowd that Green Man manage to attract is that there’s a recognition and a great respect afforded to the singer and his band on the main stage as the evening draws in; his delicately built folk songs met with an almost irreverent silence. Not that it’s a po-faced set; three hang gliders trying their luck to get into the festival manage to land during the set, causing Anderson to quip “ladies and gentleman – the Queen!” and it’s this humour mixed with a heart-on-sleeve lyrical sincerity that really makes this one of the highlights of the weekend.
Tune-Yards, Sunday, Main Stage
Arguably stealing the whole festival is the seemingly impossible to fatigue Merrill Garbus who, as she tells us, is playing the last show of a tour that’s stretched some 18 months. Any sign of lethargy from the multi-instrumentalist is minimal at best, the Garbus giving her vocals an early trip round the obstacle course on opener ‘Party Can (Do You Wanna Live?)’ that truly shows the amazing dexterity of her vocals. She switches between pondering folks artist to soul diva and jazz crooner in one take, a storm of energy that transcends the diminutive figure on stage. It’s an astonishing wake up for the crowd still in dreamy-eyed reverie post-Creosote. Her loopsmith skills are second-to-none but, with the development of her band over the past two years, they aren’t the only pillar on which her set can rise or fall now, her set a constantly rhythmic treat now, though without ever taking the action away from her extraordinary vocal and instrumental talents. At one stage she dedicates a song to recently incarcerated Pussy Riot, to huge cheers from the crowd, before finishing with an encore that’s fully deserved. Telling us that “this is our last gig for a really long time”, Garbus finally exits a w h o k I l l tour with her creative journey at its highest peak yet.