A few years ago, one comedian defending his love of the first Latitude festival to his disdainful, illegal rave purist friend said, ‘Do you know why I like that festival? Because sometimes I just like to eat nice food, in a nice place and have a nice sit. Then, and only then, can I dance like a tit in the woods’.
If you stretch the word nice to also mean ‘wonderfully odd with impressive views’, then Festival No.6 might want give him a call. The choice of Portmeirion, the slightly nutty, folly-esque town on the North Welsh coast best known for Sixties TV series The Prisoner, seemed a precariously ambitious idea at first - no car access or usable train station nearby, North Wales in September – but in the end its extraordinariness worked. That, and a strong indie line-up, a real attention to visual details and gourmet range of food stalls, all combined to deliver a boutique festival actually worth travelling for.
The site was split into two, one a field ringed with food stands (thoughtfully curated by the team behind Manchester Food and Drink Festival), tents and stalls overlooking the estuary, then down the hill, the town of Portmeirion itself, completely taken over and dotted with small stages. Nothing really is quite like the town of brightly coloured, toy-townish buildings and gardens and it makes a perfect backdrop for a festival. The weirdness that was brought out in The Prisoner – the psychedelic paint palette, the human chess board, the strangely dressed figures, the giant bubble – were played with and fitted perfectly into a festival aesthetic. The woods were littered with mini stages, where anyone could dance like tit or otherwise and the estuary beach served as a great additional spot to bimble about and take in the scenery.
Due to the long-winded nature of the journey, crowds were thin for Richard Hawley’s fittingly tranquil set on Friday night and also took a while to build for headliners Spiritualized. Good job then that they started quietly calmly (no drums for the first 20 mins) and only played the rousing hits halfway through. One advantage of a smaller wast the view through the side of the tent to the impressive Fire Garden beyond, with flames serendipitously pulsing and exploding in time with ‘She Kissed Me (It Felt Like a Hit)’. Not really the usual massive performance from the band, but the crowd left happy.
Saturday’s talk-heavy line up was graced with some brilliant strong, funny women, Maxine Peake, Grace Dent and Caitlin Moran, who were all interviewed by Stuart Maconie. The slight lack of structure of the chats might have been a little awkward with anyone else, but these three totally pulled it off. Down facing the beach, the Estuary stage came to life after a day of DJs when the sun came down and King Creosote came on. This highlighted one of the real advantages of the festival: the small intimate stage and setting gave you the impression that he’d just rocked up in your back garden to play for your mate’s birthday. And this made for a great, warm atmosphere, topped when a young lad got to go on stage to play (sort of) the guitar with the band just because he’d asked.
Stars of the festival’s promotional video, Brythoniad Male Voice Choir, played each night outside the Pavilion just before the village was closed off and on Saturday they were preceded with a lantern procession through the streets. So, when they sang their beautiful cover of New Order’s 'Blue Monday' and their emotional tribute to the Hillsborough families, 'You’ll Never Walk Alone', it was to a backdrop of bobbing lights as well as the ever present giant bubbles.
The crowd then moved from all points of the site to the main stage for Primal Scream who offered a perfect Saturday night ‘best of’ set, on form and evidently enjoying themselves. The crowds were then quick to queue for Mr Scruff, so it was a slight shame then that he had chosen a more smoother, more laid back, Latin flavoured set instead of his jumpy, high energy sets he usually packs at festivals.
Unfortunately Sunday started with a grey blanket of fine rain, so many seemed to stay tent bound in the day, but those who did emerge were treated to a funny, affectionate (if not very quiet) talk from writer and friend of Portmeirion’s designer, Jan Morris. She fondly fleshed out the character of architect Clough Williams-Ellis whilst explaining some of the village’s stranger trompe l'oeil features and some of famous writers (Daphne du Maurier, Noel Coward, Bertrand Russell etc) who’d stayed there. Even against the background of howling wind and sideways rain, she made it all seem delightful.
Later on the main stage, 6 Music joined the festival for a live broadcast and starting with Field Music, who entertained a small crowd of evidently hardened fans with a great selection of new tracks, quiet banter and much loved hits. But the crowd visibly swelled for Gruff Rhys and eventually everyone still on site all emerged for New Order who played a rousing, hit heavy set that blasted away thoughts of the weather.
It was obvious that thought and love had gone into the ethos and style of the festival, but there were a few teething problems. The downside of a festival where crowds tend to sit is that it all comes pretty unstuck when it starts to rain. Granted, any British festival-goers are braced for this and the organisers had evidently thought about it – most of the stages including the main stage were undercover. But there weren’t that many acts on in the day on these undercover stages, and that’s unfortunately when the rain took hold. Quite a few people left early on the Sunday and those who stayed played a game of ‘hunt the shelter’ that saw Portmeirion’s tourist hotel, shops and cafes become crowded holding bays. It also accidentally highlighted the one part of the line-up that hadn’t perhaps had as much attention (or budget) than the rest, the comedy. As people flocked to the comedy stage to take shelter, they were treated to some slightly amateur material before Marcus Brigstocke saved proceedings.
Getting to the site was always going to be tricky considering the lack of access and the organisers managed very well, but those on public transport were a little forgotten (they did put on a few extra buses on the way there but many had to queue for hours to get a bus leaving the site). Camping fields were cramped, Portmeirion village closed early and there was a general lack of information about what was on when: programmes sold out and it wasn’t clear when line-ups had been changed. All of these could, and no doubt will, be improved for next year.
And here’s hoping they do. As many of the performers at the festival pointed out, it’s about time someone put on a festival in Wales and near the North West. If it's not quite the finished article yet, Festival No.6 looks to be that festival, a perfect compliment to pretty, quietly crackers Portmeirion.
Photo by Gary Wolstenholme