There’s one major problem with Green Man festival, one of the best-kept of the UK’s musical summer secrets, and that is that there is far too much to see, hear and do to be packed into one weekend. It’s also impossible to do justice to just how special the whole experience is: the answer lies somewhere between the gorgeous setting (a misty valley and in the shadow of the hulking Black Mountain), the sheer breadth of the programme and the conscientious, fun-seeking crowd. It also remains one of the country’s largest and well-patronised festivals that has somehow escaped corporate intervention, thanks largely to the work of managing director Fiona Stewart.
So: prepare yourself for a review that will paw at the edges of the Green Man Experience but, ultimately, fail to capture it properly. That task remains the honour of a magical verdant stretch of the River Usk, just along from Crickhowell, where it rains pretty consistently and nobody seems to mind.
For those lucky enough to have bought a Settler’s Pass, which allows punters to pitch up four days early at the Green Man site in search of hilly walks, pub lunches and evening entertainment, an array of bands have already been enjoyed - Cardiff jazz-cum-post-rock ensemble Duski are, apparently, a highlight – but Thursday marks the real musical kick-off at the second stage, the Far Out tent. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard are a spritely and chaotic introduction, but it’s next door in the homely Chai Wallahs tent where most Green Man-goers will end up at least once in their weekend. The nomadic stage also appears at Kendal Calling and Shamabla, but here in Wales there’s a Leicestershire reggae act called By the Rivers who are one of the first acts to get people off their feet and swaying.
The treat of the night, however, is definitely Wild Beasts. A fresh set under the blue canvas is packed with cuts from the Leeds quartet’s fifth album, Boy King, which was released earlier in the month, continues their descent from art-pop beginnings into the depths of synthesizer-town. New single ‘Big Cat’ and track ‘Get My Bang’ are both megalithic in their electronic power, Hayden Thorpe’s enormous falsetto far more controlled than on previous outings, but many of the new album’s tracks are guilty of being a bit indistinct at times. The crowd roars when they get round to a few hits from 2009’s Two Dancers, and a set that closes out with a giddy rendition of ‘Hooting and Howling’ and flirty whoops of ‘All the King’s Men’ reminds us that, despite their new sonic clothing, Wild Beasts are still making hungry and thrilling music.
It’s over to the main stage to catch the end of Tony Njoku, winner of the festival’s Rising competition that identifies hot new talent and lets them open up the weekend proper before, via The Oh Hellos’ breakneck bluegrass set, seeing Phil Cook and the Guitarheels. Though he’s already appeared in a number of different guises at the festival, most memorably with Megafaun and, for a song, The Tallest Man on Earth back in 2010, it’s a maiden voyage for Cook’s latest project, and one the crowd laps up even in the thin drizzle. He teaches us ‘Ellis, It’s Time to Wake Up’, a bluesy ditty intended to coax his own son out of bed and so too the Green Man faithful out of their stupor.
At Far Out, the crowd thickens for Kamasi Washington as it pelts down outside and thins after many realise that standard currency for the set is 15-minute funk and jazz jams, but those who remain are blasted with an intense, rollicking hour of power. Not only does he wheel out his own father Rickey to spice up proceedings with some flute, but even bassist Miles Mosley takes centre stage with a track from his own upcoming debut. “Ain’t nobody play the upright bass like Miles”, Washington offers, and he’s not wrong: what follows is a pulsing showcase of bowed and plucked wizardry. The band has an amazing gift for turning the complicated weirdness of big jazz sounds into an accessible, engaging form that, by the end of the set, has everyone near-moshing in delight.
The rest of the day is spent exploring Einstein’s Garden – a beautiful selection of stalls and tents dedicated to teaching festival-goers about science or nature – and the well-stocked real ale bar, which has almost 80 different local tipples to pick from. Night-time brings with it Floating Points, who make their huge Glastonbury appearance look understated this time round with madcap visuals and a relentless set list, and a slightly deflated James Blake, who skips many of his earlier hits in favour of a contemplative outing that draws most heavily from latest LP The Colour in Anything: it’s haunting, beautiful almost but, as one viewer shouts out, “a bit fucking miserable, James”. After such a come-down Charlotte Church’s Late Night Pop Dungeon is an unexpected kick up the arse, a bit like a drunken karaoke session pelted out by an immaculate set of Welsh lungs.
Yorkston, Thorne & Khan are a fascinating proposition, mixing Gaelic melancholia with the mournful cry of a sarangi, a short-necked bowed instrument from India whose greatest exponent was Suhail Yusuf Khan’s grandfather. The Unthanks are, as ever, a treat out in the open air, blending traditional English and Northumbrian folk music with other forms – there’s some chamber pop, classical backing from a string quartet, even elements of musicals here – and capped off with percussion courtesy of sisters Beck and Rachel’s feet. After that, Cate Le Bon provides a sharp but welcome contrast with a slice of hot Cardiffian vigor. Her music treads several fine lines – somewhere between post-punk and pastoral, if you had to pin it down – and is charmingly off-kilter throughout, her lyrics in particular are dense and desensitising.
Speaking of weird, we’ll cut to Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, who bring their caravan full of zany activities to the mountain stage, led with infectious charm by frontman Alex Ebert who swigs from a wine bottle and a pack of smokes alternately throughout. A cover of John Lennon’s Instant Karma and advert-gracing hit ‘Home” are real highpoints of the festival, let alone their slot, as is a heart-warming proposal in the crowd that Ebert swings over to listen in on. Laura Marling, meanwhile, cuts an icy, poised figure in her headline slot. Her songs – a mix of a few old favourites alongside newer cuts – have been polished and pulled into their most powerful forms yet, comprising a tight, taut set list. Something’s missing though: there’s a bit of distance between her and the crowd, a lack of friendliness or familiarity maybe, and adoring faces are shocked when she leaves with 15 minutes to go and not an encore to be seen.
Before the evening’s up, there’s just time to slot in the end of New York math-rockers Battles, and a joyous end it is too, an extended, frenetic jam unfolding into a stunning rendition of ‘The Yabba’. After them it’s the turn of edgy white indie’s latest darlings, Fat White Family, who snarl and spit at the Far Out audience over growling synths and repetitive guitars. The hundred-strong teenage contingent at the front enjoy it well enough – Christ, it makes us feel old and boring – but for all their posturing the music barely stands up alone. Style over substance wins out.
After a night of passing a bottle around a huge campfire that forms the nexus of the festival after dark, Margaret Glaspy is an excellent tonic the next morning. Though she’s got the familiar delivery of other ingénue-hipster singers and a guitar pedal board to back it up, Glaspy’s set is equal parts joyous grungy garage-rock and heartfelt songwriting. It might be a bit blue for a young Sunday lunchtime audience, though: “Tonight I’m a little too turned on to talk about us/Tomorrow I’ll be too turned off and won’t give a fuck” she growls at picnicking families.
Sticking around the Mountain Stage, via a visit to the amazing Goan fish curry van, we hear Daniel Norgren’s Swedish three-piece (not a euphemism) bust out some slacker jams and Hackney indie-rockers Gengahr play with the swagger of hardened festival-entertainers, their psych-rock heavy, frazzled but focused. Rebecca Taylor and Charles Watson, aka Slow Club, are another welcome addition: Taylor’s soaring vocals and some intricate arrangements seeing the Sheffield group’s biggest climaxes (see: ‘Tears of Joy’) rise above even the looming rain, and their gentler moments some sleepy wonder. Exiled Malians Songhoy Blues provide an hour of unrivalled joy just after, with euphoric frontman Aliou Touré leading a crowd who had thus far barely moved in riotous shape-throwing. Exiled from Timbuktu due to the growing influence of a puritanical religious group, Ansar Dine, the lads now effortlessly blend African cross-rhythms with hot blues licks.
There’s a bit of a rush to the Walled Garden to see melancholic megagroup Whitney, the project of Chicago natives Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich, who deliver a boozy, drifting set of sun-kissed ballads. There’s just time to stick our heads into the comedy tent to see The Horne Section’s silly brilliance, bandmaster Alex Horne leading the audience in some alternative Zumba therapy and instructing in the power of the lick from ‘Baker Street’, before Warpaint bring us back down to earth. New tracks from upcoming album Heads Up, including teased banger ‘New Song’, are a little more peppy than the LA foursome’s previous work, but still majestically glowering and sinister.
Though the main event on Sunday is Belle and Sebastian’s barnstormer, in which they invite most of the Green Man faithful onto stage to dance to ‘Boy With the Arab Strap’ and almost cause a structural collapse, others head over to see Grandaddy close out the Far Out tent. After a few years in self-imposed silence, the Modesto, CA space cadets deliver a tight retelling of old hits – ‘A.M 180’ and ‘Now It’s On’ included – and even a new track to a tent-full of rapt nerds. Twinkling, weird synths and samples splay out under Jason Lytle’s swallowed falsetto as he tells stories about humanoid robots with real feelings or towns that suck out people’s souls, while Jim Fairchild’s bristling and muscular guitar drives the crowd wild.
The burning of the Green Man, this year a reclining wooden sculpture holding aloft a tankard, is a perfect if almost unnecessary ending to proceedings, fireworks and singalongs included. In denial and on lagging legs we nip round again to the Walled Garden to see rock royalty Pete Paphides spin a characteristic grab-bag of hits and grab a bag of penny sweets from the only stand still open. Even Caitlin Moran’s appearance in the crowd – and her daughter’s ascension to the decks – isn’t enough to stay up for, though, and it’s back to the tent and back to reality tomorrow. Hopefully, we’ll be back to see the next Green Man burn as brightly next August.
Words by Laurie Havelock
Images courtesy of Green Man Festival