Are looks skin deep? There's no denying that Portmerion is a fantastically photogenic location, and indeed much of the festival has a stunning backdrop of Snowdonia behind it, it's practically perfect, but there are a few niggles on my first visit to this year's Festival No.6.
At one point I hear the strains of Harry McClintock's 'Big Rock Candy Mountain' and this pretty Welsh village looks like it's from some dream world where our imaginations run wild. The central piazza is a riot of colour in the sunshine, bees and butterflies dip between the flowers. People laze on striped deck chairs sipping G&T's or reading the free Independent newspapers, listening to the mix of musicians, entertainers, and speakers. It's idyllic for a while, then the beats kick in.
Above the pretty painted houses, up in the woods the speakers boom into life, at one point they are so loud that anyone watching the Brythoniad Male Voice Choir from any vantage point above the packed space directly in front of them during their 50th anniversary performance, can't hear it.
This isn't the only time the music bleeds from one stage to another. On the first night quiet headliners London Grammar are hard to hear above the beats from the VIP tent beside the main stage, moving further back means the Kraken Bar drown out Hannah Reid's vocals. Moving further still to the other side of the crowd the Clough Stage prevents any chance hearing them either.
At other times the various stages in the main area affected each other. After a while it really started to spoil my enjoyment of the acts. There's a lot of carefully chosen acts on offer over the weekend, so noise issues can irk. Luckily there was one area which didn't suffer this fate, the Town Hall. This intimate space that only held 100 festival goers was home to the fantastic reimaginings of Joe Duddell who recomposes the works of Steve Mason, Nadine Shah, East India Youth, and other acts on the bill for the No.6 Ensemble to perform alongside the acts themselves. They are gorgeously clever pieces, worth the ticket price alone, forget drum and bass, this is vibraphone and harp with strings and horns. Wonderful stuff!
Further exploration of the site reveals it is on an isolated peninsular, a walk through the woods beyond the Bear Grylls survival skills area, the off road segway zone, and the various micro dance venues, leads to a viewing area with the best panoramic scene of any festival. A glorious vista expands to the horizon from the purple heather coated cliff across the golden beaches, and the estuary across the rolling green hills to the distant mountains, or out to sea as the occasional scream of a low flying military jet, presumably on Obama watch, ruffling the flocks of birds from the distant trees.
This isolated location means we all must arrive by taxi or shuttle bus, unless we have campervan tickets in which case home is on a sloping field in the heart of the site. Parking our cars down in the valley beside a football club and their arc lights, it's a quick and easy process on the coach, and once at our destination, trolley hire is available to transport gear for those with a lot to carry, or those who are glamping who have the longest walk to their new temporary homes.
Of course those who have booked the costly accommodation in the village have the shortest journey. We opted to park our campervan at a nearby campsite, and walk in each day. It's a lovely walk, but we decide to forego it for a taxi home. Leaving the village, much like the TV series, is a bad idea, taxis are all booked up when we try to order one, so we opt fo the nightmare queue that takes over an hour to get us to the front, people are jumping into the line or ignoring it, and I feel sorry for those with young children who struggle to cope in the darkness.
It's at night that other issues become apparent. Firstly the two areas the village and the main arena are interconnected by large areas tarmac and roads through a wooded area. It's poorly lit, and undecorated and a bit of a dead zone, a single underlit tree shows what could be achieved with a bit more light. I wondered the lack of decor until the nightly procession when many of the families appear to make their way home skirting the main arena.
Suddenly the mood changes with a sudden influx of young dance music fans, here to enjoy the top drawer DJs that pepper the nightly bill. They youth mix with the local population up for a party, and the well to do big spenders who chirp over their plastic champagne flutes. The mixed age range of the daytime suddenly narrows, and on the first night there's a big contingent of Welsh youth here to see London Grammar. They obviously don't get out much as they rapidly get hammered.
On the second night I dream that one of the little houses is a bar stocked with barrels of scrumpy. I awake to realise this is because in reality the only place selling 'cider' has a product that tastes like it's never seen an apple, the bar staff even add a slice of lemon to hide this fact.
It's not all doom and gloom on the drink front, there's a great real ale the bar offering a good selection of local ales and Brew Dog beers. The bar also has one of the best views at a festival. Beers were priced at £4.60 which seemed a bit expensive. Tequila cocktails are £5.60 and our budget rapidly dwindles. The shops are rather bespoke too and anything up to £300 can be spent on handmade fashion items.
The food was priced at around £9 on average, huge portions, high quality produce, and there are decent choices from cheese on toast to vegetarian curries, and thick burgers to jerk chicken. Also on site is the Welsh produce market selling great snacks, delicious award winning pies and a multitude of fresh tasty pasties for £4. The area was also home to a general store/greengrocers selling 2 litre bottles of water over this baking weekend for a sensible £2.
All over the festival there was a range of clean toilets on offer, I'm not sure how they stayed clean in the arena as the ground around them deteriorated from grass to mud, although we only had light drizzle early one morning. In the village bright pink plastic loo boxes are provided.
I haven't yet mentioned the hipster area of the site, the Stoneboat, and estuary stage area located in a sun trap down by the beach. With sunloungers, ice creams, cold lager, and fishfinger sandwiches the area attracted the fashionistas and the posers along with normal folk just there to enjoy the music and the sunshine, when you could hear it over the babbling throng.
Portmerion was the location for cult TV series The Prisoner and this motif is repeatedly referenced, from giant white 'Rover' balloons, to a re-enactment group presenting snippets of the programme in white piped blazers and boaters. There's also screenings of even weirder cult films, and Welsh radio are also on site.
The festival has a slight retro feel because of this, and the amount of vinyl on sale only adds to this, the caterers all in their matching wooden sheds adds to the unique feel of this festival. It's certainly quirky, and the programme reflects this with various performers entertaining the crowds, and interesting workshops and dance classes.
Many of the talks are insightful, although Bez's talk comes across as a bit loopy, he perverts the science. His facts are shot, he says things that are factually inaccurate like TTIP is an agreement with Federal Europe, and loses much of the audience. It's celebrity politics, on issues like fracking, permacuture, gm foods, and bees. All valid issues but shockingly inaccurately delivered.
But it's just another secondary entertainment to the main one - the music, and in this respect No.6 comes up trumps. It offers a great selection of acts and DJs, and despite the noise issues at times I'm very impressed with how good even the acts I've never heard of are, and this along with the location, the quirky woodland venues, and quality food and drink really makes No.6 a success.
I didn't think I'd be keen on the headliners, but really enjoyed London Grammar after their late start once I got three rows from the front to hear it without interruption. Beck played the set I wanted him to play last time I saw him, all the hits, and explosive psychedelic visuals, and a host of guitarists to assist him rock out. At the end he asks if he can come back, and having seen him around site I think he means it. Pet Shop Boys still show the same quality that Neil Tenant's journalism did, but did have some visuals film to look at instead of the pair for a while, before they revealed their crazy costumes and bizarre dances. Concluding their set with the real stars of the festival the Welsh Choir to end with Go West.
Earlier in the day Peter Hook and the Light delight the all ages main stage crowd, as does Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott, Bonobo, Kelis, The Undertones, and the legend that is Martha Reeves and The Vandellas. Temples are a surprise hit, and employ the skills of the No.6 Ensemble to create something unique.
The buzz acts also deliver great sets in the iStage tent particularly good are Tiny Ruins, East India Youth, Nadine Shah, Alexis Taylor, tUne-yArDs, Tom Vek, Toy, The Acid, and headliners Steve Mason, and Jon Hopkins are at the top of their game. The Radiophonic Workshop continue to impress, and elsewhere the guitarwork of Kieran Leonard, and deck mixes of Seahawks really impress me. It's a shame Neneh Cherry & RocketNumberNine have to explain that it's a set of new songs not her hits but a mixed up version of 'Buffalo Stance' delights the persistent crowd.
The Welsh acts showcased in the Clough Stage are also of high quality. Topped by Cate Le Bon, Candelas, and Cian Ciaran all the weekend's acts like Y Pencadlys, Emma Tricca, Mr Phormula, Jane Weaver, and Yr Ods had me dipping into the tent to hear more.
Add to the a host of late night DJs, comedians, carnival processions, marching bands, writers, and poets and you have a wealth of decent entertainment. Festival No.6 is only in it's third year and still ironing out the kinks, I have no doubt it will become one of the most attractive in the festival calendar. They just need to sort out the noise issues, the taxi provision, and put a little work into the blanker areas of the site. I have realised like Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner the village has grown on me and I've missed it since I've left, and I wonder how many times at festivals next summer I will think 'I'd rather be in the village'.
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