It was such pleasure to discover the gem that is the Green Man festival. Hidden away in a verdant valley in the Brecon Beacons National Park, the festival’s site is overwhelmingly picturesque. I would have been content to sit back and just take in the mountain views, but Green Man offered so much more. In every niche of its park landscape there was something of interest. Across the many stages a mix of performers, worthy of the best efforts of a Radio 6 curation committee, provided a musical soundscape from midday until dawn. Add to that a stage devoted to spoken word and comedy, a Cinema tent, science garden, two kid’s compounds, pop up performers roaming the site, the best in caterers and concessions and you’ll get an idea of the total festival experience on offer at Green Man.
The festival site was on 400 acres of riverside parkland on a bend in the river Usk just outside of Crickhowell. The slab topped summits and steep sided ridges of the Black Mountains framed the site in the river valley below, from where parkland rises across the floodplain and then up terraces and trackways to a low hill. Well maintained veteran trees dotted all around the park, 120 varieties of Oak alone are represented, and are testament to a history of estate management which is also reflected in the park’s landscaping. A structure of scenic viewpoints, enclosed spaces, terraced slopes, avenues and trackways gave an ideal festival topography. Camping was on the good flat ground on the floodplain, and gave easy pitching and good drainage. The main stage, called the Mountain Stage due its mountainous backdrop, sat in an amphitheatre-like space with a flat area in front of stage contained by a steeply set bank of terraces.
Caterers and concessions lined the terrace tops and created colourful boulevards leading towards a stone built courtyard where a real ale bar, selling 99 beers and ciders. A trackway lead onwards towards the beautiful enclosed space of the Walled Garden stage and then out into fields to the Last Laugh Talking Shop. Upslope was the festival’s second stage, a big top tent called Far Out stage, then further upwards at the top of the low hill my favourite place, the Chai Wallahs Stage, where there was also a sisha bar, a blazing fire lit from dusk ‘til dawn and a giant green man structure made of foliage gathered around from the park. In the spaces inbetween the main routes were a further dozen stages and areas tucked away hither and thither, by ponds, in copses, down trackways and through unlikely looking doors. It was an utterly amazing site, a real Pandora’s box, thanks to the clever layout I bimbled around all weekend and was still turning up new stuff on Sunday evening.
It was an epic undertaking to keep the entertainment going pretty much non-stop for four nights and three days, and it took the best part of 1500 performers. Not only bands but fire-juggling trapeze artists, puppeteers, pop-up drummers, walking tours, children’s entertainers and scientists. Any number of others you could think of, plus more you couldn’t. We had Julian Cope in conversation, talks on the history of LSD from Andy Roberts, comedians like Josh Widdicombe and Isy Suttie and those lads from Badults, concept films like Radiohead’s catchily titled ‘The Most Gigantic Lying Mouth Of All Time’ and Karl Hyde’s ‘The Outer Edges’ and future science from the likes of Bruno Zamborlin whose ‘Mogees’ - system transforms any object into a musical instrument just by placing a contact microphone on it. All of it completely fascinating, a staggering variety of really interesting things to see and do for kids and adults, comparable to what you might come across (with some effort) at Glastonbury, but on about a tenth of the ticket sales. Very impressive.
And then there was the music, a Radio 6 listeners dream. From the mind-melting Clannad drone of Darkat to breezy Norwegian singer/songwriters Kings of Convenience. We had kid band By The Rivers doing energising ska music and Brighton dubsters Resonators rolling out the cheery bass sound, The Mouse Outfit on the comedy hiphop tip, Fuck Buttons for thinking-persons dance music and Andrew Weatherall at the controls for DJ Set. I danced in the rain to late night rare groove at the Heavenly Jukebox, held within the confines of the Walled Garden. On the folkier side of things we had the infectious smiling energy of The Urban Folk Quartet and then there was Lau – their set like a mind-expanding hot air balloon ride; a scary take-off, an inspiring but nerve-jangling ride and then an unpredictable descent back to earth. On a lighter note there was any number of easy on the ear ‘alt-folk’ bands like Rozi Plain and Polly and the Billets Doux or the more poppy Ellen and the Escapades. We had singer songwriters of the highest calibre like Steve Mason, Edwyn Collins and Ben Howard.
These are the acts you might normally miss because they clash with a must-see, but not at Green Man. Here the usual second stage and support acts are the headliners, for example Band of Horses - the South Carolina boy’s Mountain Stage set was their first ever headlining a festival. Their audience was a little sparse on account of the pouring rain, but those who stayed had grand ol’ time. The band’s rootsy-rock sound filled the amphitheatre, bass pressure reverberating back from the terraces. Horsepower took on a new meaning, it truly was a sublime experience.
Thanks to the packed roster there was always something that caught the attention and rewarded the bimbling approach to festivalling. Walking towards Midlake on Friday night I came across Birth of Joy’s set at Chai Wallah’s. Their sixties inspired psychedelic superfuzz sound had me rocking out before I knew it, and had already had a similar effect on their audience. More like Trees did a similar trick, the young band’s manic flamenco meets drum and bass sound had the Chai Wallah tent getting down to a magnificent version of ‘Down To The River To Pray’ on what would otherwise have been a lazy Sunday afternoon. At Green Man there really was something for most musical palates, and even if an act wasn’t to your taste you could be sure that by either moving on or waiting for the next act there soon would be something to satisfy.
That said for me there were a few must-sees. Patti Smith headlined Thursday night with the sort of dark, brooding poetic moodiness that you might expect from the renowned ‘Godmother of Punk’. On the other hand John Cale was a revelation. Being the first time I’d seen him live I expected a show from ‘Mr Velvet Underground’ of droning cellos and dark, druggy misery, but got surprisingly catchy melodies and a life affirming positive vibe. Not knowing the words my imagination loved filling in the gaps, taking a dog (not tomahawks) for a ‘Satellite Walk’ and doing hard time in the Milky Way, rather than ‘Nookie Wood’, to be honest each makes as much sense as the other. My word it was a great show, the band were super-tight and Mr Cale’s charisma and vocal delivery got straight into my brain and sent it off on a You Tube research mission through his back catalogue. Finally a Roy Harper set really can’t be missed, and his Green Man performance had all the jingle-jangle soul rebel vibrations that have entranced audiences since the first Glastonbury Fayres over forty years ago, long may they continue to do so.
Green Man has a real buzz about it, the beautiful site and cerebral line up attract a top quality festival goer, recognisable from the other side of the tracks at Glastonbury, the younger end of WOMAD and the better dressed of Beautiful Days. There were a few coked up asses, but in general the twenty-to-thirty-somethings bumped along very nicely together, sharing an eclectic taste and love of discovery, and a seeming need to queue for cash machines - the green Pound was definitely spent freely. It was particularly refreshing to hear the wonderful lilt of the Welsh language and tongue around the site.
As the festival’s name indicates there’s a distinct nod towards the new agey, natural religion/earth power side of Festival culture. From the runic typefaces used on the signage and programme to the setting alight of the foliate Green Man to culminate the festival. At this festival the ‘Green’ ethos actually materialised in people’s behaviour, rubbish ended up in recycling bins, not all over the ground. Caterers aren’t allowed to bring disposable plastics on site, so landfill waste was minimised. There was a refillable water bottle scheme, pedal powered stages and straw bales for site furniture. Local products and materials were used, so the wood for the sauna is from the park, venison comes from a farm less than a mile away. All wonderful stuff, and very encouraging to see put into practice so successfully.
I had an awesome time at Green Man, I loved the place, I loved the bands and I loved the ethos. This is definitely one to recommend to any festival goer capable of putting their plate into the correct recycling bin, and who doesn’t have to already know the name of a band to enjoy their music.
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