As thousands of music fans were lamenting the last minute cancellation of ATP Festival’s Jabberwocky event in London due to not making enough money to actually stage the event, it was a different story altogether across the border in Wales at Green Man Festival.
Another sell out year, with an impressive line-up boasting many ATP-style bands playing alongside a more folky contingent and the standard Bristol-heavy Chai Wallah’s fare, Green Man is already being hailed as one of the best yet in the world of Twitter and Facebook and this reviewer is inclined to agree.
If the weather forecast was to be believed, Thursday night was set to be a washout but weather forecasters are about as believable as Paul McCartney’s London 2012 performance. Save for a few showers, the weekend weather is as brilliant as the festival itself. It puts everyone in a great mood and helps add to the impeccable vibe. (There were several stories of people losing wallets/phones/cameras which were handed in fully intact for them to be merrily reunited with). *group hug*
But there’s more to a festival than the weather and a good old dollop of honesty. If Green Man organiser Fiona Stewart (whose festival-organising CV also includes the likes of Glastonbury and The Big Chill) was to offer ATP some advice, what would it be? How does Green Man festival go from strength to strength as other’s struggle to stay afloat? Why does this mainstay of the festival calendar sell out and run so smoothly where others fail so spectacularly?
First off, until Festival No.6 came along it was the biggest alternative festival in Wales and the Welsh contingent here every year must not be underestimated, but that doesn’t mean people don’t travel from far and wide for this beaut, because they really do. The line-up is eclectic enough to attract a range of people, but not so much that each genre is so thinly spread you don’t want to spend £150+ on going.
Each stage has its own distinctive vibe. The main Mountain Stage could clinch the title for the most picturesque stage in the country (though End of the Road’s Garden Stage is hot on its heels). Nestled in a valley below the domineering mountain from which it gets its name, there’s a natural camber to the land perfect for a) sitting down and watching bands with an uninterrupted view on and b) rolling down. Hours of fun. It’s here that we see the likes of Beirut, Sharon Van Etten, and First Aid Kit.
The Far Out tent, as the name suggests, tends to veer towards the bands with a bit more bite. It’s here we witness a banging set from Caribou and an outstanding show from Fat White Family - living up to the hype with guitarist Adam stealing the show with his intense guitar skills. The only problem is, this tent gets absolutely rammed. Rain or shine, you’ll struggle to move in here. There’s a screen outside to combat that, but the sound is shit there - like Hyde Park shit.
The Walled Garden is one for those mellow afternoon sets from the likes of The Gentle Good(Welsh melancholy indie), East India Youth (genre-defying, game-changing sounds) and My Sad Captains (like a credible, independent U2). It’s safe and nice and is full of festival moments. It’s also home to some of the best food stalls. But while there’s some great live sets here, including a headline slot from Parisian indie-popsters Francois & The Atlas Mountains, it’s the after hours DJ sets which really bring it to life. DJ Jen Long’s absence was noted, but Moshi Moshi, Heavenly, and Feeling Gloomy DJs made for very good substitutes - enticing a whole bunch of 30 and 40-somethings up from their seats to dance with textbook indie disco sounds, we’re talking Nirvana, Clash, Pulp, Weezer, Pet Shop Boys, Prince, Kate Bush, The Smiths...the list goes on. No Manics though. Gutted.Green Man Rising is tucked away behind the mini lake, which this year swaps its model elephant for a dragon - much to the disappointment of many Green Man veterans, the Douglas Fir forest sits in darkness this year too, where it usually is lit up with stunning purple and green lights. But that does little to detract from the overall awesomeness of this Mary Poppins of festivals (practically perfect in every way...groan). It is on this stage, you’ll hear the up and coming acts - some sound, some less so.
Then we have Chai Wallah’s the late night offering from the famous-in-festival-circuits Bristol promoters. If the people in this tent were a pie chart, it’d be split three ways - people from Bristol, people from Brighton, people from elsewhere. The place to be after 2am (and sometimes before, thanks to the billing of some ace festival acts such as Smerins Anti-Social Club, Sheelanagig, and The Drop), you need only look at the bar menu to get a taste for the in-house vibes - brandy chai, rum hot toddy, alcoholic smoothies and cocktails, tiny lethal cocktails. It’s also a stone’s throw from the giant Green Man himself and associated bonfire.
The musical highlights of this year’s festival are far too numerous to cover in this review, but topping the list is Anna Calvi’s mindblowing Sunday afternoon set. Cutting a slender figure against a plain black backdrop, the spellbinding songstress totally owned the stage. Armed with nothing but a hurricane force voice and cache of guitars so beautiful you want to make sweet, sweet love to them - something Calvi as good as does here. Having played guitar since the age of 8, we witness moments of pure magic as she caresses, bends and circles her Fender Telecaster - reigning in her voice to create intensely pregnant pauses among the booming balladry. In places, she harnesses Duane Eddy vibes before belting out some PJ Harvey-style vocals. Stunning. Like a female Nick Cave (with whom she’s previously been on tour with), she oozes sex appeal as she subtly moves around the stage, like a secret siren. It’s not often you’re left needing a cold shower and a fag after a music gig but that’s effectively what happens here (and we’re in luck, the showers here are freaking freezing).
The War on Drugs’ Saturday night set, before Mercury Rev, takes a Bruce Springsteen energy and twang and combines it with that Kurt Vile cool. This is the dancy set of the day and sees air-punching moments punctuated with real foot stomping sessions. Kurt Vile and Johnny Lynch (aka Pictish Trail) really earn their keep this festival, both playing two sets - Vile with his Violators and Johnny with fellow Scot James Yorkston.
The crowd goes mad for Augustines, formerly We Are Augustines, whose Future Islands style fervour lifts their music from a poor (wo)man’s Bruce Springsteen (no bad thing) to the dizzy heights of a rockier version of Felice Brothers. The weekend has its fair share of melancholic male singer/songwriters - the best of which was Sun Kil Moon/Mark Kozelek might look like an indie Paul Potts (Britain’s Got Talent dude) and appear to have the charisma of a film extra from some blue collar coming of age yarn, but his vocals and lyrics sure do pack a punch - so much so that guys can be seen openly weeping during the set. Life-affirming stuff, that. Expectations are high from his peer Bill Callahan (formerly Smog), but sandwiched between Anna Calvi, and Neutral Milk Hotel he’s got a tough task and leaves many of the younger folk deeming him boring - an unfair assumption but understandable in this instance. Perhaps he would’ve been better off headlining one of the smaller stages to a crowd of his people. It’s a shame his performance was marred by these comments as he was on top form. Dressed in a cream suit, looking like a more dapper, cleaner cut version of Wayne Coyne (Flaming Lips) he cracks smiles and busts out his signature side step as his strums his green guitar and showcases his testosterone-heavy, staccato voice.
Neutral Milk Hotel, despite seemingly playing almost every festival in existence this year, prove quite the draw. Lead singer Jeff Mangum’s iconic vocals are teamed up with the organised chaos that is his band - lots of in your face sounds merge with the poignant and inspirational lyrics to create compelling sing-a-long songs such as ‘In An Aeroplane Over The Sea’ and ‘Two Headed Boy’. Having seen them several times since Mangum returned to the scene with the aforementioned ATP Festival, it’s a bit painting by numbers now, but you can’t fault the execution of such a well-received back catalogue of material.
Whether it’s a happy accident or goes hand in hand with being headed by a woman (a rarity in the contemporary festival scene), this weekend sees no shortage of female artists on bills which could easily become male heavy - from the bigger names of Angel Olsen, and Sharon Van Etten to the likes of Neko Case, Daughter, and Womans Hour. It’s both refreshing and wholly warranted.
Like Glastonbury Festival, you could probably spend an entire weekend at Green Man Festival without seeing a single band. If you’ve got kids, which probably about half the crowd here did have - but not in a way which limits the fun of childless folk - the daytime kids area’s full of activities, Sunday sees a massive parade of Alice in Wonderland characters old and young marching around the main arena and you can’t escape the kid friendly stuff going on around the site - from the massive bubble machines to the messy play and big helter-skelter, it’s clearly nailed the family friendly thing on the head without turning it into a festival for kids a la Camp Bestival.
If you’re game for a laugh, the comedy tent hosts a bunch of comedians - male and female - throughout the weekend. Some hit, some miss. Mark Olver made for a terrific compare once more. The unmistakable Bristolian, whose day job is warming up the crowd for Deal or No Deal, kept the laughter flowing as he picked on audience members for being born before Gazza cried - depressing huh? He introduced a range of acts, including TV’s Josh Widdicombe, who packed out the tent and the field beyond and the extremely hairy Nick Helm whose spangly, skin-tight suit and musical mix of hilarious songs, which wouldn’t be out of place on an episode of Shooting Stars, were complimented by his questionable but somehow funny one liners such as ‘What do you call a choc ice with a moustache? Magnum P.I.’
Einstein’s Garden is a treasure trove of experiments, useful stalls (it is here that you can cycle to charge your mobile phone, how about that?!) and entertaining talks and workshops. Inside Nature’s Giants presenter Simon Watt is becoming a firm favourite at this festival, though this is one for adults only. He puts on two talks, the first explores the Stephen Fry-backed initiative, ‘Ugly Animal Preservation Society’, to elect an ‘ugly’ animal close to extinction and stop the panda stealing the show. Later on was ‘Frogs and Friends’, which looks at the wonder (and sex lives) of frogs. Did you know the first ever pregnancy test involved peeing on a frog? You do now.
NoFit State Circus has a presence here too, putting on their breathtaking shows on site - it’s an initiative which sees random rope acts hanging from trees outside the Pieminister stand. Which brings us onto food. There’s a good selection of food here, from standard festival offerings of burgers, chips, wraps and pies to a good mix of international offerings - Spanish, Asian, Indian, Moroccan and French cuisine as well as the obligatory Goan Fish Curry stall (all the best festivals have this don’t you know). The ice cream stands clearly make a killing this weekend too. The only criticism is, where a meal used to set you back a modest, ahem, fiver - here you’re probably not going to get much change for a tenner. And where other festivals seem to price fix, here doesn’t, making it well worth your time to shop around - coffee and water varied from £1 a pop to £2.50 a pop and anything in between - burgers ranging from £3.50 to £8!
The booze selection here is excellent - the Green Man festival ale, Growler, is especially quaffable and the cider is proper cider made from apples, none of this concentrate crap. However, the piece de resistance is the cider and ale festival tent, which lists no less than 100 different types of ciders and ales for you to try - granted many sell out throughout the weekend, but get their early and you’ll have your pick.
We’ve covered music, food, booze, comedy, science, kids, DJs, the crowd etc. the only thing left to mention is the annual burning of the green man - taking place after the final act on Sunday evening, something which many people miss due to hotfooting it home on the last night. It’s kind of Wicker Man meets Last Night of the Proms with a spiritual, ritual burning of this behemoth sculpture which has been watching over the festival like a Greek god combined with a startlingly fantastic fireworks display - think Lewes on Bonfire Night, but slightly less sinister. A spectacle to behold and something not to be missed. The only thing is, it’s a somewhat sad moment as you realise you’ll have to wait another year to be back here.
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