We arrive in Wales (first time caller, long-time admirer) and quickly realise the weather up around these parts goes from extreme to extreme. The mountainous Brecon Beacons could prove to be problematic all weekend.
We notice two things when we arrive. It's a remarkable friendly festival and a massively child friendly one, so much so we query are we in family camping to which we soon find out the whole festival is overrun by families. For some festivals this would certainly be problematic but throughout the weekend you soon realise there is little to no aggro here. People co-exist in peace whether your there for a piss up and a harder edged weekend with your mates or taking your young'un to their first festival everyone is reading from the same hymn sheet and it works spectacularly well.
We get set up and take a stroll through the site. Everything is an easy walk away, the sound on the stages is crisp, and it's got loads of little nooks and crannies worth checking out despite being a pretty cosy site. It's also eco-friendly with recyclable glasses that have handles that enable you to easily transport a whole round of drinks from the bar with ease – one of my non-musical highlights of the weekend.
So far so good but how about the music, eh? Well, our first trip is to see Viet Cong in the far out tent and they utterly smash it. What is a barely half full tent by the time they come on is rammed out the door by the end. The Canadian band formed from the ashes of the defunct 'Women' band have crafted this year's greatest nuts and bolts rock and roll record and they've a live show that arguably even surpasses it. The angular judder of 'Silhouettes' is chaotic genius driving right into your cerebrum. 'Continental Shelf' turns the very idea of an anthemic indie song on its head and becomes something altogether otherworldly. The main praise is reserved for closer 'Death' which turns out to be an epic battle between band members in a close to 15 minute hyper jam that takes the whole tent out of their comfort zone in the best way possible.
Leeds' finest Hookworms are up on the very same stage soon after and they maintain the harsh guitar sounds with swirling expertly build up tracks that keep the crowd on their toes. 'Away/Towards' probably the pick of the bunch with its hectic build into the musical equivalent of maniacal laughter – unsettling yet utterly compelling.
Two intense but great guitar acts leave us seeking something a bit more soulful, something with a bit more funk and the main stage has just that with Atomic Bomb! Who Is William Onyeabor?. A veritable who's who take to the stage to perform the music of William Oneyeabor, the 70s Nigerian funk genius whose music has only come to the fore in recent years. Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip, Money Mark from the Beastie Boys, Pat Mahoney from LCD Soundsystem are just some of the names led by Ahmed Gallab and his band Sinkane. The music is on point and the surprising thing is just how well known the music is throughout the crowd with the majority getting right proper into it with a special kind of love reserved for 'When the going is smooth & good'.
That's warmed us up nicely for the Friday night headliners. Alexis Taylor isn't finished just yet as Hot Chip come to headline the Friday night. Probably an often overlooked band for the wrong reasons, the most consistent live band I've perhaps ever seen and the quintessential festival band. So many good tunes, so much good vibes and if that weren't enough they even crank it up another notch with a finale double bill of covers of Springsteen's 'Dancing in the Dark' and LCD Soundsystem's 'All my Friends'.
These boys know how to throw a party and they continue to do so after their main stage set with DJ sets in the Far Out tent until the small hours of the morning.
Day two and we awake to pretty smashing weather and bemoan how the sun will have its wicked way with our Irish skin this weekend. Regardless, we take up a nice vantage point on the hill and stumble across Colorama, a Welsh band I've never heard of but who skip and hop from one lush pop melody to another with constant ease and the skill of a band that have been doing it for years. They sing in English and their mother tongue as well and it brings to mind indie legends Gorky's Zychotic Mynchi when they do.
Marika Hackman is next up on the main stage and the sun is still glistening and people are mostly sat back and relaxed though a solo act with just a guitar for company is potential recipe for disaster on the main stage. It fits in snuggly here though, that part of the day where people are still more intent on relaxing that getting heavy into it. Her songs are enough to overshadow her awkward stage patter and the seeming naivety of it kind of makes you warm to her anyway.
Songhoy Blues in the Far Out tent is rammed to capacity from the get go. With the sun shining their particular brand of World Music seems particularly suited to an outdoor stage but it becomes quickly apparent that regardless of where they are they are pretty much guaranteed to put a smile on your face and have you dancing. The guitarist seems like the happiest man to pick up an instrument while the front man oozes fun with his dance moves and general infectiousness reaching to the back of the tent. The Malian four piece share many similarities with their Malian contemporaries Amadou and Mariam coming with African music that has a particularly Western influenced slant. It's exuberant, it's catchy, and it's effortlessly brilliant.
It seems like they somehow stole the sun as upon leaving the stage the Welsh weather has done a full 180 and is now pouring down. It does clear in time for Charles Bradley & his Extraordinaires, the one-time James Brown impersonator now dishes out his own tunes with a breath-taking voice and the attitude of the most humble man on the planet. His backing band live up to the billing as they are tight as anyone else around and the gig continues on an absolutely spectacular weekend of musical performances.
It's hard to find a festival where every performance is knocked out of the park and perhaps Television's set on the main stage is one slight low light. They are performing Marquee Moon in its entirety, one of my favourite albums of all time, and to hear it live in any context is a privilege. But it does seem a bit soulless, the screens on stage are shut off for the performance maybe so people can't see up close how much they are just there to rifle through that album again, pick up the cheque and be on their way. I'm glad to have been part of it and musically it's OK, it just seemed in stark contrast to everyone else who'd appeared on that stage that weekend.
Super Furry Animals reformed and headlining a festival in Wales means this should be something utterly mind-blowingly special, right? I think I may have built it up to much in my head but a few things didn't fall right. They were great as ever, but the set list didn't deviate too much from their first set of gigs after reforming and their seemed to be little rapport for a home based crowd (even though it's all a bit of SFAs live shtick). However, a special mention for the teasing of a new song they'd said they'd been working on for nine years that lasted precisely 3 seconds being the funniest on-stage gag of the weekend. The weather played its part too; a torrential downpour started during 'Hello Sunshine' and didn't let up for the entirety of the set.
That downpour didn't stop for a full 15 hours and we awake to an utterly drenched tent, mud everywhere and the absolute need for some heat. We manage to drag ourselves to the main stage for the Antlers who (just like two weeks prior at Visions festival) are phoning in another performance not worthy of the time nor anywhere near the live act I've seen before. A shame to stick around in the mud for.
We bounce up to the Walled Garden and come across Boxed In, the brain child of London-based producer Oli Bayston, the music is pretty instantaneous. It seems like the kind of thing that will have transformed from the small stage to a main stage offering in a short space of time. It's earnest pop music that is easy to get along with and dispels the surrounding awfulness of the weather.
By this time the awful conditions have subsided for the most part and Father John Misty attracts a large crowd on the main stage. I can see the appeal, but it never really hits for me, both on record and live it seems a little contrived or maybe it's just not for me. Either way, I head of to the Far Out tent.
Courtney Barnett, the Australian indie star whose catapulted herself to greatness this year utterly owns the Far Out tent and enchants and enthrals this particular listener for the entirety. Straddling a cavalcade of differing 80s/90s guitar sounds but somehow never letting them seem as if they are anything but entirely her own. The ear for a hook and the killer melodies that pour out with each track potentially results in this being my highlight of the weekend. 'Lance Jr' with its stoner rock scuttle to the achingly sentimental 'Depreston' to the dark existential crisis riffage of 'Pedestrian at Best' show the scope of her ability. No one trick pony and possibly my new favourite artist of the year.
The headline clash of the final night just goes to show the utter quality running throughout the festival. Goat, St Vincent, and Owen Pallett three of the most well regarded live acts on the circuit at the moment are up against each other but GOAT take my attention and they deliver (like they do each and every single time). An incredible mix of styles formed to push a unique spectacle. If Fela Kuti, Niles Rodgers, Iron Maiden and Can ever got the chance to jam you'd imagine this would be the result. I implore anyone, regardless of musical preference, who gets the chance to check these guys live.
The weather has been mental, the crowd has been one of (if not the) best I've ever encountered, the music performances have been out of this world and the attention to detail and vibe have been on point. Until next year Green Man. Salute!
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