Festival No.6 had to come back with character and class after an unfortunate washout last year. The reliably shite Welsh weather, too many ticket sales and the ill-fated decision to use a flood plain as a car park meant the conclusion of 2016’s event, despite an amazing line-up, was marred in some people’s minds.
This year the organisers shifted the car park high up into the hills and avoided thousands of cars having to be abandoned again. They also wisely lined the main thoroughfares of the site with sheeting and sawdust. Still… pity anyone braving Sunday’s predictable quagmire without wellies on.
The amount of ticket sales was also reduced from 15,000 to 10,000, meaning less of a swamp and squash at the main performance areas. The adjustments paid off and although the weather was tediously British, spirits were un-dampened and the overall atmosphere was buoyant.
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It was the sixth edition of this boutique music and arts event, named after Patrick McGoohan’s lead protagonist in 60s cult TV series The Prisoner. By now most festival-goers are aware that the biggest draw of No.6, aside from a reliably well-curated line-up of literature, arts and musical artists, is the location.
Portmeirion is a whimsical delight created by the immensely likeable architect and naturalist, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who indulged his passion for landscape design and architecture and ended up with a place that is unlike anywhere you’ve ever been – either in Italy, where the obvious architectural inspiration comes from – nor beyond. It is unique.
With its verdant and diverse forest interrupted by the magnificent central piazza and its mini-colonial landmarks, abundant stucco and quirky curios, it is ripe for an Instagram frenzy. Clash wisely resists compulsive selfies and snapchatting the shit out of the landscape and ditched smartphones all weekend in favour of a paper programme, a pencil and providence.
After circling the must-sees we set to it. Following uplifting sets from PINS and Steve Mason we arrive early evening at The Grand Pavilion to see Kate Tempest perform her Mercury Award-nominated- album ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ front to back.
It’s an arresting display. Tempest by name and by nature, she blasts through verses like a hurricane, grasping at her black baggy clothes as she implores the audience to listen to her acutely insightful social commentary and engage with her message enough to awaken some love for our fellow human. Tempest is earnest, by turns nuanced and explosive, and utterly essential.
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She’s a difficult act to follow but Mogwai round off Friday with an ‘up-to- eleven’ volume set that includes many tracks from newly released album ‘Every Country’s Sun’. There’s no denying the spectacle and sonic power, yet somehow, they seem better suited to headphones or scoring unsettling French TV dramas as they did with The Returned.
Friday night ends at Tim Burgess’s ‘Tim Peaks Diner’ with the Howling Rhythm and the Howling Horns – a jubilant novelty act mashing live horns with staple Stax and Motown gems. Tim Peaks Diner is a great spot throughout the weekend for gourmet coffee, frequent Northern Soul Dance lessons and late-night high energy performances from unknown but up-for- it acts.
The DJ, record producer and founder of Twisted Nerve and reissue label Finders Keepers records, Andy Votel, is a regular at No. 6 and he’s always just unearthed some obscure musical gem. This year’s story is that of disarming animated characters The Moomins. A tent load of festival-goers is transported back to their childhood with a screening of ‘The Moomins and The Comet’ with a live re-scoring by original composers Graeme Miller and Steve Shill.
Returning to adulthood and venturing back out into the rain we catch an inspiring poetry interlude from Rosy Carrick and then a cut-short but nevertheless raucous set from righteous Northern agitators, Cabbage. As the downpour persists some partial shelter up in the forest is a smart move. It doesn’t matter which DJ or band is playing at the various stages created in various clearings of Gwyllt woods, it’s just a magical area of the festival to mooch about. The Chinese-inspired lake with floating pontoon dancefloors beneath a huge glitterball proves popular with the ravers and the Lost in the Woods and Dugout stages play host to a mix of emerging acts.
The Estuary is another area of the festival with loads going on. Sunbursts add light and shade to the day and petrichor is in the air. The swimming pool has a few brave takers, as does the River Dryrwd, over which the Stone Boat stage carries a gaggle of undeterred dancers. Paddle boarders venture off towards the horizon regularly, unfazed by the currents and whipping wind. Hot tubs and Michelin-starred banquets are also on offer in this neck of the woods, but heading back to the heart of things at the central piazza we duck into The Town Hall, which is a real treat – and one of the best venues in the whole site, albeit a tiny one.
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Beneath the 17th century vaulted and plasterwork ceiling the composer-in- residence Joe Duddell and the No. 6 Ensemble put in more hours of rehearsal than any other act in order to re- interpret the songs of a slew of lucky collaborators. Dutch Uncles, The Slow Readers Club and Island have their songs transformed by the string section and in this intimate setting these 45-minute shows are memorable highlights.
As is the unmissable headline act that returns every ear without fail – the Brythoniaid Welsh Male Voice Choir. These 70-strong gentlemen, with a combined age of over 4200 years, never disappoint when they grace the central piazza. As always, they take a contemporary hit – this year it’s ‘Skin’ by Rag ‘n’ Bone Man – and give it their special re-working.
Comedy is always well represented at No.6 and German comedian Henning Wehn is a hoot. With Brexit an obvious theme, he manages to take the piss out of the British to a few hundred people, who thankfully know how to laugh at themselves. Barring the odd lone detractor, the vast majority of the audience are Remainers and if they’re passed crying, they can at least laugh at some of the cracked Brexit logic and ignorant lunacy Wehn takes aim at in his routine.
Bloc Party wrap up the headline stage with an energetic set, but Kele Okereke’s baying voice is absonant with the melodies and consequently it’s not for everyone. Along with founding member Russell Lissack, the band does give it some wellie though and classics like ‘Helicopter’ and ‘Banquet’ ensure the field is even more mashed up than before. The night is left in the hands of Andy Votel and one element of his expansive record collection – the Gallic Elastique French Disco section.
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Unzipping the view to Sunday morning reveals a blustery grey- grim sight – not the kind of Technicolour psychedelic delight that the 50 th anniversary of the seminal ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ album deserves. There’s no way the cavalcade of events for the Sgt. Pepper’s carnival will be diminished though. Wherever we roam we find some ‘summer of love’ vibes defying the inclement weather. Renowned Indian classical music organisation Milapfest dish out some transportative tabla and sitar, plus a raft of films, plays and performances inspired by the four lads that shook the world is dotted all around.
Developmental psychotherapist, author and teacher Dr. Mark Vernon leads two stimulating talks – ‘All You Need is Love’, about the nature of love and its many forms and ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, focussing on our most cherished relationships, both of which add variety to the day and leave lots of ideas to revolve around the old brain box.
As the afternoon encroaches the annual No.6 carnival weaves its way across the site to the main stage for the culminating Beatles event – The 70-piece Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and The Bootleg Beatles playing one of the most influential albums of all time in full to massive field full of beaming punters.
Still there is more to see and Simon Aldred, AKA Cherry Ghost, provides two pin-drop special performances and this year’s breakthrough male artist Rag ‘n’ Bone Man works the main stage before the final crescendo of unicorns, man-size balloons and all-the- stops-out bells and whistles of The Flaming Lips bring the whole extravaganza to an appropriately kaleidoscopic close.
No. 6 was another triumph thanks to the smart adjustments, the stellar acts and the “take it as it comes” attitude to the weather. Trusting it’s still going, I’ll be back ‘When I’m Sixty-Four.’
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Words: Nick Rice
Photography: As Stated
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