The UK does some things better than anywhere else – and festivals is one of them. Since the 60s, British music festivals have been smashing it, whatever the weather. Recent years have seen an explosion of new events eager for a foothold on the annual calendar but Green Man has well and truly earned its reputation and carved its place as an ‘unmissable’ festival. Little wonder it sold out in record time for its 15th birthday this year.
Green Man gets everything right. The location is a bucolic dream; open, verdant and just the right size to wander between stages without it feeling like a schlep. With the dramatic Black Mountains of the Brecon Beacons as a back drop to the main stage, and rolling tree-filled hills in all directions, it’s a beautiful place to call home for a few music-packed days.
And what music Green Man delivers! The line-up is unfailingly stellar, year-in, year-out. This year the headliners are Ride, Future Islands, Ryan Adams and the peerless PJ Harvey, with hundreds of eclectic acts carefully curated to fill each day.
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Friday gets going with a lively set from Mercury nominated newcomers, The Big Moon. These four twenty-something women from London had just arrived back from touring in the US and made their appearance something of a homecoming, winning the hearts and ears of the Far Out tent within the opening few numbers. Their old school indie hoots are instantly infectious, as is the enjoyment they have banging it out. They nailed the set and a tent load more people will be checking out the debut album, ‘Love in the 4th Dimension’.
Australia’s shy but immensely talented D.D Dumbo keeps the tent packed and gets heads bobbing to ‘Walrus’, ‘Satan’ and other stand-out tracks from last year’s ‘Utopia Defeated’ album. Heavily influenced by various foreign musical forms, such as Tuvan melodies and African rhythms, D.D Dumbo create a world-music sound with loops and 12-string guitar driving it on. If you were being mean you might compare it to Sting, or you could simply enjoy the exotic undulations.
British Sea Power are redoubtably brilliant as always on the Mountain stage – in defiance of the rain they raise the spirits of the cagoule-clad hordes. The on-stage foliage and giant furry bears sway along to a set-list of belters from new album ‘Let The Dancers Inherit The Party’ and their impeccable back catalogue. The caustically brilliant ‘Remember Me’ from the 2003 debut ‘The Decline of British Sea Power’ still sounding as relevant and powerful as ever. Long may they make that first album name sharply ironic.
As darkness fell on Friday night a sense of palpable anticipation passed like a current through the assembled masses in the shadow of the black mountains. A festival exclusive is imminent as the Texas trio Lift To Experience is following up their June reunion show at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Comprised of Josh T. Pearson, drummer Andy ‘The Boy’ Young and bassist Josh ‘The Bear’ Browning, the band were much loved by John Peel who recorded three sessions with them, and latterly Guy Garvey, who selected them for the Meltdown Festival this year.
Over the next hour they play selected tracks from their only LP – The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads – a concept album about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, with Texas as the Promised Land, which was remastered and reissued for its 15-year anniversary by Mute Records in February this year. “If you were camping and you woke up after a heavy night, naked and with a sore asshole, raise your hand if you’d tell anyone about it” Pearson asks the crowd. “Who wouldn’t tell anyone about it?” The rustle of waterproofs accompanies scores of hands being lifted. “Y’all wanna go camping?” It’s a lighthearted moment in stark contrast to the intense, guitar-wailing juggernaut songs. The hour is up in no time and more fans are safely added to the legion of admirers of this one-monumental album act.
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Future Islands close the Mountain stage with ninety minutes of synth-driven rock. A divisive band for sure, many curious people drifting away after a few tracks, others lingering, clearly held by the compelling histrionics of front-man Sam Herring. His particular brand of showmanship lumps together Cossack dancing, ballet and mime, with some sporadic death metal bellowing lobbed in for good measure. Love it or hate it, they demonstrate real conviction regardless.
The evening is rounded off by Kate Tempest, who never hesitates nor missteps once as she unleashes her crucial, lyrical masterpiece ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’. The groove pounds and Tempest regularly rouses the capacity crowd into roaring applause as she proffers core messages. “Indifference is complicity” and “the myth of the individual” linger in the mind and Tempest implores people to love one another as she closes a flawless performance.
Saturday and the weather doesn’t know what to do with itself. It’s four seasons in an hour but there are plenty of places to seek shelter from the rain. In one such search for refuge I stumble into a dimly lit tent and find people sitting quietly listening to stories presented by inthedarkradio.org. When Laura Buxton was ten she released a balloon with her name and address written on it with a request to return to sender. Said balloon didn’t pop in a tree, come down in the sea or a field, but drifted 140-miles cross country and came down in the garden of a ten-year old girl called… Laura Buxton. Who returned the balloon to the first Laura and then subsequently they arranged to meet.
At that first meeting they both wore a pink jumper with jeans and both brought along a guinea pig, which also was the exact same colour. The two are 18 now, firm friends, and care little about the theories of coincidence that abound. This tale was one of many fascinating snippets and typical of the treasures waiting to be found bumbling around at Green Man.
The sun stuck its hat back on for Aldous Harding in the pastoral setting of the Walled Garden. An enigmatic performer, Harding’s facial expressions twist and gurn as she pours unbridled emotion into every note of every song from this year’s ‘Party’ and 2015’s eponymous debut. Her gothic folk is haunting, with glints of light making it soar out of the melancholic mood she conjures.
The itinerary is packed and bouncing from stage to stage I catch the emerging brilliance of distorted post-punk H. Grimace on the Rising stage. The London-based four-piece, who draw comparisons with Sonic Youth and Savages, soon amassed a swelling crowd with their assured delivery of this year’s solid LP, ‘Self Architect.’ Lambchop and This Is The Kit are reliably accomplished and laid back and lead up to a real festival highlight performance from Michael Kiwanuka.
The set eases away with the atmospheric majesty of ‘Cold Little Heart’ and various influences seep into mind… Pink Floyd, Terry Callier, Bill Withers, but Kiwanuka is swiftly moving beyond comparisons and warrants the praise heaped on him from all sides. His incredibly tight and talented band and his timeless soulful voice elevate the evening. ‘Black Man in a White World’, ‘Tell Me a Tale’, ‘Home Again’ and ‘Love and Hate’ are standout tracks in a rapturously received set.
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After such smooth sailing the Oh Sees (they recently dropped ‘Thee’) are a hail of electric bullets. Turning around to look at the audience from the photographer’s pit is a picture in itself. A lake of stunned faces with wide eyes and gaping grins meets the volcanic force emanating from the stage. The two drummers, big fellas, are hypnotic in their perfect synchronicity, smashing the shit out of their kits with metronomic precision while singer John Dwyer gleefully charges head-long into every song. Explosive, unhinged and possessed of Herculean sonic power – let it be known – Oh Sees do not fuck about.
Although it’s a UK festival exclusive, Ryan Adams is tame in comparison. For long-standing fans his one hour and 45-minute set must have been a bit disappointing. Not enough tracks from his early classic albums like ‘Gold’ and ‘Heartbreaker’ are played, losing out to lesser known recent material, some of which veers towards the downright Bon Jovi. There’s very little rapport with the audience and although he works up a sweat, it’s ultimately underwhelming.
As well as the abundance of bands there is the usual spread of talks and comedy acts that always draw huge crowds. Irvine Welsh, Charlotte Church, Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods (who also deliver their standard vitriolic set) all entertain but Billy Bragg is essential. The Bard of Barking is heart-warmingly down to earth and high-minded as he discusses politics past and present and his new book ‘Roots, Radicals and Rockers’ about how skiffle music is the bedrock of rock music as we know it.
Bragg drives home the message that it is the audience that has the power to hold authority to account and we shouldn’t expect the artist do it alone. Asked where protest music is found these days Bragg says it’s clearly with grime artists. It’s not white boys with guitars any more, he notes. The undercurrent to his always rousing appearances is a call for more empathy, which he states is an antidote to cynicism. “You mix empathy with activism and you have solidarity” he says.
The whole wonderful weekend is closed in exultant style by PJ Harvey. No one can fill David Bowie’s shoes, but Polly’s thigh boots are equally formidable. She is unrivalled… from 1992’s debut ‘Dry’ through to last year’s ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’, Harvey has innovated, explored and experimented… and always created something of real value every time. With long-time collaborator John Parish and a nine-piece band, the show is meticulously choreographed and cherry picks songs from that unblemished discography.
In 2013, Harvey was awarded an MBE for services to music, but the real recognition is evidenced in performances like this, where what feels like most of the 20,000 Green Man festival-goers are transfixed. Dressed in an haute couture outfit, Harvey prowls and slinks across the stage, playing saxophone, falling into formation with the band, singing passionately, marrying showmanship and sincerity.
The only thing that can follow PJ Harvey is the burning of the Green Man effigy and a torch-lit procession leads to his feet. As the flames lick at his brambley beard and the firework spectacle pops, it’s another triumphant event in the bag. Fiona Stewart, Director of Green Man Festival concludes:
“Our fifteenth Green Man has been the most unforgettable weekend and a celebration and testimony to the hard work, love and dreams that the Green Man team and our incredible audience. Here’s to the next fifteen years filled with even more magic, dreams and unforgettable moments. See you next year”.
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Words + Photography: Nick Rice
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