Having not been away to a festival for more than ten years it was with some trepidation that I ventured back onto the scene to visit the 11th Green Man Festival in the beautiful surroundings of the Brecon Beacons. My good friends F and PB, both Green Man regulars, persuaded me to consider going and once I saw the line up I was sold: Band of Horses! Midlake! Low!
Having decided that my old trustee Glastonbury tent was just a little too brittle and consisting more of gaffa tape than tent fabric, I made the move of purloining one of those new pop up tents with easy pull cord for repacking… Demoed by a helpful young man in the shop – Sold to the old man with the beard.
Arriving on site about 5pm on Thursday we managed to gain a spot close enough to the car park and main arena and close enough, but not too close, to some toilets (we’re all old enough to occasionally need to take a wander to the little room in the night).
F had brought enough provisions from Sainsburys to open a franchise with, I kid you not, fresh herbs including basil, FLAT leaf parsley and mint – just how middle class can we get? Anyway PB ‘King of Camping’ had put up his bell tent (similar to a teepee but with one large central pole) before I’d even got my pop up out of its pristine bag. After some fine dining we headed into the festival which has grown from 300 capacity in its first year to 20,000 now (please don’t get any bigger).
Thursday evening had a gentle start with just a few acts on in the Far Out tent at the top of the site including a beautiful intimate acoustic set from the legend that is Patti Smith. Her performance included a touching version of John Lennon’s ‘Beautiful Boy’.
Friday was the day to start exploring the site as all sections were up and running and the sun was keen to keep us company for the duration. The site itself was thoughtfully laid out making the most of its natural setting and had a very family friendly feel with areas such as Einstein’s Garden offering a wealth of stimulation for the young and inquisitive. As you’d expect some interesting stalls and food outlets as well as a good smattering of beer tents including one – oh this just gets better – hosting the first Green Man Beer and Cider festival. And what’s this? A Rough Trade shop tent, this could be dangerous… Must keep wallet in pocket.
First off was a visit to the Talking Shop tent to see the reliably bonkers and thoroughly engaging Julian Cope talking about his Copendium of the rock n roll underworld and revealing snippets of his forthcoming first novel.
The sundrenched Mountain main stage saw a soothing set from California’s Julia Holter with an off kilter jazzy classical gently ambient set. Next up was an uplifting country gospel soulful mix of songs from the wonderful Phosphorescent. Main man Matthew Houck is effortlessly cool and the album ‘Muchacho’ is highly recommended.
Later, on the main stage Edwyn Collins held court and his set was top notch with the tightest band you can imagine and a voice of honey that sounds as good as it ever did. Edwyn’s son William rather nervously joined his dad for a lovely duet on ‘In your Eyes’ and a special mention must go to guitarist James Walbourne whose solo on set closer ‘A Girl Like You’ was just incredible.
Then a stroll up the hill to the Far Out tent to catch the end of Darkstar’s set whose comedown vibes were a bit muddied in the mix to my ears unfortunately.
We then raced back to the Mountain stage for a solid sounding harmony drenched set from Midlake. The Denton, Texas band’s performance came hot on the heels of the official announcement of lead singer and songwriter Tim Smith’s departure so I was intrigued to see how the band would fare. While Eric Pulido has a quite lovely voice (almost too lovely) the guitarist and now lead singer lacks Tim Smith’s vocal fragility and tension as the main focus. Musically though the sound was more varied, if a little measured, than previous shows I’ve seen, as in the past Tim Smith seemed to mould the sound of the set to suit his latest stylistic interests.
Back up at The Far Out tent I caught the second half of Portico Quartet’s performance. Their mix of jazz and dance beats using sax, double bass, guitar drones, electronic and acoustic percussion was just dizzying and a wonder to watch.
On record I like the gentle harmonious acoustic work of The Kings of Convenience but for me their headline slot on the main outdoor stage at 11pm was an odd choice.
Finally I wandered up to the Cinema tent for the last official Fence Collective curated event, with main man Johnny Lynch announcing that the label would be relaunched under the guise of Lost Map. With this knowledge I wandered down the hill to my bed, well a slightly uncomfortable air mattress to be more precise.
We’d heard that the weather was going to do a U-turn and the prediction was right with a fine mist of rain slowly and subtlely soaking our Saturday. Memories of the previous day’s sun seemed to carry the mood of the gathered revellers though.
F would disappear early each morning to get a paper and a cup of tea from the ‘Strumpets with Crumpets’ – a stall run by women in basques serving hot beverages and the aforementioned snack. F drunk a lot of tea over the weekend.
Hoping to get into the stage areas before midday was never going to happen as PB ‘the chef’ was determined to give us a cooked breakfast each morning to sustain our hours of walking across beautiful countryside wondering what musical strains to listen to next.
Once again I started in the Talking Shop tent, catching the tail end of John Cale in conversation. Still somewhat bleary eyed at two o’clock in the afternoon meant I found it hard to concentrate beyond the sound of his unusual Welsh-American twang but did learn that he produced both The Stooges and The Happy Mondays debut albums almost twenty years apart. Must find out more about Mr Cale.
From the hoarey to mere striplings – Girls Names a Belfast band whose sparce mix of guitars and keyboards reminded me of early Cure and a more aggressive XX. Arbouretum followed as an afternoon nap called and their slow heavy psychedelic country provided a nice soundtrack to my interrupted dreams.
Wandering back down the hill we encountered the wonderfully intense Low. The Minnesota trio produced the most wonderful blend of epic tunes which moved from near silence to near guitar carnage with the most heavenly harmonies from husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. Their reading of Neil Young’s ‘Down By The River’ was so slow and desolate I didn’t recognise it til the chorus was nearly over. Beautiful.
After refuelling back at our PB’s restaurant I wandered back in to catch a bit of comedy in the Talking Shop tent happening across Charlie Webster who looked a little bit like someone you’d move away from at a bus stop and he played up to this when an ‘unfortunate’ in the audience guessed a quiz question correctly, Webster then donned a wig over his bald pate revealing the prize was a lap dance by him for the ‘lucky’ winner. Disturbing. Comedy singer/guitarist Gavin Osborne offered simple tunes – including one describing trying to spice up his marriage by sharing a bath with his loved one; his love for his wife would actually be proven by revealing that he never wanted to do this again.
Back at the Mountain main stage The Horrors’ light show must have left many a punter twitching, and as I staggered blinking through the crowd trying not to trip over those seated, the mix of brooding voice and use of eighties synth sounds (in a good way) somehow kept me there. I wanted to be here anyway for what came next…. Only BAND OF HORSES!!
Lead by the endearing frontman Ben Bridwell the band tore through a set covering their four albums. Their mix of country rock, indie and punk spirit always leaves a big smile on my face and the band always look as if they are loving every minute. At one point Ben asked the crowd how had his band come to headline a festival like this and stated that Green Man should be congratulated for putting together such a good line up. No arguments there. I must mention the rustic and natural world stills and moving images projected behind the band which pulled you into Band Of Horses’ world even further.
Highlights were ‘Is There A Ghost’ from the LP Cease To Begin, a wonderful down home ‘Neighbour’ with 3 part harmonies from Ben, Tyler Ramsey and Ryan Munroe huddled around one mic and the electric piano, and of course the wonderful set closer, ‘Funeral’.
I’d read much about John Hopkins and was interested in seeing him even though he wasn’t on til 1am (huh?) in the Far Out tent. His set was far more hard core dance driven and less melodic than I had hoped but I would probably have gotten more from it had I had more energy to dance rather than just standing there nodding my head. Free dance enthusiast PB loved it… as did F, probably high on tea and crumpets.
Sunday: the sun is back hurrah! An even slower start back at the ranch finally hauling myself to into the stage area about 3pm, shocking, anyone would think I was on holiday…
Met up with some other friends at the Mountain main stage to see to folk trio Lau, who produced an infectious big sound with just accordion, guitar and fiddle. Rushed back up to the Far Out tent with my feet now on auto-pilot as I wanted to see Brooklyn’s Woods of whom I’d read good things. Starting with Byrds-y jangle the singer’s high voice grated a wee bit making things a bit twee for me. But then as the set progressed the band opened up into some psychedelic krautrock grooves which really hit the spot.
Back to the friends who were still relaxing at the main stage and it was on their recommendation I checked out Johnny Flynn. This young man is obviously a major talent whose jazzy country bluesy laid back tunes suited the Sunday afternoon perfectly. Audible tuts of jealousy were heard when Johnny, who is also an accomplished actor, proceeded to pick up a trumpet for a solo before returning to the guitar.
Back at the….. yes that’s correct, Far Out tent, the spirit of Jimi Hendrix was alive and well in the hands of Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
At this point it felt that a break of tradition was needed so PB and I headed down to the Walled Garden, which had the vibe of a festival within a festival, some kind of secret place. Not so secret though as it was packed for band of the moment Public Service Broadcasting. I like the concept of looped newsreel style received pronunciation over a krautrock groove with eighties synth sounds but it’s hard to know where the band will go next. Also they probably could have been on a bigger stage as, from where we were stood near the back, the PA didn’t have enough oomph so the sound seemed lacklustre.
I have seen British Sea Power on several occasions and have been left disappointed a couple of times having witnessed a brace of meandering performances. However, for me their Sunday evening show in the Far Out tent was spot on. A tight powerful set with theatrical flair and amazing lighting and projections was coupled with both a black bear and polar bear walking amongst the crowd. Their music is unique, although very much in the older school indie tradition they really don’t sound like anyone else. Clever lyrics, epic tunes and an intellectual passion.
Walled Garden again, careful now, caught a snippet of Half Moon Run a Canadian band with some poppy grooves. Green Man Growler real ale going down well.
Ok there’s nothing left for it but to face Swans up at the Far Out tent. Recommended as essential I have heard that they can be terrifying. They were in fact terrifying – Michael Gira steering and conducting his ensemble through an avant garde semi improvised canvas of gutteral percussive loud-as-hell soundscapes. All the instruments seemed to be used to create brutal loping, grinding grooves which seemed to grow ever so slightly more melodic as the set wore on. At one point I ran away for churros and hot chocolate for comfort before returning to the bedlam. At the end I can’t say I enjoyed it but felt very alive having witnessed it.
After watching the traditional burning of The Green Man himself (a sculpture of twigs, branches and leaves, not a real person) I still felt the need to come down from where I’d been left dangling by Michael Gira’s noiseniks, so headed to the Comedy tent to settle my shattered mind before a final Green Man sleep.
Holiday now required.
PS: somehow the only purchase I made from the Rough Trade shop was joint one with F. We bought PB a signed book of poetry by Patti Smith as a thank you for his Michelin starred efforts.