Green Man Festival review, best bands and what we learnt from a weekend in the Brecon Beacons

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Grreen Man (Credit: Green Man Facebook page)

Grreen Man (Credit: Green Man Facebook page)

A bewildering array of delights for Getintothis’ Matt Yarwood as he spends a weekend at the Green Man Festival.

Variety.  Apparently, it’s the spice of life, and shuffling through the programme for this year’s Green Man Festival on a bright and warm Welsh morning, it’s clearly a sentiment shared by the organisers of Brecon’s annual otherworldly music and arts extravaganza.

The festival, although modest in scale, encapsulates a bewildering array of delights.

The line-up, whilst arguably slightly lighter than in recent years, remains true to the astonishingly high standard the festival has established during the past decade and a half and is as eclectic and diverse as you are likely to find anywhere.  Musicians of every genre and discipline and from all from all corners of the globe are represented, from the exuberant Malian desert rock of Songhoy Blues, to late night pop karaoke madness from Wales’ own Charlotte Church. Green Man has something for just about everyone. Most of the acts are strewn across three main stages; the awe-inspiring Mountain Stage, a natural amphitheatre nestled at the foot of the Black Mountains, the moody and dimly lit interior of the high-topped Far Out stage and finally, the smaller and more intimate Walled Garden.  Each space creates a unique atmosphere and adds to the sense that every event offers something different, intriguing and unexpected.

Away from the excellently curated main stages, there several themed areas housing endless weird and wonderful ways to lose hours of your weekend.  Catch a cult film, banish the kids to the Little Folks area to construct a jungle shack, take part in an offbeat science experiment in Einstein’s Garden or kick off your muddy wellies and lounge out in an open air hot tub with a glass of bubbly.

Wandering around the festival site, cocooned in the staggering natural surroundings of the Glanusk estate, events adopt a a dreamlike, down the rabbit hole quality. Bubbles drift across the skyline, a man raps about the finer points of astrophysics, people dressed as woodland animals canter past complaining about the weather while rows of sweating teens attempt to change their dying mobile phones using peddle power, motivated by early 90s dances classics.

Everything appears to be happening almost entirely at random and the possibilities feel boundless.  Every dizzying journey across the tightly packed site to reach another stage or to grab some food is punctuated by a new discovery or bizarre encounter.

To further reinforce the feeling that natural order has abandoned this place, the site seems to be subject to its own entirely unique micro-climate.  Barring a full on whiteout, any configuration of weather is possible within the confines of a 45 minute set.  Blistering sunshine, torrential rain, force 12 gales and rolling mist all routinely make an appearance… sometimes in unison.

The food and drink too is mind bogglingly vast and diverse.  Eateries of every culinary heritage can be found from Asian street food and Goan fish curries to American style hot-dogs and gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches.  The dozens of bars dotted all over the site offer well over 100 craft beers, from earthy British bitters to lively American style IPAs.  There are also dozens of Ciders, crafted from every conceivable fruit, a well-stocked rum bar and a Bloody Mary stand. Even those visiting for a week on a Settlers pass couldn’t hope to do more than scratch the surface of the culinary delights without running a serious risk of gout or hospitalisation.  Many try.

In an effort to shoehorn as much into the festival programme as possible, the adventure begins on Thursday morning as the main gates open to a few hundred excited visitors and the festival lazily slips into life.  The numbers swell steadily throughout the day and the unexpectedly fierce sun cracks down mercilessly on heavily laden festival goers as they labour back and forth loaded with camping paraphernalia.  As the temperature rises, impromptu beers breaks and complete baggage collapses become routine occurrences

By the early evening, a sizable and expectant crowd congregate at the Far Out stage to enjoy the truncated opening night bill.  Prolific Aussie psych rockers King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard deliver a set full of purpose and big riffs before the evening’s headline act Wild Beasts take to the stage.  The Cumbrian four piece are no strangers to this stage having played tracks from their debut Limbo Panto here to a handful of people on a rain stoked afternoon in 2009, before returning the following year, somewhat higher up the bill, to deliver a knockout performance on the back of their brilliant sophomore effort Two Dancers. Their third visit comes immediately following their 5th studio release Boy King, an album which marks a significant departure from the intricate dream pop that has brought the band wide acclaim.

Whilst the bands impressive back catalogue is not completely ignored, the set is very much a vehicle to showcase the neon soaked, oversexed, narcotic thrust of Boy King and to delight of the expectant crowd, the material translates brilliantly to the tightly packed enclosure.  Singles ‘Get my bang’ and ‘Celestial Creatures’ represent high points, as does a closing rendition of ‘All the Kings Men’ which nearly takes the roof off.

Exhilarated by the first headline set and brimming with first day vim and vigour, crowds meander around the top end of the site into the small hours – the perfect opportunity to make some headway on that beer list.  100 is doable over a whole weekend right?

Friday morning, the first full day of the festival arrives and with it, the first significant rainfall.

Greenman Rising winner Tony Njoku’s sparse soundscapes signal the opening the glorious mountain stage as crowds slowly begin to filter into the main festival arena through the early afternoon drizzle.  It looks almost untouched from the night before, principally owing to the policy of buying a glass to reuse.  Even in these dreary conditions, the landscape looks stunning.  As the sunny Folk rock of Texas’ The Oh Hello’s gets into full swing a significant downpour looks inevitable and increasing numbers drift towards the shelter of the tented Far Out stage.  Upon arrival, they find not only respite from the weather, but an assured set from hazy Danish-Australian synth pop newcomers Palace Winter.

The on / off rain seems to keep significant numbers pinned to the tent, despite a Membranes set which felt poorly positioned in the early afternoon, just ahead of the slightly more fitting delicate ambience of Julianna Barwick.

As the afternoon draws to a close the Far Out stage receives a further influx of people in anticipation of Kamasi Washington’s set.   Most arrive some 30 minutes in advance to ensure good positioning and wait with baited breath as sound difficulties delay matters by over 30 minutes.  By the time Kamasi waltzes to the stage accompanied by his trusty saxophone, two enormous drum set ups and his dad Ricky, most people have been milling around for well over an hour.  With the first perfectly executed note of Changing the Guard, any frustration stemming from the delay is blown aside.  The set that follows is an exhibition, shifting effortlessly through the high points from last year’s outstanding The Epic.  Whilst Washington Jr is undoubtedly the central figure, opportunities to showcase the skills of an outstanding support cast are carefully choreographed into proceedings, with a solo number from bass supremo Miles Mosely’s upcoming studio album being particularly well received.

Read how incredible Kamasi Washington was when we saw him at Way Out West

After more than two hours waiting for and listening to Jazz, there is a notable exodus from the packed Far Out stage to a combination of bars, eateries and toilets (which by the way are clean and plentiful).  As evening descends on the foot of the mountain, compellingly off-kilter dream popster Connan Mockasin is playing to an enthusiastic gathering as yet more rain drifts across the landscape.  At the mountain stage bar a chap with a handlebar moustache and walking cane warns the queuing punters of impending gale force winds whilst hoards grumble as the realisation dawns on them that they have left yet another glass hanging in the urinal.  Many are approaching double figures.

Back at the Far Out stage, dark clouds begin to form inside the arena as Canadian doom rockers Suuns rifle though a typically taught and exhilarating set centred upon this year’s Hold/Still.

There is enough time to take in 30 minutes of Jason Isbell’s tales of regret and redemption at the mountain stage whilst simultaneously, efforts to make a credible dent in that beer roster are renewed.  Where is that damn glass?  As Isbell’s set reaches an epic and well received conclusion, people begin to shuffle en masse back to the Far Out stage, the venue for much of the days larger crowds, to take in one of the weekend’s most eagerly anticipated sets – Manchester’s Floating Points.

The tent, now only illuminated by three screens of morphing visuals, is the perfect space for Sam Sheppard and company’s lush, fluid electronica.  For large swathes of the set, nobody moves, captivated by the beautiful, building soundscapes.

An excellent first day concludes with James Blake headlining the main stage.  Mercifully the rain have abated.  Blake is another headline act returning to the festival having delivered a DJ set and conventional performance in previous years.  The main area isn’t quite full as the set begins and Blake confidently navigates through a set list of an increasingly impressive back catalogue of tender balladry, scratched over skeletal, electronic structures.  Like much of his work, there is an isolation and remoteness about Blake’s performance which seems to captivate some and disengage others.  Small groups drift away as the set draws towards its conclusion, many more stay to provide a final, rousing applause.

The camp fire, burning all night, provides an opportunity to debate the finest acts of the day, to which there is nothing approaching a consensus and take a final run at that beer list, which now feels as though it getting bigger by the hour.  Where did I put that glass?

Talk of the pending hurricane has intensified and had it not been for all of the booze, people would now be concerned.  Three men stand outside their tent on the entrance to the main camping area.  “40 mile an hour winds” one scoffs, “that’s ridiculous… it’ll never happen, people are just panicking”.  All agree emphatically.  It is noted that they are repitching their guy ropes as they do so.

Saturday, and despite predictions to the contrary, the world hasn’t ended.  Although some of those ambling around the many excellent coffee stands look at though they wish it had.

As heavy rain spurts down in seemingly random 2 minutes bursts, joggers (really) scurry passed.  A group of men attempt a spicy morning Bloody Mary from the Blood Bank stand.  Some respond better than others.  A man in a tutu wearing nipple tassels enquires about the Manchester United result.  All back to normal then.

As morning ebbs away, the excellent Deep Throat Choir harmonise on the mountain stage, momentarily, many seem to forget how rough they feel.  The sharp and angular post punk of Sweden’s Fews draws interest and acclaim from clusters of passers-by at the Far Out stage, before the first significant crowds gather for Yorkston/Thorn/Kahn at the foot of the mountain.  Their blend of traditional folk, shot through with Indian vibes is a hit.  Some people cluttered around the main stage weep as the trio harmonise beautifully over gentle instrumentation.

The tears have barely dried by the time Ryley Walker strolls on to the Mountain Stage.  Fittingly, as Walker confidently pushes through a collection of 70s inspired psyche folk and rock pieces, mist rolls through the trees behind the towering stage and damp haze descends on the watching masses, which include one Laura Marling.  Ironically, during a performance by a man from the windy city, the aforementioned hurricane eventually arrives, staying only long enough to sweep one of Walkers guitars from its stand.

By now the daily assault on the beer catalogue has resumed, and the bars are full of revellers realising that their drinks receptacles are back in their tents.

Back up at the Far Out stage, something of a Krautrock theme is developing.  Bristol’s BEAK> get us underway with a punchy and driving set before Cavern of Anti Matter, brain child of Stereolab founder Tim Gane, take to that stage.  The metronomic drumming and building synths of their krautrock infused electronica begins drawing unexpected revellers to the tent.  The crowd swells mid set and periodically, as each track reaches its crescendo, it goes off, with groups of people appearing to lose control of their extremities and flailing around wildly.  In stark contrast, Gane and Co are the very image of control.

Swedish Proggers Dungen batter through another well received performance before former Neu! and Kraftwerk member Michael Rother arrives to an expectant crowd to delivery one of the standout sets of the weekend.  Whilst it’s clear that for many in the tent, Rother’s appearance represents a must see event, it also evident that for some, this was completely unexpected.  Mouth fall agape as Rother, backed by the wonderful drum work of Hans Lampe batter their way through an hour set that roars by in the blink of an eye.  The wild armed dancing returns and spreads across the whole tent, leaving Rother looking genuinely taken aback.

Another crowd pleaser in the form of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros could be found back down at the Mountain stage as evening rolls on.  The Californians, led by a wine swigging Alex Ebert, play a rabble-rousing and engaging collection to a growing crowd.  Routinely, the beginning of tracks are greeted with soft mutters of‘ oh, I know this one‘ and ‘is this off an advert?’

In stark contrast, Laura Marling’s headline turn is a far more measured and restrained affair.  As with James Blake the previous evening, Marling is somewhat of the Green Man regular and her performances at the festival can be used to chart the progression of an artist who is now surely reaching the peak of her powers.  Her hour plus performance is assured whilst still retaining the air of vulnerability that can make her such a captivating performer.  Again, the Mountain stage isn’t quite full at the outset and thins further as a long day draws to a conclusion.  Well almost… where is my damned glass?

Sunday, and buoyed by some staggering performances the night before an air of optimism appears to be sweeping across the Glanusk Estate.  A small group gathered around one of the eateries near to the main festival entrance warns passers-by don sun cream as apparently today is going to be a scorcher.  Early 30s.  Minimum.  It’s noted that all of them are decked out head-to–toe in waterproof garments.  One holds a golfing umbrella.

The hopeful mood is fuelled further by the optimistic and positive bluesy folk of Swede Daniel Norgren and an excellent Mountain stage performance by London indie rockers Gengahr.  The Hackney foursome pick through a number of hazy, dream pop highlights from last year’s excellent A Dream Outside as well as showcasing new material, before finishing with the BBC 6 Music championed She’s a Witch.

As the afternoon settles in its now clear that attempting to sample all of the beer is utter folly.  Their number is too many and funds have been depleted significantly owing to having to buy a fresh glass on each visit.  They have won.  It has also become apparent that those claiming a heat wave have lied.  Rain teems down.

As people congregate close to the main stage in anticipation of Songhoy Blues, the Little Folk break out into the main area and a precession of children holding homemade animals above their heads snakes around the lower section of the site.  The band, by this point on stage tuning up, look a combination of amused and perplexed.  Once the parade is ushered away from the stage, the gig begins and before long serval thousand people, taking their cue from front man Aliou Toure, are dancing round joyously to the band’s uplifting desert blues.

Shortly after in the Walled Garden, a visibly hungover Whitney, medicating on wine and whisky, cram onto the tiny stage to deliver one of the standout moments of the festival.  The Chicago outfit breeze through the entirety of this year’s glorious Light on the Lake and even found time to shoehorn in an excellent cover of Dylan’s Tonight I’ll be staying Here With You.  The set was rounded off beautifully with a rousing rendition of No Woman.

Back at the Mountain stage, the brooding, lush rhythms of Warpaint cut through the early evening rain, delighting a rapidly growing and increasing damp mob.  Elephants and Love is to Die represent standout moments in an accomplished and atmospheric set.

By the time Glaswegian indie pop legends Belle and Sebastian burst onto the Mountain Stage to headline, the area is rammed to capacity for the first time all weekend.  An opening brace of the epic Nobody’s Empire and an energetic rendition of Party Line whip the crowd into a frenzy.  The restraint and conservatism that had characterised the stage’s previous two headliners is completely cast a side as Stuart Murdoch leads a heady romp from a career encompassing and life affirming set, each track replacing the last as your favourite.

As the familiar introductory notes of The Boy with the Arab Strap drift across the arena, Murdoch, in what is becoming a tradition at the bands shows, hops down to the barrier and encourages some of the revellers to join the band on stage.  As the handful of guests make their way to the stage, a small number decide to hop the barrier and join in.  The idea catches on and within seconds the numbers attempting to rush the stage multiply exponentially.  Before the mid-point of the song is reached, the stage looks like a siege scene from a George A Romero movie, with hordes pouring past the hopelessly outnumbered security staff and clambering manically to the stage.  By this point, even Murdoch’s assertions that no more dancers are needed can’t stop the invasion as dozens more cram onto the ever-decreasing floor space.  By the time the song draws to a close, there isn’t an inch of room remaining and hundreds of fans dance gleefully on the stage, completely obscuring the band from view.

A five minute clean-up operation ensues with the excellent (and very measured) security staff clearing the stage.  Someone takes the opportunity to scream ‘Fuck Brexit’ down the main mic as they exit, drawing cheers from the capacity crowd.  Upon the eventual resumption of the set, the band bring the show, and the festival to a thrilling conclusion with a final collection of songs including brilliant versions of  Judy and the Dream of Horses and Get Me Away from Here I’m Dying

Get me away from here, I’m dying.  Suddenly, feet begin to ache, clothes feel sodden and eyelids fall heavy as the conclusion of the set brings home the bitter sweet realisation that this magical weekend with its glorious music, eclectic mix of people and bizarre wonders is drawing to a close.

But wait… there is still the Green Man to burn, and a late push could see me strike out a couple more of those lovely beers.  Sure, one more for old time sake.  Now where is that damn glass?

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