Festival No. 6 returns to Portmeirion for the sixth time, Getintothis’ Peter Guy reflects on a crucial and momentous year for the Welsh wonderland.
It took five consecutive Glastonbury Festival‘s for this writer to concede defeat. What was once our annual ‘must-do’ music festival transformed into something we came to endure rather than enjoy.
Not even Jay Z‘s sensational 2008 headline set could tempt us back as we realised we were done with all things Pilton Farm turning to new experiences to savour.
Yet, memories of our first Glastonbury in 2003 bore many parallels with that of our first Festival No. 6 in 2013. Here was a fantastical wonderland setting – quite unlike anything we’d ever witnessed – gathering visual feasts and sensory delights which matched the music on offer and aligned it to our thirst for something much more than three days in a field listening to greatest hits sets. It was right up there. Right up with Mars Volta curating All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2005 and later SXSW 2015 and Primavera 2016. Something remarkable.
Festival No. 6 was as much about the setting, its Welsh heritage and culture, the myriad of talks, workshops, comedy and spoken word sessions plus the exploration of artists doing something different with their talents – be it teaming up with others, performing in odd locations; bell towers, town halls, boats, woodland, lakeland floating stages or reinterpreting their sounds. No. 6 was about taking chances, offering up the oddness and taking in new experiences you’d previously not considered as part of the traditional festival experience. Quite simply, No 6 lived it up to it’s tagline: a festival like no other.
Then came 2016. A gamble of booking big name rock and roll acts like Noel Gallagher and Catfish & The Bottlemen aligned to rising attendees from around 9,000 to 15,000 backfired immeasurably when the wild Welsh weather desecrated the beautiful site, forced much of the live action off and finally resulted in thousands of unhappy punters seeing their cars sunk in a notorious flood plain just off site. While we were towed to safety by a farmer’s tractor, others were forced to abandon their vehicles amid days of weather-beaten carnage. It made national front page news and it was of little surprise when many said ‘never again‘.
But, and here’s a big but, organisers may have over compensated one year. That’s without question. However, for five years prior they’d created one of the finest festival experiences we’d witnessed – and for that, we felt compelled to give it another shot.
Upon arrival, it was immediately transparent that perhaps it wasn’t just punters giving it a last shot – but literally everyone involved. From the new car park (situated high in the hills of Llwyn Mafon Uchaf, a couple of miles away from the flood plain of Porthmadog football club), to the thick newly-laden woodchip and gravel paths to the enormous amounts of space – there were so fewer people compared to last year; and all the better for the festival. To this seasoned No. 6 punter it very much felt like the festival was in the last chance saloon. It made us yearn for beautiful weather, not just for our sake but the festival itself.
After some Thursday night antics from Manchester covers outfit The Gypsies of Bohemia (think Seven Nation Army reimagined by Dexys), thankfully we awoke to dazzling sunshine as the stunning surreal surrounds of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis‘ designed Portmeirion was shown off in all it’s glory.
A brief wander around the freshly designed site revealed cuts had inevitably been made; the main field which previously saw three main performances areas was now down to two with the all-Welsh artists now performing in the Lost in the Woods Stage – a platform usually reserved for hype bands and rising buzz artists. So too, perhaps our favourite of all stages, the Estuary Stage was no more – where once we’d seen the likes of All We Are, Bill Ryder-Jones, Tim Burgess and Beyond the Wizards Sleeve all play blinding sets, for 2017 it had been turned into a new pop up bar, perhaps once again in a preventative measure against bad weather. None of these issues could deter the newcomer, however, it was obvious when taking a look at the line up for the 2017 edition that the entire festival had been scaled down. Again, perhaps it had to.
Nevertheless, once we immersed ourselves in the festivities the treats were as varied as they were many. The newly-christened Gatehouse stage – a spacious tent hosting talks on legendary producer Martin Hannett and sonic innovator Delia Derebyshire plus whacked out live sets including Andy Votel‘s Gallic Elastique French Disco and a live Moomins score. We witnessed one of the first day’s highlights as the aforementioned Votel, founder of Manchester record label Twisted Nerve was joined by film director Craig O’Neil to discuss Badly Drawn Boy‘s classic debut and Mercury Prize winning The Hour Of The Bewilderbeast. It’s a wistful trip down memory lane and you can’t help but be sucked into Damon Gough‘s accidental rise yet there’s little doubt to the album’s enduring appeal and he finishes the chat with a charming acoustic set featuring rarities and his breakthrough single One Around The Block. It’s a real treat.
It’s these mini audio marvels that No. 6 does so well throughout the weekend which consistently raises the bar. Where we longed for more new discoveries while getting Lost In The Woods, we do find some treasures over the course of Friday and Saturday – Wrexham’s Kidsmoke offer widescreen dreamlike pop which is simply spine-tingling, the Dug Out remains one of our favourite places to groove as they customarily showered us with cosmic disco and psychedelic beats, the floating lake stage is awash with hoola-hoop acrobats and wobbly dancers while right atop the woods was a small den of acoustic newcomers playing to a small yet enchanted crowd.
The special Sgt. Pepper's themed No.6 Carnival weaving it's way through the Village yesterday. pic.twitter.com/NEmF5qIYG7
— Festival No.6 (@festivalnumber6) September 11, 2017
Back under blue skies and the backdrop of undulating hills and the silvery waters of River Dwyryd, the festival’s main stage witnessed a remarkable set from Manchester all-female four-piece PINS whose riotous New York-style glitter punk is a glorious fuzzed up sound clash of guitars and drums. Earlier, one of Getintothis‘ much-tipped new outfits, Flyte beguile with bewitching sprightly, acrobatic and delicate sun-kissed charm. We can’t wait for their return to Merseyside later this year.
Heavenly Recordings‘ veterans Toy bring their customary dense and strung-out sounding hooks and melodies which drift by in the late afternoon sun before ex Beta Band frontman Steve Mason performs one of the sets of the weekend with the shuffling pop and hook filled songs from his Meet The Humans album.
Elsewhere, food plays a major part for the No. 6 experience and we wade straight in to two colossal feasts at curryhouse Gandhi’s Flipflop – the vegetarian a special feast. Shouts must also go to the Muffin Man & Co whose breakfast pork belly, bacon jam and cheese really are the finest ways to start the day.
Of the headliners Mogwai delve into their 20 year career for a fan pleasing set of slow-building instrumental tracks and explosive distortion while Bloc Party are a cauldron of indie-disco winners, painfully jarring new material and highfalutin frontman egotism. They should really call it a day.
As tent flaps are zipped up on the Friday night the inevitable occurs and an all-night deluge soaks the site with further downfalls a now regular occurrence between frustratingly tantalising bursts of sun. It leaves many scurrying to watch bands appearing inside and in the opulent confines of Portmeirion town hall Palace reward the damp throng with a soothing set of orchestral country with the help of composer-in-residence Joe Duddell and an eight piece classical ensemble.
The Tim Peaks Diner, meanwhile, has moved from it’s village crow’s nest setting to the fine real ale tent and it’s here where hotly-tipped Doncaster hell-raisers The Blinders wow the crowd with a frankly terrifying at times combination of visceral Birthday Party-style psych blues and Jim Morrison-aping anti-establishment rants. Resident TP heads Yucatan provide another delicately stirring set, Liverpool’s Natalie McCool proves a winner with many with a late Friday afternoon set and CHIC drummer Ralph Rolle even drops by to spin some tunes as the tent, masterfully managed by Nick Fraser and Kirk and the Smashed Hits team, proves one of the places to be across the weekend.
Away from the main stages, the dance and electronic side of No. 6 is in keeping with previous years – there’s a lot of it and much of it is very good indeed. Fort Romeau serves up a treat as do DJs Jarvis Cocker and Steve Davis – we’re not sure who’s more of a disc jockey these days. But we’ll be seeing the latter once again at Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia. Jarvis, you’re more than welcome. Elsewhere, Stealing Sheep serve up breeze-block pop, grime, garage and old school house classics which is expertly mirrored to Rebecca Hawley‘s often quite comical efforts to sing right over the actual track – like Charlotte Church‘s pop dungeon – this tweak on traditional karaoke goes down a treat with all concerned with the new Castell Gardens Stage, situated next to the castle, quickly bubbling over into a Krypton Factor style dance off.
A massive heartfelt thank you to everyone who joined us for our sixth year celebration. You were spectacular! Be seeing you… pic.twitter.com/G3XGdnUG93
— Festival No.6 (@festivalnumber6) September 11, 2017
Similarly on Saturday evening, the Tim Peaks marquee is packed to the gills for an emotional David Bowie vs Prince party from Welsh journalist and DJ Simon Price as tune after tune pays tribute to the two recently-passed legends. While the characteristic classics of Starman, 1999, Rebel Rebel, Kiss, Life On Mars? and Changes are guaranteed dancefloor fillers, we couldn’t help but be more drawn to Prince‘s more alluring and wide-ranging funk with the likes of Erotic City, A Love Bizarre and a remarkable disco-down of I Wanna Be Your Lobster [sic]by Dimitri From Stoke on Trent proving a real winner with this overly biased Prince fanatic. It’s the way all Saturday’s should finish.
By Sunday it’s hard to escape the fact the weather is awful. Howling winds and squally showers force many to head for the exits before The Flaming Lips close the festival with a riot of costume changes, a massive Race For The Prize, inflatable robots and the now customary sight of frontman Wayne Coyne in his man-sized hamster ball. Such is the howling weather, sadly he doesn’t make it too far.
As bizarre and inventive as the 1960s show which inspired its name, Festival No 6 deserves more than being a prisoner to the weather. Finger’s crossed for next year. For Portmeirion really does need another No. 6 – be seeing you.
Getintothis‘ top 7 acts from Festival No. 6 2017
1. Mogwai – Friday, Stage No. 6
We’ve seen a lot of mighty fine headline sets – but Mogwai‘s 2017 Festival No. 6 performance is right up there with the best of them. Unlike Sunday night’s main drawer, The Flaming Lips, the Scots strip everything back with minimal fuss and let their barnstorming back catalogue of music do the talking driving home the detail, and the seismic power, with acute precision. Kicking off with Coolverine from their ninth studio album, 2017’s Every Country’s Sun they rain down the noise with measured sonic propulsion. I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead is a warm undulating bath of ambience tempered with soothing electric piano while centre piece New Paths To Helicon I is the track of the weekend; all glistening white noise which finds hairs on the back of the neck standing to attention while you grit your teeth as the droning fuzz descends around the six minute mark – only for them to ramp it up a further notch for the finale. The new material works just as well with Party In The Dark a welcome ‘pop’ interlude and Crossing The Road Material a zig-zagging light-saber duel of snaking guitar riffs. Simply put, there’s few bands delivering recorded output and live displays quite like Mogwai – that they’ve been consistently doing so for 20 years now, makes it all the more impressive. We salute you.
2. Palace with Joe Duddell and the No. 6 ensemble
Having teamed up with the likes of Daughter, East India Youth and Blossoms, we were fully ready to be bewitched once again by composer-in-residence Joe Duddell – and he didn’t disappoint. Of his charges we saw, Palace were the stand outs. Amid the Portmeirion Town Hall‘s seventeeth century Great Chamber, with it’s ceiling lined with sculptures of Hercules wielding his axe to a three-headed dragon, London quintet Palace were joined by an eight piece ensemble of woodwind, strings and stage left a magnificent harp. With the rain pelting down outside a hefty queue of fans, and those simply eager to remain dry, attempted to cram into the small hall – those who luckily gained entry witnessed something special; all angsty blues and tempered jazz stylings wrapped among Leo Wyndham‘s longing vocal which flits between both Tim and Jeff Buckley wherever the mood takes him. They close with a pin-drop version of It’s Over before a baby cries at the back of the hall – and the silence is magically, beautifully broken.
3. The Blinders – Saturday, The Real Ale Bar & Tim Peaks Diner
We had been warned about The Blinders. What unfolded was quite ridiculous. On paper, their aesthetic and sound is a tried and tested combination of dark, stabbing blues rock and rolla with a heavy emphasis on getting messy. What transpired amid the sweaty late night ale-sodden Tim Peaks Diner was anything but rudimentary. It was a lesson in grade A carnage and progressive wild anthems in waiting. As the swell of goth laden melodies and dagger-sharp hooks build to a frenetic climax, vocalist, guitarist and zoro-war-paint chieftan, Thomas Haywood spirals into the mass of bodies ending atop of one of the members of Cabbage‘s shoulders and is lifted into the air of the tent before ending in a heaving mess of bodies and instruments writhing amid the crash barriers stage front. Furiously fabulous.
4. Steve Mason – Friday, Stage No. 6
Wearing green army threads and jet fighter pilot goggles, Steve Mason marches into Portmeirion meaning business – and from the off, it’s one hour of Grade A grooves. A masterclass of old, new and as yet unreleased material. Much of what’s played is from his latest album Meet The Humans but truth be told it’s the gear from his forthcoming 2018 album which really stirs – almost prog, the new tracks unravel slowly and twist into extended jams which tumble forth like long lost Beta Band campfire night-songs. We’re licking our lips in anticipation.
5. The Brythoniaid Choir – Friday, The Central Piazza
By their own admission this wasn’t the Brythoniaid’s finest No. 6 performance – it didn’t matter, it was still a quite sensational and emotive display from one of the festival’s must-see annual spectacles. First-timers were once again brought to tears as the entire Central Piazza was sardine-packed full to the brim. Stirring renditions of Elbow‘s One Day Like This and Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau were delivered with heroic aplomb – our own criticism a rather limp version of Human.
6. PINS – Friday, Stage No. 6
Completing a superlative run on the main stage on Friday at Manchester’s PINS. Defiantly bombastic and gloriously noiser than most of their limp contemporaries, the quartet were unashamedly having a ball. As singer Faith Holgate straddles the stage this way and that in arresting silver sparkle jumpsuit, guitarist Lois McDonald rattles on the spot like a ping pong ball as All Hail smashes our collective heads for six. It’s a stunning set, made all the more satisfying having seen the band play various smaller stages at No.6 – to see them command the main one so convincingly is a fitting affair – and the only way is up.
7. Kidsmoke – Friday, Lost in the Woods Stage
The Welsh quartet offer both a warm intimacy which is both tender and assuring while offering big, cinematic hooks and melodies we’re instantly whisked off our feet amid the woodlands damp leaves and broken chips. Three part harmonies and spidery guitar lines sees the small sea of people gathered swaying heads and hips while a cheeky shout out to former band-member in the crowd only adds to their charm. Ones to keep a firm ear on.
by Peter Guy
Pictures by Getintothis Peter Guy and Fanatic.