The big boys have a ball in glorious Portmeirion but as Getintothis’ Peter Guy reflects it’s the Welsh wonders that truly take centre stage.
National pride and independence is at the forefront of the news agenda and it seemed fitting that Getintothis closed our festival season at No. 6.
For here is a happening which slaps the slogan ‘a festival unlike any other, in a place like no other‘ right across it’s forehead. And with good reason. From its setting in the whacked-out fantasy idyll of Portmeirion to the Llwyfan Clough stage promoting home grown talent through to the markets stuffed with locally-sourced produce and the daffodil-sporting Brythoniaid Male Voice Choir, No. 6 is Welsh to it’s core – and therein lies its magic. Here is an event which revels in its identity; cheekily plays with its TV Prisoner theme, thrusts to the fore its quite magnificent landscape – hosting stages in the most otherworldly of spots – and best of all places a firm emphasis on being proud of it’s heritage and artistic riches.
The aforementioned Brythoniaid Welsh Male Voice Choir, celebrating their 50th anniversary, are pivotal to the festival’s ethos. Playing sets across all three nights, they rouse audiences into beaming grins and tear-glistening eyes on each occasion, blending the likes of O Sole Mio with Myfanwy and a belting version of The Pet Shop Boys‘ Go West all the while being bathed in gigantic bubbles which fall from above the Greco-Roman Central Piazza. What could be sentimentally naff is quite the opposite, and provides one of the most heartwarming musical moments of 2014.
The Central Piazza forms a focal point for much of the weekend’s Welsh wonders to unfold. On Saturday, with the sun beating down, lending an Eastern Europe exotica amid the fauna, pastel-coloured twisty cottages and Rapunzel-like towers, a carnival breaks out of nowhere with pink and blue winged creatures dancing among beasts in headdresses and all manner of brass parping. On Friday, just as dusk arrives, Liverpool’s Harlequin Dynamite Marching band perform the first of their two sets illuminating the grass in their iridescent costumes and clanging rhythms. Elsewhere, there was Bez hosting Question Time, the Mudflappers conducting ‘shag’ dance classes and John Shuttleworth cranking up madcap organ jams.
Just away from the Piazza, Portmeirion Town Hall provides the stunning stop-off for Tim Burgess‘ Tim Peaks Diner, now in its third year, The Charlatans frontman collects brand new artists (including Liverpool’s D R O H N E), readings and an assorted arrangement of listening pleasures throughout the weekend. Grumbling Fur are one such delight on Sunday evening. As the darkness descends the mania is cranked up as Daniel O’Sullivan swaps violin for synth and industrial-vocal drone as Alexander Tucker makes outrageous shapes all over the carpet with his bass guitar flailing in all directions; Protogenesis the pick of the bunch in a delirious, keyboard-set-to-wellied, night-time interlude.
Much of our time was spent in Llwyfan Clough tent lapping up the likes of Cardiff artist Gwenno who peddles first-rate dark melodic electronica with a breathy delivery or The Wharves, an all-female trio, who trade in infectious doo-wop lo-fi pop which sits on the right side of twee and invariably recalls Belle & Sebastian and the tribal thunder of Warpaint. They’re a fine discovery. So too, Seeland, who’ve seemingly emerged from a late 60s broom cupboard in Birmingham, all pulsating rhythms, chasing kaleidoscopic guitar freakouts and electro noodles. Somewhere in the distance we can just about hear Whispering Bob Harris stroking his whiskers in considered approval.
A world away is the politicised chamber pop of Laetitia Sadier, who plays to a small crowd of hardened Stereolab devotees, with just her low hum vocal and a discordant guitar. Better still are Manchester’s Plank who inject a cyclical cosmiche vibe to proceedings dropping chunky slabs of kraut predominantly from superlative new album, Hivemind. Grasshoppers From Mars, with it’s jerky repetition and clanging power chords, proving an early afternoon treat.
In truth, it’s hard not to feel somewhat spoilt by the glut of sonic feastings on offer with veteran icons pulling star turns alongside brand new talent. Friday’s main stage sees a rejuvenated Neneh Cherry doing her best – despite a distressed body-hugging dress – to bounce across the boards, pummelling corking new material from her jazz-infused new album, Blank Project; the industrial thwack of Out Of The Black sounding equally triumphant as a reworked Buffalo Stance, leaving you aghast that you’re watching a 50-year-old in action. Similarly impressive, and *twenty three* years her senior, is Detroit’s irrepressible Martha Reeves and her Vandellas. From the get-go, Reeves is in steely commanding form; powering through Dancing In The Street, Nowhere To Run, Jimmy Mack and a sackful of Motown classics before closing with a jam in which she, in no uncertain terms, insists the band “don’t stop playing y’all til I say stop playin.‘” Yes, ma’am.
Someone else who demands our attention is Steve Mason. Seasoned festival head and rabble rouser, the former Beta Band head comes into his element on the bigger stage and at 8pm on Friday he threatens to pull off the set of the weekend. Dusty grooves, soulful stomp, cosmic campfire singalongs and masterful songcraft, Mason and his gang have ’em in spades; Lost & Found sounds positively huge while Fire is a fist to the chops of Tony Blair as the Scot scoffs at his GQ ‘Philanthropist of the Year’ title. But it’s the restrained beauty of Boys Outside which sets Mason apart, it’s absolutely stunning and leaves the tent breathless. What we’d give to see him team up with Michael Head.
The new kids on the block delivered in patches; Childhood, the first band we caught on Friday afternoon after a debacle in the park & ride coach service contrived to make the last 20 minutes of our journey last almost two hours, were fair-to-middling in the breezy guitar-pop stakes, Gengahr brightened up Sunday morning with slacker riffs and their one stone-cold killer tune, Fill My Gums With Blood, Lucky T Jackson are worth the early rise on Saturday peppering our still fuzzy minds with bracing northern rippers while Tiny Ruins stray a little too far into the medieval whimsy camp, her Pink Moon-like delicacies win us over at first but when she pipes up with a tune about a stone she tied to a piece of string which dangled from a gutter causing her neighbour much alarm (it’s called The Ballad of the Hanging Parcel!) it all becomes a tad too daft. East India Youth, meanwhile, is simply mesmerising – throwing his mop of hair around behind his table full of tricks, he slips from the sublimely melodic Looking For Someone to the stunning maniacal mechanics of Heaven, How Long.
No. 6 prides itself on its late night festivities too, and once again the cats on the decks and Macs largely deliver. Seasoned raver Andrew Weatherall doesn’t mess about on Friday evening edging the dance tent battle with Laurent Garnier – the freneticism getting the better of one reveller who tries to make their exit via the central flagpole. Saturday sees Jon Hopkins obliterate our inner ear with low-end bass breeze blocks, while we’re sadly too late to catch Todd Terje as the tent is fit to burst as we catch but a smidgeon of his Scando-disco while Greg Wilson tears it up back in the Llwyfan Clough. Julio Bashmore, meanwhile, provides a ball to see out the Late Night Pavillion on Sunday.
But it’s not all beats and bangers, there’s considered debate and day-time talks to keep us company too. The best of which is the Ted Kessler hosted My Old Man discussion down by the Estuary Stage as Martin and Paul Kelly recount tales connected to their dad, Manx Kelly, and how it shaped their careers as Heavenly Recordings and Films founders. Their tales are littered with bemusement, dark humour and tongue-in-cheek contempt for a father who largely abandoned them in pursuit of his career – it is both hilarious and tragic and in stark contrast to late arrival of Tim Burgess, who recounts a deeply ordinary, yet nevertheless enriching relationship he has with his dad, who’s supported his musical endeavours. It’s another small, yet moving, aside which No. 6 is so good at capturing.
The Estuary Stage is one of our favourite segments of Festival No. 6. Overlooking the sweeping sands, watching the paddle-boarders amid Balearic sounds booming from the Stone Boat DJ booth enclave set within the rocks you could be forgiven into thinking you’re in the old town of Ibiza; a pick ‘n mix of revellers, leathery-skinned crusties, Rhys Ifans and a multitude of musicians linger about while the stage itself is a mini marquee adorned with hanging baskets and foliage. Julian Cope swings his chain-mail and black cowhide boots about a bit rattling on about something we’re not quite sure before All We Are provide one of the sets of the weekend. Oozing assurance, funk-fuelled grooves and tunes which seem to grow bigger by the day, there’s is a set bereft of filler, all winner, from the opening Feel Safe through to a sky-scraping Go, it reaffirms our belief that their debut album, due early 2015, will be a serious statement of intent.
While on the subject of Merseysiders, Sound City‘s Lost In The Woods stage on Sunday allows Bird, The Vril Society and a host of others to shine to an unfamiliar crowd. We’re bowled over by VEYU‘s towering magnetism which sounds positively massive amid the forestry but there’s little doubt Tea Street Band pull the biggest and most approving crowd of the afternoon providing 35 minutes of non-stop good times; Push The Feeling On sounding deliciously squelchy amid the now crinkled leaves and dusty ground.
And so to the headliners: Friday’s London Grammar selection is on the one hand a fine gesture by organisers to reward a new band who cut their teeth on the same stage last year. However, there’s no doubting their moment has arrived just that bit too soon, a one-trick pony – albeit a fine one trick – the trio’s set is essentially the same song on repeat for an hour and it plateaus with little peaks or troughs to elevate it from the ordinary. Only the finale of Metal & Dust, complete with Dominic Major‘s live drumming, makes for a satisfying spectacle. Spectacle is something The Pet Shop Boys specialise in, so it was particularly frustrating when they delivered the one bum note of the weekend. Dancing minotaurs, glitterball costumes, outrageous feather-assisted suits and even colossal green lazer beams can’t redeem a sound reminiscent of a night down Garlands with your uncle pressing ‘demo’ on a keyboard. It’s flat, outdated and rather than pop elation merely leaden and tired. It’s left to the Brythoniaid Male Voice Choir to reprise their Go West routine from Friday to lift the spirits, as Neil Tennant remarks, “That was undoubtedly a career highlight.” We can see why.
But there’s no doubting who provides the set of the weekend – in fact it’s one of the festival headline sets we’ve ever witnessed. Beck Hansen is an unlikely headliner. Sure, he’s ample of first-rate material but prior to his performance we’re pondering just what kind of set he’ll deliver; quietly hoping it’s not an overtly introspective run down of tracks from his more melancholic end of the spectrum. We needn’t have worried. Beck absolutely storms it. Opening with the freak-fuzz of Devil’s Haircut before rattling our insides with the one-two jabs of Loser and Black Tambourine – by the time New Pollution drops the entire crowd has lost their shit. It’s utter pandemonium. Characteristically, he swerves around almost every musical touchstone there is to offer. There’s the robotic P-funk of Hell Yes and Get Real Paid, a nugget-tinged Chem Trails, a reworked rendition of Donna Summer‘s I Feel Love, the sweeping ghostly Americana of Blue Moon and a positively gorgeous Lost Cause.
He closes in suitably stunning fashion, first dishing out approval to Portmeirion -“I think I’m gonna buy me a place right here, I love this place,” before informing the crowd, “You guys are deliciously rowdy, what kinda laws do you wanna defy?” Why, Sexx Laws, of course. His band then tease us with intros and riffs from The Stones, Grand Master Flash, Queen and more before closing with a riotous Where It’s At. We’re completely blown away. Festival No. 6 truly is a festival unlike any other.
Getintothis’ picks from No. 6