Green Man Festival 2019: review, best bands and what we learned from Brecon Beacons

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Green Man

Green Man is a glorious party in the heart of the Brecon Beacons, Getintothis’ Matty Loughlin-Day takes one for the team.

To state “there’s a bit of something for everyone” in writing a review of a festival flies so close to cliché that it’s a hair’s breadth away from raving about the “positive vibes” and complaining about the longdrops.

When it comes to Green Man Festival however, it isn’t too far from the truth.

Green Man newbies and opting for the Settler’s Pass option, Getintothis headed down three days before the masses flooded in and got, well, settled.

Before we get to the music, it has to be pointed out that one of the most striking aspects one notices immediately about Green Man is the location itself. Nestled away in the valley of Crickhowell in Wales’ Brecon Beacons, the festival site is in the shadows of the Black Mountains and uses the geography of the location brilliantly; the main stage – the Mountain Stage, naturally – uses the rolling Welsh hills as a breath-taking backdrop and the gradual inclines of the park creates a natural amphitheatre, ensuring there are no bad spots to stand.

Throw in a giant Green Man effigy, primed for burning on the final night, a few Red Kites, Buzzards and enormous dragonflies, and it’s quite the magical place. But you’re not reading this for the wildlife, are you, so before we digress too much…

Although the festival proper started on Thursday, the Settler’s field offered a host of Wales’ finest acts from the Monday across two small stages, with an emphasis on acts singing in their mother tongue. Highlights included Popty Ping Record’s raucous Chroma, whose set reached a rapturous climax that saw the drummer stood on his drum stool, still pounding the life out of his kit while lead singer Katie strolled through the crowd and the utterly brilliant and equally bonkers 3 Hwr Doeth.

Although it may be lazy to utilise Welsh comparisons, their act nevertheless did resemble a supergroup made up of members of Super Furry Animals and Goldie Looking Chain, if this group were to include a rapper in a papier-mâché pig’s head.

Throughout the days, the Settler’s fields are a haven for families, with workshops for children offering foraging classes, tie-dye t-shirt making and solar gazing drawing big crowds, while evenings feature mass pub quizzes and drag acts. It is undeniably middle-class and very much pitched for the Guardian readers of the world, something not missed by the comedians of Wednesday night, who waste no opportunity in ribbing the very nature of the festival. Standout stand-up Matt Lees made a mockery of the “tone it down” rule for the children present and revelled in doing so.

Not that middle-class is a criticism, nor is it a judgement. Although maybe not the most exciting thing to comment upon and for all the joking, there can be no denying Green Man is a slick, well-run festival that seems to have every box ticked.

It’s spacious, so things never get Glastonbury busy and throughout the entire week, toilets are seemingly permanently clean (and some even offer sawdust to cover the more, ahem, pungent offerings, thereby creating compost – honestly!), litter is practically non-existent due to diligent volunteers and vitally, the sound:knobhead ratio is heavily weighted in favour of the former.

That’s not to say anything is boring or toned down – a walk round the site after the main acts would see to that – but either way, by the time the floodgates are opened for the rest of the rabble on Thursday, all eyes and ears are on the bands.

Green Man

The first act to grace the more intimate Walled Garden stage was Callum Easter. Very much the anti-Gerry Cinnamon, his set is a jarring, claustrophobic cacophony of jagged beats, drone and accordion. With haunting vocals-cum-spoken word in a thick Scottish accent, it’s an unsettling experience – in the best sense – that at times resembles Tricky and Ivor Cutler. We’d wager money that sentence has never been written before.

New York’s Bodega drew the first ‘big’ crowd of the festival at the Far Out Stage and their dance-punk set, featuring one drum kit split between two band members, seems to go down well with those in attendance, but does at times begin to feel somewhat one-dimensional.

Due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’, Thursday’s headliners Amadou and Mariam are moved to Friday evening and as a result, The Wedding Present make their second consecutive ‘surprise’ appearance at Green Man.

Quite the treat, their 90 minute set would not be likely to win over the unconvinced, but for those of us very much in the club, it’s a treat. New material is mixed in with classics such as Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft and Blue Eyes and the thrill of the surprise ensures it is treated with the same reverie.

Friday soon comes around and brings with it rain. Lots of rain. The ‘rain at a festival’ tale is one as old as time, so it would hardly be ground-breaking to talk about it much more that that, but it did rain. Lots. Undeterred, we headed out early doors to catch Pet Shimmers at the Far Out Stage. Their Slowdive-esque sound is pleasant enough, however does soon begin to bleed into one.

Additionally, a sound such as theirs that is so defined by vocal harmony does require tight harmonies, which at times during the set unfortunately slips and becomes ever so jarring. Maybe it was an off-day; it certainly wasn’t disastrous, not by a long shot, but we were left feeling that their live performance doesn’t quite match their recorded output. Maybe next time.

An enthralling TV:AM set follows, which at its peak makes one wonder why anyone bothers listening to Tame Impala. Entrancing visuals, featuring old VHS footage and song lyrics are projected onto the backdrop and an on-stage old television set during an assault of motorik drums, phased guitar and heavily reverbed vocals.

Durand Jones & The Indications grace our first visit to the Mountain Stage and deliver a masterclass in soul, which almost makes us forget about the rain. Ending on a Beatles cover (Don’t Let Me Down) ensures that the scouse contingent in our party are left with sunshine in our soul, before one of this year’s success stories Julia Jacklin takes to the stage.

Her hour-long set is split between this year’s phenomenal Crushing album and her debut album Don’t Let the Kids Win, the title track of which brings a lump to the throat as she croons in an almost Patsy Cline style voice. Jacklin’s confessional lyrics are at times so stark and blunt that watching her at times feels borderline voyeuristic; it’s no small feat to hold a main stage crowd enraptured, but she manages this with seeming ease and for a festival, the crowd is remarkably respectful and, believe it or not, quiet.

The storming set closers You Were Right and Pressure to Party quickly break this spell and prompt singalongs before she leaves the stage, leaving many a crowd member to shout after her, declaring their love for her.

Green Man

The nature of festivals mean it is impossible to see and do everything, so it was with a heavy heart we were forced to miss Fat White Family, Bill Ryder-Jones and Khruangbin, but this is more than made up for by the triple whammy of Gwenno, Steve Mason and Yo La Tengo to take us into the increasingly clear night.

Things up to this point had by no means been conservative or straight-laced, but Hen Ogledd’s set on the Saturday ensures that for the first time we are truly thrown into the region of the absolutely fucking mental.

Featuring Richard Dawson and co., songs about trips to the tip, nuclear waste and hot air balloons are propelled along via vocoders, distorted harps and mixtables. Certainly not to everybody’s taste, theirs is a sound that would well be at home on BBC Radio 3’s experimental radio show Late Junction and either beguiles or delights, depending on your mindset. For this writer, it was a definite delight; anything that makes Richard Dawson’s solo material seem normal is OK by us.

It is to Green Man’s credit that music such as this can have such a prominent slot; at other festivals, it would arguably be tucked away on a small stage, in the wee hours, accessible only to those who know where to look.

It’s a theme that runs throughout the weekend and it’s a thrill to see it pay off. Perhaps this was best demonstrated by the size of the crowd that gathered to watch Sons of Kemet take to the main stage later, in addition to the numbers there later on for Stereolab and Four Tet.

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The bookers here are clearly not playing it safe and they should be applauded for the risk taken in this. Although devoid of mass singalongs, all three sets manage to maintain their crowds and the acts are given the respect and the receptions they deserve.

It was also clear this wasn’t just a case of “let’s set up camp at the main stage and stay all day” as the crowd Ezra Collective draw for their vibrant distinctive take on the modern London Jazz sound at the Far Out Stage on Sunday illustrated. Rammed to near capacity, at other festivals it would be near impossible to enjoy, however – again – Green Man have thought about this and the addition of a screen outside the tent, alongside superb, clear sound, ensure that those of us on the outside can feel like we’re in it. Seems so simple, doesn’t it, but other festivals should really be taking note.

Throughout the day, Eels deliver a fantastic set that draws from their illustrious career and sees Mark E Everett in fine, charismatic form, however there is only one band on anyone’s lips, t-shirts, hats and tattoos; Idles.

Their set is an all-conquering stroke of energy, passion and unity. It is quite something that a band with only two albums can headline the Far Out Stage with such aplomb and they do not fail to deliver.

Immediately following their set, the traditional burning of the Green Man takes place amidst fireworks and the ashes of the wishes we all wrote and tied to the effigy are sent up to the heavens; we’d be surprised if our wish to return next year was the only one.

The Nine Best Bands of Green Man:

Idles (credit George Harrison)

Idles

It would be tempting to pick someone else for ‘band of the festival’ and select someone so obscure only the drummer’s mother knows them, but we’d be lying. Hands down, Idles were the main draw here, even though they weren’t headlining the main stage. From the word go they commanded a crowd so engaged as to be nearly religious followers and had us all hanging on every word Joe Talbot spat out.

The sound was as brutal and relentless as you’d hope and within two songs, guitar members were in the crowd. Later on in the set, a teenager winds up on stage and is asked his name – Louie from Liverpool – “I fucking love scousersTalbot informs us. Is right. It is a fine line to walk between preacher and prat, but Talbot’s genuine warmth and compassion ensured this looked natural and everything he said or sang came directly from the left-wing heart. Songs were dedicated to loyal members of the Bristol music scene, immigration and the NHS; I’ve given it much thought and although I’m keen to avoid hyperbole and fanaticism, I can’t put it any less syrupy than this: listening to him, via an onslaught of punk and drone, you are encouraged to be a better person and want to create a better society. For a rockstar, you can’t ask for more than that.

Growlers

The final date of their tour, The Growlers brought their self-styled Beach Goth to the Far Out Stage on Sunday. Although their line-up seems to change more than The Fall, the band is built around Brooks Nielsen, who as it happens, might possibly be the coolest man at the festival. Their set was a welcome mix of previous surf-infused pop genius such as Someday and One Million Lovers and newer, more disco-infused Julian Casablancas produced material such as I’ll Be Around and City Club, which culminated in Nielsen goading the crowd to throw cans, cups and beachballs at him, so he could bat them away with his microphone. Irrepressible and irresistible.

Say Sue Me

Sticking with the theme, Say Sue Me delivered their blend of frenetic South Korean surf-rock to an increasingly receptive Far Out Sunday crowd. A Ramones cover (Rockaway Beach) blends in perfectly and songs from 2018’s Where We Were Together such as But I Like You and Old Town are delivered with a one-two punch. A new song that closes the set hints at a more groove-based direction they might explore, but still has at its root sheer fun pop. A later three song secret set at the tiny Green Man Record Shop is no less exciting or toned down; Say Sue Me – your next favourite band.

Richard Thompson

There’s probably not much more than can be said about Richard Thompson that hasn’t already been said. Thompson himself jests about this when detailing leaving Fairport Convention – “you know, we invented Folk-Rock, no big deal…” and a succession of critical acclaim and Ivor Novello awards back this up.

His set, again at the Far Out Stage was a highlight of the festival and belied the fact Thompson is entering his eighth decade, as he played classics such as I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, I Feel Good and 1952 Vincent Black Lightning with a mixture of ferocity and intensity that at times sounded as if there are three guitarists on stage. For this guitar-playing writer, it was almost enough to make him jack the whole thing in. A masterclass.

Aidan Moffat & RM Hubbert

Aidan Moffat & RM Hubbert

The Walled Garden played host to the duo on Saturday and their brand of lo-fi observant, at times darkly humorous acoustic music was a refreshing break from some of the louder acts of the festival. Elements of classical guitar, jazz and Yazoo covers, combined with Moffatt’s inimitable vocals and lyrical delivery perfectly matched the mood of the more languid corner of Green Man and at times, made the eyeballs moist. Hayfever, honest.

Gwenno

A set that climaxes with a singalong about cheese – in Cornish – is surely going to be a highlight of any festival. Yet Gwenno is far from a gimmick. Her mix of electronica, folk and on-stage string section, played out before a video loosely based on her previous album Le Kov was a haunting and beguiling set that had at the heart of it a message of the need to preserve cultures and languages, in order to cultivate mutual understanding and respect. “When a man looses his tongue” she reasons “he looses his land”.

Steve Mason

At a festival such as this, it would be easy for someone of Mason’s calibre to fall back upon previous successes and play it safe. Not so here. Over the course of a set that was largely drawn from this year’s Stephen Street produced About the Light, Mason continues to push things forward and keep things relevant.

Although not completely devoid of it, Green Man did lack an element of political statement and rebelliousness of some other festivals, so it was heartening to hear Mason alter lyrics to remind us “they only have the power because we give them power” and spit out “fuck Boris” several times. Backed by fellow Beta-man Steve Duffield, an array of grooves, beats and tender moments reminded us of how lucky we are to have him still making music.

Yo La Tengo

During Yo La Tengo’s headline set on the Friday, this writer did wonder, several times, as to whether or not they made every other band on the planet redundant; that’s how good they were. An hour and a half long genre-bending set threw up as many surprises as it did wonders.

Long periods of atonal noise, looped for good effect were followed by tender lullabies and bossa nova swoons. Classics such as Sugarcube and Autumn Sweater were nestled amongst long drawn out wig-outs, that saw guitars detuned mid-song and passed around the crowd so they could give it a good thrashing. For the most part there were only three people on stage, yet at times they created a sound so huge, those in the nearby family stage would surely be scrambling for ear defenders.

The weather did seem to play a part in lessening the crowd, but for those of us there, it felt like the greatest show nobody else knew about. Verging on the indulgent and the ridiculous, in the greatest sense, the set also saw an unannounced Gruff Rhys wander on stage for a noodle on the keyboard– by the end of the segment, even he looked bemused – again, that’s how good it was.

Aldous Harding

Due to clashes, we only caught the final three songs of Harding’s set, yet so captivating was it, it became one of the highlights of the week. Riding the success of this year’s Designer album, it was easy to see why those in the critical classes have compared her to Kate Bush and Scott Walker.

With a thousand-eye glare than would make Julian Cope seem tame, she bewitched the Mountain Stage crowd with her unpredictable mix of folk and chamber pop. A new song closed the set, which featured Harding banging a mug with a drum stick – that should be terrible, shouldn’t it? The fact it wasn’t illustrates how good she was. She is due to play Liverpool Arts Club this December – cherish her while she is in venues this small.

 

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