The Green Man festival takes place in the hidden valleys of the Welsh Black Mountains. The site is dominated by fields of flourishing greenery and shrubbery, which make an ideal match for the eco-friendly ethos of the types of people that are continually drawn here. Oddly yet I suspect intentionally synonymous with such features is the mythical history behind the symbol of the Green Man itself. And though an enigma, its potential link to rebirth and the preservation of nature is an obvious inspiration to proceedings, let alone an enchanting premise for the festivities to come.
I don’t think the fashion in which we approached the festival gates could’ve been quite more magical or gripping. We had the fortune of being in the company of a driver who had little to no knowledge of the festival, let alone any ideas on which entrance was assigned for coach drop-offs. Whilst these facts would and should discourage any passengers, what it did mean for those attending via the GM5 vehicle from the South of England was that instead of the flat and much safer route from the motorway through the villages to the park’s site, we were taken the rural route. Our driver led us out into the greenery and over tame, secluded rivers before wrestling up and over one of the mountains. Though I spent the last thirty clinging to the seat, the views it provided were impeccable and a firm introduction to the confounding characteristics that blossom at Green Man.
Once we’d set up camp (which, for once in my experience of at least a semi-popular British festival, turned out to be very straight-forward) we started for the arena where Patti Smith was set to open the event.
It was here, rather unfortunately, that we encountered our first lapse in preparation. Putting too much thought and attention into constructing our temporary plastic bungalow and fuelling up with food meant that we bypassed the immediate necessity of buying a festival program. Assuming that because Patti was the official headline act for Thursday she would take up a sensible slot of something near or around 9-9:30pm, we made our approach for then. However the itinerary for the evening didn’t quite meet our expectations and Patti instead took up a slot thirty minutes earlier, promoting Matt Berry’s set to close out proceedings.
While we were able to salvage the last half of Patti’s performance, we found ourselves relegated to a viewing from the screen outside the tent (Far Out stage) where she was playing, a problem likely to be encountered considering that no other main outlets or stages had planned events for the evening. We stuck around only briefly, enough at least to witness an acoustic, tender-loving rendition of Elegie set to the remembrance of close friend and Blue Oyster Cult member Allen Lanier, who passed away last week. Even then, however, the delicacy of the subject and exclusivity of the performance were not enough to shut out the music from nearby stalls outside the tent and, regretfully, we opted to move on. Such the decision did have the upside of enabling us an opportunity to explore the remainder of the arena, where the true extent of Green Man’s diversity of features was more thoroughly realised.
Everything from live music and cinema to comedy and lecturing make up the majority of the provisional showcases set to cover the weekend, though we would also bump into a number of more spontaneous oddities later on. For now we settle for a browse around the stalls, rummaging through books, records, clothes, and ornaments as well as sampling some of the local breweries.
At night the charm of Green Man’s design also comes into focus. Cute touches such as the evening bonfire and the illuminating lighting that rests amongst the trees succeed in creating a cosy ambiance where people can meet and socialise.
Soon rain begins to fall outside, yet the sheltered areas never get too cramped or uncomfortable. People converse with laughter and an overall warmness of feeling, allowing no margin of undesirable weather to dampen their spirits. And so I tick another box on my list of what makes up the quintessential festival experience, and head to bed with nothing but optimism for the weekend ahead.
We start our Friday with a talk and presentation courtesy of culture writer and past Guardian contributor Mark Pilkington, who tells us about music’s past and present relationships with the occultists of mysticism and Witchcraft. Its dark subject matter and thundering soundtrack (hardly surprising really) quickly snap many out of their early slumber, providing an attentive audience for a rather compelling discussion.
US Indie rock band Parquet Courts come on stage in the Far Out tent shortly after 4pm, blasting through a frantic, highly charged forty-five minute set, and to great amusement of those fortunate enough to stop by. The crowd are treated to many cuts from last year’s popular full-length, Light Up Gold, plus a number of new tracks. Many which I assume are likely to appear on October’s recently announced Tally the Things You Broke EP. Any amount of time that could be put to making light with or even addressing the crowd is scrapped for more material. And who should blame them? When the getting is as powerful and as striking as this, I doubt many in attendance would have favoured any amount of gratuitous dialogue through the mic. That is unless it came cluttered with hooked rhythms and wailing feedback of course. Then we’d have it.
Shortly after we are treated to a double-header of neo-psychedelic rock as we flit between both Walk and Moon Duo who are playing at the same time on similar sides of the park. Walk serve as last minute replacements to the absent Zimbaremabwe, yet the Manchester duo do impressively well in enabling any disappointed onlookers to overcome the effects of a reshuffle in the tent’s proceedings. Their sound is tight, fast and infectious, drawing comparisons with more contemporary artists of the style such as Goat and Clinic. It proves an ideal soundtrack for the merry early evening crowd, which is more than what can be said of Moon Duo, who are forced to watch their sluggish yet deafening cosmic sounds incite little to no movement from a mostly sober audience.
Next we headed over to the Walled Garden for our first taste of live music from the stage in the premises. We had partaken in events there last night, drinking at the resident Green Man pub: a pop-up public house equipped with authentic draught lager and a traditional décor, a mandatory drinking experience for any first-timers to the festival.
In opposition to the heavy rain that bordered the outside areas the night before, today we are rewarded the option of obtaining a spot out in the glistening sunshine, an encouraging premise for Buke and Gase’s approaching performance.
One defect of a warm, cosy afternoon in an area known for its more laid back approach, is that a vast majority fall victim to the temptation to sit for performances, which, don’t get me wrong, works if, say, a series of lone acoustics performers are set to grace the stage for an entire afternoon. Yet for Buke and Gase, a duo that play acute, head-bop-inducing pop music, the same setting just doesn’t seem natural. Still, their racing, lust-heavy output quickly beckons various members of the crowd to stand up closer to the stage, many even breaking into dance. And much to the delight of the performers the crowd are suddenly far from disinterested.
Midlake are in the midst of a fantastic time in their career. With their first new studio material since 2009 on the cusp of receiving unanimous attention, the band emits huge signs of both joy and relief throughout their staggering performance. Tim Smith’s departure and the radical shift in line-up duties has not affected, let alone touched any inch of confidence in their collective morale. The debuting songs go over remarkably, encouraging just as much cheers and applause as when they play through favourites Roscoe and Kingfisher Pie, the latter of which is introduced by a very excited Eric Pulido, stating “Wow, the food you have here is incredible. Pieminister? Hell yeah. I’ma be makin’ a B-line straight over there the moment our set’s up”.
He’s right, the pie hits the spot. And so does much of the delicatessen on offer at Green Man this year. Unlike the major corporate music festivals in Britain, Green Man chooses to provide outlets for local, preferably authentic cuisines. This makes for far more affordable food options, not to mention more generous portion sizes for festival-goers. Much like Pulido we are big fans of the Pieminister brand. Ever since the Duke of Norfolk pub near our homes in Brighton changed its menus we’ve been eagerly anticipating our next sample. So thank you, Green Man. I make that another pivotal tick of the box.
We turn to Bristol based electronic noise outfit Fuck Buttons to close our lot for today’s live music. Clearly reading the demands of their late night audience, Andrew Hung and Benjamin Power lean largely on transmitting the dense and bass-heavy elements out from under the bases of their noisy, boundless studio cuts. Tarot Sport favourites Surf Solar and Flight of the Feathered Serpent show striking similarities with 90s trance figureheads Underworld. And whilst the melodic leads sit further back in the mix, the rapid movement it provokes from the audience makes the relegation more than worthwhile.
It’s approaching 2am when we skim through the late-night contents of the festival program, only to realise that bombastic comedian Andrew O’Neill is shortly due to make an appearance in the comedy tent. Having being turned onto his work only a short period ago via a close friend, I was curious to give him a listen. Andrew doesn’t disappoint, rallying the crowd into bursts of joy and laughter with his digressive, liberal humour. His material remains extraordinarily coarse and arbitrary. Yet as many comedy fans will tell you, such characteristics often point to a great Comedian. Personally I don’t see Andrew breaking the chain.
One of the more original attractions at Green Man is the Einstein’s Garden, an area dedicated to the heroic science legend himself. Here attendees of all ages can witness a variety of fun and sophisticated activities, from workshops and installations to talks and performances, all revolving in and around the subjects of science and nature. Being in the company of an educated biologist and overall nature enthusiast, I was soon roped into joining one of the midday Wildlife Walk’s. The subject was Wild Food, where we spent the best part of an hour being lectured on and foraging for types of food edible in our local wilderness. Aside from being both insightful and a pleasure to listen to, our guide was even kind enough to share samples of produce he’d cultivated at home – of course the alcohol brewed from a resource of wild Rosa berries stood to be particularly rewarding.
Our evening begins watching Low on the main stage, which easily provides one of the best sets of the weekend. Though their minimal approach tends to favour clarity when playing live, credit is still owed to the effortless chemistry the three-piece brings to the frontline. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s harmonies still sound as gorgeous and as spine-tingling as they did on record almost two decades ago. And with set highlights Pissing and Murderer, plus a rare run-through of seminal single Over the Ocean making the cut, their appearance makes for an hour not to be missed.
We watch the beginning of Archie Bronson Outfit’s set in the Far Out tent, them being a band both me and my guest used to follow a handful of years ago. Yet a shortage of recognisable songs and an overall despondence in both sound and attitude steers us elsewhere.
Instead we make our way back down to the main stage to witness the solo performance of popular music and avant-garde icon John Cale, with whom we had earlier watched being interviewed in the Talking Shop. In conversation Cale is warm and approachable. Though he tended to digress a little too often, and in many instances just as things were getting very interesting (losing his direction moments into discussing the Velvet Underground’s mid-career turbulence was mildly frustrating for me personally), Cale still made for an enthralling attraction.
His live performance was riddled with similar symptoms. Featuring many cuts from his latest release Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, plus an array of tracks from different points in his extensive forty year career, Cale, though perhaps not writing his best material these days, continues to prove his ongoing role as a pioneer of bizarre pop and rock music.
We remain at the Mountain Stage for The Horrors, who appear to charge somewhat unsteadily through their lead support slot. The easiest assumption for this behaviour may be that they’re growing tired of past material, particularly that of last LP Skying, a record they’ve been touring for more than two years now without much letting up. Still Life and Sea Within a Sea manage to go over pretty well, yet a change up in mood and material seems essential at this point in their career.
By the time Allah-La’s come on stage in the Walled Garden the rain has returned. Most onlookers don’t appear to let it affect their choice to watch the band outside, yet as their set draws on parallel to the undeniable homogeneity of much of their material, half the crowd soon disperse to drier settings.
We take up shelter in a tepee over near the Nature Nurture grounds, mysteriously shielded by a roof of psychedelic projections (for real) before catching Jon Hopkins’ live set over in the Far Out venue.
With last album Immunity easily making my top 10 record releases so far this year, I was enthusiastic to see how Jon’s live experience would match up. Sure, he doesn’t disappoint. The eerie and synthetic character of his studio material is evolved for the stage. The drops, in particular, sound massive, bursting through the speakers multiple times during Open Air Signal and to the collective glee of the audience. Still that’s not to say the harmonious or graphic moments are neglected at all. Instead, just like the rest of the mix, it’s turned up, stimulating jubilance and the need to try out some terrible dance moves in all present.
The effects of a long day and a shortage of beer at hand start to take its degrading toll on me before Hopkins ceases playing, causing us to pave way for the tent exits a little less than forty-five minutes in. The fact that the girl to my right was on the clear cusp of spewing her entire guts across my shoulder might also have aided the decision.
Our final day of events is kicked off with a talk from Andy Roberts who uses his time to guide us through his novel Albion Dreaming, a seemingly meticulous account of the effects of drug-use and drug culture in Britain’s history. It’s in this hour that I’m finally acquainted with the famous British Armed Forces documentary from the 1950s that naively trials LSD on a group of military soldiers to imagine how it might affect their behaviour in combat. If you’ve seen such footage you’ll understand why, for that alone, I’m thankful I attended the talk.
Psychedelics aren’t the only reference to a free-spirited, self-releasing lifestyle here at Green Man though. We run into a number of dancing troupes and processions, each portraying different arts and origins. Cultural and stylistic diversity is rich in appreciation, and the crowds are just as keen to support the cause of a procession as they would any act on the main stage. Whether that means tagging onto the moving line or simply clapping along as they wander by, that’s left entirely up to impulse.
Needing to work off Lunch’s stomach-defeating Nut Roast, we climb the grassy hill up to Far Out. There we remain for back-to-back sets from both Mikal Cronin and Woods.
Cronin is sub-par unfortunately, suggesting that perhaps his Garage Rock be fit only for pounding the walls of sweaty inner-city clubs. On the festival stage he looks intimidated.
Woods on the other hand persevere a little more convincingly. While the uneasy transition of their lo-fi acoustic songs to the live arena provides a shaky start, their shackles are quickly unleashed the second they kick into the outro on Bend Beyond, the first in a series of prodigious, lasting jams that populate the latter half of their set.
On our way out for a little downtime we stop by the Chai Wallahs stage for Cocos Lovers, a Kent-based folk octet whose tender, jolly smiles and partial African rhythmic influence leave an entire tent dancing vivaciously. As they prepare to leave the stage the audience continues to cry for more. Some are even willing to fight for it, as a committed few soon did the moment a free CD was launched toward the crowd.
The award for best stage design has to go to British Sea Power, their props of foliage paired with a glowing arrangement of gold and green lighting make for an inviting presence, and many pile in to catch a glimpse at what sets to be a worthy attraction. For some unknown reason though I find Yan’s moments difficult to swallow tonight – I’d always favoured Neil Hamilton’s emotive northern yearn on record anyway, but seeing Yan on stage profiling what I can only describe as a very arrogant and unsavoury Springsteen impersonation, plus the likeliness that it’s only me experiencing this odd illusion, puts me off what was otherwise a great show.
We drop out midway to take a last hopeful stab at finding something that’s still both readily available and delicious from the near-drained ale menu, and take a quick peak into the comedy tent where Josh Widdicombe satisfies a full-capacity audience. Then, with a winning pint of Orange Beacons in hand, decide to return for the remainder of British Sea Power.
Our finale couldn’t have arrived in any bolder a form: a soundtrack to the end of the world courtesy of titanic volume-abusers, Swans. Having witnessed their onslaught twice in the last year already I know to come prepared. My guest on the other hand is slightly unsure, yet gratefully thanks me later on for having the foresight to pack an extra pair of earplugs. Though we are between two and three decades past the bands’ more propulsive post-punk days – when Gira and co were renowned for playing with such venom and intensity that members of the audience would frequently pass out, and in some cases even vomit – recently Swans have been embracing a revival with the more amplified elements of their sound. 2012’s The Seer provided a tame indication on record, however the live show of late has been harnessing an entire other beast.
Tonight bares no exception to the rule. Built up almost entirely of new and unrecorded material, Gira conducts his clan of frightening associates through their punishing two hour set. Upon sight the entire band engage in intense and arduous playing, much like what you might imagine six fully grown men trying to conjure an apocalyptic storm would look like. The destruction they leave behind is marvellous, and a lasting highlight of the weekend.
Events close with a traditional firework display set to commemorate the burning of the household green man monument. The celebrations stretch late on into the night via a variety of parties and communal gatherings and, until next time, I reluctantly bid farewell to my new favourite festival.