Green Man Festival - Brecon Beacons, Wales

The first thing that strikes you at Green Man is the sense of solidarity and togetherness, there’s no need for parents to worry about the safety of their giggling toddlers as they gambol around the beautifully bedecked trees and pagan tree sculptures as everyone is here to have a good time. Having only previously experienced the likes of Reading Festival (the horror, the horror) it is charming and disarming for your hillside correspondent to realise that there are no hordes of rampaging, drunken vandals to avoid at Green Man. Truly this place is heavenly.

Certainly the setting is one which brings out the peacenik in all of us; sat in glorious late summer sun under the protective shadow of the black mountains, with kingfishers darting along the riverbank behind us, it is hard to feel anything other than at one with nature and your fellow man. Hippy, drippy tosh you might say and maybe you’d have a point but, listen, one thing even a hardened cynic can’t deny is the quality of grub on offer here; Pieminister gets my vote for festival food par excellence but there’s something for everyone and not a surly, overpriced burger vendor in sight. Welsh Whisky? Check. Hot Chocolate with marshmallow and rum? Check. It is almost worth the entrance fee just to be in the company of likeminded souls for a couple of days without the threat of some scrote in a Nova turning up and blasting out happy hardcore on his sub-bass, but there’s more to Green Man than gorgeous food and blissed out kids in a field. There’s cinema, literature, comedy and even science, but most of all there’s the music.

Friday traffic means that the first band The Music Fix catches is Errors on the Far Out Stage and their brand of jerky indie electronic proves to be the ideal accompaniment to a chicken balti pie and peas, and a perfect introduction to the festival. Having got our dancing shoes well and truly christened we head back outside and pay our respects to the awesome wicker/bark Green Man sculpture and, as the sun sets over the valley behind us we amble back down to the main arena to catch the majestic British Sea Power.

BSP is a band to believe in and from the moment I first saw them live in Clwb Ifor Bach I was smitten; a stunning debut album, a leafy live show and a man in a bear suit equated to a unique charm. Love at first sight but it soon soured and a disappointing second album saw their appeal fade and their support band from that tour (Killers) go on to eclipse them. Thankfully Waving Flags stopped the rot and, with the wind at their backs, even a stab at writing movie soundtracks has proven to be a critical success. Now, finally, a field in Powys is where my love affair with BSP is to be rekindled, with Remember Me performed like an accusatory arrow to the heart. The show ends with half the band in the stage rigging and the rest in the crowd but what will reside in the memory is the lump-in-the -throat sound of the crowd, many brandishing hastily acquired oak branches, singing along with Yan to the rallying call of Waving Flags.

Not that I, personally, get to see the whole set as, in the line of duty, I have to nip off mid-set to go and catch Wooden Shjips up at the Far Out Stage. Now this was a genuine eye opener as, on record the Shjips brand of Doorsy psychedelia never particularly grabbed my attention but here they slay the sizeable crowd with some thundering bass lines, the like of which haven’t been heard since Tago Mago, and some savage guitar that Ron Asheton would have been proud to call his own. Songs come and go but the band, barely visible under a purple fog of dry ice, create a seemingly eternal groove which infects all who encounter it. Look over there, they are even grooving over at the pie stall. Mmm pies.

Back on the main stage Roky Erickson is just taking the stage and, given his rather frazzled reputation, he’s looking pretty damn good in a Grizzly Adams sort of way. He’s certainly still got a voice and belts out classics like Two Headed Dog and I Walked With A Zombie like a slightly more rotund John Fogerty. Fortunately, as if in anticipation of his future mental state, each song consists of no more than 10 words and there’s a great deal of, uh, repetition, repetition, repetition. Less fortunately, the crowd here to see this living legend is fairly thin as many here don’t seem to know who he is until he kicks into the 13th Floor Elevators only genuine hit You’re Gonna Miss Me. Fingers crossed that this is more than a false dawn for Roky as the show is much better than you could reasonably have hoped for.

Up at the Far Out stage it becomes clear why there’s not many people about in the arena as there’s thousands shuffling their feet to the minimalist, arsequaking bass rumbles of Four Tet. Before long the tent is jumping and the glo-sticks in the crowd are topped only by the girls onstage with their neon hula-hoops. The party here goes on long into the night but what better and more civilised way to end the evening than with a showing of Man of Arran complete with a live rendition of the soundtrack from the ubiquitous British Sea Power.

Day two arrives and bleary eyes peer through tent flaps to find that, miracle of miracles, the sun has still got his hat on. The unenviable task of recommencing the musical programme falls to the Soundcarriers and one imagines that when recording their retro album of west coast head music the band were not envisaging performing it to a half empty field in the lunchtime sun. They make a good attempt to engage the crowd however and, a few flat vocals aside, it is a gentle, enjoyable reintroduction to the festivities.

Other musical highlights of the day include the sophisticated welsh folk/pop of Cate Le Bon who pouts her way through a relatively subdued set culled from her forthcoming debut album on Gruff Rhys’ new record label. The early slot isn’t ideal as, as to paraphrase Cate, these are hard times to fall in love. Richard James formerly of Gorkys also impresses and, aside from some ill judged fuzz pedal deviations, his brand of country folk, reminiscent of Sweetheart of the Rodeo are the perfect prescription for the sunny afternoon. As are the jaunty stylings of The Leisure Society who manage to entertain with little more than a Ukelele and a cheery disposition.

There’s more to Green Man than music though and many an hour can be spent wandering the fields seeking out oddities such as the wishing tree which affords festival goers the opportunity to make a wish and tie it onto a tree by the twinkling waters of the pond. Or you can brave the dreadlocked anarchist types over in the desperately pc Einstein field before grabbing a massage or some elderflower cordial from a friendly hippy and then visiting the, thankfully free, Crap Face Painting area. The best thing found for sale is certainly the little tin boats which are both environmentally friendly and,allegedly, fun in the bath. Talking of baths (sniff), I think I desperately need one. And another pie.

Suitably refreshed there’s time to chill out by the pond again while waiting for Bon Iver to take the stage. By the time the band hit the boards the place is rammed, with bodies as far as the eye can see. There’s a wonderful sense of solidarity and community in the air and the plaintive, simple yet compelling songs of For Emma... carry a poignant beauty which seems to bleed into a communal heart and inspire much hugging and bonding. A very special performance and one which lesser mortals might fear to follow but, as he’s proven so many times, Jarvis Cocker is the king of festival entertainment. From the moment he steps on stage under a sparkling glitter ball, tossing lollipops to the kids in the front rows, he’s treated as a returning hero. Songs about romance in palaeontology museums which one might never listen to at home become joyful shared experiences in his hands as he frantically hops and bounds around the stage like a deranged school master. From up on the hill things couldn’t get much more perfect; during Further Complications a Chinese lantern sails high up into the starry sky and the millions of bubbles emanating from the kids’ toys, caught by the stage lights, look as though pixie dust is being sprinkled over each of us. I do believe in Green Man, Ido believe in Green Man.

Final day and we’re starting to flag, maybe it is the swine flu talking but I need some relaxation. And some sleep. And a pie. First things first though as the wonderful 9bach are on over in the Far Out tent. Led by the spellbinding Lisa Jen the band perform a perfectly judged set of traditional welsh folk tales involving fishermen, strangulation, blissful ignorance and lazy pissheads. They even include a song called Pontypridd and as it is announced I wonder how the sounds of police sirens and breaking glass will be replicated with little more than a harp and a harmonium. Definitely a highlight of the weekend and their forthcoming debut album is set to be something to treasure. The only low point of the set being that they run out of time and the song about the pisshead layabout is cut from its usual 11 verses to just four. Give them a longer set next time please Mr Green Man.

The funky, oddball antics of Zun Zun Egui, who rename themselves Sexy Worm for this show as all the bands at Green Man are named after animals, just about finish us off and it is time to grab some lunch, a pint of cider and settle down in the Literature Tent to watch Jah Wobble engage in some chirpy cockernee banter with former Clash road manager Johnny Green. In an engaging afternoon we learn that Wobble is a Spurs suporting ex altar boy whose first record was by Jim Reeves and whose name was chosen by a drunk Sid Vicious. We also learn that he has four innate talents; playing bass; clay pigeon shooting; golf and taking heroin and that he was more determined to quit golf than heroin. He also admits to having drunk his own urine on the advice of a spiritual advisor (it gave him a magnetic aura apparently) but the biggest shock comes after Wobble explains that he and John Lydon recently discussed reforming PiL but quickly abandoned the idea on the basis that reunions are largely tragic, retrogressive affairs. Green ponders this for a moment before announcing I was lucky...Joe died before it could happen. No disrespect he adds as our jaws hit the floor.

So, that was the Music Fix experience of Green Man 2009, and the beautiful thing is that we could have relived it ten times and done something totally different each time, heck, we didn’t even find the comedy tent, let alone drop into the Green Man pub for a swift half. My favourite moment of the weekend was when we were waiting for Jarvis Cocker to arrive onstage and I offered my place at the barrier to a young lad of about 7 or 8. He handed me an empty inner bag from a wine box, blown up like a pillow, and quizically asked what’s this for?. On being told he nodded thoughtfully and then indicated a loudmouth teen to our right and conspiring whispered I think that boy has had too many wine boxes. Anyway, sure the weather was kind to us but what we’ll take away is the sense of togetherness and tolerance which pervaded every aspect of this family friendly event. And a small satchel of those delicious pies.

Words and Pictures: Steve and Andy Burnett

Category Gig Review

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