Hidden away between the hills of Wales’ Brecon Beacons sits Green Man Festival, now its 14th year in a setting that’s surprisingly more magical than other festivals. Sometimes, at the right point, like when the day begins to turn to dark, the clouds descent upon those hills so that the space seems to have a solitary existence, as if those hills signal the very edge of the world. But the success of Green Man is not just down to its spectacular setting. Instead, it’s down to how well the festival manages to blend into its environment and feel like an enhancement of the area, rather than an intrusion. The ethos of Green Man, and by extension the Green Man Trust, is proudly presented throughout the weekend with a committed effort to encouraging a love of science in its youngest attendees and support for Welsh culture and talent. Entering the festival, with its lack of corporate branding and surprisingly cuddly atmosphere, feels like stepping back into a time that many of us never had a chance to experience, before money men turned the attention of UK festivals towards profits over performances. What’s also clear across the weekend is the depth of quality on offer. Despite its reputation as an indie-rock festival, it’s impressive just how adventurous and eclectic the line-up is.
Thursday night kicked things off alternately with a bang and a whimper as King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard and Wild Beasts took the two lead slots on the Far Out stage. The former provided a riotous opening to proceedings, tearing through almost all of this year’s fantastic Nonagon Infinity and restyling select cuts from their discography to fit the album’s psych-rock fury. Frustratingly though, it was Wild Beasts who provided the festival’s only disappointment. After a tediously long delay due to lighting issues, the band’s set did little to disprove the notion that the overtly macho-stylings of Boy King play only to their weaknesses. Those new tracks are greeted by a muted but encouraging reception before a closing one-two of ‘Wanderlust’ and ‘All the King’s Men’ reminds everyone just how spectacular the band can be at their best. Wild Beasts managed a more convincing claim to their beastliness in the past; now they tend to resemble show poodles in their carefully rehearsed savagery. It gave the impression of a band that had forgotten what exactly made them great in the first place. Although, when they did turn the clock back, particularly on a rousing ‘Hooting & Howling’, all could be quickly forgiven as if nothing had changed.
Thankfully, the rest of the weekend saw a staggeringly consistent collection of great sets shared across the three days. On Friday, Kamasi Washington and Floating Points dazzled with two largely instrumental sets that both received rapturous receptions from a packed out Far Out tent. Floating Points, in particular, brought his Elaenia album to life with a fantastic lights show and arrangements that were closer to the music of 70s artists like Can and Cluster than the skittering beats that characterised his earlier work. However, it was Saturday that saw the strongest line up with Jagwar Ma bringing a set of mostly new (and excellent) material, former Neu member Michael Rother delivering an extraordinary hour of Krautrock, and an intimate ‘in-store’ at the Rough Trade records tent with Ryley Walker that playfully balanced his delicate, introspective songs with the class-clown banter between them. Nevertheless, the night’s strongest set and my personal highlight of the festival came from experimental rockers Battles.
Listening to Battles on record is like watching a magician on TV; you can be convinced that everything is being done honestly but it doesn’t compare to seeing it in real life. That belief takes the edge off but in a live setting there can be no doubting their abilities. John Stanier is a drummer of extraordinary technical precision and power and his bandmates, Ian Williams and Dave Konopka, mix electronic loops with live playing that is never less than seamless as the band tear through career highlights like ‘Ice Cream’ and ‘Atlas’ along with songs from their latest album. A closing performance of ‘The Yabba’ from La Di Da Di showed just how well the new album works in a live environment and I could have listened to them play well beyond their hour-long set. Battles can sometimes seem clinical and robotic on record but live they’re a much more chaotic beast. It’s in the tension between the men and the machines in their music, when the band wrestles to keep pace with the frantic loops they’ve set up, that they are at their finest and we get many of those moments here. It was a complete joy to watch and afterwards all that was left for Sunday to do was to add few more great sets to round off the weekend. The day duly delivered as Unknown Mortal Orchestra brought a near-perfect festival set, made all the better by Ruban Nielson inexplicably deciding to climb the tent rigging, and a resurgent Grandaddy capping off the weekend to a crowd that demanded to hear more.
Now, it might seem strange that none of this review so far has even mentioned Green Man’s headliners but that’s a testament to the quality of the line-up as a whole rather than a criticism of those bookings. James Blake was on great form on Friday night, wisely playing the role of experimental singer-songwriter more than his trademark persona as a master of bedroom IDM, and his closing trio of ‘Modern Soul’, ‘Retrograde’, and ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ gave the most convincing argument yet that he can hold his own on a big stage. However, as I was mainly busy seeing other acts, I can’t say much on Laura Marling and Belle & Sebastian other than the fact that I heard great things from audience members, especially for the latter who incited possibly the most unlikely stage invasion in indie-pop. Elsewhere, there were unexpected late night gems from the ridiculously camp Charlotte Church’s Late Night Pop Dungeon to a euphoric Bowie Disco and brilliantly joyous sets from Awesome Tapes of Africa and KOG & the Zongo Brigade.
By the end of the weekend, you were left with the feeling that bar a truly standout headliner there wasn’t really much Green Man could have done better. The problems with this year’s festival, namely poor weather and a few delays with stage times, were vastly outweighed by the positives – great food & drink, even better sound, and a line-up and crowd that perfectly showcased what can make music festivals so special. Most importantly, Green Man’s attention to detail means that no matter what time of day or where you were, there was always something that was worth seeing. A moment that stood out was a screening of Aiden Moffat’s charming film Where You’re Meant to Be followed by a short performance of some of its songs. Having gone in there mainly to keep out of the rain, it turned out to be one of my festival highlights and a film/performance that has stayed with me since. It’s that ability to surprise you that makes Green Man so brilliant, the feeling that at any point something exceptional might be happening just metres away, and I can’t wait to see how it’ll surprise me in the future.
Check out news for Green Man 2017 here: http://www.greenman.net/
By Conrad Duncan – (@)