Green Man 2017 seemed to have themes running throughout it. This shows an attention to detail on the behalf of the organisers but also an organic quality on the behalf of the punters, as well as a belief that all share in the power of this wonderful and unique festival. Themes of fire and water, political unrest, and youth and age all run through this festival like the River Usk runs through Green Man itself. Set against a backdrop of the stunning Black Mountains, it’s fast growing into one of the best, and most unique, festivals in the UK. It’s easy to harp on about the variety one gets these days, but with Green Man it’s absolutely true. Where else will you be able to listen to deranged country, a legend of the 1960s folk scene, and the most wonderful, plaintive voice to come out of Minnesota since Mimi Parker? It’s a truly wonderful festival that everyone should go to at least once, and I mean that.
A good place to start would be the setting. Tolkein said that before you start writing anything you should start with a map. Green Man is always lauded as one of the most beautiful festivals, and rightly so, owing to how it nestles inside the might and power of the Brecon Beacons. The Usk runs through it and the Black Mountains that serve as a backdrop to half the festival add a note of complete natural sublimity that other festivals lack. In the same way that the mountains overlook the Mountain Stage, the Green Man him/herself (a giant wicker effigy) overlooks the Far Out Stage (a cavernous tent) as well as the rest of this other half of the festival. The theme of fire can be seen in the burning of the Green Man (as well as a giant Welsh dragon) on the Sunday night. In a Wicker Man-esque move, the burning is preceded by a procession of torches leading from the bottom of the Mountain Stage up the hill towards the giant effigies. This, on top of the tail-end of PJ Harvey’s set, gives Green Man a genuinely pagan atmosphere. Harvey plays one of the most memorable sets seen all weekend, but you guessed that already. The only artist to win two Mercury Awards, the West Country girl and her nine-piece band run through classics from Let England Shake and the Hope Six Demolition Project (her most recent two albums). The best track is River Anacostia which she ends with. This menacing slow-burner sees the band, including legend Mick Harvey, all crowd around three microphones by the end singing ‘Wade in the water / God’s gonna trouble the water’, which is an old American slave song. It’s awe-inspiring and the crowd are receptive to her genius. Harvey shows no sign that she will ever slow down. Sunday night ends with the burning of the Green Man, fireworks, and whoops from the crowd, which is, as ever, kind and welcoming. This is never truer than for Shirley Collins. For the most part, the Green Man organisers did a great job of avoiding any clashes, that being said, nothing would have got in the way of seeing Member of the British Empire and all-round don Shirley Collins. Her beautifully plain voice has a way of story-telling only bettered (perhaps) by Messrs Reed, Dylan, and Cohen. For those unaware, Collins is, in the words of Kurt Wagner of Lambchop later that evening, ‘a force of nature’. Her serene Sussex lilt fills the entire valley with songs of love lost, bloodshed, and violence, and it’s never sounded so beautiful. Her new album Lodestar is essential listening and I’d recommend it to anyone. Another thing that made her set great was how down-to-earth she was. She seemed genuinely appreciative of the big crowd that had turned up to watch her.
Although one usually goes to festivals on the basis of who’s playing, often the most surprising sets are the ones you stumble in on by accident. The most surprising set I saw all festival was Gaelynn Lea. I caught her set at the Walled Garden halfway through and was dumbstruck by the purity of her voice, and the simplicity and elegance of her music. Her music lay somewhere between Daniel Johnston, Kevin Ayers, and the Velvet Underground. The set ranged from regal Irish folk standards to plaintive, almost hymn-like songs that blew your head off with the sheer emotion contained within. Her star looks set to rise and rise. A word on Johnston. He was billed as playing this year but couldn’t for whatever reason. As ever with Johnston, though, his absence cast a large shadow: I saw hordes of people wearing t-shirts with Jeremiah the Innocent on them and speaking to people, he was one of the artists that people were most excited about. Here’s to hoping he’ll come to Green Man in the future.
From the plaintive to the aggressive – later on that day, Bristol’s own Lice arrived onto the Rising Stage on a wet Sunday evening in a blur of thousand-yard stares, screeched vocals, and a fabulous red boiler suit. One of the best parts of a set that contained Butthole Surfers-esque song structures and brilliantly inventive guitar playing was the basslines of Gareth Johnson. In a review of the Velvet Underground’s White Light White Heat, a reviewer described John Cale’s basslines as ‘three dimensional concrete slabs’ as opposed to other bassist’s more ‘two dimensional’ basslines. The same can be said of Johnson’s basslines. They need to use more harmonica though. That was one of the best bits and it might add something to an already powerful sound. Madonnatron were another forward-thinking band that were on the Rising Stage. Their jagged song structures and gorgeous harmonies filled the small stage and battered the impressive crowd. The standout song from their set was one of my songs of 2016, Sangue Neuf. It sounds a bit like Taman Shud but not quite and a bit like Goat but not quite – utterly superb. It won’t be long before lots of these artists (Lice, Gaelynn Lea, Madonnatron) are playing bigger stages: Glastonbury, are you reading?
The first act I saw was Heavenly-signed H. Hawkline whose gentle Welsh burr lent a real dreaminess to his music which was somewhere between Mac DeMarco and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. He even spoke in Welsh onstage for half the time. This is another great thing about Green Man: its sense of Welsh identity. All the signposts were duplicated in Welsh, lots of the beer brewers were from the Brecons, and there was an influx of Welsh artists from H. Hawkline to Richard Dawson. It’s nice to experience a festival that has such a strong identity. Hawkline was playing at the Far Out stage, a cavernous tent that held thousands. Hawkline was good but I do think he would have been more suited to the Walled Garden stage perhaps. One band that did command the Far Out stage completely was BadBadNotGood, a jazz band led by an enigmatic frontman in the form of their drummer Alexander Sowinski. Their rapport with the crowd was fantastic and the intricate playing and thundering drums more than filled the huge tent.
Friday was when the festivities really began. Future Islands were brilliant. At times they suffered from similarities between songs and an encore really wasn’t needed (or asked for). That being said, they were really enjoyable and ‘Seasons’ was as you might imagine, bloody great. Samuel T. Herring is one of the best frontmen of his generation and he grunted, mock-skated, and gyrated through their mostly brilliant ninety minute set. Another Friday headliner that suffered from similarities were British Sea Power, who despite this were enjoyable, purveying a nice brand of Modern Lovers-esque protopunk as well as some nice krautrocky jams. There was also a fantastically serene viola player that added a certain something to the sound. The best element of this band, however, were the tempo changes peppered throughout their songs. They could go from scuzzy mid-tempo psych to faster kraut-y jams.
Another shamanic, captivating frontman was Wesley Gonzalez. He played a late set at the Walled Garden, even referencing the band that had just played the main stage ‘this is like Future Islands but better’. He had a manic intensity that was aided by a fantastic backing band that had flavours of Lou Reed’s Rock and Roll Animal tour backing band. Wesley can only get bigger and bigger. He’s definitely worth checking out. Like all great festivals, there’s something for everyone. If you’re a wee bairn there’s the Kidz Field, teenagers have a place called ‘Somewhere’, a location that wasn’t publicised. Chai Wallahs did a good job of providing something to do every night after all the bands stopped, even though Diplomats of Sound playing every night did mean it was slightly samey. The best act I saw ‘after hours’ was Daniel Avery. Copper-bottomed techno hit after copper-bottomed techno hit was spun, even spinning Don’t Fight It Feel It at one point. There could have been more variety in the night time, especially in Chai Wallahs but for a family festival what do you expect?
Politics was everywhere, from the Babbling Tongues tent, to a general feeling of unrest. Future Islands even apologised on behalf of their country (they’re American). Two years ago at Green Man the future must have seemed exciting and golden, now it’s just murky and uncertain. But it’s places like Green Man that restore some semblance of faith and optimism in humanity. A band that restores some faith in music (and humanity too, to be honest) is the Sleaford Mods. I don’t really need to say much about Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn. You know. I know. Sublime and captivating as always. I’ll use words on bands like Lice and Madonnatron that need to be talked about. Sleaford Mods are one of the most original and powerful artists of the last zillion years and they need to be seen once.
There were so many bands I haven’t been into. The fearsome originality and power of Liars, Thee Oh Sees’s mesmerising two drummers, even Ride’s pretty disappointing Thursday night headline slot. Lambchop were another surprising act. When I read the name, I expected beefy rhythm and blues and instead got delightfully sparse, spare electronic pop. If you, like me, are a sucker for heavily autotuned vocals then you’ll adore singer/mastermind Kurt Wagner’s voice. For such a small festival, Green Man attracts so many brilliant artists that it’s impossible to go into everything. This account is a bit of a mish-mash and a little confused, perhaps, but with something as great as Green Man it’s hard to fit everything into a constraint, much like the festival itself. The surfeit of amazing artists meant that I was running from stage to stage, the structure of the review be damned. The festival’s baffling to an extent, with its kaleidoscope of ideas and themes, but there weren’t any dickheads (at all) and the music and atmosphere were absolutely amazing. I don’t need to say anymore.