Those of us that live with the festival bug all have our favourites. This is my eighth visit to the wonderful Green Man Festival in the Brecon Beacons, and like so many other repeat visitors, it’s my favourite. Call it the stunning valleys setting, the easy to manage site, the unbelievable camaraderie between festival-goers, or the consistently remarkable line-ups – this for me is what festivals are supposed to be about. This happens to be the fifteenth anniversary of Green Man, and it is operating at the peak of its powers. All photos by Tom Davis:
Thursday on site gets busier every year. Whilst the Mountain Stage remains out of bounds, every other band-sized space has a band in it all night. The Far Out Stage, home to the festival’s most daring acts, features the ever-beguiling Anna Meredith. She’s an artist that gives you the sense that this ‘pop music’ world isn’t for her in the long run, her classical training and experimental curiosity likely to take her to other heights in the future. So make the most of her now, as she performs tracks from her debut album Varmints. Her band have an invisible understanding, allowing them to switch the power shift in those songs whenever they sense that the moment demands it. It is the perfect wake-up call for the rest of the festival.
By the time Friday arrives, the fields are full and the thirst for music is high. It’s still Far Out that supplies the most magnetic pull for the bulk of the day. Two of the most exuberant guitar bands of the last few years bring the afternoon’s energy: first, The Big Moon, whose debut Love in the 4th Dimension is on the Mercury shortlist this year – and whose music is viral, class A infectious. They describe the stage as the biggest they’ve played on, and their customary tight, interlocking stage antics seems to take a hit as a result. But the passion is there and the songs are indestructible. They won’t win the Mercury Prize, but in a just world they might. They finish with ‘Sucker’, a strong entry in the 2017 Song of the Year race, and Far Out is jumping.
Rounding out the double header is Hinds, the unstoppably cheerful Madrid quartet who are now festival mainstays. You never ever see any of them without a Cheshire cat grin, and you can hear it in their playing. They bring us some new songs too, which suggest that the second album will be just as effervescent as the first.
If The Big Moon can’t win the Mercury, then maybe Kate Tempest can. She is the last act to hit Far Out on Friday – and the best. It’s been nearly a year since she premiered Let Them Eat Chaos, her epic poem-cum-album set along a singular London street at 4:18am, and it’s clearly struck a chord. One might think that such a heavy, political and in-depth performance would not be the right thing for Friday night at a festival, and inevitably those not willing to take the full plunge decided that it would be easier to have hedonistic fun elsewhere. But those who jump in are treated to a visceral firestorm, as furious as it is inspiring. There is a sense of shellshock when she finishes, especially among those taking the journey through this album for the first time.
Saturday sees a strong line-up on the secluded Walled Garden Stage, which has seen something of a rearrangement in its layout. The Orielles play an early set, easing people into the day with their inviting, jangling tunes. Big Thief move the day into the afternoon delicately, playing songs from their delightful, vulnerable second album, Capacity. Their understated Brooklyn indie flavours have become a familiar presence in the music world over the last few year, but they do it better than most. On stage, the songs prove to be somewhat lacking in engagement, with many of the crowd seeming to drift in focus.
No such thing could be said for Oh Sees as night time draws in at Far Out. Launching into a blistering garage rock solo as soon as he hits the stage, it’s clear John Dwyer loves his job. Complete with two powerhouse drummers, the band is a complete juggernaut all round, tearing their own material completely to shreds. And lord knows they’ve got some material – at least nineteen albums of it. They dart from one release to the next, although new album Orc is well represented. Less ferocious but no less absorbing is Mountain Stage headliner Ryan Adams, his stage setup shrouded in smoke, his music seemingly rising from the abyss. He himself is not shy of a little guitar indulgence too, of course, and his impressive crowd gleefully lap it up.
Sunday boasts arguably the best line-up of the weekend. For the fourth year, the Mountain Stage is graced by Deep Throat Choir, the all-female collective that combine the full grace of a chamber choir with a brilliant, syncopated electronic backing. They mix originals with covers, which bravely include ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ from tonight’s headliner. The Sunday lunchtime booking couldn’t be improved upon and they make us all feel ready to go again. Over on Far Out, Sunflower Bean up the ante a little with their sunshine indie-pop. They are at the stage to be road-testing some new material and it does show some sign of a more mature sound, but the first album favourites get the crowd fizzing and they rightly climax with ‘Easier Said’.
Richard Dawson is next – and Far Out isn’t ready. There’s nothing that can make you ready for Richard Dawson. He has the same power gushing through his one body that the whole Oh Sees have between them. His folk music is certainly deeply rooted in tradition – it’s like he’s making up for the dying art form by singing loudly and powerfully enough to make up for all the missing voices – but it is also music that could only come from now. He plays all fifteen minutes of ‘The Vile Stuff’ from his 2014 masterpiece Nothing Important, a staggering, deeply personal account of his own battle with alcoholism. His guitar playing style is just as primal and surprising as his singing, creating a whirlwind of energy and confusion. Brilliant stuff.
Sleaford Mods are tasked with warming up for the final charge on Sunday night, bringing their now familiar two-piece agit-punk tirades to Far Out. They must be one of the most unlikely success stories of the decade, and whilst the energy levels are not cresting at this stage, it is rejuvenating. All of which leaves us with PJ Harvey to round things out on the Mountain Stage. She is alluring and still, a beacon of respect and achievement, her long journey through multiple different phases proving beyond doubt that she is one of her generation’s most eminent talents. Her set focuses on ‘Let England Shake’ and ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’, her two blistering accounts of the turmoil at home and overseas. We get tantalising detours into the past, with ‘Down by the Water’ and ‘To Bring You My Love’, but they are few and far between. When she brings the set to an end, there is a sense that it is abrupt, and no encore follows. It may have been somewhat withdrawn, but what we get it of the highest class. Here’s to another fifteen years, Green Man.