At the risk of sounding like Kirsty Allsopp, the most underrated aspect of music festivals is location. When you strip everything away, most festivals are basically the same; one stage looks like another; the camping fields are the same the world over; the food stalls literally travel from one site to the next all summer long. What every festival has that is theirs and theirs only, however, is their particular spot on the map – and very few can compete in this regard with Festival No. 6. Designed by millionaire philanthropist Sir Clough Williams-Ellis in 1925, the stunning Portmeirion is a North Wales village that was built to replicate the 19th century landscape of the Mediterranean. It’s most famous for being the setting for the cult 1967 TV series ‘The Prisoner’, where Patrick McGoohan’s character (known only as Number Six) is stranded in the village, not knowing what planet he is on. As I arrive on Thursday afternoon, the village overtaken by campsites, spoken word stages and pop-up music grandstands, I can well relate.
As the day kicks off, I find myself wondering through the woods surrounding Portmeirion, desperately in search of a stage named, I kid you not, Lost in the Woods. At the point of giving up, a clearing suddenly opens up and Welsh four-piece Kidsmoke take to a shrouded stage as a couple of hundred other folks applaud, as happy to see the band as they are that they found the right place. Kidsmoke play a rousing, joyous set, a surging jumpstart to get the weekend rolling – that first, unhindered burst of energy that will seem so impossible at the same time on Sunday.
It’s back to the main arena and Stage No. 6 to see one of Manchester’s finest recent exports Pins. Fresh from the extra publicity of their recording with Iggy Pop, the vastly underrated quintet storm their set, as evidenced by the fact that their crowd tripled in size during their half hour on stage. Drawing from both of their fine albums, Girls Like Us and Wild Nights, as well as this year’s Bad Thing EP, it was the most condensed version of Pins that you could hope for, a machine gun rattle through their best tracks including ‘All Hail’, the aforementioned Iggy collab – albeit with his seductive spoken word part excised.
The weather was reliable for most of the day, but a few droplets begin to fall as Steve Mason takes to the main stage. He soon dries that rain, though, with his luxurious, gentle psych songs finding that purple spot between head-nodding momentum and bliss-out trance. ‘Planet Sizes’, from his 2016 album Meet the Humans, is the show-stealer. As night begins to draw in, the options around the site are far-ranging. Up at the Castell Gardens, renaissance man Steve Davis and prog savant Kavus Torabi are treating their crowd to deep cuts from the likes of Captain Beefheart and Magma, as well as a stunning track by French Zeuhl proggers Weidorje named ‘Vilna’ from 1978 that I haven’t been able to shake off ever since. Sentences like that don’t even seem that strange anymore, such is the snooker legend’s accepted place in the music community now.
At the direct other end of the spectrum, Charlotte Church is bringing her Late Night Pop Dungeon show into the Grand Pavilion tent, the festival’s second stage. Just like Steve Davis, Church’s image has gone through a rigorous overhaul over the last decade, and this show – essentially an excuse for Church and the rest of us to scream along to our favourite pop records whilst her live band do a commendable job performing them in a never-ending medley – demonstrates the extent of her tastes. She is just as likely to get down to Joy Division or Super Furry Animals at these shows as she is to Beyonce or Michael Jackson – and when a snatch of Can’s ‘Vitamic C’ pops up, even that isn’t so surprising. At this stage, the mud has yet to take hold of the site, leaving us to dance the night away with ease.
Until, that is, Kate Tempest takes to the stage for her headline set. She has been a mainstay on the festival circuit this summer, playing 2016’s Let Them Eat Chaos in full every time. It’s the third time I have taken in her show as part of a festival crowd now – and each time I’ve been left in tears. Aside from the onslaught of truth, empathy, fury and compassion that constitutes her performance, the real joy is seeing the dawning shock on the faces of those in attendance who have, perhaps, not yet absorbed the album. By the time she finishes final track ‘Tunnel Vision’ with a plea to simply “wake up and love more”, this crowd is ready to change the world.
By Saturday afternoon, a gash has been permanently torn in the sky. A trip down to the Village still proves fruitful, however, when comedian and poet Rob Auton takes to the Central Piazza. The sound of laughter drowns out the torrents, and without ruining one of his best poems, the opportunity to bellow the word “MAROON!!” into the sky repeatedly is a surprisingly therapeutic way of dealing with the conditions. So much so, in fact, that the audience demands that he performs it again at the end of the set. On a similar tip, but under standing-room-only shelter, Adam Buxton brings his David Bowie Bug show to the Gatehouse, a 90-minute affectionate journey through the deepest recesses of the great man’s multimedia career. Anybody familiar with Buxton will know the reverence he has for Bowie – and judging by the in-the-know reactions, so does Festival No. 6.
The energy that fills the Grand Pavilion for the arrival of Cabbage is altogether different. It is not a laddish festival by any means, but the highest concentration of boozy machismo that the site could muster was on display for the Manchester band, who rise to the occasion with an impassioned, dedicated performance. By the time they finish with ‘Uber Capitalist Death Trade’, the tent is pulverised. Back in the downpour, Wild Beasts take to the Stage No. 6, striking a considerably more sensitive and emotional rapport with their audience than you would expect with Cabbage. It must be said that their crowd probably suffered due to the conditions more than most this weekend, which is an unfortunate quirk of timing, but those who remain are treated to an intimate and uplifting set.
Headlining Saturday is Bloc Party, a band that qualify now as indie rock veterans. Frontman Kele Okereke tells us on more than one occasion that this is their last live performance of 2017, which seems to give them some extra sauce tonight. As is near inevitable for a band of their vintage, it is the oldest, most familiar tunes that get the big crowd reactions – when ‘Banquet’ hits, even the security folks at the front of stage allow themselves a little dance. ‘Two More Years’, ‘Mercury’ and especially ‘Helicopter’ are massive hits with the impressive crowd, as the twenty- and thirty-somethings remember their younger, more innocent days. Or maybe I’m just projecting.
Sunday afternoon is dominated by The Beatles. Each year, the festival has a special invited guest play a feature show on the main stage in the afternoon, and this year it is the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra alongside the Bootleg Beatles, in celebration of the 50th birthday of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But it goes beyond that – the Village is filled with a cornucopia of Fab Four-related offerings, ranging from a Bhangra band re-interpreting old songs to an orchestrated march from the Village to the arena. In a lovely touch, the main set is introduced by the legendary Roger McGough, the Merseybeat poet and friend of The Beatles – and when the Bootleg version of the band hit the stage to perform ‘Sgt Pepper’ in full, the biggest crowd of the weekend has formed. The likeness and attention to detail of the Bootlegs is well known, but with the immense force of the RLPO behind them, it is a genuinely powerful experience.
Bringing the festival to a close on the main stage are a band for whom all this magical mystery is perfect: The Flaming Lips. In an extended little monologue from Wayne Coyne about half-way through, he expounds on the wonder of Portmeirion, on the miracle of its existence and the inspiration that it has given him. It receives one of the biggest cheers of the weekend. It’s the sixth time I’ve seen the Oklahoma band live – and the best. Their stage show continues to grow, with life-sized unicorns, a giant inflatable sign reading “FUCK YEAH PORTMEIRION” and the famous transparent orb all making appearances. They play what people want: ‘Race for the Prize’, ‘The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’, ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’, each one a heady, communal incantation. The key to the band is Coyne’s ability to trap enormous, existential thoughts into simple, child-like lyrics, and when given a stage on this scale, the release of emotion from the crowd is quasi-religious. Several people around me shed tears during the set, mostly out of sheer ecstasy. By the time they finish with a refreshingly stripped back version of ‘Do You Realize??’, everybody is spiritually drained. It will seem a shame ever to finish a festival any other way now.