Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Green days

A few words, then, on Green Man 2010.


Wet. There's one. Very wet. There were pretty much ten minutes' leeway at most at any one time from constant rain between being set up at about 1pm and the headliner finishing at 12.45am. Wellies were a given (unless you were particularly foolhardily brave in a very English festival way, as the groups of young men in just shorts proved), and even then didn't stop the odd slip. Parts became a trudge, seats were at a premium, covered areas even more so. In the shadow of hills, mountains and rolling fields as most of the landscape was, the low cloud cover was particularly resonant.

At least some people were putting in the effort. Spencer McGarry Season had brought in the full thirteen piece ensemble to recreate the pocket Van Dyke Parks baroque pop of Episode 2, dressed up for the occasion too. That their fine efforts were greeted by an understandably muted turnout was a shame for all concerned. The rain only got heavier by the time The Wave Pictures came on, but a stroll through the back catalogue highlights proved a welcome distraction from the torrents. They were at least enjoying it enough to give Jonny Helm two lead vocals, Sleepy Eye accompanying the usual Now You Are Pregnant. In the Far Out tent, the only main arena with tent covering, O Children were the poor man's 80s Matchbox/first album Horrors.

With Mountain Man apparently turning up late and Sweet Baboo attempting to fill time with his slower songs because he'd got pissed after being part of the Spencer McGarry Season ensemble, it turned out that over in the playfully themed Einstein's Garden The Sound Of The Ladies was playing on a solar-powered (ha!) stage for what we suppose counts as a semi-secret set given the running order wasn't listed on the website or in the running order lanyard. Small but appreciative, we'll label the audience for his lyrical entrancements, including a song from the perspective of the Voyager 2 probe.

The first time we saw Erland And The Carnival their swirling psych-garage entranced us; this time, as on their album, it just seemed to sit there waiting for something to happen. So instead we wandered a good distance off to the literature tent where Stuart Maconie and David Quantick were holding excellently self-indulgent court, Maconie as interviewee despite not really knowing which book he was supposed to be promoting. Back on the main stage Fionn Regan, alone on stage sporting a natty headband, failed to hold attention much as his records don't to us. From earnest folk troubadour to earnestly loud stoner rock, Sleepy Sun in Far Out perhaps failed to find the same receptive atmospherics under canvas in a wet field than in a proper concert venue (or Butlins room).

There are ways you can reassure people that despite being about to play a set heavy on your new solo album you know what they're really thinking of. Steve Mason starting with a solo Dr Baker, for example. Shame most people talked over it, but once that was out of the way his solo tracks were no slouches, even if he did 'start' with the two singles. Still, it was King Biscuit Time's I Walk The Earth that finally grabbed the whole tent's undivided joyful attention, some people still chanting back the chorus as it wound down, and just when everyone thought that was the end of the set he brought his drummer to the front, illustrated a bongo rhythm for him to continue, gave instructions to the guitarist (now with woodblock percussion) and bassist to follow, and warned the audience "I don't play this one often". At which he started Dry The Rain. The reaction was lustily enormous, a genuinely great moment.

Somewhere we have an unopened promo of Beirut's The Flying Club Cup. We know (and no you can't, as it's apparently watermarked), but at the time they never grabbed us. The first song was good, the second wasn't, and at that we decamped to Smoke Fairies, who were in their own unassuming, quiet way really rather special. Two girls, two guitars and any number of delicate blues-folk songs with spot on trad-folk harmonies. Despite been around for a few years, feted by Jack White and Laura Marling, they've never been taken up by the wider world even in their own community, which is a shame but also means they can play stages of this size where intimacy is key.

Intimacy would bloody hurt if Fuck Buttons played in that seeming close proximity. All noise, light and thumping both in bass and treble, it's implausible to think a band like this could overfill a Far Out tent like that. There was plenty of debate in advance about Doves headlining; in the end they're basically Doves, occasionally with the earlier songs chiming with their surroundings, more often getting bogged down. And that was a night.


While the rain was less heavy and frequent for most of Saturday there was what seemed to be a cloudburst around 12.15, which on this part necessitated a sprint in the rain in what would turn into blister-rubbing wellies across gloopy fields towards the Far Out tent to catch the first band. As it was we arrived, knackered, halfway through their first song, but it was too late anyway as Mark Thomas had ceased wandering around whooping and was already back onstage.

Somehow, all by chance of placement, this is the fifth time we've seen Islet, and while a lot of the moves are starting to seem well covered there's always a feeling of being in the now with them, that it teeters on the brink of falling apart even more than Kraut-tribal-garage-no wave usually would, and that's when members aren't haring off up to or over the barrier. And especially not when Mark is drumming on the front of the stage or waving a bass around inches or less from people's faces during Jasmine, or Alex Williams is slipping off the stage front with no apparent harm done (though how would anyone ever tell?) Mad. Brilliant. Invigorating. Whatever the hell it all added up to. Neil Campesinos!, standing nearby, is applauding as heartily as anyone. The Gentle Good, practically inaudible from halfway back in the Green Man Pub area, can't compete.

Race Horses back on the main stage make a sporadically enthralling organ-led psych-pop noise, but it seems a touch one-paced over a full set. Not so in our only proper visit all festival to Chai Wallahs, a performance and scran tent that's all herbal shots, hookahs and some sort of juices with healing powers. When we wrote about Gabby Young & Other Animals the other week we had her down as a slow burning folkateer with interesting ideas. Turns out those ideas aren't wholly encompassed at all by slow burning folkishness, rather Kurt Weill cabaret pop, gypsy folk, circus swing, jazz blues, polka and all point in between, Young as your cut-glass accented revue master of ceremonies. It's quite the whirlwind trip.

After watching David Quantick talk about his career for a bit for extra stylistic advice, we hit the first serious stage time clash of the festival - Fanfarlo or Summer Camp? (Extra ironic, of course, being as Jeremy Warmsley has previously toured with Fanfarlo as an additional member) We decided that, as Summer Camp had a 45 minute slot, if we saw just over half of Fanfarlo, who given their various Summer Sundae excuses we'd never seen, we should at least catch Ghost Train. Fanfarlo were slightly underpowered but the core of the songs came through, especially a rousing Fire Escape. Over in Far Out, we were just in time to catch the first chorus of Ghost Train. Well, there you go. Just Jeremy and Elizabeth with samples this time, plus a backing slideshow of photos from the period they shamelessly evoke. Still sounds... interesting.

Johnny Flynn back on the main stage, wearing a Dead Kennedys T-shirt and attracting vocal pockets of girly screams from some sort of pre-Mumford contingent, has the ease of someone who could knock out a set of such spare folk ballads and hoedowns on command, but it's undeniable that it's still the first album songs that make the greater connection. Back to Far Out, where after their traditional overlong line check and delaying sound issues These New Puritans have another go at translating their far-reaching opus Hidden into live format with woodwind section and a multitude of samplers. Jack Barnett still isn't the most subtle of vocalists, TNPs in this mood remain far easier to admire than actively like and Barnett's habit of referring to each offering as a 'piece of music' gets on the nerves ('song' will do), but We Want War's battleground of horns, huge drums, dancehall beats, electronic effects and sub-bass shudder whips people up even if nothing else can stand up as effusively in the mystic digital clearing.

And now, an hour in the company of a man and his electric guitar, Billy Bragg. Well, not an hour, as there's a horrible clash here too which means we see the first twenty minutes and last three songs, fairly confident that it'll broadly be the same set we saw him do at the Big Session festival last year. And it is, bar a new song about bankers that's even clumsier than Neil Hannon's. Preceding it with Greeting To The New Brunette only gets goodwill so far. That ending, by the by: I Keep Faith, There Is Power In A Union (only just reinstated to the set last year) and the usual community singing of A New England, which a good half of the audience join in on and as ever cheer on the addendum "shall we sing a verse for Kirsty Maccoll?" The reason for wandering off was Far Out headliner Wild Beasts, pretty much the set they've been trawling around all year but it seems not to matter given they're unerringly turning into one of Britain's great current live bands, a tight as you like patchwork of intricacy with both Hayden and Tom capable of rousing their crowd with a fist aloft.

Down in the village, our old friend the Sonic Manipulator has turned up. Fantastic!

There is no sightline back at the top of the hill leading down to the main stage for our headliners the Flaming Lips. The whole introduction, with its orgy of video screen graphics and lights culminating in Wayne Coyne emerging in his plastic bubble to roll around the crowd, has to be viewed through rapid fire photo taking above the crowd of heads at the top. Once we've found some space down the side where we can see everything in full it's apparent the Lips are going to make us work for our enjoyment ploughing through Embryonic, a decent album but not one filled with headline set party classics. Much enjoyment is therefore derived from the massive balloons, and more accurately watching very young children make off with balloons at least twice as big as they are. That never happens in concert halls. Coyne, who looks more bedraggled with every passing year, suggests we incant for the moon to fully appear to some success, delivers Silver Trembling Bells from atop the shoulders of a bear (or maybe a man in a bear costume), dons huge Kenny Everett at the Tory conference-style hands that shoot out lasers, claims it's the best festival they've played in ten years and right at the end makes grown men discover the field is suddenly very dusty around their eyes with a monumental Do You Realise? There's a school of thought that says once you've seen the Flaming Lips show once you've seen it enough, which is understandable given the balloons and exultations aren't going to wildly change, but a Flaming Lips show is like nothing else in the rock and roll sphere whatever the circumstances.


An unusual climate - sunshine, warmth, that sort of thing - greeted the start of the last day, and indeed kept going for some time. It's just a shame, then, that the first band we saw, on the Green Man Pub stage, are more suited to hushed darkened rooms. Felix give it a go after a delay which sees the drumkit being built well after the listed stage time, but in the open air Chris Summerlin's subtle guitar tones are occasionally inaudible and Lucinda Chua's streams of consciousness are too floaty and enveloped to really work as festival fare, for all the want of trying to translate their fine album. No, what you need is just loads of people playing everything, hence Sons Of Noel And Adrian, even if they're in the cinema tent playing in front of some oblique visuals created by friends, thrive on the churning choral death folk brassiness of their arrangements. Norway's Je Suis Animal by comparison feel too light, not confident enough to be the inventive indiepop it desires nor explore the usually Stereolab-scented outer edges.

It takes Lone Wolf to really get the day into gear, the expertly moustachioed Paul Marshall backed by a band of local-to-him-in-Leeds allstars involving utility Leodensian Lindsay Wilson, two of Duels and James 'Napoleon IIIrd' Mabbett, who we'll come back to. Dramatic, shifting, dark songwriting filled out by a more than capable band, one so up for it that the drummer plays the second song so fast Marshall's hand still hurts three songs later from trying to keep up, it seems to make an impression on plenty, even with the cover of Scott Walker's The Old Man's Back Again which Marshall forgets the words to halfway through.

There comes a point during Field Music's set when you begin to wonder if the Green Man organisers have some issue with the Brewises. Already with loads of kids playing football to the side of the main stage, seemingly completely oblivious to it all, a procession with fully costumed dancers, shamen and New Orleans-style jazz band progresses through the side of the arena, then a group of men in hunting costumes chase a man dressed as a fox through part of the crowd. Meanwhile Field Music seem to have mid-loaded their decent enough set, finishing with the slow, considerate ones having already played what quantifies for them as hits halfway through, including Peter Brewis forgetting the words to Them That Do Nothing.

A pop-up (or 'tent', as we used to call them) Rough Trade shop has been on site all weekend with signings and instores, and Smoke Fairies turned up to play a few songs and with little advertising pack the thing out. They seem little the worse for two days' festival experience. Their former tourmate Laura Marling never seems to really settle into the festival frame of mind, not unsurprising given most of her songs, especially once past the opening of I Speak Because I Can, are delicate character pieces that don't translate to big open spaces and attendant crowds, and Laura herself is quite reserved. Also the whistling solo in the solo version of Night Terror would work better if she didn't precede it by emphasising how great she is at whistling. Sparrow And The Workshop's countrified drama might be expected to work out better in the smaller Pub, but that doesn't take hold either.

"Welcome to the acoustic tent!" Napoleon IIIrd greets Rough Trade shop dwellers. He does this from behind a bank of keyboards, boxes, knobs and the trusty reel to reel player (which goes untouched). Showcasing four tracks from November's second album Christiania while watched by John Brainlove and filmed by Pagan Wanderer Lu in a gang's-all-here style, it's a more rough hewn electronica set of loops, drones and textures he's cutting through, raising fascination levels for said LP's imminence all the more. In contrast, back in the Pub Lonelady's clipped, sharp guitar playing, terse vocal style and all-action drummer, even when only playing 4/4, comes across as coolly spare in the proper art-pop tradition.

Much as the idea of them following Mumford & Sons (who, surprise surprise, reputedly drew the biggest crowd of the weekend, and after they'd finished hordes of people trouped through the Pub area on the way out) was amusingly odd to the point of flippancy, not to mention spawning quite niche jokes about what might happen if the two bands swapped singers, an overcast, drizzly Sunday night seemed about right for the pessimistic gloom of Tindersticks, even if at one point much of the crowd was distracted by a sky lantern crashlanding sideways on fire into a group of people, to the point of ripples of applause when it was extinguished. Stuart Staples' vocals remain the acquired taste - we like them, someone chose to tell us "what a voice that man has", but, y'know - but the more pressing concern was the reliance on Falling Down A Mountain. A qualified pass. The rapt attention received to headliner Joanna Newsom was quite something, but if we aren't going to get her now we never will and the rain had returned with a proper vengeance so we bailed out after a while, thinking of how Green Man seems to be one of those festivals that gets by on atmosphere as much as bands, where even in a sodden weekend such as this (yeah, heavy rain in the southern Welsh valleys, who'd have ever known) it remains a fun, diverse and necessary experience of a festival.

All the photos fit to print. Which isn't that many, all told.


Anonymous said...

...a review of a sluggish mood and/or malaise more than a review of a festival. just that it seems the only bands that really caught your attention were those with some sort of A.D.D./novelty element (islet, Flaming Lips show...) Maybe it was the Weather... Dunno, maybe its an English thing..

Simon said...

Wouldn't say that's entirely fair - I've tried to rein it in a bit, even if that hasn't been entirely successful, plus my core growing hatred of writing extensive festival reviews and sifting through tens of out of focus/blurry pictures when I could be listening to the growing backlog of new music and commissioning stuff - and looking at much of the STN festival review back catalogue I've always tried to maintain direct critical distance to a fault. There's due praise for quite a few names I haven't gone on about on STN before in there.

I would say, though, that as with a lot of festivals this year there was a premium on genuine wow factor moments. That might be just me getting older, in truth.