Monday, 22 August 2011

Green Man 2011: A Report

There were gratifyingly few clouds of the physical variety at this year's Green Man Festival, but one or two metaphorical ones gathering over the Welsh hills, threatening showers throughout Friday and Saturday, relieved by some startlingly sunny intervals, before a cracking Sunday line-up broke through the previously overcast conditions and saved the day.

Every Green Man before this one had got off to a fairly mild start before some band or artist walked in - usually on Friday afternoon or evening - and really kickstarted the event. It was the same this time, but disappointingly they didn't arrive until Saturday evening. At that point Polar Bear took to the stage, delivered a blistering 45 minute set, and from that point Green Man 2011 never looked back. I'll be the first to admit that jazz isn't something I particularly understand and that, therefore, I'm not in much of a position to appreciate what Polar Bear do, but what I did appreciate was the appearance of such a challenging and uncompromising set that had followed far too much mediocrity across the first two days.

That's not to say we hadn't had highlights before this, including some scorching pyrotechnics from Holy Fuck on the first night, delivering a performance that deserves to rank among the greatest Green Man sets ever, ably supported by a richly dynamic Sic Alps. But am I alone in sensing that the Far Out marquee witnessed an outpouring of relief among the crowd following a day that had barely hinted at such a spectacle? The highlights earlier that day had been few and far between...a richly rewarding set on the main stage from the Cave Singers and brilliantly promising performances at the Green Man Pub from Younghusband, playing their first festival, and Tender Prey, playing their first gig. The former impressed with their brash confidence and the consistent quality of their tunes while the former experienced a hesitant start but grew into something genuinely wonderful during their half hour on the stage. I'd love to see them when they've got half a dozen gigs under their belt.

She Keeps Bees were easily the best thing during the daylight hours of Saturday and indeed, somewhat depressingly, only one of two bands genuinely to light up the main stage across the whole weekend. The Burns Unit were entertaining enough, but then any band featuring the vocal talents of both King Creosote and Emma Peacock can't help but generate something astonishing during the course of three-quarters of an hour, and I'd still prefer any of that collective's separate projects to the semi-vaudevillian pastiche they produced together, which sometimes veered close to the self-congratulatory.

What grated about so much of the rest was not just the mediocrity, but a sense that the Green Man's priorities are, perhaps understandably in one sense, moving towards packing out the main stage with sufficient big names of the Uncut/Mojo set (Fleet Foxes, Laura Marling, James Blake, Noah and the Whale, etc) and that those who, like me, prefer to pick around the stages in search of more creative thrills may still find them, but will have to search around among the b-list indie bands, faux americana and nondescript singer-songwriters to do so. And so many of them talked on stage of Green Man-related superlatives (great to be at the best festival in Britain, one of the best in Europe, etc). All of which I can agree with, but the problem is a festival's only as good as its performers, and it'll only stay that good if you come and make a genuine contribution to it rather than simply bask in its much commended vibe.

There were other scheduling decisions that were simply baffling. The Doozer, whose sub-Syd Barrett ditties work perfectly well on record, has an intimacy to his set that may have worked in, say, the confines of Einstein's Garden but just didn't scan in the wider festival setting. And the choice of Explosions In The Sky, a band I love, for first night main stage headliners was perplexing. They're a band who have to be appreciated for the intricacies of their musicianship and not for the bombastic sound some attribute to them, and as such would have gone down a storm on the Far Out stage. Here, their gorgeous fretwork just didn't reach out across the green amphipheatre and anyone not previously acquainted with their sound seemed understandably lost.

But then, as the dusk gathered on Saturday night, we got our festival back. Following Polar Bear's catalytic intervention, we moved across to the Chai Wallah stage to see Manchester's Nucleus Roots deliver a set of the most sublime and uplifting reggae to get that stage's party into full swing. So good were they I almost stayed to the end, which would have meant sacrificing the opportunity to see James Yorkston at the Green Man Pub. Thankfully I made the decision to go, and found Yorkston delivering his best Green Man set ever, semi-improvised and generating a power that no other artist in this idiom can get anywhere near. I'd pleaded in my August Dandelion Radio show for James to include a version of Shipwreckers. Not only did he do this, he gave me the finest rendition of this beast of a song ever, followed with a sparsely concocted version of Tortoise Regrets Hare. Even more audaciously, the set finished with a violin and accordion propelled version of I Feel Love. We shot off to Far Out as soon as he'd finished to hear the second half of a characteristically uncompromising set from the awesome Squarepusher.

Then came the optimism and sunshine-fuelled Sunday, beginning with the gentle, unpretentious and compelling Two Man Ting, the understated electronic and sampling brilliance of Zwolf and a highly evocative set from the gorgeous Our Broken Garden, prior to the fascinating guitar and drums assault of Tweak Bird - great to see such an abrasive duo able to deliver with such personality and humour - before I said a farewell to the Far Out stage for another year with a stunning performance from Suuns, who took off where Tweak Bird had left off but fed in woozy grooves where the former band had supplied naked energy.

In between, I found one of the unanticipated highlights of this year's festival in the shape of Norway's Moddi, who started with the smallest audience of the weekend (for some reason the pull of Laura Marling and The Antlers on other stages had proved too appealing) but whose accordion and cello drenched gems seemed to pull in anyone who happened to go past so that, by the time the set finished the Green Man Pub was full to the brim and responded with a standing ovation. No artist had charmed the Green Man like Moddi across the whole weekend, and first thing I've done today on getting home is order a copy of his album. This was exquisite, totally unique and an example of what this festival, like no other, can do for you when it genuinely hits the heights.

Ultimately, there was enough about Green Man 2011 to ensure it remains the finest festival on the circuit, still helped by the complete absence of police and corporate sponsorship as well as friendly and helpful security staff. Pleasing too, to see the number of young teenage girls - who the media would love to think live in a world of Justin Bieber and whatever the latest X Factor churns up - in full dancing mode to The Cave Singers and making up most of the front row of Holy Fuck. The Green Man has a way of providing much needed reassurances once a year that the world hasn't entirely taken leave of its senses. For 2012, I would simply implore them to eliminate some of the mediocre padding that filled out so much of this event and not forget that a passion for taking risks and challenging its audience has always been a major part of its appeal.

A Green Man 2011 Top Ten:

1. Holy Fuck

2. James Yorkston

3. Moddi

4. Tweak Bird

5. She Keeps Bees

6. Suuns

7. The Cave Singers

8. Our Broken Garden

9. Younghusband

10. Nucleus Roots

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Discover: Cash Cow

They're from Hereford and describe their influences as Blondie, The Kinks and Blast First's 'Nothing Short Of Total War' compilation. But they've come to remind me of summer drives up and down the M56 where I've been playing their EP over and over again. This is very much against my normal practice of filling medium to long trips with a suitably varied diet, but Cash Cow are a band worth making exceptions to your routine for.

It's often said to me by what I'd refer to (not dismissively, I should add) as the slightly sniffier end of my audience that guitar bands just don't cut it any more. My normal response is to throw in examples like The Chasms, Extradition Order and the continued brilliance of The Fall as examples to demonstrate the clear folly of such sentiments. I can now happily add Cash Cow to this list. The anti-guitar lobby has actually been in some sort of flow for the last fifty years now, and Cash Cow are the sort of band who render their positions untenable. Not to mention metaphorically shoving the aforementioned instrument up their tradesmen's entrances.

And while Cash Cow might be terribly nice people, there's a dangerous edge to their music that carried a threat of this sort of action happening. Intrusive melodies sidle up alongside the guitar buzz, both sides to bloody battle and the final outcome is a hotly contested high scoring draw with several sendings off, highly disputed refereeing decisions and much blood on the pitch.

If you read these missives regularly, you'll conclude that I'm reaching for extreme and possibly spurious metaphors because I haven't really got the words to describe what Cash Cow do and how it affects me. This is of course true, so I'll stop there and simply add that you can hear another track from Cash Cow in my August Dandelion Radio show, streaming at various times until the end of the month and if, as I expect, that's not enough, you can get more Cash Cow at their last fm site

Mark W

In my August show: Matt Stevens

Very occasionally you encounter an artist who works in a fairly familiar idiom but whose technique and output is so outstanding it raises him above pretty much everybody else and makes any attempt at categorisation ludicrous. So to call Matt Stevens simply a virtuoso guitarist would be like labelling Picasso 'a painter'. If you're going to put what Matt does in a box, leave the label off, put him in there with the great John Fahey and leave it at that.

Listening to Fahey on Peel shows many years ago, it always enthralled me that someone who, on the face of it, simply made instrumental guitar music could produce something so earth-shattering. Not until I found Matt Stevens did I encounter someone of comparable worth. I played a track from his 'Ghost' album in my show earlier in the year, and I'm following that with a live version of 'Moondial' in my August show, which you can hear on Dandelion Radio at various times throughout the month.

Other than Fahey, it's really difficult to compare the experience of listening to Matt Stevens to that of other solo guitarists. The thrill of the ride is much more akin to what I get from a Mogwai album or the adrenhalin rush of the much-loved Vert:x or The Chasms (incidentally there's a phenomal new track from the latter also in my August show). When you check out Matt's upcoming 'Relic' album on his bandcamp site, you'll find he's tagged it with labels like post-rock and even progressive rock as well as 'acoustic instrumental' and this is probably nearer the mark.

That someone holding no more than an acoustic guitar can take you somewhere so transcendent tells you much about the artist in question and also says something about the continuing thrill of truly great music, still giving so much after so many years. That the guitar in particular is not the spent force so many thought it would be by now is due in no small measure to people like Matt Stevens. We should cherish him and the fact that his kind inhabit the same planet as us.

'Relic' is available for pre-order at Matt's bandcamp site, and I note there are very few left. If you're one of the many who've got your pre-order in already, you're clearly a person of considerable taste. To others of considerable taste, or who aspire to be, I recommend you get across there right now.

Mark W