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

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