Monday, 19 August 2013

Green Man 2013: The Legends Strike Back

These annual Green Man reviews get about four or five times the number of readers than my normal blogs so I feel a certain pressure to say something different and not merely state what I've said for six of the last seven years: specifically, that the Green Man remains the unchallenged highlight of the festival summer and the musical event of the year.

So let's get that one out of the way quickly: on an atypically largely sunny weekend at Glanusk Park in the Brecon Beacons, the festival retained its eminent status comfortably.  It's probably useful for this reviewer, however, to be able to report that this year's experience was somewhat different.  While the festival normally delights in its propensity to sate my thirst for brilliant new and exciting bands, it must be said that the highlights of Green Man 2013 were often provided by more established artists.

There's an emotional element to all this.  The fact that I can at some point die having seen Patti Smith perform 'Redondo Beach' and Roy Harper deliver 'When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease' will mean the descent into my cold, cold grave will now follow a life a little less forlornly lived.  Add to that John Cale's effortless rendition of 'Pablo Picasso', Jon Langford laying into 'I Love A Millionaire' and Edwyn Collins giving us 'Blue Boy' and you had the makings of an indulgent nostalgia-fest of some magnitude.  It was to the credit of all of these performers, though, that they delivered such timeless gems with a freshness that would scarcely have been exacerbated had they penned them only yesterday.

Speaking with seasoned veterans of the Patti Smith live experience afterwards, I was frequently told that, in a dozen or more previous encounters, they'd never seen the priestess of New York punk nail her lauded back pages anything like so magnificently.  With a sparse backing band and no drummer, and taking the stage for the last gig of a long summer tour, she displayed a remarkable energy that laughed in the face of her sixty-six years.  Her performance was loaded with emotion following the death of close friend and early songwriting partner Allen Lanier only the day before and the chill that went up the spine when she sang 'Elegy', the song the two composed for Horses. would be the first of many over the weekend, reflected in the 72 year old Harper's earnestly stated hope that he would meet his audience again before the next life and perhaps even trumped by the Friday performance of Edwyn Collins.

The Green Man programme proclaims that its main Mountain Stage had a unique atmosphere.  In fact, it's generally the worst atmosphere of the festival's seven stages, its ambience dragged down by groups of people who park their deck chairs (yes, deck chairs) in front of it all day in order to get a decent spec when the major performers turned up later on and talk all the way through the likes of the excellent Haiku Salut.  Collins transformed this atmosphere into, for once, a unified cauldron of respect and admiration for a performer who was at one stage unlikely ever to speak again let alone make appearances like this.  It wasn't just about the emotion of the occasion, though; amongst newer material, Collins and his band breathed vibrant new life into classics like 'Falling & Laughing' and the aforementioned 'Blue Boy' and ensured that the first action of this reviewer on returning home was to dig out my copy of You Can't Hide Your Love Forever.

Harper reminded us that, while there have been many excellent troubadours taking stages around the country since his emergence in the mid-sixties, no one has ever been able to match his ability to confront his audience head-on quite so brilliantly and make even the most liberal-minded among us squirm with acknowledgement of our role in what a shitty world we've allowed it to become.  He refrained from giving us his finest expression of this, 'I Hate The White Man', but his delivery of classics like 'Men & My Woman' and particularly 'One Man Rock & Roll Band' more than made up for the omission got us all right between the eyes, minds and hearts with his unique combination of precise polemic and disarming charm.  

It would be wrong to say it was all about the veterans, though.  Performers of far more tender years added much to the occasion, as they always do.  There were magnificently noisy performances throughout the weekend on the Far Out Stage, where I spent even more of the festival this year than usual, from the likes of Thought Forms and Trwbador while Girls Names emphasised their thrilling transition from promising guitar band to chugging, rhythmically driven indie maestros who've, for once, attained musical sophistication and got even better while doing so. Landshapes (above, left) showed a similarly impressive progression in their performance in the Walled Garden; the former Lulu & the Lampshades can now take their place firmly in the gene line that began with The Slits and The Raincoats and to which are not a footnote, but a worthy addition who add much to one of music's most engaging musical evolutionary threads.  Moon Duo provided, as expected, one of the stage's highlights, with a groove that might well still be reverberating around the empty Glanusk Park for the rest of the summer.

If Sunday was a little more subdued than usual, this probably had something to do with so many peaks having occurred earlier than usual on the Friday, the excellence of so many late night performances and the woozy effects of the sunshine to which Green Man regulars are so unaccustomed.   It possibly had something to do with the 99 (that's 99) real ales or ciders on offer this year, provision with which the festival didn't merely respond to one of my criticisms from last year but surpassed expectations by an almost unfathomable difference.  It was Darren Hayman who stepped up to reclaim the atmosphere with a performance infused by the kind of dexterity and wit that makes him such a national, indeed international, treasure.  Following him on the Walled Garden stage, Public Service Broadcasting more than stepped up to the mark and offered a large and willing audience a festival performance of typically idiosyncratic brilliance.

Elsewhere, I've no doubt that the Green Man Rising stage was a well-meant addition to the festival.  I visited it at some point each day, in the generally forlorn hope that there might be an interesting new band on there.   Too often, sad to report, it was frequented by bands whose idea of 'new' was geared towards replicating the works of easily discernible influences.  The only band who bucked this irritating trend were Laurence Made Me Cry, a band whose album I already loved and played tracks from in my Dandelion Radio show earlier in the year.  Live they reproduced their beguiling, intricate melodies brilliantly.  More of this from Green Man Rising, please, or don't bother.

My favourite 'stumbled upon' performance this year was when I meandered into the Cinema Tent at one point to find Argentine band Los Cripis (left) in there, playing spiky indie pop with an energy that seems to have breathed welcome new life into so many practitioners of this genre of late.

I might well have gone for Smith as the festival's best performer, had it not been for the one glitch of throwing in a cover of John Lennon's god-awful 'Beautiful Boy', a song of such saccharine sentimental gush that no performer, even one as masterful as Smith, could rescue it.  Because of that, I've going to say that the magnificent Fuck Buttons edged it.  Having witnessed their remarkable debut at the Green Man in 2008, hopes were high anyway, and they were easily superseded as their hour long headline performance on the Friday night of the Far Out Stage dragged the festival's best crowd along on the enigmatic hooks of unremitting powerhouse electronics and battered yet unsubmissive rhythms.  It's tempting to proclaim that the performance found the duo at the height of their powers but the most exciting thing is they continue to sound like there's plenty left in the tank and they'll somehow, incredibly, get even better.

Green Man 2013 - A Personal Top Ten

1. Fuck Buttons (Friday, Far Out Stage)
2. Patti Smith (Thursday, Far Out Stage)
3. Moon Duo (Friday, Far Out Stage)
4. Roy Harper (Saturday, Mountain Stage)
5. Landshapes (Friday, Walled Garden)
6. Edwyn Collins (Friday, Mountain Stage)
7. Darren Hayman (Sunday, Walled Garden)
8. Los Cripis (Saturday, Cinema Tent)
9. Laurence Made Me Cry (Sunday, Green Man Rising)
10. Public Service Broadcasting (Sunday, Walled Garden)

You can still hear my Green Man 'preview' in my Dandelion Show throughout the rest of August.  My October show will include, among other things, several of the highlights mentioned above.

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