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Green Man Festival 2006, Glanusk Park Estate, Brecon Beacons, Wales august 18-20, 2006

 

Saturday

 

ImageAt the first Green Man Festival I went to three years ago there were 1,000 people. This year, with a new venue - the Glanusk Park Estate, a short drive from the previous venue in the Brecon Beacons in Wales - there are 6,000. Is this evidence of a sell-out? Well, no, not at all really. This is still a festival without corporate sponsorship - Mojo magazine are supposed to be sponsors but their only presence is giving away copies with ice-creams on Sunday lunchtime - and it didn't advertise at all. The Green Man is a festival like they used to be (I assume - I didn't actually go to any back then) and the vibe is cool and slightly smug - we pity all those people at the V Festival suffering advertising and Razorlight. Here we're surrounded by lovely Welsh hills in what appears to be the grounds of a stately home without the home, reasonable toilets and decent food.

 

On the face of it the Green Man musical experience seems easy to summarise - something about folky hippies - but in practice the music here covers anumber of categories:

 

Weird Folk - hairy blokes mainly, with laptops and acoustic guitars singing about women being turned into hares. Strangely, although they are heavily influenced by the late 60s folk tradition, these never play folk clubs.

 

Tortured singer-songwriters - but no James Blunt here - Green Man accepts only the best.

 

Senior Folk Stalwarts - this year Donovan (who I miss because we don't turn up until Saturday - aww) and Bert Jansch

 

American Indie bands who share the attitude - Calexico headline this year, Bonnie Prince Billie last. I could see Low or Lambchop in this context.

 

A bunch of other UK artists who don't really fit but who we like.

 

There are three stages this year - The small Green Man Cafe - a stage under a pergola in the corner of a stableyard - the Folkey Dokey marquee and themain stage in a lovely field, surrounded by hills. Wait a minute - Welsh Hills: rain and so within a few minutes of arriving on Saturday lunchtime it's on with the wellies and waterproofs. This doesn't really help Charlotte Greig who is playing the Cafe and whose harmonium driven traditional folk isn't everyone's cup of tea anyway. But I like her a lot and she perfoms a fine set with her band including an interesting rendition of Sonic Youth's Cotton Crown.

 

A couple of hours of rain later and the marquee is jammed for Misty's Big Adventure. Regular readers will know how high I hold the Misty's live experience but that's usually in thecorner of a pub in Brixton and sharing with a 1000 people is a bit of a shock. But the band quickly win the crowd over, unsurprisingly as they have a set of songs and a sound - brass-heavy, lots of opportunity to chant along - guaranteed to make people feel better. Young girls are brought down the front on their fathers' shoulders to see a sight that may haunt their dreams - Erotic Volvo, a tall man in a head-to-toe red suit festooned with inflated rubber gloves, dancing maniacally among the audience.

 

ImageA quick dash through the mud to the main stage to see Tunng, the archetypal Weird Folk band in many ways not least because they are hairy and have a song about a woman being turned into a hare. Their harmonies and acoustic line-up reminds me at times of CSN, if they had been taken to see The Wicker Man too often. I like Tunng a lot, partly because they are very pleasant to listen to and partly because they constantly undercut the pleasantness by introducing snatches of recorded voices and strange burbling noises. This is the sort of thing British Sea Power should be doing I reckon.

 

The sun comes out briefly during King Creosote's set which causes him to change his lyrics in tribute, this is such a momentous occasion. KC has increased in profile since last year's festival but there's little evidence any of this will go to his head as he is still devoted to running the Fence Collective who, along with The Earlies, come across as the most generous set of musicians in Britain, helping out other bands wherever they can. His set of depressed love songs is very well received by the audience andso they should be - he is now an outstanding songwriter.

 

As is Micah P Hinson. It's two years since I've seen him during which he has had a very bad back and the promise of new songs is enticing. Fortunatelythese are well up to scratch, similar in style (a kind of Country psychiatry) to his previous work. Speaking of The Earlies, various of them are aroundalthough they're inexcusably not playing and Micah is supported tonight by The Great Christian Madden who manages to play tremendous organ throughout despite being apparently very drunk. They end with a great version of The Day Texas Sank to the Bottom of the Sea, which is always a pleasure to be in the presence of.

 

Dumping wife and kids (the latter having heroically turned up again despite only really liking Adem - mind you, they don't have much choice...) back at the B&B, I return to a darkened estate and, although tempted by the DJ stage where The Fall's Leave the Capitol is pumping out, make my way to Folkey Dokey for James Yorkston. I've been meaning to see Yorkston for about three years, being a minor fan of his bitter-sweet love songs and ballads, but circumstances have always conspired against. I'm expecting a pleasant hour in the company of a reasonable songwriter but I'm not prepared for what I get. Sat down, so that one only catches glimpses of his bald pate, he is already presiding over what I can only describe as a lovefest. What on record are often non-descript songs are here transformed into masterpieces as his tremendous band - which make me think of The Bad Seeds in the way that they seem to be a perfect foil - and his personality turn the audience into a set of melting lovers. There's no-one here who isn't having a great time. In front of me four young women start to dance ecstatically, clearly familiar with the songs - who are these people, who know other people who know JamesYorkston and come away with them for the weekend? 'Isn't he lovely' says another passing woman. Well, yes he is, although as he's balding and overweight this is more a comment about his personality and talent than anything else. This performance is probably only great because it's here tonight, at the centrepoint of the festival and people are justgoing for it. But it is, undeniably, a great performance.

 

ImageBut I'm not finished yet tonight. Back at the Cafe, Malcolm Middleton - the 'other one' from Arab Strap - is playing and I worm my way towards the front although such is the press of people that most of the time I can barely see anything. Last year Middleton played with a band and he was really impressive,showcasing songs from second album 'Into the Woods' that at the time I was unfamiliar with. Since then I've grown to love it and am really looking forward to this. As it is - possibly because he's playing solo acoustic - tonight he plays only a few songs from it concentrating on earlier stuff. He is, he admits, 'woefully under-rehearsed'. But I stand there, crushed against a barrier, rivetted by what may be the most depressing set of songs I've ever heard (this from a Peter Hammill fan, remember). Every song is about doomed love affairs, Middleton's self-doubt (two songs refer to his 'shite songs'), his loneliness ('My loneliness shines'), the hellishness of life in Falkirk. But the hour is strangely uplifting and often funny. Middleton's capability for a memorable melody - evidenced constantly with his work with Arab Strap - makes each song distinctive and he has a winning, self-deprecating way with him. His playing is tremendous, bringing out spontaneous applause from the mixing desk at one point. 'Don't worry Malcy' shouts a woman 'your songs ain't shite'. She's right. This has been two great performances at the end of the evening and I move away energised.

 

Sunday

 

Sunday is at least dry, if not really hot, and therefore a day for indulging the family and sitting in front of the main stage. The Green Man programming is so spot on this year that I realise yesterday I only saw one act - James Yorkston - that I hadn't seen before. This is not really what I subscribe to but I couldn't have brought myself to have missed any of the acts I saw. But today will rectify that.

 

ImageWe start with Woodcraft Folk, who I am predisposed to like as they called their album Trough of Bowland, an area in Lancashire close to where I lived many years ago, and whose nicely designed sleeves has used woodcuts. They are an instrumental band who are very tinkly, using bells, bells, xylophone and bells. I'd say there were more bells than you could shake a stick out but at one point they use a stick covered in bells. But there is a drummer and guitarist too and the music they build is clever and pleasant to listen to. A fine way to start the day.

 

Eighteenth Day Of May are described in the programnme as 'pyschedelic' but they're not really - they're just a nice folk band playing traditional covers. None of it really stands out and I feel vaguely disappointed, having expected something closer to Tunng.

 

I'm not really intending to pay Argentinian chanteuse Juana Molina much attention - through ignorance as much as anything, although it is time for a mid-afternoonnap - but she forces me to listen to her. A small woman alone on a big stage she builds up songs with looped pedals, creating the song as you listen to it. The music has edge to it, offset by her quiet vocals. I'm impressed - definitely worth exploring further.

 

I'm in the ice-cream queue when The Archie Bronson Outfit starts and immediately my foot starts to tap. I know nothing about this lot and they're one of those bands who don't fit any of the GM templates, being uptempo swamp-blues exponents. Taking my ice-cream nearer the stage I note that they don't really look like the other bands I've seen this weekend either. Frankly, if you encountered most of them in a dark alley, they'd probably turn and run first, but you wouldn't want to take on the Outfit. The drummer looks a bit like his equivalent in Liars, and has apparently been studying Keith Moon DVDs. The bassist is tall and lean and bears a striking resemblence to actor Javier Bardem. The saxophonist - for, yes, there is one, and what's more he play two simultaneously in the manner of Van Der Graaf's David Jackson - looks like the sort of bloke who sits by cashpoints in Oxford St. He has a mate who comes on and he looks like he does too. Archie (I assume) wields an acoustic guitar and full beard. The music is unstoppably likeable forcing one to get down with the groove. One song - brilliantly - seems to be an uptempo variant of Faust's 'Giggy Smile'. Furthermore, the performance is blessed with the unannounced appearance of The Duke Spirit's Leila Mosson backing vocal, if my eyes don't deceive me. What's not to like here? Marvellous.

 

After this barnstorming performance Adem's quietness doesn't really work for me, although as the kids like him I give him due respect. And rightly so - a few days afterwards it's still the songs from his first album that comes unbidden to the mind when I think back on the event.

 

ImageBert Jansch is clearly a big deal among festival goers here but I have to admit to a complete blind spot. Yes, he can play guitar, but his voice is unmemorable and he doesn't seem to have written or covered a song in all these years that sticks in the mind. I'm probably a candidate for the Wicker Man for saying this but there you go. It's back to the B&B again for the family while I return for the evening session.

 

Where others place Bert Jansch, I place Alasdair Roberts. What's more Idon't seem to be alone. He's playing solo acoustic sat down in the Folkey Dokey tent - and therefore invisible to all but those at the front - and if this was London there would be a low-level hum of background chattei in a similar stand-up venue. Here there's near silence for his traditional ballads and - gasp! - some new self-penned songs. These I'm pleased to say sound fine. This is an ascetic performance, demanding and intense, and as such not as immediately enjoyable as some of those he's done with band. But there's a feeling of greatness now about Roberts and his place in this community is stronger than ever after tonight.

 

On the main stage the headliners are Calexico who, most other times, would be a fine choice to end the festival. But I go against the press of bodies to return to the tent for Sunburned Hand of the Man. Now I really know next to nothing about them - their records are difficult to get hold of and I've never seen them live. But their reputation is high and isn't that name great? On stage there are lots of beards but this is not a laid-back band. The singer says how pleased he is to be in Wales, home of one of his favourite bands. The mind races - who can he mean - Super Furry Animals? Gorky's? Not The Alarm? Even odder - it's forgotten early 70s rockers Man! My recollection of Man is sketchy but I don''t think I'm wildly off if I say what we get tonight from the Sunburned Hand variety is not that dissimilar. The performance is certainly very early 70s. Each song is largely instrumental and improvised around a motif, driven by the singer / bassist. The improv reminds me in places of Gong or Can, although lacking the telepathic qualities of the best of the latter. But it's always interesting to find where they're going and at its best is inspirational with guitars, electronics and saxes exploring the way forward. A fine end to the evening.

 

So, another Green Man, another success. Somehow the organisers, Jo and Danny, have walked the tightrope of expansion while keeping the feel and attitude of previous festivals to the extent where it feels churlish to go on about the good old days because, frankly, they're still here. The quality of performances I saw over these two days was remarkably high - only Eighteenth Day of May and Bert Jansch did little for me from 15 acts. I'm sure there were plenty more I missed. This is a remarkably fertile area of music right now, however one wants to define it.

 

Author: Keith Knight

 
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