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Green Man festival, 17- 19 August 2007

 

ImageFor the fourth year, it's the Green Man festival, this time alone as the family have pressing musical theatre engagements back home which have been inconveniently arranged to coincide with this now established, nay crucial, event in the Knight calendar. At least this means I can go to all three days!

 

Friday

 

What's changed this year? The venue's the same as last year - the gorgeous Glanusk Park Estate in the Brecon Beacons - but the capacity has been increased from 6,000 to 10,000. Eek. How will it cope? The main organisational change is an increased capacity tent for the second, 'Folkey Dokey' stage which has been repositioned almost alongside the main, open air stage and the third 'Green Man Café' stage has been slightly expanded although it's still basically a pergola near the bar. Otherwise it's business as usual - no corporate sponsorship, no security guards at the stage, lots of organic food, a healing food and a determinedly independent, lo-fi, post-hippie ethos.

 

As for the music... My first port of call after a vast hike from the car park is the Folkey Dokey tent just to see who's on and I encounter a girl with swirly clothes and waist-length hair and a bloke who looks like Richard Thompson circa 1969 singing songs about a witch's cave and owls flying past in the broad daylight. This is Men-an-Tol and it looks like normal Green Man service will be resumed. They're a decent way to start, quiet, relaxing and harking back to Pentangle.

 

After a wander to get my bearings it's Rachel Unthank and the Winterset on the main stage. Their first album was raved reviewed in folk circles a couple of years ago and their new one, The Bairns, is about to come out. They're four Geordie lasses, two Unthank sisters, the wonderfully named Belinda O'Hooley on keyboards and Jackie Oates on viola. They have great stage presence - the sisters clog dance, Belinda cracks jokes (which is just as well as the songs are often gloomy) and their set is impressive, including a cover of Robert Wyatt's 'Sea Song' which is going to endear me to anybody. Impressive.

 

ImageBack at Folkey Dokey here come Daimh, for the third time at Green Man. They're down from the Hebrides and are a traditional Scottish band led by pipes and - this time - occasionally a singer from Lewis, Calum Alex MacMillan, singing in Gaelic. Which in the wrong hands could be a recipe for disaster but this lot know how to get a crowd going with perfectly judged jigs and reels performed with such relish and skill that the tent gets dancing. Although this is a problem when they want to slow it down with another Gaelic lilt, however well sung. Daimh are a great unsung band and are the proof that bagpipes can lead the line.

 

It's a big leap from Daimh to the long, heavy chords of power-trio Dead Meadow but one typical of this festival. I had been looking forward to this lot but sadly they don't work for me partly because I'm in jiggy mood from the previous lot and partly because they remind me too much of the wrong sort of music from 1970 - Taste, Stray - for comfort. I can't help feeling that this sort of thing is better done by the likes of 65 Days of Static at present. Good dancing bassist, though.

 

King Creosote is as much part of Green Man as beards and working toilets and he has a new album coming out so one felt compelled to turn up to see what the new songs sounded like. And they're pretty good, intelligent as always, and one gets the feeling that KC is on the verge of breaking bigger. But the gig kind of comes and goes for me without really asserting itself, although I do find myself singing the wonderful 'Not One Bit Ashamed' to myself two days later - "I gave up half my heart and you gave a half-hearted shrug / It's not good enough" - classic.

 

Tunng have changed. They're now a six-piece, have a female singer to accentuate those CSN harmonies even further and - gasp! - stand up. They've pushed the boat out for this Folkey Dokey headlining set - their sampling man is set up in a Hawaiian Tiki bar, they have blow-up palm trees and for the finale they produce dozens of beach balls which are bounced frenetically around the audience. Oh, and they produce the most Heavy Metal looking guitar imaginable at one point all pointy ends and horn signs. They have a ball (Hah!) and so do we - great fun, good new songs and, although they've lost something by standing up they've also taken a big step forward.

 

ImageUp to now it's been dry all day but outside now it's raining. KC has already predicted a somewhat challenging weather day for tomorrow and one fears the worst. On the main stage Joanna Newsom is headlining which would normally feel me with glee. But it's gone midnight, I'm tired and can't get near the stage and I have a mammoth walk back to the car (you don't think I'm camping do you?). If it was a balmy night with a full moon I might feel differently but I retreat after listening to a few songs. She's well on form though and appears to be wearing hot pants.

 

Saturday

 

The fears are realised - it's been raining all night and all morning and by the time I arrive in mid-afternoon the site is a quagmire in places, most problematically between the two main stages. I seek shelter in the Folkey Dokey for Voice of the Seven Woods who are having problem with their sound and getting increasingly cranky. The band start up a Krautrock groove to keep the audience happy while Rick Tomlinson curses his amp and then they're gone. Which is a shame as the groove was rather a good one.

 

It's momentarily stopped raining so I stomp through the sea of mud back to the main stage from where an immediately distinctive sound is emanating. Clinic (for it is they) are dressed in brown uniforms and stovepipe hats in addition to the traditional surgical masks and as usual are playing a series of variants on their great reedy organ based sound. They've been doing this for nine years now and one can't really say they've progressed much at all but when the template came fully fledged at the first release and is this good I don't suppose it matters a great deal. Although I've no idea how they don't start playing the wrong song when starting off.

 

Back at Folkey Dokey it's time for a bit of classical with the North Sea Radio Orchestra - guitar, bassoon, clarinet, violin, cello, keyboards and three singers. Bits of Blake and Yeats are put to music which passes by very pleasantly. Chilling - and dry as it's raining again.

 

Six Organs of Admittance have been floating around my consciousness for a few years without me really knowing anything about them. I suppose I assume they're a kind of psychedelic folk band. Hah! Apparently Ben Chasny (the only full member) invites different people along (which is a pretty interesting approach) and this time he's with Elisa Ambrogio who's from a band called Magik Markers. She's small and slight, dressed in a sensible jumper and skirt and it's just the two of them both sporting electric guitars. For the first minute the word 'exquisite' comes to mind as their guitar sounds intermingle but then she bends over her guitar and that's it. For the next half an hour it's a maelstrom of noise as she attacks her axe like its done her wrong, frequently playing it only inches from the floor. Chasny responds with noise himself and the two of them intermingle on stage like rutting stags. It's a formidable, unexpected performance, sexual, exhilarating. By the end Ambrogio looks like she's crawled from a TV set in a Japanese horror film. Stunning.

 

ImageAfter this I find it difficult to engage with the usually estimable Vetiver on the main stage so I go for something to eat and then return to the tent for James Yorkston. He was one of the great highlights last year, a Green Man megastar among the people of his kingdom but this year he doesn't reach the same heights, not helped by a rather indulgent lengthy wig-out at the end, which is not really what one comes to see James Yorkston for - one wants quiet yet danceable songs about love and getting drunk. The highlight is when he invites Green Man regular Jason on stage to sing along with him as he has apparently done at every Green Man so far - don't ask me, I missed him until last year and couldn't see a thing then. Jason is pleasantly drunk and collaborates in an enjoyably idiosyncratic way.

 

It's raining again, so I chill out in the cinema tent for lectures organised by Strange Attractor magazine on Animism (somewhat superficial and I'm not persuaded to treat a rock as a person as the (Open University) lecturer suggested) and the history of magic mushrooms, which contained the interesting fact that there is no evidence of them being used deliberately for psychedelic purposes in the UK before 1970. I then head for the Green Man Café for the first time to catch Diane Cluck, one of the NY anti-folk crowd who I'm looking forward to on the basis of her song 'My Teacher Died' which is six and a half minutes of uncomfortable wailing. But tonight her version of this is half the length and sans wailing and she just comes across as a more indy version of Suzanne Vega. Ho hum.

 

The rival headliners tonight are Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation or Battles, but despite the great man's presence it has to be the latter as 'Atlas' is single of the year, if that means anything any more. I saw Battles at the Astoria last year and their set-up is the same this time - clustered tightly centre stage around the drum kit (including a very high cymbal), guitars held high on the chest, laptops and keyboards aplenty. Effectively an instrumental band - their occasional vocals are treated so that one can't make out what is being sung - they start strongly, muscular, energetic, technical, but then lose their way a little before an electrifying version of 'Atlas' which has the tent rocking. The focal point is their remarkable, energetic drummer, John Stanier who strips off his shirt to reveal a torso which is steaming and sweating at the same time. The crowd twitch and so do I. Plant is still going as I head back to the car to the strains of 'Gallows Pole' and 'Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You'.

 

Sunday

 

ImageThe rain has stopped and the consistency of the mud has changed so that I'm constantly reminded of the phrase 'The Sucking Pit', from Guy N Smith's horror novel. There seem to be fewer people here, more like the number last year - perhaps some have gone home after yesterday's downpour or - less likely - are in a pub watching the Manchester derby. It may not be raining but it's very cold, more like November than August. I stop off at the Green Man Café first for the dreadfully named Threatmantics who turn out to be an enjoyable young Welsh band comprising two brothers on violin / vocals and simultaneous drums and keyboards and another bloke on guitar playing enjoyable garage rock with a violin lead. Would happily see them again.

 

But they are only the hors d'oeuvres for an afternoon of lip-smacking anticipation on the main stage. If I was running a festival I could hardly improve on the next four acts which is why I'm here I suppose. First it's Misty's Big Adventure. I've not seen them since here last year and the burning question (see what I did there?) is about to be answered - how has Grandmaster Gareth, one of the greatest of stage smokers, coped with the smoking ban? Rather well as it turns out. Admittedly this is only a half-hour set but Gareth gave no indication in the past that he could go this long without a fag before. The performance is magnificent, with some great new songs, one about the Conveyor Belt of life (which includes a reference to the smoking ban) and one about the day the children became radioactive. I'm laughing regularly and the cold dissipates. Their shamanic dancer, Erotic Volvo appears and delights the children in the crowd who have clustered down the front on the shoulders of their fathers. We get to hear 'The Story of Love' and 'Fashion Parade' among others, the latter allowing the fabulous Baines sisters to pout and preen. Great band.

 

Malcolm Middleton may well have made the album of the year with 'A Brighter Beat' and I'm sooo looking forward to this. Last year he played a great solo gig in the Café but this year he has a full band with him. Like Gareth he presents himself as morose - this is a man whose album begins "We're all gonna die / what if there's nothing?" - but is actually very funny ("We were going to do a cover version. We rehearsed 'Whole Lotta Love' but apparently some **** played it last night"). He's joined on vocals by the incredibly young looking Jenny Reeve and they play many of the great tracks from the album ending with a superb version of 'Fight like the Night'. God, these are a great collection of songs. I didn't think the end of Arab Strap had an upside but I was wrong. I'm unsure whether Malcolm or Gareth is currently the best songwriter in Britain but I suspect it's one or other of them.

 

ImageOr maybe it's Alasdair Roberts. He's here with a band this year and plays stuff from this year's album 'The Amber Gatherers' while slipping back into the classic 'Farewell Sorrow' for a couple of songs and 'No Earthly Man' for the mesmeric 'Lyke Wake Dirge' which is one of the highlights of the weekend. His guitar work seems more accomplished than before and the band play these strange songs sympathetically with some particularly impressive drumming. I love Alasdair Roberts for being so challenging and uncompromising and because his songs bury their way into me. This is his place and the crowd acknowledge another giant.

 

And if that's not enough - it's The Earlies next, one of my favourite live bands. I've already seen this set earlier this year and the great thing is that the new songs have effortlessly taken their place alongside the songs from the first album. The sound seems heavier this time with thudding percussion driving this formidable ten-piece along. As always the sense of fun is infectious, with guitarist cum trumpeter Tom repeatedly beating the air with joy and the usual general grinning as if they can't believe that they can get this incredible beast off the ground. Highlight is probably the instrumental 'Breaking Point' where the brass gets a chance to shine (always a good thing with this band) but there isn't a weak moment in the set.

 

After this excitement I go to get something to eat from Pieminister (the food stall of choice) and on returning Gruff Rhys is on the main stage in front of what looks to be a mock-up of a TV set turned to a strange test card. He's playing songs from 'Candylion, which I haven't heard but on the strength of this sounds like it's worth seeking out. The set ends with an epic song called 'Skylon!' which is a tour de force about a hijacking and goes on for about 15 minutes in an insanely catchy way. Rather wonderful.

 

Off to Folkey Dokey for the first time today where Seasick Steve is playing. I first encountered him on 'Later' on New Years' Eve like I guess many people did where he was the best thing on by a long way. He's already started his performance and I pop in at the back to find the crowd understandably eating out of his hand. His stage presence is remarkable - a ragged old man in a baseball cap who is telling stories at length about his past and his music which are immediately captivating. And when he plays that guitar you listen. We're all captivated and this I reckon is the best reaction anyone has received all weekend.

 

ImageWhat a day this is turning out to be! And next it's Devendra Banhart on the main stage, king of the American nu-folk scene. Except that he's playing dull electric guitar-based songs which plod along. Gaah. Not interested. So back to Folkey Dokey for Herman Dune. I saw them a lot in the early part of the decade but haven't seen them for a few years after a dull gig with a man who looked like Andy Warhol who rather destroyed the band's delicate balance. Since then he's gone as has Andre Herman Dune (who now wants to be known as Stanley Brinks apparently) leaving main songwriter David on vocals and guitar, brother Neman on drums (played in a strange sideways position) and a bassist. And I quickly realise how much I've missed them. David is a great, embracing live presence and the band just emanate warmth. I know none of the songs which presumably come from last year's 'Giant' but on this showing I'm missing something fine. Another great set.

 

For the finale it's a choice between Stephen Malkmus on the main stage of The Aliens in the tent. Like Plant, Malkmus is a towering presence of course, but The Aliens' song 'Honest Again' is the most played on my iPod this year and I really have to go and see them. I first encountered them at last year's Camden Crawl where they were a rather ramshackle presence but they've tightened up significantly since then. But unfortunately not for the best. They play to the gallery tonight, dressed in huge shades and clothes that would not look out of place in a 70s disco. They have a tendency to not understand when a song should finish with tedious stuff like 'Robot Man' long outstaying its welcome. And they don't play 'Honest Again'. Ho Hum. Still, it's been a great day, a great festival with a line-up which at times beggared belief. I suspect that I could have chosen a completely different line-up and still had a fine time with acts like Richmond Fontaine, David Thomas Broughton and Victoria Williams.

 

On leaving, the main stage is deserted and as I walk back to the car I put 'Honest Again' on the iPod one more time. "When will it be 'til I see you again' ask The Aliens. Next year, probably, if I can manage it. Although I may find someone else if you lot are playing.

 

Author: Keith Knight

 
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