That the most telling testament to the wonderful experience that was Green Man Festival 2013 comes not from the musical treats in store (which were myriad) but the sheer pleasure of the company present says much about the atmosphere and harmony surrounding the event. Having had over ten years to develop its own niche and cliental, the first and most striking thing to say as a Green Man virgin was just how delightful and friendly the entire crowd was over the weekend. Too often to recall, simply standing next to people during gigs resulted in sharing of names, handshakes, smiles and promises to catch up later on - so different from the aggression and caution-filled experiences of other UK festivals. From dancing in the Walled Garden at 4am on the Saturday to making new friends through quoting Arrested Development on the Ferris Wheel, I can honestly say that I've never met so many kind, genuine and friendly people at any UK festival. And that includes the organisers and PR team too. A big round of applause is due to all involved with 2013's event - you were amazing!
But onto the music itself and arriving on Thursday afternoon to a swirling mixture of sunny skies and sideways rain, it's straight to the Far Out Stage to catch our early fill of bands. And while We Are Animal's fuzzed-up guitar and relentless drum grooves gather the legs into attention, it's M O N E Y's outstanding set that provides the first highlight of the weekend. Channelling the sadly-lost heavy atmospherics and spiritual overtones of WU LYF through a heavy, drone-laden filter of early Verve, they have a remarkable sound that manages to beguile the senses and incite emotions at the same time. One of the genuine breakout bands of 2013, they'll be omnipresent everywhere in 2014 - mark my words.
Although Patti Smith is more standard fare and generally plays things on the safer side, her performance still carries the statuesque presence of a legend. Opening with 'Dancing Barefoot', she still carries the gravitas and languid style of someone who has seen and done it all, with an underplayed acoustic band that includes the ever-excellent Patrick Wolf playing harp, violin and anything else required. 'Because The Night' inspires a mass sing-along and 'Pissing in a River' receives unanimous cheers from the packed crowd. We even get a cover of Eddie Cochrane's 'Summertime Blues' and John Lennon's 'Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)' before we're all sent happily to bed knowing we've seen one of the genuine greats of all time.
Perfectly blue skies greet the Friday and we're all in high spirits heading into the main arena to check the site out. Surrounded by the Welsh hills and rolling landscapes, it's quite beautiful place to hold a music festival, helped out by the well-positioned stages avoiding any possible sound-bleed and allowing space for people to relax and enjoy themselves. Which is where we start - sat on the contoured hills at the back of the Mountain Stage enjoying the view and Haiku Salut's delicate, warm and elegant melodies that echo over the crowd; their name fitting the sparse prettiness and complex construction of their instrumental creations. We're then treated to Peggy Sue's indie-pop/folk hybrid for a while, including an excellent a cappella cover of Ray Charles' 'Hit the Road Jack', though we're later annoyed to find we missed Annie Dressner on the Walled Garden Stage (we realise when we find we're camped next to her a few hours later!) Julia Holter's multi-layered and complex instrumentation and melodies proves to be a perfect backdrop as the clouds take leave of their sky and we're bathed in beautiful sunshine across the site, the only downside of which is the massive influx of wasps that choose to target us and our real ale as we try to enjoy the celebratory atmosphere. Parquet Courts, however, are in no mood for such blissful frivolities when we see them in the Far Out Tent, absolutely bombarding us with their fractured, overdriven punk and heavy drone influences. It's already early on but there's some serious moshing going on down the front and we can't help but oblige ourselves joining in. Half of us then stay for Moon Duo but we decide to head back to the Mountain Stage to see Phosphorescent, whose beautifully wrought, organic melodies are sweet and engaging against the rural background dwarfing his presence on stage. We then take some time to stroll around and explore the site, including finding a quite brilliant Meze and African food stall serving huge plates of Moroccan and North African delights but before long, we're back for Edwyn Collins. The last time I saw him at Glastonbury in 2008 was one of the most moving and stirring performances of my life but in that intervening time, Collins has released two excellent records so there's no need to focus on the events and consequences of 2005 - Collins is again a fully-fledged and prolific performer in his own right. And tonight he and his band are quite magnificent.
Flitting between Orange Juice classics such as 'Falling and Laughing' and 'Rip it Up', superb cuts from his recent two records including 'Losing Sleep' and 'Home Again' as well as a brilliant 'Ghost of a Chance', he and his band are absolutely perfect - the band utterly and completely in tune with each other as musicians, Collins with his trademark laid-back charming drawl and impeccable manners, thanking the crowd after every song. The continual cries of "We love you Edwyn" are heart-warming, as is the truly celebratory nature of the crowd: young and old dancing away with sheer joy. And then - of course - we get 'A Girl Like You' which incites a near frenzy as Collins stands and conducts the crowd through before leaving the stage to rapturous applause as the band continues playing to a close. What a man, what a band, what a crowd, what a set of songs and what a performance. One of the single best shows I've seen in 2013 - utterly life-affirming.
How do you follow that? Well, by going to something completely different. And that different is Rachel Zeffira, whose wild, tumbling and fantastical tracks recall Kate Bush, Catherine A.D., Beth Gibbons and Regina Spektor in their refusal to be pinned down into any category while striving for emotion and a sense of magic. But by now we've had a few ales and we want to dance. So it is on to F*** Buttons we go. Packing out the main tent, Andrew and Ben stand opposite each other, each manning a barrage of synths, samplers and effects consoles while they conjure up wave after wave of devastating, bewitching electronic tempests. On record, F*** Buttons can often struggle to fully engage the senses but it is when you see them live that you realise their deeper abilities - drawing emotion from your body and keeping you dancing in a trancelike state for the duration of their set. Building slowly towards an epic climax, final track 'Flight of the Feathered Serpent' is an utter celebration of what heavy, progressive electronica can do. Spectacular and perfectly realised in the live setting.
It is then all over to Andrew Weatherall to take us through until 4am with a superb blend of house, soul, breaks and electronica as we all bumble around smiling and laughing, sharing drinks with friends and new friends alike until the music finally comes to a close (we all want more, but what can you do?!) and we stumble to bed - happy and contented after an incredible day of music.
Saturday starts early with a trip into Crickhowell - a beautiful stone-clad town five miles from the site - to stock up on food and supplies before heading into the arena. Rain and dark skies are the order of the day today but we're settling happily into the ambience of the site and a few drops of rain are easily matched by the pints from the real ale stall (though the varieties available decreased swiftly over the course of the weekend!!!) First on the agenda were Wild Smiles in the Far Out Tent - a trio of two heavy-treble guitars and a drummer, powering out superb rockabilly-punk in the manner of The Cramps, The Ventures and The Sonics. Ideally balanced between surf-rock, rock and roll and punk, they give out a crackling energy that can't help but suck you in - half and hour of sheer joy and riot. Girls Names, however, following on from them are more gloriously progressive in the way they string out their instrumental parts around a tense, wire-strung background. Celebratory and threatening in equal measures, one of Girls Names strengths is that they don't quite fall into any easily described category. They're post-punk at times, joyous pop melodies at other times. Heavy and threatening on occasions, switching swiftly to jangly indie-pop at others. Live, they are perfectly in tune and with one of 2013's best albums behind them in The New Life, they are surely perfectly placed to conquer bigger stages than this in the years to come.
The rain is steadily falling now as we pick our way over to Roy Harper - alone on stage and looking like some denim-clad prophet as he alternatively coaxes and beats the most wonderful acoustic sounds out of his acoustic guitar. Full of tales, reminiscences and bonhomie in between songs, it contrasts perfectly with the spit and fury of the songs themselves. 'I Hate the White Man' remains one of the most singular expressions of modern cultural disgust in the contemporary music canon, while 'Me and My Woman' totters back-and-forth between love and hate. But it's the closing track that truly brings the crowd to its knees - a glorious and poignant rendition of 'When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease' that leaves many in the crowd (myself included) glad that the rain is there to hide the otherwise unmistakable tears. Quite beautiful and a genuine joy to be in the presence of such a legend.
Low's first piece of magic is to bring out the sun through the crowds, to deafening applause during their opening 'On My Own'. Alan Sparhawk is in especially good form today with his hypnotic guitar patterns and frequently breaking into smiles mid-song. Mimi's voice is perfect and their versions of 'Monkey', 'Murderer' and 'Witches' are quite magnificent. That said, nothing all day can rival their version of 'Especially Me' which ring out with golden majesty across the fields as I wait for more rain to hide the emotion in my eyes. An remarkable band.
John Cale's follow-on set seems a slight anti-climax in some respects, given that it's really too early for people to fully engage with the depth and intensity of his music. That said, it's an absolute thrill to see such a living legend on stage and his voice remains as beguiling and rich as ever, as does his peerless musicianship. Already though, we're getting in a good position (i.e. right at the front of the stage and in front of the speakers) for The Horrors. Who yet again, are absolutely magnificent. Opening track 'Mirror's Image' shimmers in its kaleidoscopic majesty, 'Who Can Say' pummels your emotions with Phil Spector's mixing desk and 'Sea Within a Sea' remains one of the most remarkable closing tracks of the past decade. And then there's 'Still Life' - still magnificent and euphoric even after one hundred listens. But that's when it gets interesting as they finally play a new track - titled 'Elixir Spring'. It's quite possibly their most psychedelic and musically experimental track to date, hinting at UFO Club era Pink Floyd in its experimentation but retaining the muscle and forcefulness of their Primary Colours era, anchored by a tremendous bassline. They close with a jaw-dropping 15 minute rendition of 'Moving Further Away', dragging the song through every possible avenue before finishing with an explosive, ear-shattering climax. An astonishing band who simply seem to get better with every passing month. To say we're excited for the new record is like saying opening batsmen quite like scoring runs. We. Cannot. Wait. This is when plans go wonderfully awry. Half of our group head to see Allah-Lahs while we initially entertain the prospect of going to watch Villagers. Midway across the site, however we become somewhat distracted by the Ferris Wheel and find ourselves on top of this yelling out Arrested Development quotes at the top of our lungs. Somewhat surprisingly, we meet a like-minded and friendly bunch who join us in a bout of chicken dancing before announcing that they are heading across to see Band of Horses on the main stage. Having seen them somewhat underwhelm at Leeds 2010, I'm initially unsure but within seconds of the opening 'The Great Salt Lake', I'm completely sold. Put simply, they are absolutely magnificent tonight, putting together a career-spanning set including brutal versions of 'Cigarettes, Wedding Bands' and 'Ode to LRC', along with the most beautifully tender version of 'No One's Gonna Love You' that you could ever hope to hear. 'Laredo', 'Compliments', 'Knock Knock' and 'Infinite Arms' come across with far more conviction that on record and the band themselves seem stunned at the reception they get: thankful and beaming on stage. We even get a superb cover of Neil Young's 'Powderfinger' which my friend Dan somehow manages to telekinetically guess before they even play a single note. Finally, a gorgeous a cappella opening to 'The Funeral' (with the band all crowded around one microphone) then explodes into joyous tumult to finally close out a set that may have initially promised little, but ended up delivering on every conceivable level. A brilliant example of how a band can step up to the headline plate and totally convince the doubters. Stunning.
As the rain falls heavier, we couldn't care less as we lose ourselves in the Walled Garden to Heavenly Jukebox's DJ set until gone 4am, dancing to Jackie Wilson, classic soul and Motown and a perfectly-timed spin of Fleetwood Mac's 'Dreams' - the line of "Thunder only happens when it's raining" making perfect sense as we dance in the torrential downpour. None of us care less. A wonderful day.
The final day of the festival sees the deluge that turned the site into a mudbath on Saturday relent, but there was no relenting in terms of the quality of the festival's line-up, even if a slow start afforded time to again visit the nearby town of Crickhowell and indulge in a spot of Sunday lunch and Premier League action.
The one-two punch of British Sea Power and Swans in the Far Out tent is as worthy a festival closer as one could hope for, with the former treating the crowd to a near-as-dammit greatest hits set and "the world's loudest band"... doing almost the opposite. British Sea Power have cemented their reputation as England's last great cult band, and although this status is in part built on the whimsy of their reference-laden lyrics and the eccentricity of their merchandise selection (Tea towels? Check. Mugs? Check. Kendal mint cake? Check) it is mainly due to their live performances. A whirlwind of flora and fauna are whipped up as band members stage dive and a giant polar bear patrols the crowd, but central to it all are pulsating versions of singles like 'Carrion' and perennial festival favourite 'Waving Flags' combined with audience requests of rarer tracks. What puts British Sea Power above bands who utilise so many gimmicks is the fact that they need none of them; strip everything away bar the instruments and you would still have an unmissable live act.
The same is true of Swans. The menacing six-piece are delayed by the clear-up of the preceding bands' stage clear-up and waste no time with introductions, launching straight into the as-yet unreleased 'To Be Kind'. In their three decades of existence Swans have morphed from industrial-doom to post-punk to primal post-rock and finally into what they are now; folk-rock for the Armageddon. They are as heavy and as loud as ever, but now there is much more of an emphasis on story-telling; on letting things breathe, even if the audience feel like they are drawing their last breath. The first hit of 'To Be Kind' is like a Tyson body-blow, and causes a good 10% of the first couple of rows to run for cover. At time their soundscapes can be compared to Neurosis or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but really there is no-one like Swans, particularly live. Their performances are experiences - and life-changing ones at that - and as the Green Man effigy begins to burn an end-of-the-world soundtrack to the close of one of the best festivals on it. Genuinely striking in terms of both musical quality, ambiance and the sheer friendliness and joy of the crowd, it's safe to see we'll be making the trip to Glanusk next August. An incredible weekend with a unique palate of music and a crowd of truly beautiful people.
David Edwards & Jordan Dowling
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