Over the last few years the Latitude and End of the Road festivals have become firm fixtures in the summer for me and my friend Jon – and assorted family members and friends. Essential moments in the year. But in recent years there has been another festival whose line up we have looked at admiringly when it is announced – Green Man. Located in the Brecon Beacons in Wales, it has a reputation not only for booking an array of excellent bands, but for the beauty of its setting and the relaxed vibe. If we were to go to a third festival, we often said, it would have to be Green Man.
So, after years of hesitation, we took the plunge and headed west down the M4 to South Wales. Jon’s son Louis and his girlfriend Gabrielle came with us. Being west Londoners, the journey was pretty straightforward – it takes ten minutes to get on the motorway. And in Wales, when we headed north into the mountains towards Crickhowell, the nearest town to the festival, the scenery was stunning. The views over the valleys from the hilltop moorlands were especially breathtaking.
Green Man puts more of a show on Thursday evening than Latitude or EOTR. And it opens its gates on Monday for those hardy people who fancy a full week of camping. The site is alongside the River Usk, and there are plenty of outdoor pursuits for those so inclined. Jon and I took a walk along the Usk on the Saturday morning in the sunshine and it was really very beautiful. I mentioned sunshine there. After our rather damp experience in Edinburgh last week, we were eyeing the weather forecast nervously. Friday was looking bad. And so it proved. The rain fell for most of the day, until about 9 o’clock. A large bank of mist sat on top of the Black Mountains and there was very little wind to move it. It felt like we were in the cloud as the rain swept down, at varying intensity throughout the day. The music kept us going, but it was an endurance test at times. And it meant that attendances were rather skewed: artists low on the card on the second venue, the tented Far Out Stage, were probably rather surprised at the size of their audience, while those on the main, Mountain Stage looked out on a bedraggled throng filling only about half the arena. It was such a relief when, halfway through Stealing Sheep’s performance at the Walled Garden, the clouds thinned and the rain ceased. The mood lifted for the rest of the evening. And the rest of the weekend was rather nice, save for a couple of showers on Sunday morning before festivities began. Writing now, the Friday weather just seems like a bad dream, outweighed by the great music from start to finish.
There are four main music stages at Green Man: the Mountain Stage which is the main one and has a beautiful backdrop of the Black Mountains. Second is the tented Far Out Stage. Then comes the Walled Garden, which is walled and is probably a garden the rest of the year; and finally the Rising Stage, which is tucked away in the trees, and by a small lake, not far from the Mountain Stage. It’s a lovely setting, but it’s hard to get a decent view unless you are in the dip near the front; and the sound seemed a bit under-powered all weekend. So, in the end I didn’t go there quite as much as planned.
Thursday 15 August
The best band I saw this evening was the first, audiobooks. I knew nothing about the band, except for the one track I’d heard on Green Man’s excellent Spotify playlist, “Gothenburg”. Audiobooks are an unlikely looking pairing: a young singer, Evangeline Ling, and an older man, David Wrench, on keyboards who resembled the 70s guitarist Johnny Winters. They made an interesting combination, with David banging out some angular beats and rhythms – some in the Kraftwerk style, others fit for the dancefloor – while Evangeline declaimed in short, sharp bursts. All rather intriguing.
We stayed for a couple more acts in the Far Out tent: Bodega (whom we saw at Latitude in 2018 and enjoyed) and These New Puritans, whose heyday was about ten years ago. Both were heavy on beats and a bit lacking in variation. Later I enjoyed watched Pictish Trail in the Walled Garden. Led by Johnny Lynch, a resident of the Isle of Eigg in Scotland, they are apparently regulars at Green Man. They played a likeable mix of folk and pop with a touch of dance and some big guitars in what Johnny jokingly described as his Embrace songs.
A gentle introduction to the ways of Green Man.
Friday 16 August
The music began just after midday with Jerry, the winners of the Green Man Rising competition for new bands, the finals of which take place at the Lexington in London before a host of record company A&R people. Whether they are the best people to decide, I’m sceptical, as there tends to be a bit of a herd instinct. So, indie with jerky beats and shouty vocals are quite in at the moment, it seems. Duds, Squid, Working Men’s Club – all good – fit that bill, and the influence of the Gang of Four looms large. Jerry were very much in that vein. They were good, though, and I hope they do well.
Over then to the Rising Stage for Canadian folkies Mama’s Broke. Two women, playing guitar, violin and banjo in a traditional style. From what I could hear, they were rather good. But the sound system didn’t carry the full impact. I’d like to see them in a pub or similar venue where the depth of their songs could come across much more effectively. From there it was to the Walled Garden for Penelope Isles. I didn’t know the band’s music although I remembered their name from a previous festival. I really liked it – one of the discoveries of the festival for me. Initially their songs were Americana-style, but as the show progressed they became a dreamier pop; and then by the end the guitars had really kicked in and we had crescendos that reminded us of the War on Drugs and even Mogwai. The Beths from New Zealand were next, on the Far Out Stage. The tent was packed because of the rain – I doubt the Beths are well-known enough to manage that otherwise. They play breezy punk-pop – as I watched, I thought Alvvays meets the Ramones. Which is not a bad combination.
There was no escape now from the rain out at the Mountain Stage, for three unmissable acts. First was Julia Jacklin, whose album “Crushing” is one of my favourites of the year. It’s an album of subdued beauty, reflecting a stage in Julia’s life when she had broken up with her long term boyfriend. There’s a theme about her body and how she’s reclaiming it that runs through a lot of the songs, including the album and set opener, “Body”. It’s a powerful song, but a slow burner, and didn’t exactly get the crowd going in the rain. There were more upbeat moments (musically if not lyrically) like “Pool Party”, “Red Light” and “Pressure to Party”; but for me the highlight was three wonderful songs in the middle of the set: the aching blues of “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You”, the anguish of “Turn Me Down” and the heartfelt paean to family, “Don’t Let the Kids Win”. Wonderful and moving. Tears in the rain.
I popped over next to catch a bit of Molly Payton at the Rising Stage. Electric guitar and a strident voice: I was reminded a little of Julienne Baker in recent times and Patti Smith from further back. I’ll be interested to hear her recorded work. Then it was back to the Mountain Stage for Whitney. What a joyful, uplifting sound they make! A beacon of brightness in the rainy gloom. They played a fair bit of new material from the forthcoming album, and it sounded good. Continuing in that crisp, melodic vein which reminds me of early Van Morrison. Julian Erlich was his usual ebullient self, centre stage on the drums, singing in his effortless falsetto. And, third last song, the Whitney anthem, “No Woman”. Everyone singing along in the rain. One of the festival highlights.
A big one for Jon, Louis and Gab next: Fat White Family. I still don’t really warm to their recorded music, which I find a bit self-indulgent and tuneless. But live they are a phenomenon. The rain kept singer Lias Saoudi from crowd-surfing quite as much as he did at End of the Road last year – and he kept his clothes on! But the beats were as strident as ever, the guitars twanged and the sax screeched and the crowd responded accordingly. My companions declared it the highlight of the festival, and many would agree. Suitably exhilarated we wandered over to the Walled Garden, where Stealing Sheep were part way into their set. We got there in time for the bouncy “Jokin’ Me” which I rather like. Most of the set was in similar vein – more dancey than I expected. There was an enthusiastic crowd, which became even happier when the rain stopped! In future years, we’ll be asking where were you when the rain stopped at Green Man? Tapping a toe to Stealing Sheep…
The Walled Garden was where I stayed for the rest of the evening. Next on was Bill Ryder-Jones, once of Liverpool band The Coral. I like what I’ve heard of his 2018 album “Yawn” but have never properly explored his music. On this showing I must. I loved this performance: that combination of Mersey-tinged melodies and the mellifluous and soaring guitars, where Bill is accompanied by his modest lead guitarist “Liam”, who crouches in the corner, letting his guitar do the talking. Bill does plenty of talking anyway, with a spiky Scouse humour. A bit of a revelation for me, this one. Ex-Re, the new vehicle for Daughter’s singer and guitarist Elena Tonra, finished off proceedings. I love the song “Crushing”, which has a rumble and power that is reminiscent of PJ Harvey. She played that early on, after a couple of solo efforts, with gentle backing from the drummer. After that, the music was atmospheric if a little indistinguishable. Elena, despite being the star, stuck resolutely to one side, determined not to dominate proceedings. I assumed she was just trying to avoid too much limelight, after the success (and no doubt pressure) of Daughter. But “Ex-Re” is another big break-up album, which may help to explain the ambiguity. A luminous moon peeped through the remaining clouds as she sang – the perfect accompaniment. Light emerging through the dark.
Saturday 17 August
A lovely and rain-free day. I’m not naturally an early riser, but the combination of the heat inside the tent when the sun shines, the increasing noise and the desire to avoid the queue for a shower meant I was up by 7.30 every day. Jon and I decided to make the most of the weather and the beauty of the surrounding countryside by going for a walk along the River Usk, in the direction of Crickhowell. An unusual and enjoyable experience at a music festival. All of our festivals are in lovely settings, but I think Green Man has to take first prize, with the looming Black Mountains in the background. There are a few photos at the end of the blog.
Inevitably, with the weather so nice, the first two bands we saw were in the Far Out tent! Modern Nature is an offshoot of a band called Ultimate Painting, whom Jon was very keen on. The vehicle of Jack Cooper, the band’s music has a subdued darkness which erupts into forceful beats and guitar outbursts from time to time. There’s some eerie sax too, and I was reminded of Joy Division, Low and even early Roxy Music. Think of the amazing “Ladytron” as an example of the latter. The discovery of the festival for me. They were followed by the intriguing Jockstrap. Terrible name – unless it is meant to be. And I think it probably is. I’d heard a couple of the band’s songs, which were the ones with a bit of a 60s film music and samba feel. Live there were all sorts of things going on, led by singer and violinist Georgia Ellery and keyboard player Taylor Skye. Bright leisure wear was the order of the day, with Georgia wearing one of Barcelona’s lurid orange tracksuit tops when she came on. This was dots and loops music – essentially electronic, though you never knew what was going to pop up next. There were flutes, cowbells, violins, jumpy guitars. Georgia’s vocals were a series of intermittent squeaks and shrieks. The band struck me as accomplished musicians having a bit of fun; and on reading about them I see that they went to Guildhall School of Music. I’ll be interested to hear an album’s worth of their music – a 10cc or Stereolab for our times, perhaps.
Stella Donnelly is an artist I’ve wanted to see for a while. An Aussie singer-songwriter, pals with Julia Jacklin, with a sound that reminded me more of, say, Snail Mail or Soccer Mommy than Julia. There’s a lo-fi brightness to it, complemented by her breezy vocals. She’s known too for her biting lyrics and humour with which she introduces her songs. All of that was present in her show on the Mountain Stage. She really engaged the audience and had a few things to say about society and the state of the world. Her flagship song is “Boys will be Boys”, which is about a sexual assault that a friend of hers experienced. She made a point, too, of dedicating the song to the many “gentle men” she knew. Pop music tends to oversimplify matters by its very nature; Stella Donnelly manages to balance things while remaining catchy.
There’s a bit of a jazz revival going on at the moment – not that jazz ever goes away, but the media see a new movement. It’s one that combines some relentless beats and rampant sax breaks. Green Man had three of the bands getting the most publicity: Sons of Kemet, The Comet is Coming and Ezra Collective. Sons of Kemet were on the Mountain Stage after Stella Donnelly. I only caught about twenty minutes of their set while I had something to eat, but I was really impressed by the way their sound – the rhythms and the hammering sax of Shabaka Hutchings, who also plays in The Comet is Coming – filled the arena and got a lot of people dancing. After that I went over for Tiny Ruins at the Walled Garden. They are a New Zealand modern folk band. I’ve liked their music since I first saw them at End of the Road last year. Their latest album “Olympic Girls” has an understated beauty. Understated is a good word to describe Tiny Ruins and it didn’t quite work for me this time. There was an alternative at the Far Out tent, which I’d planned to see some of anyway: A Certain Ratio. A post-punk band from the 80s who had a strong element of funk in their sound. And they still do. There was something very impressive about their show, and it was the funk. An 80s indie jagged kind of funk. And it still sounded good. It included a cover of the Talking Heads’ “House in Motion” which was a highlight.
Back to the Mountain Stage after that, for one of my anticipated highlights of the weekend, the wonderful Big Thief. Singer Adrienne Lenker decided to don an orange/pink wig and a moustache for reasons she no doubt could explain. The wig came off during a huge guitar thrash on a new song about half way through the set. The moustache was painted on, so it stayed. They played a set that mixed some of their great songs like “Masterpiece”, “Paul”, “Shark Smile” and “Mythological Beauty”; a few off this year’s album “UFOF”, including the popular “Cattails” and a lovely “Orange”, which is Adrienne solo; and some new ones which I presume will be on the second album of 2019 which comes out in October. A great show, which demonstrated how they blend folk, Americana, some burst of wild guitar and touch of Radiohead to such great effect. One of the best bands around and well-received by the crowd.
Next on the Mountain Stage were Stereolab. I used to like their mix of electronics, Latin beats and French crooning – courtesy of singer Laetitia Sadier – in the 1990s. “Dots and Loops” (1997) was my favourite album and “Brakhage” my favourite song, so I was delighted they started with that. They played it faster than the recorded version, and that was a theme of their performance: faster and rockier. It worked well as darkness fell. A captivating show.
The choice of headliner to watch was Four Tet on the Mountain Stage or Car Seat Headrest on the Far Out stage. I had to choose Car Seat Headrest. The others chose Four Tet! (Jon did come to a bit of CSH in fairness). Will Toledo’s band are so good live: great indie slacker tunes, lacerating guitars and some of the best choruses around. As I’m writing I’m thinking this may have been the best show I’ve yet seen; but then again the first time, at Manchester Gorilla in 2017 was a revelation and the Roundhouse in 2018 was an absolute triumph. End of the Road in 2017 was awesome too. And the song that draws all of these experiences together is the mighty “Drunk Driver/ Killer Whale”. A total anthem, the best singalong I know. And it was the centrepiece tonight, followed by the almost-as-good “Destroyed by Hippie Powers”. I just love both of those songs and sang along with everyone else. My most exhilarating moment of the weekend.
But it wasn’t the end, because The Comet is Coming were on for a late night slot, just as they were at Latitude on the Sunday. I didn’t stay for the whole hour this time, as it started at 12.30 and I needed to pace myself just a bit, but I had to see the first half to experience their extraordinary performance of “Summon the Fire” again. What an incredible slug of music, with the saxophone of Shabaka Hutchings a wonder to behold. It was followed by a composition with a reggae dub bassline that gave it a real groove. After that I called it a day, but what an end to an amazing day!
Sunday 18 August
It’s always nice to start Sunday with a bit of chill-out music. Pianist James Heather seemed to fit the bill, judging by the lovely tune on the Green Man Spotify playlist, “Last Minute Change of Heart”. The blurb likened him to Nils Frahm, amongst others, which seemed a good recommendation. It was relaxing 45 minutes, as James created his mellow soundscapes. He had just the single Yamaha keyboard, with which he created layers of sound, but no Nils Frahm pyrotechnics. He introduced his songs with a modesty and wonder at having made it to the Far Out Stage, having attended Green Man as a fan for many years. A pleasant start to the day.
We went over to the Rising Stage for a bit of noise after that, with Wych Elm, a young band from Bristol. They weren’t as loud as one might have expected, given the Rising Stage acoustics, but I liked their energy and sound, which was reminiscent at times of Nirvana, though there were hints of My Blood Valentine too. I’d like to see them in a venue like the Lexington in London, where I think they could make a real impression. Next on the agenda was Yak, back at the Far Out Stage, but on the way I stopped to listen to Foxwarren on the Mountain Stage for a while. They hail from Manitoba in Canada, and play melodious Americana. They didn’t have a lot of stage presence – on that big stage, anyway – but I think they’d be good to listen to at home. Yak gave me another dose of noise, which was in relatively short supply over the weekend (partly through choice – I skipped Pigs x 7 for Julia Jacklin). Main man Oliver Burslem played some dynamic guitar and the bassist laid down an insistent beat. Nothing out of this world, but they have a good live sound with a punk spirit.
Then came what proved to be my favourite show of the weekend: Aldous Harding on the Mountain Stage. Late afternoon, in front of a big crowd, with the sun shining. Quite a contrast to the last time I saw her, at Manchester Gorilla in 2017, where the crowd watched in rapt silence as Aldous spun her weird and subtle spells. Her new album “Designer” is one of the best of the year – not quite as odd as its predecessor “Party”, but still richly eccentric amid the beauty of the melodies. So how would she gain the attention of the festival crowd? In her perverse way, by starting with two solo acoustic pieces from “Party”. But a strange thing happened: people listened. And as the show progressed the crowd was the quietest I’ve seen at this sort of event. There are usually loads of people talking, laughing, doing everything but listen to the music. But Aldous Harding captivated the audience. It might partly have been the strange expressions she treated us to on the screens, as she sat in her chair for the most part, closely surrounded by her band. Or it might just have been the beguiling music and her arresting voice, which moves from high-pitched warble to sultry torch singing in an instant. The songs were mostly off the new album, and highlights for me were “Designer”, “The Barrel” and “Zoo Eyes” – Why, what am I doing in Dubai? And I got one of my favourite songs off “Party” near the end: “Blend”, in which she’s in Thailand rather than Dubai! The quality of the music was astonishing too – Steely Dan class.
Of course she finished the set not with something familiar like “Fixture Picture” (my favourite song on “Designer”) or “Living the Classics”, but a new one. But that’s Aldous Harding for you: predictably unpredictable. And totally engrossing. I think a lot of people in the crowd shared my feelings.
Things were really on a roll now. I went up to the Far Out tent to see a bit of Ezra Collective. The third of that jazz triumvirate. The one I knew least. But how good were they? Amazing. They had those big beats, but extra variety, with some great interplay between sax and trumpet. They ran the gamut of jazzy funk and dance sounds. It took me back to the 90s and the Acid Jazz/Rebirth of Cool era. I absolutely loved it, but was faced with a dilemma: do I stay till the end or get back to the Mountain Stage for the start of Sharon van Etten? I plumped for Sharon, as she is one of my favourites, but I will have to see Ezra Collective again. Sharon played a similar set to the one I’d seen her perform at the Roundhouse back in March – a little shorter given the time limit, but based on the new, rockier album “Remind Me Tomorrow”. It’s a great album, and very powerful live. There were a few old favourites too, like “Tarifa”, “Serpents” and, of course, “Every Time the Sun Comes Up”. New songs like “Comeback Kid” and “Seventeen” stand tall with those. Two of my favourites were slower moments: the closing song, “Stay” which is beautifully plaintive; and an emotional “I Told You Everything” which she dedicated to her partner back in the US, looking after her young child. Her voice trembled as she talked about that. Music and touring is her living and her choice; but it doesn’t stop the heartache of being away from your loved ones for weeks, months at a time. A moving moment in an uplifting show.
So, the battle of the headliners again: Father John Misty on the Mountain Stage or Idles in the Far Out tent? Well, it had to be Idles, such was the anticipation. Jon and I got there quite early, to make sure we got a half-decent view. Louis and Gab caught a bit of Father John Misty first. And there was a buzz already – every sound check received a big cheer. The band came on to a rapturous reception, like it was some sort of homecoming. And thus began an hour and a quarter of relentless riffing, chanting, crowd surfing, flashing lights and sermonising from singer Joe Talbot. A sensory overload. I recognised two songs: “Mother” and “Danny Nedelko”, which I like. The rest was a blur of thunderous noise and pounding beats. The crowd seemed to know all the words – Idles have become heroes. But it was a bit too much for me (I have seen them three times before, by the way, so I knew what I was in for). I was determined to stick it out, out of solidarity more than anything, but it was a bit of an endurance test. It was one of those am I getting too old for this? moments. They are mercifully rare, but Idles tested my limits. I’m not dissing them – they are at their peak and create an excitement which was probably unmatched anywhere else during the festival. But I think they need to be a bit careful about self-indulgence – both the endless crowd-surfing, during which not much else happens, and Joe’s proselytising. Louis may well disagree!
And that was it – not quite. In the grounds outside the Far Out tent there stood the Green Man – a rather spooky-looking oversized scarecrow. It was time to burn it to the ground. Thousands of people assembled for the annual ritual. It was like some kind of pagan festival – it is probably derived from one. The flames shot up and the Green Man crumbled, leaving only its skeleton. And then the fireworks began. A spectacular show. We all love a bonfire and a fireworks display don’t we?
There was just one last thing to do after that: sample a bit of the Deptford Northern Soul Club, which was on until three in the morning in the Walled Garden. I got myself a glass of wine – I was lagered out, and it had run out anyway – and headed down to the venue. There were a good few hundred people there. And what a lot of fun it was: loads of those not-so-obscure Northern Soul classics, interspersed with a few Motown favourites. Impossible not to move your feet to that lot! I washed the brutish Idles from my soul and danced. Well, you know, shook a leg while watching other people get down until it started to rain at about 1.30. That was my excuse to get back to the tent, with a 6am wake-up call in prospect. The end, but what a good end!
Green Man was the business.
Views from around the site
The Green Man site is in the River Usk valley, surrounded by the Black Mountains. It’s a spectacular scene and gives the festival some of its special quality. Here are a few of the shots I took. They were mostly with the iPhone and hastily snapped, but hopefully give you an idea of what a lovely place it is.
The next few are on Thursday before proceedings began.
Next three are around the Rising stage. A lovely space, though not ideal for the music when a lot of people turned up. Last shot was when Molly Payton was playing in the rain.
A few from our walk along the river.
Beers in the rain!