The Flaming Lips, Joanna Newsom, Beirut, Steve Mason, Islet - Green Man Festival 2010 Review
Owain Paciuszko 23/08/2010
Setting off before noon on Thursday morning I successfully managed to navigate us the wrong way within the first ten miles, involving the first of two (within the first hour of driving) 180 degree turns in order to get back on route. Regardless, a few hours, one service station stop and a quick stock take at Abergavenny's Waitrose later we rolled up to the green fields of Brecon Beacon's Glanusk Park for the eighth annual Green Man festival.
Friday 20th August
Waking up bright and early the following day to make the most of the myriad delicious breakfast options, the Thali Cafe provided the first, I eavesdropped on the sounds of Green Poll Winners The Dufflefolks who don't, as their name might suggest, make rampantly twee folk, instead they kind of deliver a slightly soggy, restrained Nizlopi-like ambient-folk. It was somewhat underwhelming, though not a disastrous start to the festival, which, at this point, fizzled teasingly with light rain.
Over at the Far Out tent Plank began playing a set of Mathy, instrumental alterna-indie, that didn't really grab my attention, so I decided to amble over to the Green Man Pub, have my first fantastic pint of Green Man Growler and check out Hail! The Planes. who reminded me a little of Haunted Stereo but lacking their knack for a truly beautiful arrangment. Scurrying eagerly back to the Main Stage I caught a lot of the setting up for Spencer McGarry Season though the results didn't quite pop as much as the super-expansive musical arrangment should have allowed; taking in, as it did, a mighty looking grand piano, flapper girl backing singers, a white fur coated bass player and brass section. Back at the Far Out Matthew & The Atlas weren't exactly doing much with their set up, delivering decent folk-rock that ticked all the boxes but little else.
Fortunately The Wave Pictures delivered a set filled with great tunes and humour, taking requests from the crowd, and performing such tunes as I Love You Like A Madman with croaky passion. Some kind of delay in travel meant that Mountain Man couldn't meet his intended time-slot (and I'm oblivious as to whether he played at all!), he was replaced by Sweet Baboo who was fresh from providing guitar for Spencer McGarry Season, and allegedly a bit 'twated' so 'no fasties', instead delivering a set of his wonderfully arch folk-ballads, with his humour and personality charming the receptive and welcoming crowd.
For some reason I wandered over to the Far Out to watc Chew Lips and was apathetically unimpressed by their electro-pop something, drifting into the immediate background of my consciousness. I endured them though because I was keen to see/hear Sleepy Sun who delivered a meaty and entertaining slice of folk-rock that kind of married Fairport Convention and Led Zeppelin, if such a union is conceivable. Beyond that though there was one reason I was loitering with intent around the Far Out and he was on next...
Steve Mason took to the stage, acoustic guitar in hand and surprised me by breaking out a stripped bare version of The Beta Band's Dr. Baker. Whether Mason has been opposed to playing these old tunes, since the band's sad demise in 2004, I don't know, but I wasn't really expecting to hear any considering the wealth of great material on his more recent solo projects (King Biscuit Time and Black Gold); currently he's performing under, as you may have guessed, his own name with a critically acclaimed record Boys Outside out. I haven't heard any of this new record, but from the set he played it's as consistently great and unmistakably, ahem, Masonic as his other work. What really slapped a big fat grin onto my stupid face though was after finishing his final tune he urged the drummer down from his perch and instructed him on how to play a little riff on the bongos, whispering information to his two other band mates before performing a soaring, glorious rendition of Dry The Rain which had the entire, rapturous audience singing along joyfully. Undoubtedly the festival highpoint for me.
On the Main Stage Beirut played a fine set of his most familiar tunes with Nantes and Postcards From Italy being the kind of obvious, cliche highlights. After a spot of aimless wandering in the rain the first night was over.
Saturday 21st August
As I wandered into the arena early-ish on Saturday morning I commented that I could see some of The Flaming Lips stage gear already set up, this was followed by breakfast at the Shisha Lounge, when halfway through plates of scrambled egg and beans we heard the beginning vocals of The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song. Confused, it took us a few moments to realise what was happning and carry our plates and coffee out towards the sunny arena where, sure enough, The Flaming Lips performed an unexpected rendition of their world-leader bashing, cartoon-pop anthem to a bewildered gaggle of people. Once the song was over they bid us good day and wandered off stage. Now, that's the perfect way to start your day.
Unfortunately it meant that El Goodo had to follow that, their brand of slightly glum sixties influenced pop-rock didn't really do the job and, besides, I had set my sights firmly on being at the Far Out for the opening act at half past.
At twenty nine minutes past there were strange yelps and hollers moving through the crowd, people looked around wondering where the frazzled, spaced out drunkard was, instead finding Mark from Islet beginning their set in particularly provocative and lo-fi avant-garde fashion. There's nothing gimmicky about their stage craft though, clearly the four members of Islet and unashamedly, honestly and expressively performing their music with absolute freedom, and it translates well into their - occasionally repetitive - sound, with some songs - especially closer We Shall Visit - bouldering into an almost unstoppable squall of relentlessly danceable and erratic noise.
In contrast to their thundering clamour of sound was the Nick Drake-like acoustic charm of The Gentle Good, who I've seen quite a few times in various places - including last time I was at Green Man - and he's consistently on form with his combination of quality song-writing and simple storytelling. I then heard the end of Wolf People, but can't really tell you much about what that was like... Not sure if I should begin a count of how much cider/Growler had entered my system at this point. I watched the whole of Egyptian Hip Hop and inbetween debating the potential cynicism people may be having towards a band comprised entirely of 17 year olds, I was impressed by their interesting and diversely derivative sound, taking in the likes of Joy Division via The Cure.
Besnard Lakes were absolutely brilliant on the Main Stage, and followed by Fanfarlo, which is where my daytime memory starts to wander... Shockingly, we have to hop, skip and jump forwards in time to the return of The Flaming Lips, which featured all the pyrotechnics and theatricality that people have come to expect; crowd zorbing, giant laser hands, Wayne Coyne singing from the back of a man dressed as a bear. But it was a little lacking in the musical department; sure, they did a great version of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, a stonking She Don't Use Jelly, a gleeful sing-a-long of I Can Be A Frog and the absolute highlight being an extended and bittersweet Do You Realize?, but there were a few too many extended wig-outs that didn't quite deliver.
Sunday 22nd August
Feeling a bit guilty for my Saturday amnesia Sunday was the almost tee-total day, with one glass of wine consumed in amongst cups of tea, coffee and chai. Musically things began with Message For Bears which kind of lumbered into the same camp as Matthew & The Atlas, file under so-so folk. Things got worse over at the Green Man Pub stage once Brigyn finally got started, the only band I've seen at a festival thus far that seem like they're miming to a backing track, their pop was too processed and felt very out of place even when I wandered over into the path of Darwin Deez at the main stage, I can only assume this act was booked for very small children, or maybe I'm just a grumpy bastard, but I thought it was absolutely atrocious and if there was any irony in their 'dance' asides it was definitely lost on me.
Fortunately things had picked up back at the Far Out with Je Suis Animal enhancing their rollicking folk-rock with bizarre and bewitching silent movie visuals, the sound and vision didn't exactly coalesce, but I came away with a desire to watch more black and white experimental cinema and at least check out the band's MySpace, so, win/win. Lone Wolf was afterwards and somewhat bland, his brand of folk-pop just kind of passed me by. Decided to check out Field Music on the Main Stage, primarily because I'd seen their name on lots of posters on the underground (Advertising: It Works), but knew nothing of their sound; alas they really didn't float my boat either and fortunately I made it back to the Far Out to catch almost all of Megafaun who were absolutely fantastic, performing with passion, energy and infectious enthusiasm, peppering their songs with wit and getting the audience to sing-a-long again and again, prompting a huge reception and the three bandmates looking genuinely humbled as they left the stage to thunderous applause.
Bear In Heaven afterwards was different, somewhere between Scissor Sisters and Casiontone for the Painfully Alone, his voice was particularly impressive even when the synth-driven music blurred. Still, his vocals mixed elegantly with the drumming consistently delivering something at least toe-tapping. I decided to hang around and give The Tallest Man on Earth a second chance after being incredibly underwhelmed by him at End of the Road last year, and again I just felt like there was some information I hadn't been privvy to. To me, he just seems like another man with a guitar singer slightly bitter sounding acoustic-folk-rock, but audibly there's a section of the audience that adores him, and that's fine, but I honestly just don't get it!
I heard the end of Mumford and Sons from the Thali Cafe whilst eating, and they were as dependable as one might expect from festival stalwarts 'done good'. Impatiently, whilst awaiting Tindersticks we decided to amble into the Comedy Tent and saw fantastic sets by the likes of Ed Gamble and Henry Widdicombe, before headliner Josie Long delivered a distracted, giddy and wonderful set which was momentarily interrupted by someone passing out.
The final Main Stage headliner of the weekend was Joanna Newsom and the audience were held rapt and silent by her technically incredible and sumptuously arranged set, it was thrilling just watching the supremely talented musicians around her perform their intricately layered pieces. Sometimes the songs meandered and fell foul of sounding a bit 'samey', but a few tunes really worked wonders and fully deserved both the hushed reverance and almighty applause that they earned (and I say all that as someone who isn't a Newsom fan).
It was an excellent choice of closing act by the organisers over a weekend that had been a little dependable rather than exciting, sure there were a few bands that grabbed the attention and demand further investigation, but a lot of the treats came from surprises by known names. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that and the weekend was consistently enjoyable even when the music wavered, indeed, there's so much more atmosphere and fun than I can either (a) fit into this write-up or (b) find suitable words for. I eagerly await the next time I get to go to Green Man, I'm amazed at how intimate the festival still feels even at 10,000 capacity and the diverse collection of other cultural frolics and delicious food (honourable mentions to the psychedelic comedy nightmare of Granny's Cafe and a brilliant lecture I saw someone deliver on the brain using a jelly) means that Green Man is undoubtedly deserving of its reputation as one of the greatest festivals in the world.