Wilco, Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, Phantom Band, Sibrydion - Green Man Festival 09
Michael James Hall 30/08/2009
Green Man Festival- 21/22/23 August 2009
Brecon Beacons, Wales
In its seventh year the little festival that could sees its capacity further increased, its site extended and the reach of its musical scope broadened, pushing past the boundaries of what you might broadly call 'folk' to offer a festival-going experience genuinely unlike any other. Plus it doesn't rain as much as it normally does.
Before getting to the talent it's worth noting that, music aside, the main draw here is the festival's idyllic country setting, unbelievably helpful staff and, without wanting to sound like a tree hugging bitch, the incredible sense of joyous community that infects the atmosphere throughout.
This, then, is the antithesis of the corporate violence-fests of Reading/Leeds and more importantly the date-coinciding, 'V', or 'Virgin Media Sales Conference Middle Management Coffee Table Car Park-Fest' as we call it round our ends.
No branding, no sponsorship and no hard sell - the only ads in sight are those for festival partner MIND, the mental health charity.
It's essentially a blissful experience and one organisers Jo and Danny should be immensely proud of.
And so to the rock and indeed roll:
DOLLBOY kicks things off in the Far Out Tent with a set of dreamy but derivative folktronica drawn from his recent 'Beard of Bees' record - these driftaway tunes are lighter than air and perfectly compliment the arrival of the sun.
Back at the main stage 6 DAY RIOT splash out exuberant daubs of strings, ska beats and jaunty, jumping tunes in the style of London's LUCKY SOUL. Their frantic take on FLEETWOOD MAC's 'Tusk' is a charming highlight.
WAVE MACHINES, despite the hype and acclaim are simply a very camp electro band with very little to recommend them in the slightest and so we arrive at SIBRYDION, the SUPER FURRYS collaborating, glam-riff wielding masters of bilingual freak-out pop.
These cult heroes brandish not only the occasional kazoo and honking keyboard line but also, in their quieter moments a psychedelic lightness of touch that has just this second been christened 'delidelia' (from 'delicate' rather than 'delicatessen' you understand). All the kids'll be on about it this time next year.
Seriously though, these boys are masters of subtle, twinlikng soujourns into the strange.
BROKEN RECORDS are not only Scottish but also majestic and sometimes quite glorious particularly on the Springsteen-esque 'Wolves'. Their blend of traditional music styles and acute indie songwriting sensibilities should take them far.
HOWARD MARKS is a legend of course and his reading today, while sadly brief, is as surreal, perceptive, stoned and brilliant as ever. His ruminations on such matters as a war waged between vegetarians and venus fly traps turn accepted logic on its head and allow us to see the world through his eyes for a while - and what a wonderfully weird world it is.
ERRORS are highly acclaimed, very popular and very, very poor. It's sleepy post-rock daubed with dancey anonymity and when they finally get one of their many MOGWAI-inspired dirges off the ground they seem to lose patience and end it before any real kind of hypnotic glory can be attained. There are so many bands in the world making very similar music to this you wonder why these sorts of chancers bother when they have nothing new to bring to the table. Very disappointing.
WOODEN SHJIPS are another great let down - droning psych with very little to recommend it aside from its loudness and messiness. We jump shjip to drink cider elsewhere before they finish. Nice light and screen show though.
ROKY ERIKSON - the man, the legend, the 13th Floor Elevator himself is actually there, not twenty feet away. He and his band absolutely tear through both his and the ELEVATORS back catalogue with a raw, bluesy drive that puts his dark-psych competitors to shame. 'I Walked With A Zombie' is the killer moment in a set packed with them and the massed crowd are very sad to see him go. So sad in fact that they boo the announcement of ANIMAL COLLECTIVE.
Rightly so as it happens because they are a dull, massively overrated, aimless band ill-suited to a headline slot of this stature - the muted response and mass migrations to other tents tell the tale perfectly.
In the comedy tent LIAM MALONE is very funny indeed and suitably offensive given the hour.
Saturday brings a trip to nearby town Crickhowell for cider, cakes and clean toilets along with overheard conversations from the locals who actually seem pleased that the festival is taking place. Strange indeed!
And so to the main stage once more where NOAH AND THE WHALE fail to live up to their glorious moniker by delivering a drab, rather lifeless clutch of songs while PHANTOM BAND have a dramatic ELBOW/INTERPOL feel to them that's as charming and unpretentious as the band themselves - clearly happy to be here, clearly loving what they do, it's a tuneful winner of a set.
JOHNNY is the new two-piece from TEENAGE FANCLUB's Norman Blake and ex-GORKY Euros Childs. Now this really is wonderful - beautifully crafted, heartfelt, humorous tunes interspersed with ragged psych-outs and baffling banter from the charming Childs. 'Dark Cloud' is the best song we've heard so far this festival - a Simon & Garfunkel-inspired triumph of melody and bittersweet lyricism, while 'Baby Lee' is one of the finest pop songs Blake has ever put his name to.
PETER BRODERICK gets a huge and well-deserved response (even reducing one lady to tears) with his loop-driven, violin infused storytelling dreampop. Reminiscent of both JENS LEKMAN and FINAL FANTASY this is a genuine, fully formed talent who inspires the crowd to a mid-afternoon frenzy.
GRIZZLY BEAR take their '60s West Coast inspirations and drive them headlong into '90s alt-rock frenzy before veering off into beat harmonies and sundrenched musical landscapes. The hype in this case is justified to a point but while their sound is magnificent they seem to only have a couple of actual tunes worthy of it. Still, extremely enjoyable, particularly when joined on one track by the deliciously talented vocalist from BEACHHOUSE, VICTORIA LEGRAND.
Back at the Far Out stage, VETIVER are busy being a tremendous alt-country band with one eye on PAUL SIMON's greatest hits and another scanning the AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB back catalogue. Their closer 'Wishing Well' is a sublime treat.
Anticipation is high at the main stage as we await the arrival of BON IVER. Following his triumphal live appearances last year it's fair to say that some were banking on a let-down but the truth could not be further from it. The beauty of 'For Emma' and 'Skinny Love' remain undiminished while the couple of new tracks thrown in are as good as anything on his infamous debut. The two moments we'll take away from this though are the stunningly emotional solo acoustic take on 'Re: Stacks' and of course the mighty singalong to 'Wolves' that closes the set. Spine-tingling.
Over at the Green Man Pub we find the VIOLENT FEMMES-inspired nerd-acoustica of DENT MAY who play highly charged, maddeningly funny and bitter pop songs with all the venom and glee of a gang of geeks made good. Standout tune 'I'm An Alcoholic' could be the hilarious theme for weekends such as these.
JARVIS COCKER is a man with serious stage presence, a great line in preposterous between song banter and a legendary knack for stomping pop as 'Black Magic' proves tonight, but, as expected, there are no PULP tunes here and not even a run through 'Cunts are Still Running the World' which leaves the headline set feeling somewhat anti-climactic.
Sunday morning demands propriety and so to a play we go. Rachel Tresize's 'I Sing of a Maiden' is a traditional folk take on a very modern issue - that of teenage pregnancy. While Tresize herself reads from the text and an actress physically depicts the miniature tragedy, CHARLOTTE GERIG strums trad folk tunes in accompaniment. It's multimedia at its most lo-fi and is above all else a striking and well-performed tale.
Back to the Far Out for 9BACH who deal in rather excellent traditional Welsh folk and can happily boast of having a great tune about a drunk from Pontypridd. Top stuff.
Bristol's ZUN ZUN EGUI absolutely take the main stage apart with their blend of FUGAZI/BATTLES jerk-rock and world music leanings. Sweeping, sometimes disturbing and often perversely discordant this is the only time this weekend we'll see a thrashing punk riff slip into a calypso rhythm. They're great.
And so to the Fence Collective portion of the proceedings as the band of musicians from Fife and their various affiliates beginning with ROZI PLAIN who deal in strange, eerie folk that sadly seems to shudder to a halt whenever it feels like it's going somewhere. Then we have the folk supergroup of THREE CROWS boasting JAMES YORKSTON, JOHNNY LYNCH from PICTISH TRAIL and KING CREOSOTE among their number, they boast luscious, ragged, harmony-drenched trad-folk and enough charm to fill the tent. While the band obviously sounds a little like the members 'day job's, there is something wonderful about seeing them on stage together like a brilliant folk Power Ranger.
PICTISH TRAIL take the stage sounding like the folk NEW ORDER which is quite a neat trick but thay also have some rocknroll balls and display them, along with the bassist's Mexican wrestling mask to great effect. A strangely touching and hypnotic band, they're the best that Fence has to offer.
SCOTT MATTHEWS, despite clearly being a very talented, very earnest young man with a guitar and a JEFF BUCKLEY obsession is slowly sending the main stage into a lovely Sunday afternoon sleep and sends us to seek out LINDSEY LEVEN on the Solar Stage. She's a songstress with delicate, luscious tunes including stand-out track 'Sister'.
CAMERA OBSCURA trot out some old school jangling indie very much in keeping with the label they are signed to (4AD of course) and through their plaintive vocals and infectious enthusiasm garner a strong reception from a very large crowd.
The legendary RODRIGUES takes to the main stage and his opening track does not bode well - it's a PAOLO NUTINI cover. Thankfully, that aside, the rest of his set consists of brilliantly realised DYLAN-influenced psych-folk culled from his highly regarded 'lost' album 'Cold Fact'.
And so we find ourselves front and centre for the closing act on the main stage for this year's Green Man. It's WILCO, and judging by tonight's performance and their recent eponymous album, they are probably the finest American band performing today. From his early days in UNCLE TUPELO through a career with WILCO marred by tragedy, label troubles and wild changes in musical direction JEFF TWEEDY has remained the enigmatic poster boy for Americana and deservedly so.
Drawing heavily on their new record while dropping in old favourites like 'Spiders' and 'I Am Trying to Break Your Heart' they eschew the 'play the hits and get off' mentality of most festival headline sets by simply playing what they want to play and doing it very, very well. Their crashing, baroque take on country is utterly unique and there are many moments tonight that bring a tear to the eye for their majesty alone. They play the only encore of the weekend to a packed field screaming for more, surely the most direct and heartfelt review a band can receive. WILCO are the crowning glory of this year's festival and send us home elated, exhausted and wide-eyed with wonder.