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REVIEW: Green Man Festival 2013

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Over the last decade Green Man has come a long way from it’s origins as a one-day folk/psych event attended by only 300 ardent fans. While it’s size and scope have widened each year it’s organizers still keep sharp focus on what now brings 20,000 festival goers back for more year on year – beautiful surroundings, a lack of corporate sponsorship, a rich variety of music, performance, food and drink and an extremely child-friendly atmosphere. Reading/Leeds it ain’t and it’s all the better for it. We headed to Glanusk for the forth time to soak in some of the musical highlights of the Welsh summer.

THURSDAY

We’re lured through the drizzle one day earlier than usual by the always tempting presence of Patti Smith who, backed by a two piece band including multi-instrumentalist Patrick Wolf in his only acceptable musical guise (without the opportunity to pose, preen and be acutely pretentious he’s an accomplished musician), tears out a tribute song to Amy Winehouse and a cover of Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’ during a rapturously received set. An emotional highlight sees Smith perform a song originally written in tribute to Jimi Hendrix by herself and former partner Alan Lanier (Blue Oyster Cult)now dedicated to Lanier himself following his death just days before this performance. As heartbreaking as ‘Elegie’ is we also have the rousing ‘Because The Night’, recent album title track ‘Banga’ and of course ‘People Have the Power’ to close the set joyously, uproariously and with a strength of purpose and intent Smith appears to have maintained throughout her incredible career. There’s just something about the sound of that voice against a guitar that makes you forgive every bit of hippy/religious schmaltz she’s so often espoused. A powerful opening to the weekend.

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FRIDAY

We begin in glorious, relentless sunshine with Haiku Salut on the Mountain stage. Framed by the famous Sugarloaf Mountain and it’s sloping valley, the stage itself is something to behold. Haiku Salut however, a gear-swopping three-piece, are something of a washout. Optimistic and ambitious as these sweet instrumental adventures may wish to be, here they come across as amateurish and unenthused.

Peggy Sue follow with their brand of bland Brighton indie-folk that remains as unremarkable now as it’s been for the last however many years but things really pick up over at the Far Out tent with Bristol’s Thought Forms. Blessed with a strong sense of what made experimental American rock work so well in the nineties – racket, tunes, a dedication to My Bloody Valentine (when they were good of course) and an unremitting will to shove guitars into amps and step on pedals when it all kicks in, they are a blast of finely balanced noise that cut through the day with precision and power.

Julia Holter turns out to not be best suited to a vast outdoor stage and the delicate nature of her looped, avant garde vocalizing is somewhat trampled by a largely disinterested crowd’s chatter and sound that floats away with the breeze. Her excellent work deserves better.

Sam Amidon reworks classic American folk songs and intersperses them with moments of rough, avant jazz awkwardness that prick up the ears when his gentle, soothing sounds have nearly sent you off to sleep. It’s the kind of sound that suits the sunshine though one could probably march happily through life never hearing him again.

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Parquet Courts are a profoundly offensive hype band that take the least attractive elements of the Strokes (disinterested, faux-cool) and staple them to the least interesting aspects of Pavement (purposely obtuse, tuneless). The result is a muddied swamp of retro-ism and banality that has seemingly sparked the interest of critics across the web for some unknowable, possibly unbelievable reason. Dogshit.

Back at the Mountain Stage Phosphorescent plays out the kind of weatherworn folk rock that made 2010’s ‘Here’s To Taking It Easy’ such a favourite among Americana fans. Close your eyes, focus on Matthew Houck’s cracked, sonorous vocal on ‘Los Angeles’ and the heat of the sun and you could well be in a state halfway between dream and California.

Later on Midlake  are not, it seems, always as boring as they seem to be (that would be hard) and seem genuinely grateful for the appreciation shown by the gathered masses. For a band whose moment has long passed they still seem to have a little fire in the belly, at least enough to light up tonight’s crowd.

The evening finishes with the mighty Fuck Buttons. Basking in their somewhat incongruous sports-induced fame they crank out a set that begins with absolute slammers (‘Brain Freeze’ and ‘Surf Solar’) and dives into the kind of rampaging, mind-fingering electro sludge for which we love them so much. Rightly so, they are, as ever, a dark, pounding highlight.

SATURDAY

Ensconced in weather we can only describe as Scorching Grey Rainshine the order of the day is to be constantly putting on and removing wellies, hats and ponchos in some kind of Kafkaesque game of repetition as the rain thrashes down, the sun glares cheekily and arctic winds blow intermittently across the site. Baffling.

Early on at the Walled Garden we catch a little of Denai Moore who has a wealth of ambitious, heartfelt acoustic folk songs and plenty of potential to go with them.

Round the corner at the Cinema we find Totem Terrors who play a centre-stage seated drum machine dominated set of girl-boy quirk-pop that’s as charming as it is unique – a shame to not have a longer set from these gracious weirdoes.

Revere bathe the Far Out crowd in Arcade Fire bombast, National-style swoon and a tender, brass heart while soon after back at the Mountain we have Manchester’s The Slow Show, one of the most anticipated bands of the weekend so far.

Vocalist Rob Goodwin channels Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner on a set of glorious, gloomy tales of melancholia and morbidity including the wonderfully evocative ‘Brother’ and ‘God Only Knows’. That they seem delighted to be here is a bonus point for one of the best and most promising bands we see during the whole festival.

Obviously we dodge the fuck-awful Blaenavon but we do check out Belfast’s Girls Names who trundle out the usual kind of black shirt alt-pop that a thousand other bands are churning through at the moment but with the benefit of some Echo & The Bunnymen-lifted tunes and the occasional Nirvana-nicked bassline. Fine then, s’pose.

Back at the Mountain the infamously curmudgeonly folk legend Roy Harper is only a few minutes in to his set and is already calling the audience wankers. It’s a great start for a set that sees Harper overcome his usual forgetfulness and purposeful awkwardness to deliver something truly special, haunting and near-magical. His cover of Dylan’s ‘Girl From The North Country’ brings a genuine tear to the eye while his remarkable playing on the aptly named ‘Green Man’ is astonishing. At age 72, Harper closes his naughtily extended set with ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’, leaving a huge crowd either reassured in their adoration or converted to the cause.

We catch but one soft, sad song from Sweet Baboo over at the Walled Garden before it’s high time for the masterful Low. Minnesota’s masters of slowcore are always something of an unpredictable delight live but this afternoon with a set incorporating the epic ‘Witches’ (“You should know all about them” says vocalist Alan Sparhawk “You invented that shit!”), a beautiful, ethereal cover of Neil Young’s ‘Down By The River’ and closing with the seminal and rarely played ‘Over The Ocean’, they manage to show a microcosm of their excellence in just 40 minutes – sadly to a small, dampened crowd.

Later on John Cale plays out classics like ‘Scotland Yard’ and recent gem ‘Nookie Wood’ all the while decked out in pink suit jacket and denim cut-offs. His set is truly well received and surprisingly gets a lot of bodies moving to Cale’s poetry-driven jerk-rock. Closer ‘Pablo Picasso’ is an hilarious and simultaneously smart anthem that speaks to Cale’s artistry and humour perfectly.

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At Far Out Steve Mason stamps out a crafty set indeed. Beginning with cock-exploding anthems like ‘Lost And Found’ and ‘Oh My Lord’ you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the acceptable face of tender-acoustic-guitar-indie-guy, a sort of Ashcroft with talent and actual soul, yet after endearing himself to the liberal crowd with a bit of banter between himself and a little boy on his dad’s shoulders in the crowd he drops the double hammers of ‘Fight them Back’ (“Get up and fight them back / A fist, a boot or a baseball bat”) and ‘Fire!’ which recommends shoving politicians into, you guessed it, some fire. Children chant along with their Guardian reading parents and for a moment there’s real, foot-stomping, political charge and electricity in the air. ThatMason treats the extremely excitable crowd to the Beta Band’s ‘Dry The Air’, the whole tent going off like a fucked rocket in the process, at the close tells the tale of what a special gig this was, also what an important artist Mason is.

Bland Of Horses never really had a chance after Mason and we didn’t really give them one. Their southern fried rock is a bore, that old single that sounds like The Shins is nice and their cover of Neil Young’s (popular fella here) ‘Powderfinger’ just highlights how drab their Band-lite material really is. Get to bed.

SUNDAY

Fanfarlo lure us back from the delightful village of Crickhowell where we spend a morning spotting members of Swans staring into the river Usk, shoveling breakfast down our greedy throats at Number 18 and lounging in the beer garden at The Bear. Sadly, their perfectly adequate, standard 80s-influenced indie-pop augmented by clarinets and trumpets is overshadowed by vocalist Simon Balthazar’s case of the Borrells. Yeah, he looks kinda like him but his soul-deadening between song banter, overt pretentiousness and superbly large ego really seal the deal. He may be joking – but nobody’s laughing and even a cover of Orange Juice’s ‘Rip It Up’ won’t pull back a deservedly lost crowd.

Back up the hill we have Merge signing Mikal Cronin thrashing out absolutely blinding garage and grunge rock with the melodic flair of Big Star, the sonic fury of early Dinosaur Jr, the smash n grab nihilism of Mudhoney. That they are an Absolutely Fucking Great band is the obvious conclusion to draw and as they wrap up with a cover of Wreckless Eric’s ‘Whole Wide World’ we’re in the midst of that rare site at Green Man – an almost-mosh-pit. Glory be.

Throwing that vibe into reverse we have Lau. Led by Seal Island native Kris Drever they put forward a set of invigorating, dramatic, largely instrumental folk that sets parts of the crowd literally reeling. That they cover The Watersons and play a pro-immigration song (the moving ‘Ghosts’) just makes them all the more loveable, that bit more admirable.

Darren Hayman is rightly introduced over at the Walled Garden as one of the best British songwriters of the last 20 years. There’s little more to add other than to say that this set of largely new, entirely brilliant material is a lachrymose joy delivered in that heartstrong, poetic way only Hayman can truly muster.

Over at the Green Man Rising stage we have Laurence Made Me Cry an emo-diaries 3-piece with a set of deeply introspective, fragile songs that are often too self-indulgent to take seriously no matter how well-constructed they are.

We drink in the last of the sunshine as Unknown Mortal Orchestra murder their light-handed, shadowy pop with quacking guitars and build-a-shed drums. Tunes of the magnitude of ‘So Good At Being In Trouble’ deserve a better fate than this.

British Sea Power are a band with an inexplicably dedicated following, a largely dull sound and an approach that’s almost entirely head over heart. They play a typically average set to a baying crowd at the Far Out and choose to overrun by a good half hour or so. While it’s easy to see that your writer may just be missing something entirely with this band, what’s not being missed is how selfish and egotistical it is to overrun a festival set that leaves the headliners without the time it takes to deliver what they came to provide.

When that band is the best live band in the world, Swans, you’ve done everyone a disservice. In the knowledge that their set is to be truncated Michael Gira’s hellions simply condense their power and beat you with it, an extended arm clenched into a tight fist.

‘To Be Kind’ retains it’s seemingly infinite hypnotic qualities, ‘Coward’ it’s teeth-clenching savagery. There’s new material here tonight and it’s just as apocalyptic, as universe-spanning, as soul-eating and mind-beating as anything from their recent classic album ‘The Seer’.

Bathed in red the band roll, ebb and flow around the sharp corners of Gira’s beautiful, brutal songwriting, the car speeding and being kept on the road by sheer power of thought.

When the crowd empties out, screaming for more that they won’t get, and you overhear dumbstruck punters mumbling “..the best thing I’ve ever seen..” you just wish they’d been given the opportunity to power out their full set rather than this alternate, shortened version. Regardless, Swans are tonight what they always are – as close to perfection as a rock band can be.

So another Green Man weekend draws to a close, another weekend filled with fun, wonder and of course the most fun, wonderful thing of all – a good dose of inspiring music.

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Michael James Hall

Additional Reporting by Ian R Owen

Images: Polly Thomas, Chris Davies

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