Review: Green Man Festival 2016

Dean Hodge reviews some of the acts from this year’s Green Man Festival held on 18 – 21 August 2016. (Photography by Nick Evans)

Having become anointed with the unique charms of Green Man Festival last year, a return was definitely on the cards for me this year. It is quite clear on my second visit that some things simply don’t change at Green Man 2016 – one of them being the incessant Welsh rain (lots of it) which has seemingly become a permanent staple on the annual line-up. Thankfully, neither has the quality of the music – which this year, like the downward water that falls out of the sky here, is in unlimited supply.

 

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Having finally arrived and set up camp on Thursday – on what is a once-in-a-blue-moon dry day in the Brecon Beacons – I make my way to the front of the Far Out tent, which is probably not the most ideal place for the more passive gig-consumer given that the next band to play are capable of bringing bears out of slumber with their cacophony of noise.

Aussie psych-rockers King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard can be best described as the musical equivalent of Vegemite (which itself is the Aussie alternative to Marmite for the less familiar) – you’ll likely either love or simply won’t dig their brand of rock-come-jazz-come-psychedelia (and any other genre they can cram in). There is so much going on that it can sometimes just be too much for the casual listener’s ear, and substance seems to a substitute for genuine songwriting. The audience here, though, can’t get enough of it as they hurtle their bodies back and forth with such brute force that a concerned expression from both the security, and the people at the back of the crowd, is drawn. Getting the weekend party mood going = job done. Getting myself covered in beer from countless stack cups thrown around = check.

Thursday evening turns to Friday morning. Warm and dry turned to wet and drizzly once again in typical Welsh-weather fashion. Comparisons of the next band to Mumford & Sons would be too obvious and frankly lazy, as the music of US sibling-fronted folk-rockers The Oh Hellos is far superior. That said, the appearance of braces and well-groomed moustaches in the band’s choice of on-stage attire can’t help but draw up such similarities. Just as striking is the set up of nine members in total – including not one but TWO drummers. Such a grandiose set-up is required though for sweepingly anthemic numbers such as Bitter Water and Dear Wormwood, played at such a volume that it could likely have sent every camper out of deep sleep – including the sun which makes a rare appearance through their set on an otherwise rain-soaked day. This performance also marks the first (and probably) only time in my life that I see on-stage ‘moshing’ from a banjo player.

 

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If there was ever a festival where the sight of people swaying every inch of their bodies to the sweet sounds of either folk or jazz could be made reality, then Green Man is the place to be, and jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington is a man up to such a task. He surely takes the award for the most flamboyant stage attire perhaps in the history of Green Man let alone this year. Given the general ‘freak-nik’ crowd this festival is known to attract, that is a pretty remarkable feat. Whether it is a cunningly tailored PR stunt or he simply wears that for any occasion he likes such as his haircut, either way his choice of outfit plays second fiddle only to his sheer talent. After a long delay in arriving on stage due to sound issues, the patience of both artist and audience is finally rewarded with a performance fiercely on point the whole way through.

The musical chemistry and camaraderie among his band – including an appearance by none other than his own father (and musical tutor) on flute – help elevate his sound further. All of them are individually brilliant on their own merit – and all get a chance to shine solo throughout the set – but it is Kamasi himself who is the orbit round which the entire band revolves.

In just about any press release you see about Texan rockers White Denim, the familiar words ‘can’t be nailed to one genre’ can often be read which is a little untrue. The band do only one thing and they do it well – that is good time rock ‘n’ roll at its sleaziest, its sassiest and unshakeably fiercest. When watching them you think you are watching the ‘next best thing’ band and not a band that has been around for nigh on a decade. Frontman James Petralli’s declaration to the crowd that this is the biggest audience the band have ever played to, just makes one think how this band have managed to stay a hidden gem for so long. It is clear how much they love being there as they rip and tear through tracks like opener Real Deal Momma and recent single Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah), while slower cuts such as Take It Easy (Ever After Lasting Love) are performed with the deftest of touch and the highest of class. Frankly, an invite to play next year should be on the cards already.

North Wales indie dreamers Ysgol Sul provide a welcome breather on the Green Man Rising stage with their hazy shoegaze-tinged indie-pop. Underneath the murky riffs and bittersweet grooves, lie muscular guitar-pop hooks that provide the perfect soundtrack to your night out at the local indie disco, as well as a quiet night in listening to a mixtape (or streaming playlist whichever your technological preference) by your Smiths-fanatic friend. Think of The Dandy Warhols (in their mid-90’s period) covering The Byrds with only a short dose of My Bloody Valentine thrown in.

Along with many of their peers from the early-to-mid 90’s British indie scene, Lush‘s distinctive hazy dream-pop sound has been able to withstand the gravitational force of time with atypical class – even if the production on some of their tracks sounds perhaps a tad stale now. Hence a reunion from these – after a twenty-year absence – is welcomed with open arms. Even after such a gap from music, they still perform old favourites such asThoughtforms and Scarlet as if they have never been apart in the first place. From the waltzing swagger of De-Luxeto the climatic jangle of Sweetness and Light – followed by a demand for an impromptu encore that seems to take the band by surprise – the band have the audience hooked on every majestic note.

Following Ryley Walker‘s blistering turn in the Walled Garden last year, an invitation to play this year along with an upgrade to a Saturday afternoon slot on the Mountain Stage was merited. Whether his majestic jazz-folk sound would translate well onto a bigger setting was a question that was almost met with a ‘maybe not’ after the first few minutes. Once again, there was some technical issues with the guitar feedback threatening to drown out the delicate plucks of guitar from Ryley’s fingertips. Even the strong wind on the day was seemingly conspiring against him, at one point blowing over one of the drummer’s cymbals mid-song. But like a matador slowly alluring a bull into the ring with his red flag, eventually he found his groove, and what followed was a performance that blended intensity and intricacy in harmonious fashion.

 

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It was notable how compared to his backing band last year – a typical jazz set-up with organist and double bassist to boot – he opted for a more basic bassist-and-drummer combo this year, perhaps to give his sound a more live feel. It did change the dynamic of his sound but not in a bad way. Primrose Green and Summer Dressboth sounded as glorious as ever, but this time had a rawer feel to them that gave a different mood to each song.Funny Thing She Said and Sullen Mind – both cuts from his new album Golden Sings That Have Been Sung – were premiered throughout and already cemented themselves as new favourites. Where the rare Welsh sunshine peered out over the wall on his performance in the Walled Garden last year, the gale force wind aptly soundtracked his riveting turn this year.

In a festival of sky-scraping highlights, the band that perhaps puts a toe in front as one of my favourtites from the weekend is Aussie indie-dance heirs Jagwar Ma. Their sound can be best described as a concoction of 60’s British Invasion harmonies and psychedelia, filtered through a 90’s tinted lens of indie-flavoured dance grooves. But no words can justify the full feeling that comes from seeing them live – you simply have to see them for yourself. The only (very) minor criticism is that the set in the Far Out tent didn’t go on long enough in my opinion. It reads like a borrowed line from a die-hard fan but in truth, the set felt a bit anti-climatic. The propulsive techno-driven breakbeat of Four felt like it was a penultimate build-up to a big finish, but instead the set just gradually petered out along with the track’s final notes. Perhaps they wanted to leave the audience on a cliff-hanger, or more likely a timing issue in the Far Out tent meant they had to cut it short.

As Sunday afternoon rolls in along with the first signs of festival fatigue, the bittersweet lyrical remedies and raspy voice of Margaret Glaspy is just the tonic needed – as bitter a taste in the mouth as a shot of bourbon and just as equally soothing on the soul. Her raw blues-pop sound channels the lyrical angst of Elliott Smith and Ryan Adamsas well as the spirit of Janis Joplin. The spine-tingling anti-romance ballad Somebody To Anybody – performed solely with just voice and guitar by Glaspy – provides a memorable finale.

General consensus prior to the appearance by Unknown Mortal Orchestra, from fans and critics alike, would be that this was one of the must-see performances this year. Many of those naysayers would have felt the hype was justified following it. Hence why I feel one of a minority (consisting likely of myself) who felt slightly underwhelmed. It’s not that it was an awful performance by any means, but it was just on the slightly forgettable side of things for me.

There’s no denying that in the confines of the recording booth, their frontman has the ability to seemingly churn out a crafty pop hook and feet-tapping groove in his sleep. Unfortunately, he seems to do precisely that live too, on the evidence of this at least. His preceding climb up the side of the stage could be interpreted as a rock ‘n’ roll move, or rather an attempt to inject some kind of charisma or memorable feature into his set. Whichever is the case, the whole performance just didn’t move me, or stand out from the weekend, as some of the other sets did.

Over on the Mountain Stage, US band Warpaint live up to their billing as the penultimate act of the weekend with a set full of blistering riffs and West-Coast inspired pop harmonies. If David Lynch ever decided to produce a music documentary, then Warpaint would probably be the ideal choice of soundtrack. Their radiant harmonies, pristine guitar grooves and noir-tinted lyrics make you feel as if you’re riding through the streets of Los Angeles on a late summer evening, rather than sat in a muddy hill in the rain-filled Welsh mountains. Their aptly titled new single New Song hints at an exciting new direction in the band’s sound with its muscalar synth-pop hooks.

Closing out the weekend are a band who started off two decades ago as a bunch of students penning observations of life and love in their hometown of Glasgow, which they ensembled together in an album they recorded as their university project. In some ways, the back story of Scottish indie darlings Belle & Sebastian is perhaps no different now to the usual modern-day band that forms fresh out of meeting through their music degree.

 

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Yet remarkably B&S still sound like – and write like – they are a group of students in a band twenty years on- at least in the sense that their enthusiasm to making music, and unique lyrical outlook on life, has been untainted by two decades in the music business. The electro-pop balladry of recent single The Party Line is proof that their knack for crafting unassumingly catchy pop songs hasn’t changed. The picture-postcard moment of Green Man is provided during their set, courtesy of a huge audience invasion during their rendition of The Boy With The Arab Strap – much to the chagrin of the unfortunate stage security who are tasked with having to escort them off.

After the final minor-key notes of Belle & Sebastian and the obligatory burning of the eponymous ‘green man’ of the festival, I left the festival the following morning feeling the after effects of one too many craft ales and a case of the post-festival flu –  remedied over the next week with copious amounts of Yorkshire Tea and Lemsips. Yet I also left with a host of new favourite artists providing the soundtrack for the next year leading up to Green Man 2017, and it is a pretty safe bet I will be back for more of the same.

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