Review + Photos: Green Man Festival 2017 (Conor Oberst, British Sea Power, Fruit Bats, The Orielles, and more)

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Death and taxes are a given in life but there is one more certainty in the Black Mountains of the Brecon Beacons and that is rain. Lots of it. In August no less! It arrived by the bucketload on the Sunday of this special edition of the Green Man festival and the shorts and t-shirts we’ve been fortunate enough to have worn for the majority of the weekend are swiftly covered by cheap plastic ponchos that are certainly not the most flattering garment in the world, and you know what… we don’t care! We don’t care about the rain and we don’t give a monkeys what we look like. This is the Green Man festival. Lacking pretension and catering for similarly like-minded souls has allowed this great festival to reach it’s fifteenth birthday, when many others are struggling to survive.

The traditional arrival day has morphed in to a proper festival day and we’re blessed with gorgeous sunshine for much of the afternoon, allowing for a leisurely stroll amongst the different festival spaces which are slowly coming to life. As I sample one of the hundred or so local ales from the beer festival in the gothic courtyard, I see familiar faces from previous years and we smile and say hello. Children are enjoying the opportunity to run unhindered inside the walled garden stage, dashing into Einstein’s Garden, which is an intriguing network of tents and small stages, dedicated completely to the little folk; this weekend is as much about them as it is the adults. Sitting at the top of the natural amphitheatre that overlooks the main stage, the view is magical. The mountains dominate the empty stage but it is still possible to foresee the fun that is just around the corner.

The Far Out tent is where things really get going in the evening. The line-up is as eclectic as ever and Boy Azooga’s thrilling harmonies and catchy hooks match the high spirits of the enthusiastic audience, eager to get the party started. As the sun starts to set H. Hawkline’s more atmospheric songs suddenly seem suitably appropriate. The throbbing dance beats of Anna Meredith are tempered by the intensely sweeping strings that accompany her and the unpredictability of the songs from her album Varmints seems to mark the point where the festival truly comes alive. Fancying a change in tone I wander into the dark confines of the cinema tent to watch the menacing farming drama The Levelling, which might make you think twice about that gourmet burger at your next festival.

The Green Man never feels like it’s just about the headliners. It’s a celebration of discovery and although you will no doubt be watching some of your favourite bands over the weekend, you just don’t know who they are yet. With this in mind, Friday begins in style with Green Man Rising winner Siobhan Wilson. Her impressive set opens with the slow-burning fuzz of Whatever Helps, but the track is deceptive. On the surface, the song appears to be an homage to nineties indie but the subtle distortion of her guitar is mollified by her angelic voice and as we progress through the set the electric guitar is replaced by an acoustic one and we’re treated to tracks such as Paris Est Blanche, performed entirely in French. It’s an unadulterated joy which Siobhan Wilson seems to enjoy as much as the crowd. Happyness follow and although the college rock label appears justified, any band that goes someway to filling the huge whole left by the absence of pioneers such as Mark Linkous and his band Sparklehorse, deserve a stage to play on. Adding a healthy dose of dry British wit to proceedings ensures their set goes down a storm and concludes with drummer Ash Cooper crowd surfing in high heels. The dismembered leg is still a bit of a mystery though.

Fionn Regan provides a pleasant change of pace and tone but his guitar work is no less thrilling and his exquisite songs dazzle in the gorgeous afternoon sunshine, possessing almost hypnotic qualities that are difficult to tear yourself away from. Sadly, this has to happen as Gill Landry’s set is stirring at the Walled Garden stage. After an initially frustrating start due to a dodgy guitar lead, the former Old Crow Medicine Show man hits his stride with some wonderfully evocative Americana, enhanced by vocals bottled from a fine vintage that goes down very smoothly indeed. American politics are never far from anyone’s thoughts it seems this weekend and Hurray for the Riff Raff are not the first band to identify with these troubling times as they launch into a hugely satisfying cover of Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark. Elsewhere, Angel Olsen’s kaleidoscopic set shimmers, shines and sparkles in front of a packed Far Out tent. The claustrophobic menace which this wonderful performer has generated in the past has evolved in to something utterly thrilling and much, much grander. Meanwhile British Sea Power represent the British corner of this international ensemble, fizzing energetically on the main stage, surrounded by eight foot tall bears. As the rain begins to fall we’re finally treated to a rousing headline set from Baltimore’s Future Islands. The Far Field is easily one of the records of the year and sometimes one of the bleakest but live, in the presence of Samuel T. Herring, there is always a suggestion of hope and light and the dark fields of Wales dazzle amidst the late evening drizzle.

The theme of hope continues on Saturday morning as I amble into the Walled Garden to see Brendan Cox discussing the way our political and environmental fears can be channelled to positive effect. Brendan’s wife Jo was a politician who was murdered by a far-right extremist and it’s reassuring to hear such positive views that have developed on the back of heart-breaking tragedy.

Sticking with the Walled Garden, early pleasures abound in the form of Halifax trio The Orielles. Jangly guitar flourishes and particularly distinctive bass rhythms define their tales of twenty first century youth and final track Sugar Tastes Like Salt astounds with it’s dropped beats and a shifting tempo, giving an unpredictable and deliciously playful edge to the Yorkshire trio. Warhaus follow and are easily a highlight of the entire weekend. Dark and brash throughout, Maarten Devoldere and his band channel the spirit of icons such as Leonard Cohen and Serge Gainsbourg, throwing them into a wicked musical mix that also takes inspiration from Tom Waits, Primus and fellow Belgian innovators Deus to create a vital experience full of angular guitars, booming horns and pounding bass lines that is thrillingly entertaining and just a little bit scary! The pace changes dramatically when Aldous Harding arrives, instantly silencing the Walled Garden audience with her edgy vocals, beautifully unstable, utterly emotional and completely captivating throughout.

This is the Kit’s new album still possesses the familiar British folk of previous releases but there is an edgier, jazzier spirit to compliment the fuller, more electric sound on these new tracks that suits the Main Stage down to the ground. Unfortunately, Lambchop’s sparse musical landscapes fail to inspire later in the afternoon and the many giddy little folk that are tumbling amongst the bubbles drown out Kurt Wagner’s gentle folk crooning. What comes next is truly magical though, as the cinematic strains of Cold Little Heart begin to emerge from the darkness, subtle at first, then swelling to epic proportions before Michael Kiwanuka emerges to tame this passionate inception with his smoldering vocals.

The unexpected musical encounters continued on an overcast Sunday with Holly Macve’s distinctive country timbre sounding a bit too clichéd initially, but developing a satisfying personal identity as her set progresses that enables her to make These Boots Were Made for Walking completely her own. Andy Shauf makes music that is simply perfect for Sunday afternoons and his brilliant set channels harmonious Harry Nilsson-esque vocals with the storytelling ability of Father John Misty to create gently melancholic tales that swirl softly amongst the most gorgeous melodies, allowing us all to recover from the excesses of the night before as gracefully as possible. More familiar faces rock up as the festival heads into the home stretch; Fruit Bats are a complete joy and their timeless Americana is as polished and catchy as it comes. Time flies when you’re having fun however and the band are unceremoniously hooked to make way for Conor Oberst who arrives with a musical bonus in the form of The Felice Brothers who add their inimitable Americana spirit to the Nebraskan’s twitchy, idiosyncratic songs, which are accompanied by a particularly heavy downpour which now seems to be an essential part of the Green Man experience. The drenching continues as we head towards PJ Harvey and the festival’s ultimate conclusion. Yes, the headliners are an important aspect of the Green Man, but joy and unexpected pleasures come from all corners of this wonderful event and this special, fifteenth year has been no different. Thank you once again Green Man!

***

Anna Meredith, Boy Azooga, British Sea Power, Conor Oberst, Fionn Regan, Fruit Bats, Gill Landry, H Hawkline, Happyness, Orielles, Siobhan Wilson, Warhaus

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Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto

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