Mew, Joe Pug, Villagers, Natalie Prass, Emmy the Great, Dan Deacon, Strand of Oaks, C. Duncan, Hunck
The literary genius J.R.R Tolkien drew much inspiration from South Wales and particularly the Brecon Beacons when he was constructing the landscapes of his famous novels, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is useful to bear this in mind as you approach the magnificent Glanusk Estate, which is once again the glorious setting for the thirteenth Green Man Festival. Unlike many musical gatherings which solely rely on the events and performers to generate the atmosphere and enhance the merriment, The Green Man Festival challenges your imagination before a single song has been played. The estate is spread across a verdant valley floor, fed by the meandering river Usk. On either side loom the misty, forest-clad mountains of the Brecon Beacons. Exploring the site leads you to discover ancient Celtic standing stones full of mystery and moss-covered steps seemingly situated in the middle of nowhere, apparently leading towards the entrance of a vast family mansion destroyed by fire over half a century ago. Rambling courtyards, secret gardens and atmospheric stable buildings all provide the stage for a most magnificent few days in the country.
This was my first visit to the festival since 2007. The event was still in it’s infancy then, attracting a small yet dedicated audience with its folk, blues, acoustic and experimental musical attractions. Although that particular year was possibly best remembered for the Flanders-esque amount of mud generated by three days of constant rain, the event has gone from strength to strength, attracting more established acts along with a lot more people. Despite this success, the festival still manages to retain it’s independent charm without ever feeling crowded or corporate and this year, an estimated twenty thousand people have been lured by the prospect of headline artists St. Vincent, Super Furry Animals and Hot Chip who have been complimented by a whole host of top-drawer acts from across the globe. To say I was looking forward to this year’s festival would be an under-statement.
The most organised of festival-goers were treated to some early delights upon their arrival on Thursday and once I had explored the site and gathered my bearings I headed to the Far Out stage for the evening where I was lucky to catch the final third of Oregon native Peter Broderick‘s set. I have been a long-term fan of his off-kilter compositions that would not be out of place in a David Lynch movie and you can never be sure how he is going to approach his material in the live context. Tonight his music is primal and cathartic, delivered by a performer as gentle and good-natured as you can imagine. His experimental approach had the full tent enthralled by his soundscapes.
It was the perfect start to the festival and this was maintained by Dan Deacon. Although I am personally not interested in his synth-heavy compositions full of contorted, twisted vocals, his energy and inventiveness were infectious. His ability to engage the diverse audience was also impressive and after only one song he had drawn the crowd into a some crazy dance-offs making them a vital part of the whole experience. Fundamental to the set’s success is Jeremy Hyman who is a drumming revelation, contributing to an awesome, relentless cacophony of sound. This continues with Leftfield who draw a large crowd of dedicated fans, both young and old. Whilst there is no denying their impact, the pounding relentlessness of the music lacked any of the subtlety present on their debut record Leftism in particular and I decided to extend my exploration of the festival site midway through the set.
Friday introduces us all to the strange weather conditions which will at times put a bit of a dampener on proceedings. A fine drizzle falls throughout the day, which also happens to be incredibly humid. Everyone is therefore very wet but nice and warm and well up for the musical highlights to come. Things start off well with new talent Hunck. Victorious winners of the Green Man Rising competition, they open the Mountain Stage just before noon attracting enthusiastic support for their brand of sombre rock music, bringing to mind an eclectic mix of melodic shoegazing fused with the spirit of Sparklehorse.
With a bit of a gap on the Mountain Stage, I decided to search for Einstein’s Garden which promises all kinds of scientific exploration for both young and old minds and for many, a vital opportunity to charge your phone by pedal power! The Green Man excels at this kind of attraction. It is not too in your face and there is still the opportunity to just sit in peace with your family and eat a picnic if you’d prefer. The garden certainly demonstrates that a lot of thought goes into the way these alternative attractions engage the varied clientele the festival attracts.
Revitalized, I head back to the Mountain Stage to listen to Natalie Prass. Her set is an absolute revelation. Faultless in her delivery and in possession of an utterly charming stage presence, her timeless songs are delivered to an audience who are clearly enchanted by the Virginian native’s delectable songs, but also by a bit of the self-assured swagger and attitude when the moment demands. This is enhanced tenfold by the festival’s first rays of sunshine, which hew their way through the low cloud making Natalie Prass and her gorgeous melodies positively shimmer.
This is followed by Villagers. I am certainly a fan of the gentle acoustic arrangements produced by the Dublin-based band on record and there is certainly a lot of love on show for the five-piece today, but on this occasion something appears to be lacking. Perhaps it is the scale of the setting, but the mellow musings appear a bit to detached, requiring more intimate surroundings to really generate the emotional impact that is inherent on record.
The smaller, enclosed Walled Garden stage is therefore perfect for Maryland singer-songwriter Joe Pug. Potentially on the cusp of greatness, he delivers a sublime solo set full of charm and pathos that truly captivates. Unlike many artists performing this weekend, I came away from his set feeling like I knew a bit of what it is like to be Joe Pug; his songs openly explore personal foibles and emotions and are enhanced by amusing anecdotes in-between leaving the crowd grinning from ear to ear. It is certainly difficult to be anything but derivative when plying your trade with only an acoustic guitar and harmonica for company, but Joe Pug manages to avoid this tag in some style.
I decide to give Hot Chip‘s synth pop a miss on the main stage tonight and remain in the Walled Garden which is blessed with a wonderfully chilled out atmosphere. The angsty yet fragile Emmy the Great and the angsty and impassioned Strand of Oaks are proving more of an emotional draw this evening and both artists give top-drawer performances very different in design but equally rewarding in their sincerity.
The final band of the night are just a short walk away in the Far Out tent. Mew are regarded as one of Denmark’s finest musical exports and they have attracted some particularly die-hard fans tonight who are revelling in the rousingly operatic European rock. The intense set is delivered with real gusto and comes to an exciting climax with several tracks from their most satisfying record, 2003’s Frengers, completed by the epic Comforting Sounds in the encore slot. After the first two days it was safe to say that The Green Man Festival was as eclectic as ever and I return to my tent looking forward to the prospect of an equally thrilling Saturday.
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Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto