Dean Hodge reviews some of the acts from this year’s Green Man Festival held on 17 – 20 August 2017. (Photography by Nick Evans)
Even as Green Man Festival enters its fifteenth year, the ethos of promoting the best of new music alongside established icons has not waned. Nor has the encompassing love-one-another vibe that is infectious as soon as you arrive. Certainly, the latter is needed more than ever at such a turbulent time, and the festival returns one more to provide a green oasis of escapism. Still, the awareness of events happening elsewhere in the world filters through and becomes a running theme in many of the artists’ mantras to the audience.
US rockers Hurray For The Riff Raff make the odd reference to the growing political unrest in their homeland and elsewhere throughout their set on the Mountain Stage on Friday. The performance itself is a breathless ride of soaring northern-bound classic rock with a southern-fried punk energy simmering beneath that burns with an inner yearning for a more peaceful world. Inward-looking lyrics with a social conscience are delivered with boldness and bite by frontwoman Alynda Segarra – the musical love child of Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen both in her lyrical delivery and her smouldering stage presence. A fitting tribute to The Boss himself is thrown in for good measure with a hedonistic cover of Dancing In The Dark closing the set.
Another high-octane cover of an 80’s classic is provided by London indie quartet The Big Moon – their delirious take on Bonnie Tyler‘s Total Eclipse of the Heart just one highlight of what is a typically vivacious set by the four-piece. Their delirium-inducing, body-elevating blend of murky guitar riffs and sultry melodies is suited for the confines of the Far Out Stage. A backing band of dancers in fancy dress join the band on-stage for closing number Sucker to provide a fittingly fervent finale. An accidental on-stage fall by guitarist Soph Nathan during an over-zealous guitar solo only adds to the chaotic charm of their set.
The Big Moon – “Delirium-inducing blend of murky guitar riffs and sultry melodies”
Spanish punk-pop exports Hinds excel in riffs that pack enough punk-infused energy to knock your jaw to the floor, only remedied by sun-bottled melodies that land like a kiss to the cheek. The band’s style is perfect balance of sassy and sweet, and the enthusiasm they channel into their performance is contagious. They embrace the ‘loving’ vibe of Green Man to a rather overzealous extent, dedicating their set to the lovers in the audience and calling them to make love in their tent or anywhere they can.
Considering the hype that surrounds Baltimore synth-pop outfit Future Islands ahead of their Friday night headline slot, I personally felt rather underwhelmed by their performance. As much as I wanted to engage with their idiosyncratic approach to electro-imbued indie rock, neither their tunes nor their performance stirred anything in me and it just didn’t feel like a headline act. Their chemistry is tight and the sound crisp, but the hooks just aren’t strong enough, and I’d already forgotten many of their songs only a few minutes after hearing them.
Frontman Samuel T.Herring’s guttural delivery can be impressive at times, but mostly it just veers off into demonic Exorcist-style grunting. His on-stage dancing just seems like an over-egged attempt at creating a memorable Green Man gig – albeit if you can regard flailing his arm skyward as if throwing an invisible javelin stick into the audience as dancing. It’s fair to say I didn’t stay for their set for much longer.
If there is a redeeming positive of the disappointing headline set by Future Islands, it is that it leads myself and photographer Nick Evans to the Far Out Stage for what turns out to be the golden discovery of this year’s festival (for me at least) – in the form of UK spoken-word artist Kate Tempest. Despite admitting to knowing her by name only prior to this show, and having never heard her music, my jaw dropped as close to the floor as it can possibly reach and my palms positioned firmly on my scalp in awe of the performance I had seen. In a unbroken medley of fierce poetic wordplay, KT churns out at rapid speed stories of isolated individuals in one city amidst a backdrop of social unrest that afflicts the world we live in. The harsh musical accompaniment amplifies the bleakness of the places her words paint. Such is her storytelling ability and her uncompromising delivery that she leaves the audience breathless and draws arguably one of the biggest applauses of the whole weekend.
Kate Tempest – “Her storytelling ability and uncompromising delivery draws one of the biggest applauses of the weekend”
As Saturday arrives, the cotton-wool tones and radiant melodies of Aled Rheon provide a blissful inner oasis on the Rising Stage. The warm glow of his autumnal folk matched only by the glow omitted from the sea of faces within the audience (and elsewhere) adorned with glitter, which seems to be increasingly inescapable at Green Man with each passing year.
Bringing sunny California vibes to the Welsh mountains are LA-based psych garage rockers Allah-Las. Their formation stemmed from working in a record shop has evidently bestowed on them a golden ear for a tune and an appreciation for music on the left-leaning side of the dial. Musically, they do the simple things and do them with a refined vigour – minor-key melodies, jangly 60’s-tinted riffs, crisp drum beats and immaculate bass grooves are all dusted off and given a 21st century sheen. It is a sound that is bottled and translated onto the Far Out Stage beautifully. While it may not translate into a visually exciting spectacle, tunes such as the seductively sonic mirage Busman’s Holiday and the hypnotic strut of Tell Me (What’s On Your Mind) instantly illuminte the mind with images of a driving down a sun-kissed LA beach at high-speed with the girl of your dreams leaning on your shoulder. Under the surface are lyrics that shine a light on the dark side of LA and its seedy underbelly.
Allah-Las – “Jangly 60’s-tinted riffs and immaculate bass grooves are dusted off and given a 21st century sheen”
UK-Ugandan folk-soul singer/songwriter Michael Kiwanuka arrives on the Mountain Stage on Saturday evening to a deservingly full applause and a packed-out arena as he brings his dusky melodies and impeccably soulful voice to the main stage. The vintage-draped soul of his debut album and the electric-imbued blues of last year’s sophomore effect are woven intricately into one majestic set. The cinematic opening riffs of Cold Little Heart segue into the 70’s cottoned folk-soul of Tell Me a Tale, and the autumnal beauty of Home Again is a signpost to the concluding blues saga Love & Hate – arguably an anthem for the turbulent times faced today. Kiwanuka’s voice remains the unifying thread. His husky tone is able to channel the many shades of emotions within his music, a sandpaper-lined rasp one minute (arguably influenced by his love for the heavier side of rock) and a soothing baritone the next. His voice carries the bruises of a uncertain modern world and yet seems to channel the spirits of the soul singers of yesterday, offering to throw a warm coat to shade us from all the troubles present elsewhere.
Once again though, the headline act on the Mountain Stage left me feeling short-changed albeit for slightly different reasons to Future Islands. I feel a little guilty having to say this about such an revered artist as Ryan Adams given that I have listened to his back catalogue fervently even before seeing his name on the line-up his year. But it is for this reason that I am slightly unimpressed by his performance here. There’s nothing to fault musically – the bruise-bearing melodies and sandpaper vocal are in fine form here. It is the performance itself and his engagement with the audience (or lack of).
Positioned so far from the front of the stage that he may as well be on the drums rather than a frontman, and obscured in a mist of dry ice, you would need to pick him out with a magnifying glass even if you were right up front and centre in the audience. He just seems to be doing everything to distance himself from the audience that have paid good money to see artists such as him, barely interacting with the crowd at all. Frankly it doesn’t embrace the all-welcoming vibe that encompasses Green Man. A satisfactory performance in the Green Man archive, but not a vintage one.
Michael Kiwanuka – “Vintage-draped soul and electric-imbued blues are woven intricately into one majestic set.”
Thankfully, one act that does embody the spirited vibe of the festival is jazz-punk outfit Melt Yourself Down. They deliver a rambunctious headline set in the Walled Garden Stage that flows like a magic carpet ride in and out of every genre they can lay their hands on from funk to jazz to punk, and enough dance-along verve to bring the slightest scuff to every pair of shoes within the audience.
Up-and-coming London band Shame deliver a brand of rock ‘n’ roll that is stripped of any aural deodorant and sweats pure primal punk energy through every drop. Their sound bridges together the visceral energy of US punk bands with the stark bleakness of UK post-punk. Think The Stooges meet Joy Division. Frontman Charlie Steen laps up every moment of the band’s slot in the Far Out Stage – channelling a Liam Gallagher-esque pose into the microphone one minute and using his water bottle as a weapon to assault the audience with the next.
US alt-country band Fruit Bats take to the Mountain Stage just as the first signs of heavy rain finally threaten what has been miraculously a mostly dry weekend for the first time in the three years I have attended Green Man. Thankfully, their stirring folk-rock is the perfect remedy to the impending showers that follow their set. The strutting The Ruminant Band – a cross between Rubber Soul-era Beatles and side two of Led Zeppelin’s third eponymous album – is a lasting highlight of their set, as is the lung-busting closing refrain of When You Love Somebody.
The weekend almost reaches its flame-filled conclusion, but not before Sleaford Mods deliver a similarly fiery performance of minimalist electro punk-hop in the Far Out Stage. For a festival that nurtures the leftfield, the duo are about as far left of the dial as you can get. As frontman Jason Williamson introduces the band in typically dry style, “Hope you’ve all had a good weekend because we’re about to f***ing ruin it for you!” Williamson’s lyrics are stream-of-consciousness rants at the mundanities of working-class life and the incompetance of politicians today, delivered with a subtle blend of anger and acerbic wit by Williamson (and slightly dodgy dance poses to boot).
Shame – “Rock ‘n’ roll that is stripped of any aural deodorant and sweats pure primal punk energy through every drop”
Sunday night headliner PJ Harvey delivers a characteristically grandiose finale to the Mountain Stage, with a full marching band accompaning her entrance to the stage. She is an artist who in many ways sums up the spirit of Green Man itself – with one ear on the current musical pulse yet still retaining the same maverick beating heart that has made her music so fearlessly game-changing. The anger and angst that informed much of her earlier material has still been retained, but also refined with age. For once, the headline act doesn’t disappoint, as PJ brings the curtain down with a genre-shifting, politically-charged set.
The Far Out Stage itself concludes with St Etienne delivering their 60’s-indebted, 90’s filtered indie-disco grooves to the arena. It has to be said the crowd is unusually and unjustifiably small for such an act, no doubt due to PJ Harvey headlining at the opposite end of the festival. It is shame that two such acts clash,
The traditionally impressive burning finale – this time with the ‘green man’ joined by wood-carved Welsh dragon – provides a memorable end to a festival that once again leaves me departing on a craft-ale tainted high the following morning. Even with the exponential rise of the number of festivals in the decade and a half since its formation, Green Man has still maintained a strong identity in the festival circuit and is without peer when it comes to providing a friendly and safe experience – those key words only increasing in importance since the festival first began.
The number of disasters that have struck festivals and wannabe organisers elsewhere has only served to exemplify why Green Man has remained such a reliable stalwart of the festival calendar for fifteen years (and hopefully counting). Restricting itself to the same 20,000-strong capacity, being able to master the basic nuts-and-bolts of a well-organised festival, and built on the values of promoting a message of love – these are just some of the many factors as to how it has managed it. It is a ethos that will hopefully keep the Green Man fire burning brightly for many years to come.
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