I have never been to Wales when it hasn’t rained. “Neither have many Welsh people,” piped up one festival goer I was chatting to. And indeed, on the Friday night through into Saturday evening, there was a pretty much constant deluge. It’s pointless to dwell on the mud, so I won’t, but soggy clothes and soggy people led to some pretty interesting aromas, especially in the steaming, and packed because of the rain, Folkey Dokey Tent.
It was here than many gathered first thing on Saturday to witness a couple of bands – one ebullient and celebratory, the other more gentle and dripping with mystique. Moon Music Orchestra are a collective who are the house band of the Gladstone in Borough, London, and without compromise play an unashamed Americana/Appalachian tunes complete with mandolins and banjos. While on paper they should fulfil all the horrendous ‘English band playing country’ stereotypes, they actually pulled it off very well indeed – a bunch of accomplished musicians playing a music that while relatively remote to them, they love all the same. It helped that they were decked out like they might be in The Magnificent Seven – everyone loves a cowboy.
Following Moon Music Orchestra were Thistletown. This ‘folk Abba‘ live on a boat in Cornwall and have recently recorded an album with Michael Tyack of psych-rock pixies Circulus. Two girls with untrained but sugar-sweet voices and a couple of guys who look straight out of Arthurian myth performed traditional songs both English and European, with Tyack himself emerging from backstage to add some primeval wailing to a couple of numbers.
Later than afternoon in the Folkey Dokey were The General and Duchess Collins, the only band all festival who really didn’t hit the spot, bland indie-rock seeming ever so incongruous among all these flower children, so it was to the main stage to check out The Broken Family Band. Cambridge’s answer to the Cowboy Junkies have some nice pop songs, but also a propensity to sing in an irritatingly affected New England accent, before resorting to home counties joviality in between-song banter. Nevertheless, if you closed your eyes when they played and blocked your ears when they spoke, The Broken Family Band did more than enough to deserve their place on the bill.
The best band in the world were on next. Really. Throughout Vetiver‘s set one Joanna Newsom, in the arms of Bill Callahan, stood enraptured backstage and emitted a throaty yodel as applause every time Andy Cabic and his band ended a song. Vetiver guided us through the highlights of their masterpiece album, To Find Me Gone, Idle Ties and You May Be Blue particularly stunning. New songs emerged, such as Sister, and a cover of Hawkwind’s Hurry On Sundown. Cabic was spotted earlier queuing for Goan seafood, and watching Victoria Williams from the wings at the Green Man Caf about an hour after Vetiver had completely owned the main stage.
Victoria Williams, as crazy as hell, is a very special woman. Outdoing even Newsom for an idiosyncratic vocal style, she writes stunning loves songs of a kind that evoke her native Arizona – all with a chirpy charisma that belies her suffering from MS. Despite some sound problems, Williams found an affectionate audience in front of her, despite the big draws of Richmond Fontaine and James Yorkston on other stages. Sparse, happy, sad American folk music at its most endearing.
Aww. More fragility was on the main stage that evening in the shape of Vashti Bunyan. We are now, unfortunately, at the point where Vashti overkill is a real possibility. She has had an interesting (and no more) life, and writes quite beautiful lullabies. However, they are very thin when performed live, and she suffers from a voice so soft that often her audience must strain to listen. Could it be that Vashti Bunyan is slightly overrated?
Robert Plant, headlining, pulled out a few Zeppelin familiars, including Going To California, Whole Lotta Love and a Black Dog verging on boogie-woogie. His band, the Strange Sensation, are the typical outrageously talented but slightly soulless ensemble that back ‘legends’ today. His recent solo material very much stands up, to the point that at times he might have persisted with it more. But let’s face it, he was never going to get with doing that in front of a festival crowd.
It seemed the rain was easing by the time Plant finished, but the mist descended instead – the natural setting for Green Man. There was nowhere in the galaxy anyone would rather have been.