Set amongst the quite magnificent Brecon Beacons, Green Man has over the last 10 years become something a beacon for Wales and Welsh culture. On arriving at Glanusk Park, which by day is mostly a working farm, you’re greeted by fluttering banners with Croeso i Gymru emblazoned onto them. Indeed, the programme notes thank the “wonderful people of Wales for their enduring support… and the famous warm Welsh welcome that they extend [to everyone]”.
The welcoming and rather genteel atmosphere engrained into Green Man can be seen as you walk through the camp site and onto the festival itself: family upon family can be seen with children of all ages. There’s many a hipster-looking father and hippy-inspired mother with a ringlet of flowers in her hair pushing a trolley through the mud or keeping their eye on a toddler wandering around excitedly – or screaming.
The main Mountain Stage, with the hills behind it providing a handsome backdrop, is the main focal point for most here: rows of camping chairs are occupied and a couple of tents have been set up by those seemingly taking residence here for the day. Natalie Prass is at ease, commenting on how beautiful the surroundings are and sporting a wonderfully large pair of orange-rimmed sunglasses. With mostly clear, sunny skies and bubbles from festival goers’ bubble machines drifting across the stage, My Baby Don’t Understand Me, Bird Of Prey and Christy shimmer. This is gorgeous stuff.
Over at the Far Out tent, Viet Cong provide something rawer and with much more ballast. Bassist and singer Matt Flegel glare penetrates the crowd as he shouts into the microphone, bass jarring and guitar stabbing. Fantastic and loud. Very loud. Death, the final track from this year’s eponymous debut album, seems to last at least 15 minutes, with the interlude involving staccato guitar, bass and drums agonisingly dragged out before launching into a frenzied conclusion. After the set finishes, a recently-born baby, not more than a few months by the looks of it and wearing large blue ear defenders, is carried by its dad through the crowd. It’s completely nonplussed. From the harshest of sounds came a rather absurd image of calm and serenity. Some would say cute.
Back at the Far Out tent and Sun Ra Arkestra are frenziedly setting up, with trumpeter Michael Ray dictating what goes where and who does what. When the Arkestra eventually appear, in full Sun Ra afrofuturist regalia, you’re thrown into their world. Opener Interplanetary Music is all over the place – but yet rather glorious. The eldest member of the Arkestra is the 91-year old Marshall Allen on saxophone, who also acts as the Arkestra’s maestro and supervises the arrangements. At times, he looks a bit bewildered. He grabs something off the floor that looks like an electronic trombone or flute or something that has some sort of modulator at the bottom. It doesn’t work. Michael Ray continually glares at the soundman to the right of the stage and walks over to him, even during songs. Allen attempts several times to see if it works. It doesn’t. Ray gets increasingly frustrated. But then, as if by intergalactic magic, Allen picks it up again and it miraculously fires to life. The wait’s been worth it; the remarkable thing makes equally remarkable, space-age sounds and reveals itself to be an EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument). The thing at the bottom is a wind controller. Either way, it gets the crowd up and everyone basks in the shambolic glory that is Sun Ra Arkestra. At the end, two members of the Arkestra walk through the crowd, playing their trumpets. You’re not sure what you’ve witnessed but it’s up there with the best things you’ve seen in a very long time.
On Saturday, it’s rather difficult to pay attention to Jane Weaver. That isn’t her fault, mind – it’s just that the sky has begun to absolutely chuck it down. Cowering inside a beer tent, Mission Desire filters through the crowd and sounds as lovely as it does on record. Behind you, though, is some 60-odd year old, posh-sounding bloke telling two others “I’ll meet you at Public Service Broad–carst–ing tomorrow”. Children are crying and messing around in front of you. You scowl a bit.
Anyway, following that, it’s always worth mentioning Adam Buxton, especially after seeing him salute the passing of Cilla Black – ‘The Queen’ – with a special rendition of the Royal Wedding Song. His mentioning that Mark E Smith remembers him after bumping into him backstage was equally amusing, too, especially when this comes back to mind. Buxton ends his set by saying he needs to dash off to watch Television and Super Furry Animals.
Talking of which, Television are here doing a rendition of the legendary Marquee Moon. When you see them on-stage, you can’t help but suddenly remember the album cover with the grainy, gaunt face of Tom Verlaine and drummer Billy Ficca’s impressively curly mane. Verlaine doesn’t look as frightening and serious on-stage as he does on the album cover. He twice politely asks for some blue lights on-stage – “Can we have some blue light on-stage please, Mr Lightman?” – and acknowledges happily and with no fuss when this is done. Ficca’s mane is still as curly as ever, if now a rather esteemed shade of grey. Television just get down to business. Nothing flashy. They make it look so effortless, uncomplicated and straightforward. Ficca is so tight on the drums and yet looks so loose. Guitarist Jimmy Rip is a mighty and yet rather languid presence. To the left are mid-teens wondering what the fuss is about, one of whom is bothering some girl in front of him while he swigs some clear liquid from a bottle and a can of cheap bitter; to the right stands a man with a gleeful smile nodding away. He probably owns an original pressing of the album.
There’s a family dimension added to seeing Super Furry Animals. In front are two blokes who have brought along their families – wives, teenage daughters and sons – and who also bump into fellow fans. They’re characteristically wearing faded SFA t-shirts. When the opening moments of Slow Life burst through the speakers, they begin to leap around. Gruff Rhys appears wearing a white jump suit – as do the rest of the band – and he puts on his Power Rangers helmet. During Hello Sunshine, it begins to really throw it down. The irony isn’t lost on Rhys, who shows that typical welcoming, warm smile of his. No-one goes rushing for shelter this time, mind. The rain carries on and on, through glorious Juxtaposed With U and Golden Retriever, with the set finishing with The Man Don’t Give A Fuck and the rain at its heaviest. No fucks were given. This was a truly grand, triumphant homecoming, the SFA families hugging and everyone besides beaming.
But it’s now Sunday and you begin to feel grumpy. It’s been raining for 10 straight hours. Hello Sunshine is now seen as some awful rain-summoning chant. People have been outside talking about coke, pissed. Children are crying and messing around and the tent is reaching saturation point. You remember how much you hate camping at festivals and begin to, perhaps rashly, complain about children and families at festivals. You remember the baby with the ear defenders during Viet Cong. Why? Why carry a baby over to watch Viet Cong?! Dump them at the grandparents’ for the weekend – that’s what they’re there for. You’re tired. These aren’t proper, considered thoughts. These are unfair, perhaps vicious, moments brought on by fatigue. It’s nice families can come to festivals now, isn’t it? The SFA scene was genuinely heartwarming to see. You think that, one day, if and when you have children, you could be one of the SFA dads, passing on your love of music to your younger ones.
But you suddenly hanker for the edginess that Leeds Festival and the riots it once brought. That’s what we need. That’ll bring an end to toddlers at festivals. But that’s akin to some right-winger saying we need a good war to sort the youth of today out. You begin to pack up things to dump in the car so you can have a quick getaway after St Vincent this evening. But there’s mud of Glastonbury proportions. After reaching the car and dumping the chairs and everything else you didn’t need to bring with you into the boot, you see a graphic designer type with his two pre-school children. “Did you have a great holiday?! Daddy had a lovely time!” You throw your chewing gum into the mud. “Festivals are not Center Parcs,” you think to yourself. “What are festivals now for?” You remind yourself that you shouldn’t go home early because St Vincent and Father John Misty are on later, so you head into the local village for a nice pint of cider and some football to calm yourself down. It’s only mud and skewed thinking.
Some have said that J Tillman – aka Father John Misty – is something of a John Grant rip-off. Yet by the end of his set, that thought has truly gone away. Live, he’s a cross between Jarvis Cocker and Nick Cave: at times sexy, dangerous, overly-confident but with hint of real vulnerability thrown in. From the off with I Love You, Honeybear you’re taken in by his seductive presence. It’s near-impossible to take your eyes off him. The Father moniker is apt: there is something rather preacheresque about him. He throws himself onto the stage floor, he climbs down to the barrier several times and verbally spars and jostles with the crowd. In other moments, like during Chateau Lobby #4 (in C For Two Virgins) and Bored In The USA, a sense of anxiety and frailty appear. The confidence seems a front at times. There’s an emotional purity that seeps through.
Then, when St Vincent brings the festival to a close, the almost rash decision to head home makes you feel ridiculous. Seeing her finely choreographed performance (you can’t help but feel David Byrne has had some influence here) and guitarist Toko Yasuda at times mirroring her every move is compelling to say the least: it’s as if Yasuda is representative of Clark’s alter-ego. Indeed, the stage presence at times takes precedence over the music itself (it goes without saying that Rattlesnake, Digital Witness and Cruel sound outstanding this evening). There’s a moment in which Clark says this performance is for “the dominatrixes and the dominated”. You certainly feel like the latter when under her presence (her black outfit does have something of a dominatrix feel to it as well). The transformation from Polyphonic Spree member to someone who oozes artistic freedom, creativity and, let’s be honest, sex, is astonishing. You can’t help but wonder where she will go next.
With that, you head back to the car, somehow get it through foot-deep mud, and let the weekend’s truly outstanding performances wash away ill-thoughts about mud, rain, camping, babies forced to watch Viet Cong and whether festivals are in the midst of an existential crisis. Marquee Moon will sustain you on the three-hour drive home as you head for signs saying Welcome to England.