Live Music + Gig Reviews

Festival Review: Green Man 2011

21 August 2011

The weather makes all the difference at any festival, but particularly at Green Man, with the spectacular backdrop of the Brecon Beacons framing the main stage and a festival site festooned with lakes, open air sculptures (Pagan god of fertility or inflatable elephant take your pick), acres of space to chill out in and even a ferris wheel to help wile away the hours. Last year was knee deep in mud (and freezing) but this year is the opposite with baking sun that help to turn the happy vibes up to 11.

Under any conditions, Green Man is one of the UKs better festivals. Small enough to feel intimate, large enough to have enough variety to suit a wide(ish) range of tastes, with a bill tilted towards the psychedelic/post-rock end of folkishness, some of the best food stalls around, and a natural amphitheatre from which to look over the main stage from the comfort of a camping chair. Its what Glastonbury could have been if it had ever thought to keep its size and ego under control.

Even though parts of the site have been open since Monday, by the Friday morning everything is still neat and tidy, largely free of litter with tents comfortably spaced around its several campsite areas. Head into the main arena arena, and in addition to the main stage area theres the wonderfully intimate and cosy Green Man stage, located in the corner of a walled garden filled with pub garden benches and the best elderflower cordial youll ever find; the comedy and literature tent/cinema tent field, where the delights on offer include everything from existential East European childrens animation shorts to a daily music quiz. Head over to the Far Out stage, past ferris wheels, giant mirrors and the Green Man wicker sculpture, or spend time face-painting, drumming and pretending to be a dragon in the Future Generation kids area (pre-teen party member preferred).

Then of course, theres the music. This years bill seems much better thought through and planned than 2010s, when Joanna Newsom fell flat in the pouring rain before a crowd so cold they could no longer feel their toes. From main stage openers Will & The People, accessible folk-pop winners of the 2011 Green Poll whose first album is only available in digital format, to the dirty stomping Americana of Sunday night closers Iron & Wine, the bill weaves its way through the more interesting side of alt.folk, psychedelia and post-rock with a perfect balance of each, intermingled with more traditional performers.

The mix is everything, its eclecticness allowing each performer to show their strengths and shine. At the Cambridge Folk Festival, the overbearing sameness of traditional fiddle-based folk meant that by the time Bellowhead arrived, the audience would have been more interested in something else but here, their multi-instrumental blend of folk, funk, bagpipes, jazz and fun works perfectly, setting the scene for the post-rock grandeur of Explosions In The Sky. Before them, Robyn Hitchcock charms the crowd with a blend of his own tunes and covers from The Beatles and Captain Beetheart while on the Far Out Stage Holy Fuck are making their unholy noise well away from the sensitive ears of the Green Mans plethora of small children.

Talking of which, while Green Man is a wonderfully family-friendly festival all round, if there are times when its easier to offload the kids, Boutique Babysitting is thoroughly recommended. Drop the kids off during the daytime sessions and there are a host of activities on hand (so much so they probably wont even notice the rents have gone); drop them off in the evening and the qualified nursery staff will ensure they get enough playtime to wear them out before winding them down, snuggling them up to sleep and getting them ready to hand back over, zonked out in their pushchairs and ready to roll, at the end of the night. The service doesnt come cheap but its very much a case of you get what you pay for, with faultless staff, a pager in case you do need to be called back and kids provided with something they would clearly much rather do than sit in front of James Blake clutching their ear-defenders.

Saturday morning activities start with a music quiz in what, at other times, is the comedy/literature tent. It seems both easier and less time-consuming than last year, but theres no shortage of takers despite the good weather outside. After that, theres plenty to choose from between the three music stages, comedy, literature and cinema. Try Laura J Martin (not a typo, and note the middle initial, though a decent amount of the audience seem to have missed this she must be so sick of it!) on the Green Man pub stage, whose distinctive voice may not be to everyones tastes, but makes her one of the more unique performers on a varied and excellent bill. Later in the evening, James Yorkston will deliver a fantastic, semi-autobiographical performance of his whisky-soaked, dark folk dreams backed by an impressive cast of willing accomplices. Its unusual to see him with a full band plus additional extras, but it certainly works.

In between, a wander round the festival will provide the delights of gloom-meister Josh T Pearson and the post-jazz splendour of Seb Rochfords Polar Bear in the Far Out stage (ironic, really, as Polar Bear is one of the more accessible of his many projects), a welcome undercover venue as the only downpour of the weekend threatens to dampen the perfection before the Gods of nature think better of it and bring back the sun. Shame then that Noah And The Whale fall a little flat on the main stage; maybe theyd work better in a smaller space, but something doesnt work. To follow, Fleet Foxes outstay their welcome, as though trying to prove they can take on anything any folk/prog/post-rock champions can throw at them by noodling away far too much for far too long. Sensible punters are letting Destroyer or James Yorkston tail-end their day.

So, to Sunday. The weather manages to get even better, with blazing sunshine so scorching it might be time to complain its too hot to be sitting in a shadeless field, but when the bill is so good at least theres no need to break a sweat by actually moving. James Blake, Laura Marling, The Low Anthem and Iron & Wine, all in a row. All are fabulous: Blakes crushing bass somehow actually works in the sun, Laura Marling sends everyone demented with dancing, before The Low Anthem chill out the audience just when they need it. Iron & Wine prove to be the perfect headliner to what has been a wonderful festival. After which, of course, its back up to the outskirts of the festival to watch the burning of the Green Man sculpture and the accompanying fireworks.

Yes, the weather has helped, but what makes Green Man great is so much more than that. Its the sense of space and intimacy at the same time, the eclectic bill that fits together so well it never jars nor seems repetitive, along with a feeling of friendliness that welcomes the audience to the kind of party not all festivals think to throw. The sea of camping chairs lining the main stage arena, the tidy and never overcrowded campsites and the wealth of excellent food on offer add up to something very special. With festivals like this, theres no need to waste time mourning the absence of Glastonbury next year.

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