I can't imagine better compensation for enduring relentless downpours and trudging through endless mud-slicks for an entire weekend than being treated to some of the best live musicaround in one of the most magical settings in the country. Last weekend was my second time at the Green Man festival, and this year was even better than the last - which was pretty damned good! We arrived lateish on the Friday night, driving straight from work, and so missed most of the Friday acts. Though we were just in time to see Tunng, an affable 'folktronica' set-up, whowere attempting to raise people's waterlogged spirits by appearing in Hawaiian shirts and throwing beach balls into the crowd. Last time I witnessed a band attempt this kind of stunt at a festival (The Levellers, Glastonbury 1997), they were repaid with heartless mud-slinging! But Tunng kept the audience happy with their Kings-of-Convenience-meets-Captain twiddly-pop-folk, and the occasional comedy rock-out moment. Anything had to be better than the alternative on the main stage – the incensingly contrived Joanna Newsom – and it seemed most of Tunng's fans agreed. I actually overheard one guy say to his friend - who was departing to catch the last of the grating harpstress's set - (in a simultaneously sulky and jeering voice) “Go on then, enjoy your warbling...”.
Tunng in the Folkey-Dokey tent
After a deliciously reviving Saturday brunch at the Thali Café, we watched the Moon Music Orchestra before popping down to Crickhowell (the local village) to replace my wellies, which had unfortunately split just as the rain decided to settle in for the day. After lunch we saw the distinctly forgettable PG Six and the crowd-pleasing Broken Family Band, during which I spotted a fellow Brightonian in the audience – a friend of a friend who I've met a couple of times at parties. In true festival spirit I bounded over and introduced myself, much to his and his companion's bemusement. But once we'd established the connection, we got chatting and agreed to meet up later. Feeling pleasantly invigorated by this point, I fancied a boogie, so we decided to give the DJ tent a go. Peter Fowler was playing a mad mix of prog-rock and happy-house, and we threw ourselves into the throng with gusto, managing to take photos and dance at the same time! Justin Spear (of Freakzone fame, and son of the Bonzos Roger Ruskin Spear) was up next on the decks, and continued with an appropriately eccentric set, of which some uber-cool French lounge sticks most in my memory.
Dancers in the Rumpus Room
70s folk-legend Vashti Bunyan provided the perfect wind-down after all that dancing, and we sat on the hillside letting her soothingly ethereal vocals wash over us. Earlier in the day we'd spotted a mammoth bonfire being built in a tucked-away field, and this provided the perfect escape from the cringe-makingly cheesy Robert Plant, who was headlining the main stage. Eagerly soaking up the warmth of the now roaring fire, we sat listening to a guy nearby lecturing his genuinely enraptured friends on the secret life of bees. This set the tone for a wonderfully sociable evening of surreal banter, raucous laughter and plenty of spontaneous entertainment. There's something so primal about sitting with friends, or strangers, round a campfire. It seems to bring out one's tribal instinct, and in this case, enhanced the already convivial atmosphere of possibly the friendliest festival I've ever attended. Michael and Steve (the Brighton boys we'd bumped into earlier) joined us, making the experience all the more special - forging new friendships in such a magical context is a rare pleasure indeed. 4am rolled round before we knew it, and most of our gang decided to knock it on the head, leaving Michael about to get in on some energetic drum-jamming that was going down - and apparently he stuck it out til sunrise – respect!
Michael, Steve & Ant, bonding by the fire
Sunday brought a welcome end to the rain, and a fitful lie-in, during which I kept catching bizarre snippets of conversation, such as: “we've had a gazebo incident” outside the tent. Another hearty breakfast (this time from the Chai café) improved our mild jadedness no end, and set us up for a day of more outstanding musical exploits. First up were Soft Hearted Scientists, followed by the unsigned, but excellent Laughing Windows, who impressed with some mesmerising psychedelic prog-rock in the Do Make Say Think (but with vocals) mould. I'd been looking forward to introducing Ant to Misty's Big Adventure (who Jen and I had loved at last year's festival), and was pleased to see that they'd graduated to the main stage this year - where their infectious exuberance was given more room to breathe. We bundled right up to the front to get the full force of the Misty's experience, and so that I could take some snaps on my newly purchased Nikon D40x (geek alert!).
Misty's Big Adventure
A crazy mix of jazz, pop, klezmer and general madness, Misty's are perhaps the closest thing we have to the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band on the contemporary scene. With amusingly acerbic lyrics and freak-out catchy choruses, complete with trippy stage dancing from the Blue-Meany-esque mascot Erotic Volvo, they were the perfect Sunday afternoon reviver, and a welcome antidote to many of the more downbeat folksters. Not that there's anything wrong with downbeat folksters, as The Yellow Moon Band proved with their softly meandering prog-outs. Man of the moment Malcolm Middleton provided the soundtrack to Ant's afternoon nap on the hillside, while I happily people-watched and snapped away with my new toy, soaking up the mellow atmosphere and laughing at kids rolling down the hill and giving each other presents of mud-cakes.
The indisputable, and unexpected, highlight of my festival was delivered by My Brightest Diamond, whose lead singer Shara Worden oozes the kind of effortless rock 'n roll sex appeal that most artists can only dream about. Her arrestingly eerie rendition of Edith Piaf's Hymne L'Amour sent shivers down the collective spine of the audience, and left me visibly breathless and incapable of meaningful speech for a good while afterwards. Defying comparison, MBD mix elements of opera, cabaret and rock to astounding effect. Currently on tour in Europe (for dates/venues see: http://www.mybrightestdiamond.com/) - I strongly urge you to go and see them for yourself – you won't be disappointed!
The strikingly sexy and talented Shara Worden
After such an exhilarating performance, I was in need of something a little less intense, and John Renbourn provided the ideal tonic for my (pleasantly) battered senses. The jovial old-timer was on form as he captivated a packed-out tent of appreciative fans, young and old, with some classic old-school folk. Up at the Green Man Café (a paved area with a bar, reminiscent of Edinburgh Festival's Pleasance Courtyard), Canadian songstress Jill Barber coaxed the crowd up with friendly banter, to appreciate her pleasant Martha-Wainwright-ish ballads. The one act I had been dying to see, Devendra Banhart, turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax in the wake of my earlier musical epiphany. Certainly he has charisma, and plenty of rock 'n roll attitude, not to mention an impressively luxuriant mane, but I found much of the material he chose to perform with his band rather bland in comparison with the more acoustic folky stuff I've grown to love. Thankfully, what he lacked in musical impressiveness, he more than made up for in photogenicality (is that even a real word?) and I snapped some of my best shots of the festival during his set – which was also our last gig before driving home, shattered but replete. It had been a memorable weekend of musical discovery and sensory stimulation – great food, genial company, stunning scenery and an outstandingly mellow vibe (not a sniff of aggro, or a police officer to be seen, all weekend), all went a long way to ensuring that Green Man is a cut above the average festival, and I sincerely hope it stays that way for many years to come.
The Green Man: Devendra Banhart
The Green Man Festival
Green Man - a Flickr photoset
My Brightest Diamond at Green Man - video on YouTube