Each August, deep in the beautiful Brecon hills, something wonderful stirs. The Green Man Festival, now fourteen years old, is not only surviving but flourishing by virtue of an imaginative booking policy, quality food and drink, and a commitment to creating a convivial atmosphere for all concerned. Of course, it’s essentially all about the music and here’s a broad overview of what was found over the weekend. Some great, some good and some disappointing, but a terrific package overall.
Thursday’s short opening timetable saw the semi-legendary Meatraffle as first cab off the rank, fusing a post punk sound with jazz, dub and free form experimentation which at first stunned but eventually beguiled onlookers. Later in the evening a sensational set by Melbourne surf-metal outfit King Gizard and the Lizard Wizard really got the party started, an unrelenting triple guitar riff offensive with the speakers set high. A pulsating, extended ‘Robot Stop’, reprised towards the end of the set, was one of the picks of the whole weekend. Although the dreadfully conceived band name suggests a comic sideshow, King Gizard are certainly not fooling around. Sadly, but inevitably, Kendal’s Wild Beasts looked pale by comparison having to follow them, their lightweight songs drifting into the night air untroubled by audience engagement. Along with Warpaint’s Sunday evening show – another band with a reputation that wasn’t enhanced here – Wild Beasts were the major disappointment on the main stages. In both cases it was clear that something integrity-bound and thoughtful was going on, but it was presented with such a degree of cloying earnestness that it was difficult to fully connect. A bit like watching a party political broadcast by the Green Party.
Calling a band “promising” or “a decent little live outfit” are rather unsubtle and patronizing euphemisms which strongly suggest that a short time kept in the company of the artists in question may be inoffensive enough, but no further exploration of their recorded catalogue will be forthcoming. Belfast trio Sea Pinks were the recipient of several such expressions, their tuneful pop well enough received but displaying insufficient range to be fully convincing. Hackney four piece Gengahr were a step up in this respect, with stronger songs and Felix Bushe’s high register vocal delivery offering the material a more tangible cutting edge, whilst the very listenable Australian indie three piece Palace Winter are another band who boosted their profile at Green Man.
The more established, upper bill names didn’t disappoint on Friday. Jason Isbell’s work may be hewn into the fabric of the great country tradition, but his unflinchingly honest lyrical content and powerful presence easily overcome genre restrictions. Evergreen Houston festival favourites White Denim have lost a guitarist, added a keyboard player and developed a more rounded, soulful sound which was showcased in this year’s “Stiff” album and rolled out very successfully here, with vocalist James Petralli effortlessly and impressively moving into falsetto areas to accommodate the new approach.
If Friday was good, then Saturday was the mother lode. The Tim Buckley/John Martyn comparisons that have been liberally thrown in Ryley Walker’s direction since the release of 2015’s ‘Primrose Green’ haven’t proved outlandish as his sensational late afternoon set showed. His powerful, semi improvised performance, set in a hinterland somewhere between jazz and folk was as invigorating as it was intense.
For the sake of journalistic honesty I would have to admit that even if Michael Rother had stunk out the Far Out stage in his early evening slot I would, for old times’ sake, have said it was great. As it happens no such subterfuge is necessary as Rother, drawing from his work with the peerless NEU!, Harmonia and Cluster produced a masterclass. Clearly anticipating audience response, Rother set aside his ambient back catalogue in favour of a full motorik onslaught, with his buzz saw guitar augmenting the wonderful, powerhouse drummer Hans Lampe to provide an hour of pulsating, irresistible rhythms.
I developed an interest in Battles several years ago via an EP and the consequent ‘Mirrored’ at about the same time that I started listening to Godspeed! You Black Emperor, clearly feeling my life was missing a little bombast. Needless to say, Battles provided it again on Saturday evening. The formula is well enough known by now – digital melodies hammered into shape, if not the stratosphere, by percussionist John Stanier, – although it now looks a little worn and I spent most of the time simply gawking in admiration at Stanier’s immense talent.
And so to the late night, 1.15am slot and Peckham’s irrepressible Fat White Family. Everybody knows the reputation and the backstory by now, so no need to say anything other than this band are every bit as good as I had anticipated, and then some. The paradoxes on show – the band’s shambolic appearance which belies their tight playing, the cartoonish swagger with the underlying sense of danger, the anger and hilarity – add to the power of the performance and the glorious, uncomplicated, anthemic songs to make an incendiary mix. The Quietus’s ever reliable John Doran unswervingly refers to them as the best rock and roll band in the world and it would be churlish to disagree, other than to say that they may be the only rock and roll band in the world right now, certainly if you cherish the true spirit of the thing.Sunday’s highlight – just edging the honour over Slow Club’s impressive tempo changes – was an engaging time spent in the company of Kevin Morby, whose recent low-fi classic ‘Singing Saw’ album was showcased extensively. Comparisons with Kurt Vile’s similarly loose approach are obvious, however both artists are latest points in the graph begun by the likes of the Grateful Dead, which, taking in recent revisionist ideas, isn’t nearly as unsavory a notion as it might have appeared a year or two ago.
So that was Green Man 2016, well part of it anyway. The festival arrangement almost inevitably means that sets are overlooked due to timetable clashes, so I managed to miss what were apparently great performances by Kalasi Washington, Moonlandingz and Malian crowd pleasers Songhoy Blues. I need to catch them all somewhere along the line. Given the festival’s propensity for enticing artists back to the site – this was, for example, James Blake’s fourth appearance here – it may even be same place next year.