One genuinely feels for the teams behind the UK’s aesthetic-driven independent festivals; enormous, painstaking effort is typically put into creating a true escape from the suffocating rat-race of the attendees’ day jobs or university degrees, and in the blink of an eye the whole thing can be irrevocably dampened (har har) by the arrival of enough rain to turn a once-gorgeous site into an impassable quagmire. Such was the sad truth of the tenth Green Man Festival, which was pelted with enough rain on its first night to mean that by dawn on the first day the luscious greenery of Glanusk Park, nestled between the breathtaking slopes of the Black Mountains, was given a miserable brown hue. Aside from a few disgruntled families loudly announcing that they were going home on Friday morning, however, the general spirit of the stalwart stewards and 13,000+ attendees was infectiously, miraculously cheerful.
Stomping back across the rolling site, the sun breaks out for the first time all day as the hopelessly upbeat sound of King Charles rings out across the festival from the Mountain Stage, where the weekend’s biggest acts are set to appear surrounded by a huge semi-circle of tiered grassy slopes, creating almost an awe-inspiring natural amphitheatre – one of the festival’s most unique assets. The sun doesn’t last, however – before we know it, the skies have cracked once more as we drag ourselves back up the slopes for an appearance from Heavenly darlings TOY on the Far Out stage, whose apocalyptically loud, grungy act is eyebrow-raisingly similar to that of Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine. It’s certainly enjoyable, however; the band’s energy is not to be sniffed at, with hair and sweat flying in all directions from the word go.
Back at the bottom of the site, Slow Club appear almost meekly on the Mountain Stage to a crowd grateful for a set of real down-to-earth-ness after what could certainly be described as a rather intense morning – one that included watching a ten-piece band perform a set powered by an audience on bicycles. The pair’s set is lovely and chilled, and inspires an exasperated ripple of laughter as they coo the fitting line “You’ve got to be outside to get caught in the rain”. We stick around here to catch a truly joyous interlude from The Felice Brothers, whose booming, accordion and violin-heavy American folk-rock seems almost responsible for keeping the rain at bay as the ecstatic audience are bathed in colourful lights whilst daylight slips away behind the mountains.
As the darkness sets in, Lucy Rose takes playfully to the Walled Garden stage – a small outdoor space nestled towards the back of an enclosure of high stone walls, complete with colourful streamers, a bar and a place to get the best venison burger you’ll ever taste – and what an atmosphere she creates. The crowd collectively holding their breath at the fragility of Lucy’s voice is a strange juxtaposition against how completely believable she is. We’re pleasantly surprised; live, the typical comparisons to Laura Marling simply do not apply – the diminutive singer-songwriter persona that comes across in her studio recordings is complimented by layers and layers of fundamental energy and assuredness, along with an underlying delicacy that feels as though it could be shattered by a butterfly flapping its wings. Magical.
We haven’t really seen magnificence today, though; not yet. “You’re about to see a legendary band” says the hilariously excited announcer on the main stage, as he introduces the four greying Scots that make up Mogwai, and, well, he’s pretty much spot on. Somebody seems to have gone to the ends of the earth to ensure that the predominantly instrumental powerhouse are louder than anything else we’ve seen all day – hell, maybe even ever – and it shakes the festival down to its very core. From muddy catchiness of ‘Rano Pano’ to the delicately initiated ‘I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead’, it’s a hell of a spectacle. There’s nothing quite like seeing a few thousand people jump a foot in the air after the cruelly long buildup of ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ drops without warning into the loudest, most blinding display of the weekend.
Come Saturday morning, we traipse through the ever-thickening mud to see a smorgasbord of folky loveliness from The Staves, who work around cooed three-part harmonies in a style that’s altogether more velvety and welcoming than their peers. The crowd loudly belt out a ‘Happy Birthday’ for the drummer, and laugh easily at the effortlessly funny monologues the girls engage them in.
It’s a brilliant start to the day, and is the perfect warmup for one of the most outstanding performances of the weekend – Scottish solo artist RM Hubbert. The bear-like guitarist sits astride the Walled Garden stage with a Spanish guitar and leads a deathly quiet and transfixed audience through a set that feels like watching the first time you heard a teacher at school talk about something they loved that you knew was really damn important. For the most part, the pieces are instrumental – that is to say, they’re complex and beautiful, but unaccompanied – but occasionally the man sings or speaks a story in his gruff Glaswegian voice that could bring tears of both joy and sadness to anybody’s eyes.
As the first true sun of the day breaks out, the dulcet tones of Dark Dark Dark drift from the Mountain Stage to a crowd that, for the first time all weekend, is willing to risk sitting down and getting comfortable. The sound is slow, warming and, well, dark, and the audience lap it up. Surprisingly, our next stop is in Einstein’s Garden – a section of the festival dedicated to activities, books, educational stalls and enormous hula hoops, which is all looking ravishing in the warm evening sun – for an appearance by Emperor Yes, a collaboration between members of Summer Camp and Three Trapped Tigers. It’s quite a fascinatingly scientific sound – as if drummer Adam Best’s noise-rock three-piece were jamming with Sunny Day Real Estate – and it suits the Garden right down to the ground. Certainly an outfit to watch in the future.
Van Morrison’s appearance is enormously good fun. The 66 year-old singer and saxophonist draws hordes of sun-kissed festival-goers to the Mountain Stage, as children and adults alike take part in mud-sliding at breakneck speeds down the tiered slopes that surround it. Van and his band are everything you’d expect – professional, clean and incredibly danceable, and believe it or not, the man himself is leaving the festival in a helicopter before an incredible rendition of ‘Gloria’ is finished – one hell of a ‘because I can’ moment.
Back in the Walled Garden Laura J Martin appears with her flute and mandolin to wow a small crowd with some of the smoothest looping we’ve ever seen. Stealing Sheep return the favour by appearing alongside her briefly to accompany a wonderfully playful set that feels rather like watching a Disney cartoon as a child.
You never know quite what experiences will stick with you, but of one thing we’re very sure – we won’t be forgetting Yann Tiersen’s explosive set in a hurry. The prolific French composer – famed predominantly by his Amelie and Good Bye Lenin! soundtracks - leaves jaws hanging with a set boasting blistering progressive folk rock and more unusual equipment between himself and his five-piece band than the average musician would begin to know what to do with. “Here’s a love song” he says with a grin. “It’s called ‘Fuck Me.’” He looks wonderfully ‘the part’ of the scruffy French genius, sporting a horizontally striped shirt and a rather ruffled appearance, as he practically tears his bow to shreds on the strings of his violin and smiles sheepishly at the gales of rapturous screams and applause he musters.
One man, however, draws the true focus of the crowds tonight; The Tallest Man on Earth. Everybody, from the fans in tears against the barrier to the starry-eyed photographers in the pit, is openly moved by Kristian Matsson’s animalistic solo appearance on the Far Out stage. It brings light to the moniker; he manages to appear giant-like despite, as many will joke, his ironically average height, leading the packed-out tent in exhilarated singalongs of ‘Where Do My Bluebirds Fly’ and ‘King of Spain’.
The enigma that is Alt-J is unraveled on Sunday afternoon. The four-piece are completely suited to a live setting, and draw a crowd to Far Out that fills the marquee and spills out onto the surrounding field that is swathed in the hottest sunshine of the weekend so far. Coupled with the warm, note-perfect tones of the band, this feels finally like a moment of pure summer.
There’s a lovely treat in the Walled Garden next from a nervous-looking Paul Thomas Saunders. He’s young, impossibly fresh-faced and, once he starts to sing, spellbinding. It’s another refreshing take on the standard singer-songwriter formula, with an equipment-heavy backing band and a mournful yet undeniably pretty sound that is surely destined for far bigger stages.
Three Trapped Tigers seem slightly out of place amongst the folk and indie-heavy lineup, but their set on the Far Out stage is as impressive as ever. A scorching rendition of ‘6’ leaves the small crowd reeling, and whilst it’s an unfortunate truth that the sound balance towards the end of the set was horribly in favour of the bass, the band prove once again to be one of the most jaw-dropping British artists of recent years.
As afternoon turns to evening, euphoric feel-good brilliance is delivered by tUnE-yArDs, with a jittery and super-cool set of fast looping from frontwoman Merrill Garbus and chaotic saxophone jamming. The whole thing is infuriatingly upbeat behind Merrill’s deliciously distinctive voice, and the vast, adoring crowd are treated to the encore they call out for. It’s another colossal win for the women on the lineup as darkness falls, with a show from the illustrious Daughter in the Walled Garden, who deliver the sweetest, most melodic indie-folk we’ve heard all weekend. It’s charming, grown-up and full of both incredible grit and exquisite delicacy.
We make one last trip to the Mountain Stage in a lethargic state of exhaustion and witness the big closer; Feist, who sports a band that fills the whole stage and a banner behind her emblazoned with ‘FREE PUSSY RIOT!’ The legendary singer’s set is not quite as grand as we would have hoped, but her efforts to involve the crowd by, for example, assigning harmonies to those camped in red tents and those camped in blue, make for a rather surreal experience that epitomises the shared festival spirit. Her rich voice is simple and effective, and the higgelty-piggelty mass of equipment on stage gives the performance a very laid-back 70s vibe – in fact we hear a voice next to us exclaim ‘Christ, I feel like I’m watching Fleetwood Mac’.
The night isn’t quite over, however – not before the festival has had his last hurrah. Thousands traipse up the slopes as Feist closes with an oddly subdued number for the yearly fireworks display and spectacular burning of The Green Man to mark the closing of his tenth birthday, which quite literally inspires ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as the monstrously high flames lick the sky against a backdrop of dazzling explosions. As the mammoth frame crashes slowly to the ground the majority of the festival-goers head back to their tents for one last night of damp sleep while the more energetic attendees filter into Chai Wallah’s gorgeous marquee to dance into the wee hours.
Green Man Festival 2012 has been as it always has and always will be – a hugely memorable experience. It’s a testament to the event’s outstanding organisation, and intrepid spirit of those responsible for keeping it going, that despite mud, you would struggle to find a face that wasn’t about to crack into a big ol’ smile.