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LIVE REPORT: Festival No. 6
Andy Thomas , September 28th, 2012 06:27

Andy Thomas headed to Portmeirion in Wales for the inaugural Festival No. 6, and uncovered a raft of hidden delights over the course of an occasionally rain-soaked weekend

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"Cherish the Past, Adorn the Present, Construct for the Future."
Clough Williams-Ellis 1925

If not exactly in crisis, then the UK festival scene has certainly had to wake up to reality over the last few years. While Bestival and Green Man are amongst a handful of events that have managed to grow while retaining the spirit of the early days, others have been sunk by commercialism and tired programming.  Although there has been a rise in smaller festivals presenting something different to the mainstream, many of those have struggled to become sustainable.

With the recession and the growth of European festivals just two of the other factors in this changing landscape, it's clear that the events that will survive are the ones that offer an alternative. Arriving at Portmeirion for the inaugural Festival No. 6 we had high expectations of finding that alternative as we wandered through the piazza, where early arrivals were making best use of the deckchairs and real ale bar. You didn't have to be a fan of The Prisoner (the sixties TV series filmed in the dreamlike village) to be excited by the prospect of a weekend of alternative art and culture amongst the woods and surreal village created in the 1920s by architect Clough Williams-Ellis.

But the magical backdrop that organisers promised would offer "nature and eccentricity in equal measure" would not be the only thing that made this festival unique as events unfolded over the three days. Following a weekend that saw main stage headliners like Primal Scream and Spiritualised eclipsed by understated acoustic performances, and book readings and daytime raves mingling as naturally as the neoclassical Italian houses and old Welsh woodland, the Quietus looks back at some of our highlights of this festival with a difference.

Six things about No.6

A taste of Welsh rare beat

With a healthy respect for the local music scene, Friday in the Alfresco Ballroom was given over to the Welsh underground. Through their Welsh Rare Beat compilation series on Finders Keepers, Gruff Rhys and Andy Votel have profiled some of the amazing but largely overlooked (at least over the border) music that came out on the Sain label during the late 60s and early 70s.

Inspiring a new generation of Welsh musicians, the elders of this scene were to mingle with the new school in an inspiring day of alternative music. Opening the afternoon was a triumvirate of the new Welsh scene, with the avant-electronic pulse of R. Seiliog, the jangling folk of H. Hawkline and a Welsh language set by Cate Le Bon. But it was the collaboration between the new school and the old guard that really took our breath away, as the dark folk of 9Bach was augmented by the spine-tingling voice of Heather Jones, one of a holy trinity of Welsh singers alongside Meic Stevens and Geraint Jarman. When Jones launched into the freaky folk of 'Can O Dristwch' it was clear why she is held in awe by the likes of Gruff Rhys. 

Rhys himself, a man who has done so much to promote the music of his homeland, earned his moment to shine when he took to the stage to perform songs from his classic LP Yr Atal Genhedlaeth. By the time local folk hero Meic Stevens quietly began his set of songs from the cultish LPs Outlander and Gwynmon there had been more than a few in the crowd converted. For a different taste of Welsh culture you could head down to the piazza where every night the Brythoniaid Male Voice Choir brought proceedings in the village to a close with their inspired recital of 'Blue Monday'.


Andrew Weatherall in discussion

Balearic beats down on the beach

While New Order's Bernard Sumner sang of walking down to the beach in their closing set on Sunday, the white sands of Cardigan Bay had enticed us much earlier. One of the co-promoters of No. 6 (including the people behind Snowbombing and The Warehouse Project), Electric Elephant, has been at the forefront in the growth of European beach festivals. When they first saw the beautiful beach in the shadow of the Snowdonia hills, they must have had a similar response to when Clough Williams-Ellis came across "the neglected wilderness" back in the 1920s.

To set up some Technics overlooking the beach was probably a natural move for a collective that had previously swapped a dark basement in Manchester (where their legendary Electric Chair parties took place from the mid 90s) for the sparkling Adriatic Coast. While North Wales in mid-September was never going to offer the same level of sunshine as Croatia in high summer, when the sun did break through the clouds onto the estuary to the sounds of Carly Simon's 'Why', it was about as good as it gets. Balearic Wales? – you bet! 

This was just one stage programmed by Electric Elephant, with the late night dance tents providing sessions from the likes of A Love From Out of Space and Lowlife. But it was down in the estuary in the daytime where most of the magic happened, in front of Portmeirion's famous Stone Boat. That was as much to do with the folk from Caught by The River as the neighbouring dance action from Horse Meat Disco and Guy Williams, amongst others.


British Sea Power

Heavenly sounds in the estuary

Following on from their stage at the Port Eliot Festival, the nature meets pop culture blog Caught By The River collaborated with Faber Social for a weekend of words and music in one of the site's more picturesque corners. From Roy Wilkinson regaling us with stories of managing his brothers in British Sea Power, to the haunting madrigals of Liverpool's psych-folk darlings Stealing Sheep (who broke their set to announce the arrival of a rainbow over the estuary) the varied acts were as inspiring as the setting.

With so much on offer across the site, we missed what promised to be a fascinating conversation between author of Electric Eden Rob Young and Berberian Sound Studio Director Peter Strickland. But we did brave the rain of Sunday to make it down to the estuary to hear another Heavenly act, Toy, living up to the hype with their beautifully melodic space rock. Earlier that day another band on people's lips, the Wave Pictures, had survived a monsoon-ravaged set on the outdoor I Stage. Considering the rain driving onto the stage we were pleased to hear the group alive and well on Marc Riley's show on our return home, and 6 Music's coverage of the festival was in itself quite the coup for the organisers.

The magic of the woods

After spending Friday soaking up the sun and relaxed vibes down in the estuary, the clouds of Saturday afternoon had us heading into the woods. Just as enchanting as the village itself, the area of woodland known as Y Gwyllt is a magical place with a suitably mysterious history. This weekend it was given over to a selection of collectives. This included Don't Tell Stories, who have been providing "innovative spaces to think, write and imagine" at festival such as Port Eliot and Latitude.

Prior to the festival their founder, writer Rachel Newsome, explained why the woods hold so much mystery. "While some claim the woods are the fantasy of one William Fothergill-Cook, an eccentric Victorian botanist, who created them from saplings and seeds collected on his travels to the South Americas and Himalayas. One thing is certain, which is that on the night Fothergill-Cook died, a white stag appeared in the woods and trod a path through the undergrowth where all had grown wild before. Although the white stag can no longer be seen, its ghost lingers on."

By the time we arrived in the woods we had missed We Make Hay, who had been performing songs written by people passing by. Their words remained however, scribbled on pieces of paper floating amongst the trees. Winding our way through the paths in the woodland searching for the promised "pop up raves", we found what looked like bird boxes with the instruction "listen here". The sound of bass rolling from the woods above drew us away from the poems and the sound of trees filtering out of the boxes.

Dancing with the trees

Summoned to the source, we made our way through the woods past a giant picnic blanket where revelers rested and a cave where a tarot reader was plying her trade. Above our head a sign made out of twisted branches signaled the entrance to The Tangled Woods. In one corner of these eerie woods, mirror balls and wooden spheres hung from the ancient trees as dancers succumbed to the deep house and Detroit techno being spun within a golden pyramid. While some danced, others laid out in hammocks looking on with wonder at the scene unfolding. While the occasional arrow pointed in the direction of other stages within the forest, the parties were genuinely hard to find, which made stumbling across the Ibiza-themed Café Del Merrion even more of a delight. As night fell the parties drew to a close, but our intentions to return the next day to discover more were curtailed by the incessant rain that began early on Sunday morning and hung around all day.

Sunday lunch in a castle

The first thing you see as you enter Portmeirion is the palatial Castell Deudreath. A small tent in the castle gardens had been tempting us all weekend with percussion duos and flute trios mingling with sunset DJ sessions from the likes of Justin Robertson and Paradise 45. We only discovered the castle's charms though when the rain finally arrived on Sunday. Venturing from our tent in the early afternoon through a sodden field there was only one place to head.

And so with the sounds of Jerry Dammers' ska and rocksteady booming through the windows we settled down with the wine list and a somewhat guilty smile, shared by couples opening bottles of champagne from the oyster bar on the terrace. Stumbling out as the rain finally subsided a few hours later, we were immersed in the Balearic warmth of Manchester club Aficianado. Under the canvas as night fell they were mixing up old LP tracks from the likes of African Headcharge and Cymande with new releases from labels like ESP Institute and International Feel.

As the flamenco guitar of another lost classic caressed our ears, we made a mental note to return next year to what we hope will become a Sunday night staple at No.6. Heading back into the muddy main field from the warm oasis of the hotel grounds in time for New Order, we had to ask ourselves, where we stand on boutique festivals? Well, you can keep your Cath Kidson pop-ups and overpriced yurts - but we do like the Stilton and Chianti.  

Photos via Festival No 6 official Facebook