The Shock Of The Neu! Michael Rother & Green Man Festival Reviewed
, August 24th, 2016 14:08
Good yeoman of the bar! Pour Julian Marszalek a foaming pint of nut brown ale as he has penned his Green Man festival review...
Photograph courtesy of Richard Gray
Complaining about the weather at the Green Man festival is akin to knowingly volunteering one’s backside to an annual arse-kicking contest and then having the gall to whinge about it: you know what to expect so take the necessary precautions and a good time is guaranteed for all. The huge and crucial difference of course is that the former boasts a palpable form of magic that the latter will never achieve. Unless you’re masochist but that’s a debate for another time in another corner of the internet.
Even after all this time, it remains impossible not be overwhelmed by the festival before a single note is played. The impressive Sugar Loaf Mountain dominates the view from both the campsite and the Mountain Stage. It alternates in being visible in all of its skyscraping magnificence during those moments when the sun beats relentlessly down, or frequently being covered by low cloud that sits ominously above and covering the peak like a grey, wet blanket. The level of greenery is in stark contrast to the metropolitan surroundings of the capital and there’s a certain sense of womb-like security from the sound of the river Usk as it flows past the campsite, especially if you happen to be camped near it.
Green Man also remains a haven for those beer drinkers whose palette demands something more satisfying than the chemical swill that’s regularly pumped out elsewhere in the name of getting hammered. With over 90 – count ‘em! - Welsh ales to choose from, there remains a very real possibility of spending the weekend in the ale festival tent without actually seeing a single band. Thankfully, for this writer, the zesty beauty that is the Glamorgan Brewing Co’s excellent ‘My Darlin’ Lemontime’ is an early discovery that not only hits the spot, it also ensures that music will be heard.
And speaking of the music, the festival’s booking policy remains in remarkably rude health. One of the most varied line-ups on the festival calendar, Green Man boasts a bill that includes name headliners like James Blake, Laura Marling and Belle And Sebastian over on the Mountain Stage while satisfying those with more challenging tastes over at the Far Out stage, with memorable sets from Suuns, the towering (if late arriving) Kamasi Washington and reformed post-punks The Membranes whose set becomes an masterclass in how to do a reunion while delivering the best material of their career in the form of their autumnal Dark Matter, Dark Energy.
But theirs isn’t the only masterclass of the weekend. Heavenly Recordings’ grand fromage, Jeff Barrett, has a ball on the decks at the Twist Bar on Friday night as he drops Afro-beat next to Northern Soul and some monumental funk. Elsewhere, with the likes of Beak and Battles doffing their hats to the enduring and influential music that emerged from west Germany in the 70s – kosmische to some, Krautrock to others – it’s entirely apposite that Michael Rother, guitarist with Neu! and Harmonia and solo artist in his own right, is given space at the Far Out tent and in the 60 or so minutes that are allocated to him, he delivers a set so incredible that not only does he gratify his usual constituency, he also brings on board a whole new generation of fans to ensure his continuing legacy.
It’s often remarked that all pioneers have to show for their travails is a hat full of arrows but judging by the ecstatic reaction from sections of the crowd who were barely crawling when Stereolab’s excellent ‘French Disko’ made the rounds, Rother’s got himself some new headwear. The 65-year-old finds himself blushing while setting up his gear thanks to one young lady at the crash barrier at the front who blows him kisses and declares her undying love. And make no mistake, this isn’t some kind of wind up because judging by the reaction to opener ‘Neuschnee’, the crowd of late-teens and early twenty-somethings aren’t just engaged with the head-nodding favoured by those of a certain age, but a full-on surrender to the music in the form of genuinely unrestrained dancing.
For a track that’s 43-years-old, this opening salvo from Rother and his compatriots, drummer Hans Lampe and guitarist Franz Bergmann, it finally sounds as if the world has actually caught up with the ideas that Rother and his late partner, Klaus Dinger, were putting forward with Neu!. With little or no concession to what went on before it, this music, created in the icy grip of the Cold War in a country that was still split asunder in the aftermath of the Second World War, looked only forward. And still it feels as if it’s being propelled by the beats that Dinger placed at its very heart.
Compare it to say, White Denim, who appear on the Mountain Stage the night before. This is a band so calculatedly enthralled with the past that within two songs you’re thinking about The Band or considering whether another Little Feat is needed this far down the line. And given that they’re half Rother’s age, they sound so much older than him.
It’s difficult not to think of Rother during Friday night’s Bowie Disco as ‘”Heroes”’ is blasted out. The Dame clearly heard something in Rother’s music – alongside Kraftwerk and others – that drew him to Europe and one of the great “what ifs” of music is the guitarist missing out on playing on Bowie’s greatest recorded statement. The singing tone of his guitar, coupled with that amazingly sustained distortion that never once gives itself over to compressed sludge, gives a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. Yet none of this matters because Rother’s own legacy carries a weight and importance all of its own.
His tinkering with the source material is impressive. ‘Deluxe (Immer Wieder)’ is beefed up by Hans Lampe’s impressive work on the electronic drumkit and when that central riff finally appears, the cheers that greet it are evidently felt on stage. Like Rother, the drummer is frequently staggered by the audience reaction. This isn’t the reverence that characterised Rother’s ‘Hallogallo’ show at the Barbican, or Harmonia’s gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall but something more instinctive, something more feral and so something more liberating. Whether it was the original intention or not, this is dance music, or at least music you can dance to. And what a dance it is as those rhythmic and constant repetitions open the mind, body and soul to a glorious trance-like state that purifies the brain as it removes superfluous and unnecessary mental clutter.
That modus operandi is evident in Battles’ later set, most notably on the still remarkable ‘Atlas’, and during Fat White Family’s late night descent into glorious sleaze. There’s more than enough of their own character to mark each band down as something special – and their sets really are – but in such close proximity to Michael Rother, there’s no mistaking who is the daddy.
By the time Rother and his band drop a colossal ‘Negativland’, the Far Out tent is theirs. This monstrous track rises and falls, builds speed and slows down, it teases and taunts before offering an almost orgasmic release and despite its age, it still sounds like the future. But here, tonight, it seems as if the world, or Green Man at least, are riding in tandem with him. In some respects, this incredible performance has much in common with Iggy Pop’s recent campaign. Like Rother, Pop – alongside Bowie in Berlin – was looking to the future as he created music that has finally found an audience that far outweighs that which greeted almost 40 years ago.
This is a magical set from Michael Rother in a magical setting. And while much good music follows, nothing quite hits the highs of what we’ve just witnessed. That’s no bad thing but a high water mark of artistic vision and execution. The fact that Rother has brought on board a whole new generation of fans in a location as wonderful as this, makes the whole event that much more memorable. That he does it with music that’s as sleek yet muscular as this gives hope for another generation ready to pick up his baton and run with it.