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Sing, Cuckoo! Sing, Cuckoo! Green Man Festival Reviewed
The Quietus , August 23rd, 2017 08:37

Where Julian Marszalek witnesses a three-way battle for the past in an uncertain and tumultuous present, and Alix Buscovic parties with wicker men and wicked women

In the years since Green Man’s inaugural gathering, festivals in the UK have come to represent big business to promoters, agents, bands, crews, caterers, peripheral industries and of course the punters attending them. These are annual events now so entrenched in the social calendars of so many differing groups from providers to consumers and all points in between, that it's becoming hard to imagine a time – and it wasn’t all that long ago – that festivals were an event for those folk best described as 'socially marginalised'.

Times change and while once upon a time festivals were aimed at a younger crowd, today’s events are taking on a greater multigenerational profile. In this respect, Green Man stands head and shoulders above many UK festivals as it welcomes one and all at the truly breathtaking environs of the Glanusk Park estate, near Crickhowell in Powys at the southern most tip of the Black Mountains. And it really doesn’t matter how many times the site is visited over the passing years, its ability to take one’s breath away each and every time remains undiminished: lush greenery, mountains that dominate the scenery, fresh air, and a level of care and attention to both the entertainment and the amenities for those who will be camping out for four nights.

And while the festival has grown in stature during its 15 years, its commitment to providing an alternative to the festivals dominated by corporate sponsors, chemical swill masquerading as beer and nasty food is to be commended. Indeed, it’s worth taking the time out to reflect back on a festival that’s grown incrementally without losing its fundamental character and commitment to subtly turning the musical screws from bucolic bliss to party bangers that go on well into the night. And with it being one of the friendliest festivals around, Green Man provides both an escape and an alternative to an outside world intent on driving itself off a cliff top.

But if Green Man and the 20,000 people who attend it are reflecting on the past 15 years, then it’s an undeniable fact that many of the bands playing here this weekend are also wont to look over their shoulders for inspiration, if not reflection. One case in point are Friday night headliners Future Islands. The Baltimore synth-poppers certainly have an eye on the 80s. Sadly, for those of who experienced that decade first time, Future Islands are a stark reminder of that second wave of synth bands who appeared in the wake of the trail left by the original pioneers and who were destined to support U2 in the early stages of their career.

Future Islands would undoubtedly be the greatest band in the world if they were some kind of Dadaist prank. But as they’re not, they’ll have to settle for being the most unintentionally comical. Rarely has a band drawn such gales of derisory laughter and howls of hilarity thanks largely to the onstage antics of frontman Samuel T Herring, a man whose dancing suggests the mannerisms of someone who’s drunk several gallons of water before going onstage and then tries to hold it in before it all leaks out. It’s like watching a disaster unfolding in slow motion; you want to reach out and stop him from making an even bigger fool of himself but you can’t. Instead, this writer is reduced to helpless laughter as Herring slaps himself in the face, beats his chest and petulantly jumps and down like some of the children by the crepe stall who aren’t allowed a second helping. And if that isn’t enough, Herring then starts high kicking his way across the stage as if he’s appearing at the Moulin Rouge at the turn of the last century. According to some reports, Herring’s bold moves and tight jeans result in a crotch tear but we’re too busy wiping tears from our eyes to notice.

Adding to the mirth is his singing voice that frequently dips into growls and grunts to the degree that suggests either low quality control (“Guys! Hey guys! How about we go for death metal vocals mixed with A Flock Of Seagulls b-sides? That’ll work!”) or just an ongoing schtick aimed at the funny bone. Whatever it is, Herring’s singing is a constant source of hilarity. Heard at a distance from the loos, it could easily be the sound of someone suffering from terrible constipation in the next cubicle. And all played out to earnestly delivered yet lightweight synth pop that even Howard Jones would’ve baulked at.

Over at the Far Out stage on Saturday night, the past is pumped full of psycho-active substances and dragged bugged eyed and dancing into the present courtesy of Oh Sees’ full-pelt ramalama. Though their touchstones are the garage bands of the 60s, Oh Sees (they’ve now jettisoned the definite article of garage rock circles) have dragged their noise through a lysergic gutter to create an unrestrained experience in the present that targets the centre of the brain as much as it does the feet and the hips. In this respect, Oh Sees are very much a band made for Green Man; the pastoral strummings of earlier in the day have given way to way gnarlier vibes the further the sun sinks into the horizon and with the night fully enveloping the site, things get down and dirty.

In addition to the twin-drum onslaught of Dan Rincon and Paul Quattrone, the solid low-end of Tim Hellman and John Dwyer’s demented vocals and six-string vandalism, what becomes quickly apparent is the band’s ability to read their setting and so adjust their set. Just two weeks ago, tQ witnessed the band deliver a break-neck set of teeth-grinding rock & roll yet here in the expansive surroundings of mountains, dark skies and neon lights, Oh Sees temper those BPMs and concentrate on longer grooves.

This isn’t to suggest some kind of mellowing out on the part of Oh Sees. Far from it; as displayed on the ferocious snarl of ‘The Static God’, the band utterly revel in assaulting the senses but it’s when they hit the likes of ‘Animated Violence’ that the subtle changes in approach become palpable. The two drum kits and bass lock into a seemingly neverending grove that allow Dwyer to off-road with his guitar to create a whirlwind of sound that thrills and scares in equal measure. Ever since its inception rock & roll has frequently been called out as having reached the end of the road but in the hands of Oh Sees, the form has been given another lease of life, again. And while they’re not alone in their crusade, Oh Sees are, for tonight, high priests of the form.

But if there’s one artist that truly bestrides the past and the present while being the quintessential Green Man act, then it’s the Arch Drude himself, Julian Cope. Armed with just a succession of acoustic guitars and a Mellotron, his early evening performance is an event of life-affirming splendour that captures both the spirit of the festival and gives you something to take home with you. As a musician, author, antiquarian and commentator, Cope can also add raconteur to his ever-expanding skill set.

What’s immediately obvious is that for a man with an ego the size of a planet (strange, considering the level of ego death that he’s experienced over the years), Cope is a man of great humility. Consequently, every person in the heaving tent who laughs at his jokes, nods in agreement with his numerous assessments on the world we live in or pays attention to his almost endless supply of anecdotes feels as if Cope is speaking just to them.

And his continued commitment to psychedelia and altered states of consciousness is to be applauded. His most recent album, Drunken Songs has found Cope going off-piste in the intoxication stakes thanks to a re-discovery of alcohol after a gap of some 20 years. Introducing ‘As The Beer Flows Over Me’ – an apposite choice give the 90 or so Welsh ales on sale on the other side of the field – Cope notes with no small amount of relish that, having discovered the uses of wheat and grain, scientific evidence suggests that the ancient tribes were making beer way before they turned their attention to bread. Similarly, ‘They Were On Hard Drugs’ notes the effect of psychedelics and other substances on the development of mankind, a point that Cope delights in making.

Contrary to received wisdom, Cope is only too happy to revisit his past, albeit with reservations. ‘Bill Drummond Said’ is welcomed like an old friend and prefaced by the observation that some of the million pounds that his former manager and Jimmy Cauty are said to have burned on the Isle of Jura was his. “I hate Bill Drummond,” states Cope before adding: “But I admire him, too.” Similarly, ‘The Greatness And Perfection Of Love’ is delivered with a breezy zestiness and Cope doesn’t shy away from The Teardrop Explodes in the form of ‘The Culture Bunker’ and ‘Sunspots’.

And while it’s hard not to detect a hint of regret with Cope’s tales of LSD consumption and its ramifications during the heady days of The Teardrop Explodes, what’s immediately noteworthy is the richness of Cope’s voice. Along with Cope’s wide-ranging interests, this is something that has become stronger and increasingly mellifluous over the years. Coupled with the music, his tales of ancient races, humility, sense of humour and performing skills make you wonder why he isn’t given his own regular TV show.

But then again, it’s precisely in the environs of Green Man that Cope shines. While it’s great to visit festivals abroad, there’s a sense of pagan wonder that exists only in British festivals and, more specifically, Green Man. This is a celebration of food and drink as much as it is about music spread over four days. Cope taps into that perfectly as he creates a conduit from a past that spans millennia, not just decades, and in doing so makes you realise that his music is just as special as the festival that its performed in. He makes perfect sense and so does this festival. Consequently, as the flames consume the Green Man structure and the Welsh dragon behind it, the feeling that we’ve all shared something precious here is unmistakable.

Things Learned At: Green Man

Alix Buscovic finds there's magic in the mud and the mountains

I hold Green Man and its organiser Fiona Stewart in some kind of awe. This is one of the UK's largest independent festivals and one which only sells out its tickets, not its soul. As festivals proliferated in the last decade or so, saturating the market more than the constant downpours at No 6 saturated the car park last year (seriously, what did they expect would happen to a flood plain when it rains?), there have been more than a few calamities and cancellations.

Green Man steadfastly refuses to flog itself to a big company; it hasn't turned into an ever-swelling, corporately sponsored event; it's avoided managing its cashflow like a spiv with a bucket of credit cards; and it doesn't shift the blame, pass the buck or shit on the punters. Still, for all my admiration, my inner arithmetic pedant does want to chuck a slide rule in frustration at Green Man's 15th birthday celebrations this year. It was first held in 2003. That's 15 Green Mans but a 14th birthday, surely?

Once on site though on Thursday afternoon, I calm myself with a little more counting (okay, drinking) of some of the 90 Welsh real ales and 22 ciders being sold here, many with names seemingly intended to make childish non-Welsh speakers giggle. A pint of glog from Bragdy Twt Lol, anyone?

Orchestral manoeuvres in the not-so-dark

The daylight hasn't left us yet, the druids aren't due to bless the festival until tomorrow morning, but Anna Meredith is conjuring something on the Far Out stage. Genres - classical, folk, electronica - are clashing and falling. Ancient tribal rhythms rise and quicken, building a wordless incantation. “Tuba! Tuba! Tuba!” the crowd shout at her brass player at the end. “Actually, he's going to play economy glockenspiel,” Meredith says.

We can handle the disappointment - this is not the last time we're likely to hear a tuba this weekend. (Or a glockenspiel for that matter.) Where there's muck - and after three days of rain, there's a lot of muck - there is indeed brass, wielded by everyone from British Sea Power to PJ Harvey.

Pagan blessings don't always work

It's 11am on Friday and we're gathered in a circle in the drizzle, while an affable guy in a cloak is telling us how to make certain types of 'omm' sound (actually it's an 'A-I-O') to help him with his ritual. Rollo Maughfling, Archdruid of Stonehenge and Britain, aided, in the absence of his female colleagues, by an eager woman in the crowd, calls on the spirits of the east, south, west and north to bless the festival and the earth, to give us peace, and good weather.

I'm not convinced the peace bit's going to work - at least beyond a few days in Glanusk Park - to be honest. It never has in the past, anyway. Brecon’s resident rain gods meanwhile are clearly prioritising the health of the crops over the comfort of 20,000 campers. We spend much of the festival alternatively getting soaked or drying off in the bursts of hot sunshine, adding or subtracting layers as the temperature plummets or rises. Ah well, at least the site looks lushly green.

The people have the power

For me, Green Man has the most chilled out and friendliest atmosphere of any UK festival. Perhaps it's the head-flippingly stunning South Wales setting, with a main stage that has a Black Mountain backdrop that makes even the most concrete-loving, sky-scrapingly urban city-dweller start developing a crampon fetish.

But, no, it's more than that. More than the wood and foliage structure of the Green Man, pagan symbol of protection, that sits in the middle of the site, housing the wishes we've scribbled on pieces of paper. More than a bill that takes folk at its heart, while also offering something a little more experimental so you can't quite brand it too 'safe' (a case in point: Liars' Angus Andrew flailing and screaming to industrial beats in a wedding dress on Saturday night).

And it's more than the political vibe, that's left-leaning yet not radical. Green Man is a folk festival in the true sense of the word - it is of, and for, the people. Unlike other festivals, there aren't countless rules, regulations, impositions. People tend to behave well because they are treated with respect. Those right honourable types in Westminster should maybe take note.

Green men and wise women

Green Man is just as much, perhaps even more, of a folk festival than Cropredy or Cambridge or anywhere where Show Of Hands pop up. There's a pervading feeling of the otherworldly, in mystical tales that make sense of the universe and the things we cannot see. Over here: the eerie, spellbinding Cobalt Chapel, whose singer Cecilia Fage and her two backing vocalists are dressed like blood-sucking femme fatales in a 1970s Hammer vampire flick. Over there: the proggy Wolf People, who've climbed a magnificent one place up the bill in the nine years since they last appeared. And yet further out: the utterly bonkers Circulus, who guide us through a meditation and then finish with a song about pixies.

Folk is working class, telling of oppression of the lower by the upper strata of society. It is the music of protest. Listen to the songs Shirley Collins sings, of village girls abused by lords of the manor. Listen to Richard Dawson and his miked-up teddy, who apparently is called Patrick Stewart, as they tell of Northern miners dying in the pit. There's even a folk element to Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods as he spits out twisted bars of bile at the hypocrites and tosspots that wield too much power over modern Britain.

Collins is a pioneer, an artist whose song-collecting field trips and whose own recordings revived and reinvented the English folk song and who returned to her career in 2015 at the age of 80, after an absence of three decades. For her first Green Man appearance, she's accompanied by a troupe of players with traditional instruments, a hard-working Morris dancer, and the odd anecdote about toilets. One can only wonder what the now-forgotten bawdy piece sounded like that was sung to her by an American woman as they both took a piss in conjoined loos. She's not the only veteran here, either. Michael Chapman, whose career is as long as Dylan's, battles the Welsh damp on Sunday with Texas sunshine and earthy Yorkshire warmth.

Furry freak brothers and sisters

No one can say that the erstwhile trend of wearing a jester's hat like you have a fetish for Timothy Claypole from Rentaghost is likely to get you voted Most Stylish. But, unlike this stupid festival fad for jamming an animal tail on your butt, it doesn't make you appear like you've been sodomised by a tiger who's dived in too deep. Nor does a silly hat threaten to fall down the toilet (unless you've been joined in the portaloo by said tiger).

Full-throated, hard-partying Pictish Trail is resplendent with his glittery cheeks and his coat of many colours. But even better to go the whole hog, or tiger, or bear or yeti, and copy British Sea Power's usual menagerie of dancers and don an entire animal costume. This has the added bonus of preserving your anonymity when people laugh at you, or you fancy filching hats belonging to members of the crowd, as BSP's polar bear did mine at Bluedot last year. The thieving icy bastard.

Ancients of Mu and Neu

Bill Drummond isn't here, but for a man who isn't here, he seems to turn up a lot. In the talks tent, Iain Sinclair is ramblin' on, as he usually does (in every sense), about the London Orbital adventure he had with KLF co-founder. Drummond, the conversation goes, ''puts the psycho into psychogeography''. He also, along with musical partner Jimmy Cauty, once built a wicker man on the isle of Jura. Depending on whom you believe, it either burned in a huge pillar of flame or it smouldered pathetically because the timber was too wet. (No such problem at Green Man, where a bit of moist wood won't stop the show in the ritual burning that closes the event and which to some brings to mind Lord Summerisle's big community barbecue. More on that later.)

Drummond and Cauty also, of course, once converted a million quid into smoke and ashes. ''Some of it was mine,'' complains Julian Cope in the Far Out tent on Sunday night. He's in his usual attire, posing as a black-capped hairy biker with the same old Neu T-shirt he's been wearing since he lost his white one circa 1995. Cope admits he still hates his former Teardrop Explodes manager a little, before he embarks on a rendition of his 1984 song 'Bill Drummond Said', one of number of early tracks that the archdrude throws into his set.

Past Present Future

There's no question that geekoid 80s-style synth-popniks Future Islands, who headline the main stage on Friday can write the kind of song that leaves you sprawled, hands aloft, utterly spent at its beauty. It's tempting after 'Cave' to just never get up again. But frontman Sam Herring's high kicking, cardio, gurning - on a par with Richard Dawson's twisted facemongery - and series of auto-CPR slaps across the chest are a good distraction for when they don't.

Sunday's headliner marches and sways, but does not dance. The sublime PJ Harvey leads us through English and Middle Eastern battlegrounds, a powerful bird-like goddess (what in the name of Philip Treacy is that feathered thing on her head?) surrounded by a band of nine black-clad male acolytes. Still mesmerised as Peej leaves the stage, we follow a torch-lit procession snaking up to the Green Man structure, this year flanked by a dragon, which is due to be set alight. Inevitably, somebody hums the lullaby from The Wicker Man. But this is no human sacrifice.

What, though, actually is it? It's a complex symbol. Burning the spirit of the forest who's been looking over us (remember those scribbled wishes) is an alarming prospect. Aren’t we destroying the thing we should cherish? Aren’t we destroying those hopes and wishes, to submit ourselves instead to the shite of normal life once again? Yet, as any good pagan knows, out of destruction comes creation. As the dragon’s wings collapse, and the air is filled with fireworks (it’s never a proper finale without more explosives), we bid farewell to this weekend away from the everyday, the drudgery and the rules, the routine and the anxieties. But perhaps we can take some of the weekend with us. Perhaps we can remake the festival in the real world, with hope, and respect, and a connection to the earth and the people around us. Perhaps there’ll be peace after all. Perhaps?

Shirley Collins photo courtesy of Paul Bevan