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Three Songs No Flash

Moving Mountains: Green Man Festival 2021 Reviewed
Patrick Clarke , August 24th, 2021 09:53

Long one of the UK's finest festivals, even by its own lofty standards Green Man's triumphant 2021 return is an edition for the ages, find Patrick Clarke and Julian Marszalek

Caribou, photo by Kirsty McClachlan

I’ve often thought there’s something a bit surreal about festivals, even before the pandemic. I remember the journey to my first, Glastonbury, when I was 16. My coach turned a corner on the winding Somerset country road, and suddenly through a gap in the trees I was stunned by the sight of tens of thousands of tents in a sprawling hodgepodge mosaic, their roofs like the backs of bugs. I’ve always had a soft spot for all those overused facts comparing the population of a festival with surrounding municipalities, seeing towns and cities overtaken in league tables, for one weekend only, by these temporary societies, with all their customs, quirks and queues.

A decade later, that little touch of wonder has never left. At Green Man 2021, however, the very hosting of which feels a minor miracle given the ongoing chaos the pandemic has wrought on live music, it’s stronger than ever. The first day feels bathed in a sort of glow. “Howay man,” says Nadine Shah on the Mountain Stage, the festival’s main arena. “This is fucking glorious! This is a beautiful way to start playing music again.” The cameras pick up Green Man and Bristol scene legend Big Jeff Johns at the front of the crowd, and there’s a roar of recognition from the thousands behind him. “This is an incredible way to start playing music again,” says Cathy Lucas during her band Vanishing Twin’s set in the more intimate Walled Garden. More often than not, performances are peppered with these little acknowledgements of the obvious: it’s very, very, very good to be back.

Katy J Pearson’s tea-time appearance at the Walled Garden couldn’t have been better timed. With any threat of rain knocked into a cocked hat, her sunny blend of country music with an indie sensibility draws an enormous throng. As evidenced by ‘Hey You’ and ‘Take Back The Radio’, Pearson’s music is fuelled by an optimism and steely purpose that becomes impossible to resist. Not long before her on the same stage, Fenne Lily infuses her material with as much humour as she does humanity. The notion of the singer-songwriter tackling emotional confessionals is a balancing act fraught with danger, but ‘I Used To Hate My Body But Now I Hate You’ transforms an uncomfortable premise into an engaging triumph while her band blends infectious melodicism with a sense of sonic adventure, while ‘Elliot’ – dedicated to her dad – is a shining gem.

Nadine Shah, meanwhile, shows that despite the state of suspended animation suffered over the last two years, her transformation from cult concern into bona fide star is now complete. Indeed, any nerves suffered during the early part of her early evening set on the prestigious environs of the Mountain Stage soon transform into a performance of burning intensity that confirms her newly cemented status. Superbly backed by her crack squad of musicians, Shah – in a sleek, black suit – stalks the stage while drawing energy from the increasingly rapt crowd. ‘Holiday Destination’ takes on a horrible relevance in light of the recent events in Afghanistan, with Shah paying tribute to the women struggling to survive in its aftermath. Similarly, ‘Buckfast’ finds Shah highlighting domestic issues not with heavy-handed sermonizing but with an empathy that engages and engrosses. And as one audience member notes with tQ’s earshot, Nadine Shah is the real deal.

Nadine Shah

Django Django follow her on the biggest stage. Occupying a hinterland that sits somewhere between the lolloping, groove –based harmonies of the Beta Band and Hot Chip with any number of psychedelic and garage rock influences thrown in for good measure, Django Django are very much a band designed for festivals. And the combination of nabbing the first of the nighttime slots and an audience hungry to lose its collective shit is never going to fail. Though it’s their first appearance here, Django Django are welcomed as old friends and wisely relying on largely hits-based set score themselves and their constituency a well-earned victory.

Back at the Walled Garden, Vanishing Twin’s gorgeous psychedelic pop gets better and better as it goes along. As the sun gradually sets, the off-kilter, hallucinatory aspects of their sound grow more and more prominent, until in darkness the gig becomes completely kaleidoscopic – melodies and lights combining into something shimmering. The stage lights take on a magical effect, and it continues once the set finishes. Children’s luminescent circus toys, the neon outfits of two men dressed as aliens and the multicoloured Ferris wheel feel somehow cosmic, and so does the big neon hexagon behind Georgia as she performs a set of utterly perfect pop, her driving cover of ‘Running Up That Hill’ a highlight of the entire weekend.

In short, it’s a Friday night with something special in the air, a simmering joy that, with Caribou’s headline set, boils over into absolute rapture. His show has its dips, but its peaks are unbelievably intense. The second song he plays is ‘Odessa’, and it’s like all two years’ worth of misery, claustrophobia and pain are purged, all at once, by the thousands of people in the crowd. By the time he concludes with an almighty crescendo of noise, more than one of those people are in tears, others gripping friends and strangers in emotional group hugs. It’s the same kind of emotional overwhelm that, before the pandemic, would constitute Sunday night behaviour – when everyone’s physically and mentally spent not by two years of lockdowns, but the usual peaks and troughs of three- or four-nights’ worth of inebriated tent-living.

Caribou, photo by Kirsty McClachlan

On Saturday morning, things feel a little bit more like business as usual; the weekend’s first downpour of rain might have something to do with that too. The clouds clear as Ed Dowie plays a gorgeous, understated set at the Walled Garden in the early afternoon. He’s endearingly awkward between tracks, trying to shift twenty tea towels that he’s brought along as merch, but plays songs that are at times gently devastating in their fragile melancholy. Richard Dawson plays The Mountain Stage shortly afterwards for the first of his two Saturday sets – he headlines The Walled Garden later on with his band Hen Ogledd – and delivers his usual mix of uniquely intense songs and light-hearted patter. “To anyone who’s been brought along by a friend or partner, I’m sorry in advance,” he says, before a 12-minute a capella rendition of a 17th century ballad about the murder of a quiltmaker. The set skirts the more mellow edges of his discography, and is at times deeply touching, not least a solo-guitar version of 2020 single ‘Jogging’, about the value of exercise in the face of overwhelming anxiety, which he dedicates to “everyone out there who’s been having a tough time. Keep going.” By which, after the last year and a half, he means more or less everyone watching. Tears are shed.

Sinead O’Brien brings an altogether different energy at The Walled Garden. Her two backing musicians, in matching white tank tops, fly their way through spikey, tightly wound grooves as O’Brien’s sprechgesang vocals ride the storm. Her lyrics, which often explore the deep human drama that is hinted at by the routine and the everyday, are performed with effortless charisma – vowels elongated and contracted for maximum impact Brand new track ‘There Are Good Times Coming’ is particularly interesting; at points she drifts entirely into singing, as her musicians shift to a more upbeat riff that contrasts their earlier grit.

Faux Real, photo by Kirsty McClachlan

If O’Brien flirts with optimism, Kokoroko deliver it in spades back at The Mountain with a set of joyous jazz, funk and afrobeat. Trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Gray leads the frontline, flanked by saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi and trombonist Richie Seivright, and the set’s at its finest when all three are firing at once, producing that punchy kind of brass that elevates your very soul. There’s a joy too, when the three give way to the rhythm section behind them, and to fill the time just dance with one another as if in the crowd themselves; at the set’s end, they drag their tour manager onstage at the set’s end to join in the fun. They throw in a bit of good old-fashioned crowd-play – a left side vs right side sing-off, and getting everyone to crouch down then dance their way upwards – and it’s utterly uplifting, yet Kokoroko’s set feels like something so much more than just the usual good vibes festival gig. Their dazzling musicianship notwithstanding, that sense of release still lingers in the air from the previous night. At one point, they spell it out, asking the crowd to try their best to forget the immediate past and immediate future, and simply bask in the sheer, overwhelming joy of it all.

In microcosm, it’s what makes this edition of Green Man so special. It’s always been among Britain’s very best festivals of its size, and never fails to deliver enjoyable moments by the bucketload. Just about any live music feels that little bit elevated at the moment, but when you apply that to an event so consistently superb, the highs are pushed that little bit higher. Take Faux Real on the small, new music-focused Rising stage for example. The duo, Franco-American brothers Virgile and Elliott Arndt, play brazen, unabashed pop songs, drawing heavily on 70s and 80s cheese and peppered with flute and saxophone solos and ludicrous synchronised dance routines, with such ridiculous camp and homoerotic energy that it’s impossible not to be entirely enamoured. They’re not even all that good at any one element of their performance – they waver in and out of tune, dance routines often devolve into the caressing of nipples or a succession of flailing kicks – but embrace their own shambolicness to the point it becomes something magic. On our way out, buzzing with residual glee, we find Pictish Trail leading the final stages of what seems a colossal rave-up at the Walled Garden. He too, seems totally intent on having nothing but a rager; “C’mon ya fuckers!” he yells with triumph as he and his band launch into a final, pumping crescendo.

Black Midi, photo by Eric Aydin-Barberini

At the Far Out Stage, the festival’s largest covered space, Black Midi are on ferocious form. There’s levity to their set too, a cover of Kate Nash’s twee 2007 indie-pop hit ‘Foundations’ performed with both faith to the original’s plinky piano chords and Estuary accented vocals, and a sense of mischievous surrealism as a troupe of traditionally-dressed mimes storm the stage. For the most part, though, the band are remorselessly intense. Sticking mainly to the manic prog of their second record Cavalcade, they spend most of their time shrouded in fog, from which touring saxophonist Kaidi Akinnibi looms in and out as he blasts raging, squalling into the fray. They’ve drawn a massive crowd, among the biggest the tent sees all weekend, and they rise easily to the occasion. What’s most striking, though, is they do it entirely on their own terms; already the band are racing away from their latest record in search of sounds bolder still.

Mogwai’s crowd on the Mountain stage is bigger still, the largest of the entire weekend; it’s safe to assume there’s a sizeable overlap in the Venn diagram of Green Man attendees and people who helped the band unexpectedly top the charts for the first time in February with their tenth record As The Love Continues. It makes for yet another influx of positive energy, and a headline set that feels similarly triumphant, a victory lap at eardrum-puncturing volume. Goodwill is even directed their way from Richard Dawson, playing at the same time in the Walled Garden as part of Hen Ogledd. “Thanks for being prepared to miss Mogwai,” he says, almost apologetically. Theirs is a different kind of headline set, gentler but no less powerful than the post-rockers. At its best, the music Dawson, Sally Pilkington and Dawn Bothwell play reaches wondrous, cosmic territory, but gets there by the subtlest routes – melodies tenderly weaved across one another until they form great lattices of beautiful strangeness.

Hen Ogledd perform as a trio. They are without their fourth member Rhodri Davies who has tested positive for coronavirus, so their set is more improvisational than usual. It’s testament to their musicianship that the set’s magnificent nonetheless, yet watching Dawson strain to throw together an off-the-cuff bass solo to fill one of Davies’ parts is one of a number of niggling reminders of the grimmer world beyond the Brecon Beacons. While walking past the spoken word Babbling Tongues tent, I hear a stand-up's opening gambit: "It's my first live gig in two years! Isn't it nice to pretend like everything's fine again?" The following morning, despite beaming sunshine, a hint of melancholy kicks in as that reality hovers closer and closer – a lethal combination with the usual festival fatigue and the after-effects of Giant Swan’s supreme industrial techno rager into the early hours of the last night. The harsh, militaristic Crack Cloud are hardly what the doctor ordered, but even through the fug of a Sunday comedown their jackhammer drums and guitar cut through sharply.

Nubya Garcia, photo by Eric Aydin-Barberini

Nubya Garcia is more of a tonic. Draped in early afternoon sunshine, the towering Black Mountains behind the main stage have never looked more majestic. “The sun makes such a difference to me,” she says, almost to herself as she smiles and squints in the light. She and her band make enormous amount from the slightest touches – her set is as nimble and as subtle as it is resplendent. Brilliant new Rough Trade signings Caroline are similarly gorgeous on the Rising stage. Their ornate music, played on guitar, violin, cello, percussion and woodwind, is a constant ebb and flow between great rushes of beautiful noise and moments of fragile silence. Beforehand, I was nervous about how that might translate to a busy, chatty festival, but it’s as if the songs weave their way into the fabric of Green Man itself. Screaming children in the distance, the sound of The Staves’ pleasant-enough indie-folk bleeding over from the Mountain Stage, or the banal conversations of less respectful audience members fill the gaps in those moments of fragile silence so key to Caroline’s music on record, yet there’s something kind of beautiful about it – the band’s crescendos and diminuendos feel more alive than ever, like big, deep breaths, in and out.

If there is anything that defines the majority of Green Man’s final day, it’s the return of that emotional undercurrent that made Friday so cathartic, albeit as the corresponding comedown. Thundercat, for all his staggering talent on bass – and his backing musicians’ on keyboards and drums – laces his Mountain Stage performance, beginning as the sun starts to set, with little instants of deep reflection. There are pauses as he makes room to pay tributes to late friends, collaborators and heroes like rap legend MF DOOM who died last year, the influential jazz composer Chick Corea who was taken by cancer in February, and former Brainfeeder labelmate Austin Peralta who died aged 22 in 2012. “We’ve lost a lot of people,” Thundercat says solemnly. Our own losses come to mind, particularly those among the 132,000 and counting lost to coronavirus so far in the UK alone. Strangely, it’s the line-up’s most dazzling, dizzying musician who provides its biggest moment of stillness.

Thundercat, photo by Eric Aydin-Barberini

Fontaines D.C. are the only band left, continuing Green Man’s admirable recent tradition of inviting younger acts on the upswing to headline, rather than just the established legacy acts who monopolise bills elsewhere – King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard’s incendiary 2018 set, for example. To say Fontaines make the step up is an understatement; after watching tracksuited frontman Grian Chatten, buzzing with charisma, snarling his way around the band’s incisively crafted post-punk, you can be left in no doubt that he could hold a crowd fifty times the size in the palm of his hand just as easily. Already progressing rapidly on record too – their second LP A Hero’s Death was a considerable step up from their debut Dogrel – right now their potential seems infinite.

The festival’s true conclusion, of course, is the burning of The Green Man himself, the statue of wicker and leaves who sits in a field atop the arena. Taking place around midnight, in past years it’s acted like one final blast of excitement, a grand finale, but in 2021 it feels strangely quiet – a moment of reflection, not celebration, back on a festival that has felt like a watershed. It’s hard not be hyperbolic after such a long time away from live music, but the sheer volume of people, both friends and strangers, who say they rank the last weekend among the very best of their festival-going lives, feels telling. The future may still be fragile, but Green Man 2021 was one for the ages.