Noel Gardner heads to the mountains of South Wales for Green Man, the festival that knows how to get bigger without getting crap - which obviously isn't going to happen when you've SWANS on the bill

Swans photo courtesy of Neil Thomson

There are a couple of times during this rambling countryside weekend when I find myself thinking something to the effect of, ‘hmm, us childless types in our early thirties – Green Man really isn’t for us, is it?’ And then swiftly unthink it again, because it’s navel-gazing bollocks practically akin to saying that white hetero dudes are the real victims of discrimination in society. If it seems like no-one is making allowances for us, it’s because we’re so ubiquitous as to be unnoticeable, unless we’re causing a scene.


This thought, if you could call it that, stems from an entry-level social analyst’s desire to try and figure out what kind of person is the archetypal Green Man attendee. Now a decade old and something like seventy times bigger, attendance-wise, then when it began, it feels like the Powys-based festival is in the midst of an identity crisis. The sort of crisis where you sell all of your tickets most years, people write near-wholly positive things about you, an atmosphere of blithe understanding prevails even when it pisses with rain, and its image pretty much remains that of a community-spirited gathering taking the left hand path around industry practice, even though this is, ah, not really true. I think most of us would accept a crisis like that. You do wonder, nevertheless, if the organisers have a set idea of who they’re aiming this thing at, or what sort of music is accordant with their ‘brand’. Fair fucks if they don’t, like. All I know is that there are a hell of a lot of people here celebrating their A-levels, parents fighting a losing battle to stop their kids running off, brand ambassadors for North Face and the #toplads camping next to me who shout at every single girl who walks past and appear to be complete untrammelled pricks.


I went to the first Green Man festival in 2003, as a reviewer for a universally-loved weekly music paper, but also as a fan of people on the lineup like James Yorkston, King Creosote and Gravenhurst. Just about everyone playing fitted the bill of ‘thoughtful, mostly acoustic type whose music had an obvious and respectful connection to folk, but would still never be listened to by people from the actual folk scene’. I also walked the last nine miles to the site because there wasn’t any public transport in sight. This year the lineup includes four of the acts who played in 2003, which is roughly 20%. It also includes entities like Julia Holter, Moon Duo and Beak>, who are the first three things I see properly on the Friday. (Moreover, they now lay on buses just for attendees, which is good because it’d otherwise be an utter ballache to get to by anything other than car.)


Watching someone like Julia Holter here mainly feels weird, and not really in a positive sense. It’s a sunny afternoon and she’s playing her erudite, intimate orch-pop on a (main) stage built for a crowd of, what, ten thousand people? The sound is okay and she seems sincere in her adoration of her hilly surroundings, but nothing on Loud City Song, her new album, suggests that she wants to climb the greasy pole by playing these summer fests to a sea of desultory disinterest.


Can’t speak for Julia, but this is probably the least positive I feel about Green Man all weekend. Moon Duo, shortly afterwards, are terrific, possibly even the revelation of the whole thing. The rock & roll-meets-Suicide outcrop of Wooden Shjips, they are loud, hypnotic and heavy on the enveloping keyboards. They have no real personality, but this is supposed to be grumpy and banterless. Beak> play to a solid crowd and, while they could have done with being louder, are dependable proggish fun. ‘Wulfstan II’ is the Om-like highlight, I think, although the only mention of Beak> in my notes is about Geoff Barrow’s favourite genre of porn.

Fuck Buttons played Green Man’s second stage five years ago, touring their debut album Street Horrrsing. At the time, it felt like a watershed moment for either the band (probably not) or the festival (quite possibly). It now feels entirely right and logical to have them playing a midnight-hour headline set on the same stage, their pointedly ecstatic synth sweeps and positivist trance rhythms having been honed considerably since 2008. There are minor sound and tech issues when they start – I think ‘Bright Tomorrow’ is the one that screws up – but it’s a warmly frazzly journey, and has a visual element that compels one to reach for the lasers.


Saturday afternoon in the cinema tent is given over to a couple of fellows from Cardiff (an hour’s drive away, Green Man has always maintained a connection with the city) called Casey and Ewan, who make eccentric music videos. They programme a bill of music they like and intersperse it with discombobulating computer graphics that should rightly accompany a set by some private new age cassette artist from the early 80s. In the absence of such figures, we are treated to Totem Terrors (drum-machined duo play febrile and earwormy post punk with echoes of Young Marble Giants and ESG); Headfall (remarkable order-from-chaos Bristolians who have existed for about 15 years and are like a cross between Hood, The Shaggs and an emotional hardcore band circa 1994); Inlet (what Cardiff band Islet call themselves when there’s only two of them and they’ve stripped their songs down to an exacting core); Los Cripis a more direct telegraph to The Shaggs, courtesy of a highly charming Argentinian garage band; and Laura J Martin (a Scouser with a loop pedal and some really lush doomy psych-folk flute). It speaks well of Green Man that its expansion still allows for indulgence like this.


Rationally, there’s nothing outré about Roy Harper playing the easy-livin’ Saturday afternoon main stage slot here (pretty sure I saw Richard Thompson occupy the same a few years back), but it costs just shy of forty quid to see any of the other dates he’s doing to promote his pretty good new LP Man And Myth, so he clearly doesn’t give up the love that easily. This incoaxability, a word I just invented, is alluded to in his lengthy between-song natters, breaking up 45 minutes of beautiful, impeccably preserved early seventies folk which ends with ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’ and thereby owns everything in the map reference.


Low, up next, have eight or nine songs that are equally face-watering as that one. By eight or nine I mean the ones they play today (not in total – Christ!), which isn’t even a terribly crowdpleasing set. ‘Over The Ocean’ is probably its most canonical turn; ‘Murderer’, ‘Plastic Cup’ and Neil Young’s ‘Down By The River’ are afforded more weight than should be the case when played to a bunch of yahoos in ponchos. Going back to the Julia Holter thing, kinda: if you stopped to consider the ability Low have to put you through the emotional wringer, against the assumption that this is basically another day at the festival office for them, would it break the spell? Eh, it took me a long time after their set to ponder it, so no matter. Curiously, John Cale, who succeeds Low, seems to bypass the obviously stirring sector of his catalogue as much as possible, in favour of a set of clanky postpunk and 80s-sounding keyboards. To this end, highlights include ‘Pablo Picasso’; something I texted my mate as being "the song Nomeansno have been biting for 25 years"; and Cale’s pink suit jacket.


Lacking any appetite for headliners Band Of Horses or Villagers, let’s teleport straight to Jon Hopkins, playing after Villagers on the second stage. His music is just as bombastic and po-faced as that bill-topping pair, but he has some nicely realised doomy synth parts, and it feels like a tactile response to a crowd that are ready to dance, but not sure if they want to rave. Nathan Fake, up next, harnesses that indecision with a set of expansive quasi-techno that sounds sleekly modernist, as much as it carries echoes of olde tyme IDM tropes.


Sunday’s collective scheduling, again, may have been planned with the walking dead in mind. Personally (this is quite a personal review), if I found myself watching Ben Howard, Johnny Flynn or Stornoway on the main stage, I’d probably assume I was dead, and in hell, but at least they’re pretty upbeat, which is what you need to power through to the ghastly end. Some of us had a seven-swatches-of-black rainbow in the form of a closing set from Swans to think about. Before that, a most agreeable early afternoon set from Gulp, who feature Guto from Super Furry Animals and his other half Lindsey and pull a few plums out of their Broadcast/Silver Apples witch-psych pudding.


Mikal Cronin, perhaps the least reconstructed rock band on the whole bill, are garage and dandruffy and (I’m told) cover Wreckless Eric, but it feels like a band like them have to be superlative, not merely decent, in an environment like this. However, Brooklyn semi-underground semi-breakout band Woods, like Moon Duo, are way better and more arresting than time spent with their music had suggested. Live, they’re a no-brakes psychedelic punk mess, given to soloing with vile intent, and a grand cobweb broom for late afternoon.


Apart from a quick flail in front of recommended Welsh language Neu! enthusiasts R. Seiliog, playing in the dingly dell that is the Rising Stage, Sunday evening is given over to Swans, and the surge/purge of impure thought that they usher in. An anticlimax is threatened immediately: thirty minutes are shaved off their two-hour set, possibly the result of British Sea Power dilly-dallying. This is as close as Swans come to a half-measure. Again, no-one ought to fool themselves that a date like this is a big deal to the group in itself, but the wiry centre-stage spectre of Michael Gira, a genetic muddle of a buzzard and a hate preacher, is fuel to help you forget your surroundings.


People politely lose their shit, the band bow at the end and then everyone fucks off to watch a big wooden effigy being pseudo-ritually burned, because they’ve no doubt read a bunch of gushing Swans live reviews as well and they don’t need another one reiterating the gospel. Buuuuuuut, if we’re talking weirdo-establishment fixtures whose tickets cost a pretty penny but pack way more energy and vitality into their programme of entertainment than you might expect, Swans and Green Man both still have the chops.

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