Green Man makes sure its 15th festival will be remembered as fondly as many that have gone before. The festival moved here to Glanusk Park from Baskerville Hall hotel in Hay-on-Wye soon after it was started by folk musicians Jo Bartlett and Danny Hagan and is now run by sole owner Fiona Stewart. In the early days, it doubled in size from 250 to 500 and then 1,000 — but Stewart makes sure that it’s not crowded and uncomfortable by keeping it to a capacity of about 20,000. Aside from overcrowding, something else gratifyingly missing from the festival is overt corporate sponsorship.
Eclecticism is Green Man’s heartbeat. And at its core, there’s a mystical paganism. A druid from stonehenge officially opens the festivities on Friday, adding to the sense of Welsh magic that’s epitomised by the 15-metre high Green Man, standing back to back with a huge red dragon at the centre of the site. At the witching hour on Sunday night, cloaked figures set fire to the centrepiece, flames spew from the dragon’s mouth and the whole lot goes up in smoke amid an extravagant firework display.
The line up is eclectic, allowing space for the alternative folk acts that honour the festival’s origins while innovating as well. What other festival would follow Sunflower Bean with the northeast English alt-folk of Richard Dawson, whose most folky numbers get the warmest reception from a hugely appreciative crowd. A subtler alternative folk has been Green Man’s bedrock. It brought way-out singer-harpist Joanna Newsom and songwriters’ songwriter Bill Callahan together — she appeared at Green Man in the early Baskerville Hall days as well as at Glanusk Park, where Callahan has played twice in the past.
Green Man puts on old favourites Johnny Lynch’s Pictish Trail and James Yorkston’s Yorkston.Thorne.Khan — musicians who have shared the festival’s 15-year journey. Yet it widens its scope by bringing the Chai Wallahs tent to the Far Out zone for alt-jazz, world music and dance, and by hosting angry electronic-backed spoken word from Kate Tempest and Sleaford Mods. Even before the official druid blessing on Friday, the Far Out tent on Thursday hosts acts as different from each other as Anna Meredith’s multi-instrument indie fusion and shoe gaze pioneers Ride. Mountain Stage headliners Future Islands, Ryan Adams and PJ Harvey speak to the event’s musical diversity, even if the venue could easily showcase some more ethnic diversity than Michael Kiwanaku.
Green Man holds out a welcome hand to sparky post-punk post-indie guitar bands like The Big Moon, Hinds, The Orielles, Dead Pretties and Francobollo, outsiders like Liars, and a host of US acts. Hurray for the Riff Raff’s American presence on the main Mountain Stage, led by Puerto Rican New Yorker Alynda Segarra, reinforces one of the main political statements of Green Man: that with a woman owing the festival the usual imbalance of male to female performers can be partially redressed. The Mountain Stage is opened and closed by women — Siobhan Wilson and PJ Harvey respectively.
On Friday alone, women make up a large number of the acts — including Hinds, The Big Moon, Cobalt Chapel, Angel Olsen, Laura Gibson, Siobhan Wilson, Nadia Reid and Kate Tempest, while other acts such as Pumarosa are at least fronted by women. Saturday and Sunday don’t quite match Fridays’s gender balance, but women are represented by The Orielles, Jessica Pratt, This Is The Kit, Shirley Collins, Siobhan Wilson (again), Deep Throat Choir, Bess Atwell, Big Thief, Bad Parents, Brooke Bentham, Madonnatron, Sunflower Bean, Julia Jacklin, Holly Macve, Girl Ray, Gaelynn Lea, Julie Byrne and Saint Etienne.
As well as women, the organisers bring a lot of Americana to the festival: US bands from across the spectrum of alt-country like Jessica Pratt and Ryan Adams, or from the left field of rock whether west coast or east (Allah-Las, Oh Sees), as well as noise rockers such as Lift To Experience from Texas in the south. The Americans are all deadly serious — they’ve come a long way to Wales, many for the first time, and want to do a good job. Most of the European musicians are more relaxed and in good spirits.
Festival goers themselves are among the stars of Green Man. A wide generational cross section of society — from babes in arms to older folk, with a lot of parents and cavorting children in between — makes for a respectful and self-policing group that is as determined to have fun as it is to keep the site clean and trouble free. They re-use drinks mugs, utilise the recycling bins and largely abide by the rules about not brining in booze and bottles that would litter the fields, ponds, water courses and woodlands.
Some containers are inevitably discarded but Green Man uses a huge number of litter-pickers to ensure that carpets of squashed plastic cups and cans don’t disfigure the site (as at most festivals). They even clean up confetti from party poppers let off by birthday celebrations. Toilets are clean, and supplied with loo roll and hand cleanser. If you really want a shower, you can have one — especially in the family campsite. And campers donate leftover tents and equipment to refugee charities.
The weather is typical for these parts — changeable. One minute a squall, the next sunshine through broken clouds, then a biblical deluge and soaking drizzle as the clouds descend to obscure the summits of the Black Mountains. Old timers tell tales of the years the rain turned Green Man into a muddy sludgefest, but it seems to drain more or less efficiently. Mud builds up but never overwhelms the site.
Participation is hard to resist at Green Man, with workshops and natural nurturing in abundance. Entertainers engage with punters, blurring the line between paying guests and participants. A fair few campers make an effort to dress up, but not so many that the novelty is lost and it becomes tiresome. Give of yourselves, say Green Man regulars, the more to enjoy the festival. As the rain pours at 7pm on Sunday, a trio of teenagers entertains crew and visitors by playing covers on acoustic bass, ukulele and cajon drum at the Backstage Bar.
Having a go is how Julian Cope approaches this gig, with his unscripted jokes and stories, acoustic guitar and vintage Mellotron. Audience participation features when Francobollo bring two children on for a dance at the Rising Stage, and when the Secret Post Office invade the stage during The Big Moon’s final song at Far Out. Journalist Pete Paphides brings audience members on stage to share memories of 15 years of Green Man, including a 13-year-old at her 5th Green Man who asks, “Can I swear?” before confessing to an early memory of sleeping through Fuckbucket.
The water courses and ponds of Fortune Falls, the Mountain Stage’s natural amphitheatre, wooded slopes, secret tunnels and well-maintained paths create natural traffic flow, with little need for harsh crowd control barriers or bossy stewards within the main site. Tired legs find a welcome availability of places to sit down — logs, picnic tables, benches, the grass when it’s not wet, picnic mats, camping chairs, haystacks and inflatables.
They may spend a lot of time sitting around, but Green Man attendees are serious about the music. This isn’t a passive festival crowd. They make positive choices about what they want to see and hear. The Far Out tent empties almost completely between bands, as one set of fans streams out to be replaced half an hour later by those seeking out the next act.
Green Man isn’t for the coolest kids. It’s a family event. As evening turns to late night, smaller children drift off to sleep in miniature, decorated wagons pulled around the site by their parents, who continue to be festive until after the last band as DJs take over tents dotted around the park. A lot of punters spend most of their time in the Little Folk area, picking just a few key acts to see.
Einstein’s Garden is another important part of Green Man. Powered by solar and bicycle energy, it hosts small tents and stages that impart the wonders of science to small people and their parents. Imagine having a comet applied as face paint by an Oxford PhD astrophysicist who explains how comets form as the glitter is applied — that’s Einsteins Garden. And for performance arts, Back of Beyond is on hand to entertain the pre-adults, with Somewhere offering workshops and space for 12-17 year olds.
For those without offspring in attendance, Green Man offers dozens of Welsh ales and lagers, with a score of ciders to boot. Wine and spirits are also available. Drink responsibly. The Green Man pub in the Walled Garden is a cider bar, the Courtyard is a real ale paradise, and then there’s the Mountain Bar, the Rum Bar next to Cinedrome (fancy watching Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ on Saturday morning, or Sleaford Mods’ ‘Bunch of Kunst’ on Sunday afternoon?), the End Up Bar in Far Out, and the secret Backstage Bar through a hidden tunnel and behind the Round The Twist dance tent.
No music and arts festival these days is just about performance, participation and pubs. There’s also grub, plenty of it and without truly impossible queues, literature and comedy. Green Man’s Babbling Tongues hosts chats with celebrities and authors such as Charlotte Church, dressed like a princess in tiara and billowing frock, Billy Bragg, Irvine Welsh and Nikesh Shukla.
Babbling Tongues is also a dry and warm space to watch wee-hours comedy. But even the comedy ends up being musical, climaxing on Saturday with Rob Deering’s improvised music quiz ‘Beat This’ featuring Clint Edwards, Felicty Ward, Doug Segal and Gavin Osborn. Ward’s team, The Shiny Minges, compete aggressively with Beard And A Half in a full tent, as Deering improvises furiously and impressively on loops and a guitar while keeping the audience in check and reflecting on the fate of the Cunt Paddock and their problematic second album.
Pics: Ian Bourne; and, with thanks to Green Man 2017, Pooneh Ghana, Olivia Williams and Max Miechowski