Almost alone among UK festivals, Green Man benefits from the absence of branded sponsorship. This helps give the festival an uncluttered and peaceful environment, a refuge from the heavy-handed advertising and corporate overload that plague other festivals and most of the urban and semi-rural UK. Perhaps that’s why there’s little space for commercial chart music at Green Man, except for knowingly cheesy tracks played by the DJs at the Round The Twist tent into the wee hours. But that’s not to say some of the acts won’t ever make it in the charts.
Take Anna Calvi, a multi-Mercury prize nominee whose first two albums made the top 40. Her third LP, ‘Hunter’ is just out to critical acclaim. Calvi’s performance on the Mountain stage blows the festival apart. If her Green Man 2014 main-stage set was described as “blistering”, this year’s Sunday evening show is astounding, beautiful, creative, delightful, emotional, fulfilling, gorgeous, hypnotic, inspiring, jaw-dropping, kicking, lovely, masterful… a positive adjective for every letter of the alphabet can’t do it justice.
The neo-classical guitar virtuosity of ‘Rider To The Sea’ gives way to the heavy synth bass and monster slide guitar of chopping new song ‘Indies or Paradise’, and straight into ‘I’ll Be Your Man’ from her 2011 debut, with its quickly-uttered vocals and multiple climaxes. It would be no surprise to see Calvi headlining here in a year or two, as she’s becoming a match for last year’s Green Man headliner PJ Harvey.
Her voice soars powerfully as she sings “nothing lasts” on ‘Hunter’ over haunting cinematic electric organ (think David Lynch and Barry Adamson). Earlier movie soundtrack influences from John Barry percolate through ‘Suzanne and I’, as Calvi’s singing ascends majestically over her honest strumming. Another dark ballad later in the set is the staggeringly exquisite ‘First We Kiss’.
‘Wish’ starts with punk attitude and twanging top-string guitar, but twists and tacks through glam rock and soft screaming. Calvi reserves her most passionate moments for breakthrough track ‘Don’t Beat The Girl out of My Boy’, falling to her knees as she emits huge heartfelt sighs. As crossover tracks go, it compares with singles on the self-titled album by St Vincent. The emotion carries over into ‘As A Man’, dramatic in its martial intro, big drums, rock solo and gasped “When you’re not walking and talking as a man”.
Calvi’s set peaks as the synth-led oldie ‘Desire’ — popular with fans at the front who raise arms aloft — builds through guitar and drums, and is followed by a massive cover of ‘Ghost Rider’ by Suicide. Drums pound, synths pulse, Calvi’s voice is flawless and she drops to the stage with her screeching guitar, leaving it there as she storms off. Awesome.
Another artist deserving chart recognition is joyous soul man Curtis Harding, whose Sunday set is among the most enjoyable of the weekend. He dances his way through a series of pointed pop songs in the tradition of Atlantic, Motown and Stax. Timeless tambourine and saxophone echo the way David Bowie in his ‘Let’s Dance’ phase, Roxy Music and Dexys Midnight Runners paid their respects to Geno Washington and the other original soul men.
The mid-set highlight is ‘Till The End’ (“it’s about commitment; don’t let it depress you”). Harding dances with his tambourine to the instrumental break of its catchy and emotive portrayal of doubt and regret, which he plays out by switching from his rich natural register to a pure falsetto — a trick he pulls off numerous times. On ‘Face Your Fear’ his understated falsetto hovers quietly over a smooth reggae sway, ideal for the late afternoon of a relatively warm summer’s day.
Harding plays guitar on some of the numbers but, notably, his band (keys/sax, bass, drums, guitar) contribute no vocals — drawing attention to his expressive, powerful and versatile voice. As an upbeat ‘Need Your Love’ ends the performance, the crowd clap and dance happily.
Harding has fun on stage, no doubt, but not as much as Sacred Paws. The Scotland-based quartet — expanded from the original drums and guitar duo of Rachel Aggs and Eilidh Rodgers — have an infectiously smiley effect on the Walled Garden. They cook up an unlikely fusion of Afro-pop and indie, singing about life’s every day problems (‘Brush Your Hair’) and places (‘San Diego’, because Aggs’ grandmother lives there).
The West African guitar influence sometimes skews towards the US preppy-indie of Vampire Weekend, but melodies as strong as Blondie’s come through and so do the jangling traditions of Scottish post-punk pop (Orange Juice etc), for instance in their best song, ‘The Conversation’. Hints of Gang of Four and Slits simmer throughout the guitar interplay of ‘Almost’. Throughout the set, there’s cracking drumming from Rodgers, who shares vocal duties and harmonies with Aggs, plus a lot of dancing and — especially — smiling.
Sacred Paws are preceded by Charles Watson — on an extended break from the criminally overlooked Slow Club, who appeared at Green Man 2012 and 2016, as well as its London offshoot Green Man Ahoy. He likes the festival so much that he’s back four and a half hours later with his new garage rock supergroup, The Surfing Magazines, formed with guitarist David Tattersall and bassist Franic Rozycki from The Wave Pictures.
They set the tone by opening with Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and cutting hilarious shapes during the follow-up, a twanging instrumental. Single ‘New Day’ is a slice of fast surf rock and guitar shredding. Drummer Dominic Brider sings on Neil Young’s ‘Vampire Blues’, which gets an experimental swamp rock treatment. Watson and Tattersall share vocals and guitars, the former playing with Americana and story-telling while the latter channels Tom Petty and Tom Verlaine.
‘Summer’ typifies the group’s humorous adult-oriented surf rock, as Tattersall sings “if you don’t blink soon your eyeball’s going to explode”. Their guitar-based tunes recall Duane Eddy (‘Goose Feather Bed’) and Lester Square, with whom they share a sense of whimsy (‘You Could Never Come To Me Too Soon’), especially on the instrumentals (‘A Fran Escaped’ and ‘Peeping Dom’ — think of ‘Lester Leaps In’ by The Monochrome Set).
Synth guru John Maus sadly cannot perform at Green Man following his brother’s recent sudden death, so Leeds-based ‘80s indie rabble rousers The Wedding Present take his place in the Far Out tent. David Gedge and his group race through highlights from their frenetic back catalogue so quickly that some of the crowd (and the band) are confused about whether they’ve played ‘Brassneck’ or not. “Play ‘Brassneck’,” someone heckles from the back “We did that when you went for a pee,” Gedge replies. Did they? Whatever, the songs are anthems, each and every one.
“I’m out of breath now,” Gedge says between ‘Flying Saucer’ and ‘Ringway to Seatac’. He jingle jangles his guitar at double-fast speed on ‘You Should Always Keep in Touch With Your Friends’ (from 1986) and pays tribute to Girls At Our Best by playing ‘Getting Nowhere Fast’ — they were a Leeds post-punk band when he was at university. Fuzzbox guitar from Danielle Wadey on the classic ‘My Favourite Dress’ spark a singalong pogo, maintained by more great riffing, tight bass from Terry de Castro and drum breaks from Charles Layton on ‘Kennedy’.
So quickly do The Wedding Present perform their fast indie nuggets that they realise before the last track that they have time to spare. Gedge adds the Ramones-like ‘Felicity’ by Orange Juice (“this is a William Shatner number… this is the sound of happiness”) and exclaims “we can add another!”. After he asks the crowd whether they want ‘Heather’ or ‘Niagara’ (they want ‘Niagara’), The Wedding Present add ‘Heather’ to the set, before ending with the loud-quiet-loud ‘Bewitched’.
The Wedding Present are what James would be like if Tim Booth’s fractious Manchester band hadn’t decided to become more progressive and eclectic. And guess who’s more fun? The Wedding Present make an excellent last-minute addition to the Green Man line-up.
Green Man creates its own atmosphere. This year, the glitter and glamour are on show under Sunday’s clear blue Welsh skies. The face glitter available on site is biodegradable, made from plant cellulose and metallised aluminium. No rain means that without the covering layers of anoraks, overcoats and rain capes, clothes made of shiny metallic materials, reflective discs and pearlescent scales shimmer in the sunshine.
Glimmering mermaids cross paths with a fancy dress John McEnroe, not the only man in shorts, chain-mailed knights and animal onesies. A simpler look, but just as colourful, is sported by those choosing to sport motley crocheted or knitted halterneck tops. Children wear tails, or paddle half-dressed in the streams of Fortune Falls next to naked babies. Nearby, next to the Rising stage, festival goers pick blackberries from the brambles. In Einstein’s Garden, devoted to scientific learning, they admire the well kept flower beds.
Just down the hill is Mountain’s Foot — the natural amphitheatre that sits in front of the festival’s main stage. Behind the stage, the brooding Black Mountains provide a uniquely beautiful natural backdrop. After Sunday’s headline set by The War On Drugs, the Mountain stage bowl empties as thousands make their way up the hill towards Far Out, where the huge Green Man is set alight at midnight to end the festival in a pagan celebration of flames, firework and smoke.
“It’s good to be home,” says Adam Granduciel, front man of Philadelphia’s The War On Drugs, as they start their headline set. They last appeared here in 2014 and previously 10 years ago at the sixth Green Man when, Granduciel recalls (perhaps inaccurately), they played an extended 36-minute version of tonight’s opener, ‘Buenos Aires Beach’. This time they manage to pack 14 flawless songs into a well-drilled hour and a half long set. From that Bruce Springsteen-esque opener, they up the pace with ‘Baby Missiles’, recalling Arcade Fire’s brand of North American indie rock. Drummer Charlie Hall smiles as he drives the song’s careering tempo, while Granduciel’s harmonica playing reinforces the band’s country-rock underpinnings. In ‘Pain’ he vents his classic rock leanings in a big guitar solo.
The War On Drugs are serious, earnest and no-nonsense. In between songs, Granduciel rushes to change guitars as fast as he can. His sense of urgency is paralleled by David Hartley’s relentless bass and the motorik beat of ‘An Ocean in Between the Waves’, Robbie Bennett’s keyboards swirling as Granduciel picks out another guitar solo then riffs out to the song’s full seven-minute length.
Almost as long, the slow and sincere ‘Strangest Thing’ recalls Bob Dylan arrangements, especially in Granduciel’s vocals. It’s the night’s second from 2017’s ‘A Deeper Understanding’, with two more immediately following of which ‘Nothing To Find’ again recalls Dylan vocally and because of the harmonica, although Mr Zimmerman wouldn’t sing and play over such pacy US indie instrumentation. The rest of the set is mainly from ‘Lost In The Dream’ (2014), familiar territory for many of the crowd.
Those who drift off catch the techno-folk of Tunng in the Walled Garden or the crazy tambourine-led psychedelic shoegaze of The Brian Jonestown Massacre in the Far Out tent. When the last of the live music ends, the diverse crowds come together to watch the Green Man burn to the ground. As the emblem turns to ashes, all that’s left is pounding dance music from DJs in the Far Out and Round The Twist tents.