Green Man Festival – Sunday review (20th August 2017)

The campsites at Green Man are busy on Sunday morning as early leavers shuffle to the car parks before more of the predicted deluges arrive. 

The Backstage Bar sound system risks riling campers (who’ve identified it as the source of the latest and loudest wee hours dance grooves) by playing ‘Easy Like Sunday Morning’ by The Commodores at full blast. Joke over, the music stops as breakfast bacon and beans sizzle and bubble on campers’ stoves. 

Brunch in the Walled Garden is accompanied by Benedict Benjamin and his poppy folk. He seems bored, but perhaps it’s just the natural sadness of a troubadour. He says there’s nobody else playing, so the brunchers may as well watch him. But by the time he finishes, Manu Delago and Pete Josef are doing something quietly jazzy in the Chai Wallahs tent and Wolf People have struck up their proggy psych-folk in the big Far Out marquee. 

Wolf People are followed by Shame — one of the acts chosen for Green Man by So Young magazine (Lice, Dead Pretties, Pale Seas and Hotel Lux are the others, and So Young also highlights the presence of Sleaford Mods later today). 

But it’s a shame about Shame. Undoubtedly tight, political and energetic, they lack originality and err on the side of cliche. Frontman Charlie Steen channels any number of angry lead singers of the past — from Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 to Liam Gallagher of Oasis. There’s an unabashed machismo about the way he takes his top off during ‘Friction’, leans forward, pumps his arms and bellows that sits uncomfortably in these gender-fluid times. 

In another conscious stab at rebellion, Steen lights a cigarette for ‘Angie’. He throws water all over the front of the crowd but they really don’t need cooling down. The band are having more of a manic time than their audience — never a good sign. Shame are like Fat White Family without the calculated insanity and keyboards. It’s a case of been there, seen that, taken off the t-shirt.

New York’s Sunflower Bean are next up at Far Out, with model-bassist-singer Julia Cumming in an all-black full-length evening gown and axe man Nick Kivlen looking like Bob Dylan in ‘Don’t Look Back’. “We’ve never been to Wales before, have we?” Cumming asks Kivlen, rhetorically. He shreds merrily to her bass melody on ‘Burn It’ and sings alternate verses on the faster ‘Come On’ from last year’s ‘Human Ceremony’ album, but the performance so far is a bit flat, with crowd clapping dying out quickly 

The mood picks up with the call and echo vocals of ‘2013’ (“two thousand thirteen” in American) with its syncopated motorik drumming. Bravely, that’s the second of just four tracks from last year’s album, as Sunflower Bean are determined to push out new material — much more so than other bands here at the same stage of development, such as Hinds and The Big Moon, who more or less stick to their limited back catalogues.

And spin your head around and round,” sings Cumming on a new number — all US punk chords, indie beats and that metal Americana guitar sound. ‘Somebody Call A Doctor’ from 2015 cemented the band’s psych-pop/nu-shoegaze reputation, but has developed a live sting in the tail, accelerating deliciously from a driving NYC rhythm. Lighting turns from white and blue to purple for ‘Puppet’, a crowd pleasing new number with glam rock bass and drums and true romance lyrics that Cumming and Kivlen belt out Blondie style.

Announcing more new material, Cumming says she’s “glad you guys can hear it… we’re gonna cool it down a little” and sings: “Independent that’s how you view yourself, now that you’re 22… 22, if I could do it, I would stay young for you.” She and Kivlen bunch up tightly for the middle eight under green lighting and her soaraway voice betrays its classical training. Fan favourite ‘Easier Said’ gets a big cheer, Cumming’s high voice more lovely all the time as guitar and bass riffs betray hints of a liking of The Cure. She smiles warmly, touching her heart before the set finishes with ‘I Was A Fool’ and Kivlen’s psych out guitar on ‘I Was Home’. 

Playing so much new material at a festival is risky, but the Green Man crowd expects artist to push the boat out. One man who seems to be attuned to the festival’s core ethos is Julian Cope. He delights the Far Out crowd with a one-man show of anecdotes, jokes, banter and songs. Cope’s triumph follows disappointing sets from northeast England’s Richard Dawson (who, to a hugely warm response, misguidedly tries to wedge poorly executed experimental rock and jazz into roughly hewn folk) and Field Music (’80s revivalists who veer far too close to dreadful sounds from that era such as The Knack’s ‘My Sharona’).

Cope’s sonorous vocals revisit ‘Double Vegetation’ from 1991 and ‘Try Try Try’ from 1995, with its monster chords. He even manages to conjure up imaginary backing singers. His voice, always a match for his former Liverpool colleagues and rivals Pete Wylie and Ian McCulloch, has beautifully survived the ravages of drugs and alcohol. Many of his stories and songs are about those two subjects, but he is also an author, a researcher into ancient history, a raconteur, and a self-declared failure as a pop star. He insists that Teardrop Explodes failed, largely “because we were on acid”.

‘Drink Me Under The Table’ sets the tone — melding post-punk chords with a folky acoustic guitar sound, very much in line with the Green Man vibe. He says studies show that ancient man first used cereals to make beer, not bread — “all the ancient people were just the same as us”. Cope manages to insert the festival (“Green Man too”) into the lyrics of the resulting song — ‘They Were On Hard Drugs’ — as the audience quietly chants “drugs”. 

Another drinking song is ‘As The Beer Flows Over Me’, a gripping chant for his own funeral, although Cope insists he’s not going to go any time soon. He says he wrote the song after drinking alcohol for the first time in 20 years on a trip to Armenia. For a man who tried to forget about Teardrop Explodes, he talks a lot about the band and even sings some of the old numbers — ‘The Culture Bunker’ and ‘Great Dominions’ from ‘Wilder’ (1981). He tackles ‘Great Dominions’ (“Mummy, I’ve been fighting again”) after moving comically “with caution” from guitars to a 1966 Mellotron. 

Earlier, he recalls that his former manager Bill Drummond of KLF once burned a million pounds “and some of it was mine”, and performs the catchy ‘Bill Drummond Said’ from ‘Fried’ (1984). Cope then pays tribute to Robert Wyatt and Soft Machine by playing the psychedelic soul of ‘Why Are We Sleeping’. “I think I’ve been quite professional tonight,” the unpredictable Cope concludes, before rousing renditions of ‘Sun Spots’ (with its car-noise chorus, “eeeeeoooowwww”, translated into Japanese as “indeed”) and “Greatness And Perfection’, eliciting a fulsome singalong.

There’s time to catch some of a pulsating set from Sleaford Mods at an overflowing Far Out tent before finding a spot in front of the Mountain Stage for PJ Harvey’s headline set. It’s a shame there’s a clash, as it surely would have been possible to bring Sleaford Mods on within 10-15 minutes of Cope finishing — neither act has much kit. 

Spaced Sleaford Mods electro wizard Andrew Fearn just needs somewhere to put his laptop and a plastic bag full of booze — all he does is press the keyboard on his computer to get each track going and dance on the spot with a bottle of beer in his crotch. Jason Williamson merely requires a mic and some space in which to prowl angrily while his vocal tirades assault the crowd’s eardrums. 

Williamson has refined his twitchy, contorted stage presence; his movement is measured and deliberate — almost choreographed — whereas he used to look possessed. But the vitriol still pours out as it always has, with a “fucking wanker” here, and a “bastards” there. He delivers sentence after sentence of rage about ‘Army Nights’ or the ‘Moptop’ from latest album ‘English Tapas’, ‘TCR’ from last year’s EP, and older numbers too. 

Fearn’s beats veer from what seems to be a slowed down ‘Get Ur Freak On’ to fatter industrial sounds and bleak electro. His only mis-step is on TCR, as the backing track sounds too quiet. For a man of many words, Williamson has little patter. “Green Man, are you having a good time?” he offers. The crowd roars back its approval. They are pogoing at the front, and bouncing along out of the open side and back of the tent. Sleaford Mods are John Cooper Clark without the laughs, cross-bred with Mark E Smith.

PJ Harvey starts bang on time — heading a fearsome procession of nine men in black suits mesmerically banging drums and blowing saxes that brings ‘Chain of Keys’ to life — the first of six tracks from ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’. PJ Harvey is also on sax. Her customary feather headdress is black, but the rest of her raven blue costume stands out amid the monochrome. A geometric backdrop descends during the sax blasts and twin-drumming of ‘The Ministry of Defence’ and the rest of the stagecraft is left to subtle lighting, the band’s theatrical positioning, and PJ Harvey’s charisma. Most of the live video on either side of the stage is black and white.

The tuneful and politically charged story telling of ‘The Community of Hope’ ends the first chunk from ‘Hope Six’, and fans are treated to the funky punctuation of ‘Shame’ from 2004 before four melancholy smashers from ‘Let England Shake’ — the passionate war-death tale of ‘All and Everyone’, the brilliantly arranged and sung melodic title track, the clap-clapping of ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ (“what if I take my problem to the United Nations”), and the synchopated, dissonant, hunting horn psycho-history of ‘The Glorious Land’.

The performance is completely immersing, despite gaps between songs while the numerous musicians rearrange themselves. PJ Harvey pairs a powerfully emotional ‘Dear Darkness’, with its lovely clean keyboards, and a vulnerable, personal ‘White Chalk’ (both from 2007). ‘In The Dark Places’ builds relentlessly, adding layers of sound to the pure guitar riff. The band’s simple but effective hand clapping returns on a poly-rhythmic, lyrically repetitive ‘The Wheel’, PJ Harvey joining a great sax riff; and those filthy horns take over in the twisted vaudeville blues of ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’. 

An hour in, PJ Harvey shows she can still rock out with ‘50ft Queenie’ from 1993’s ‘Uh Huh Her’. Between the 15th and 16th tracks of her 17-song, 80-minute set (the deviant, big, twanging, resonant, intensifying and decaying sounds of ‘Down by the Water’ and ‘To Bring You My Love’, respectively, from 22 years ago), she finally talks politely to the huge and enamoured audience in a cut-glass accent: “Thank you. I would like to introduce my band…” The biggest cheer is for long-time collaborator John Parrish.

Their set (recorded live by BBC 6 Music) ends with chilling chanting on ‘River Anacostia’ (“Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water”); the perfect way to introduce a procession of black-caped torch bearers who make their way up the natural bowl from the Mountain Stage towards the emblematic Green Man and red dragon at the site’s centre, followed by the entire expectant crowd.

At midnight, as soon as Saint Etienne end at Far Out, flames spout from the dragon’s mouth, igniting the Green Man to pagan cheers. Flames envelop the structure and smoke billows over the hills and trees, but the festivities are’t over yet. As heat from the bonfire peaks, a vibrant firework display fills the sky, and the feisty festival goers disperse to find a preferred DJ.

Crew at the Backstage Bar let loose as their final shifts finish, with heavy reggae predominating where last night’s post-2am choices were all grime with JME, Skepta and friends. By 4am most campers are back in their tents, reflecting on a great weekend as the 15th Green Man sadly comes to an end.