Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Green Man 2010

It might be precisely because its climate is entirely unsuited to festivals that Britain is so obsessed with them. By now there must be enough to give every farm in the country a weekend off in favour of being tramped across by several thousand drunkards in wellingtons. In other words, just like normal farming, but with more people.

The unwieldy excesses of the festival scene lead to a few difficulties, even beyond finding enough empty weekends. First there is a limit to the number of people willing to spend cash on a trip involving the highest chances of trenchfoot since the Somme. Admittedly there is less shelling and fewer machine guns (although plenty of bad poetry and poison gas), but a festival is definitely a dirty weekend: you leave hygiene at home, unsuspecting, while you run off with another lifestyle. Obviously this is not for everyone, and I doubt many could find it in their hearts and wallets to go to more than one or two in a year.

Then there's the music. A glance at last year's lineups gave the impression that Jarvis Cocker was spending most of his summer's Saturday's playing to several different crowds at the same time. Yes, there are plenty of minor bands willing to fill up the lunchtime slots in exchange for a shiny wristband and a packet of crisps, but if you're going to draw crowds you need headliners, and until someone discovers a way to clone musicians that doesn't involve Simon Cowell, that means a bit of a struggle.

Finally there is the tyranny of the calendar. In an average year (assuming no cataclysmic climate alterations that will see Glastonbury 2024 being nostalgic about mud as a jolly alternative to tornadoes and earthquakes) there are only about three weekends that are really suitable to standing outdoors for the entire day, staring at a stage. Including all the ones that are just about acceptable if you're not picky (and if you own a tent in the first place, it's a fair bet that you aren't), you could probably double that. Triple if you're a masochist. That clearly isn't enough to share between all the festivals, and the major ones don't want to clash because they're often aiming for the same groups of people. The little ones don't want to clash either, but they don't tend to have a choice.

I've just come back from the Green Man, and it's pretty much nailed most of the festival problems, even if it is in turn nailed by the last one. I'll get the grumbly bit over and done with because there's already too much weather ranting in the world. Look, mid-August in a Welsh valley is no time to be anywhere near open sky. Apparently they had the site blessed by druids to avoid rain. Call me a cynic, but after this weekend I'm starting to lose faith in ancient pagan rituals. I hate to think of all those goats sacrificed in vain.

Persistent rain aside, the Green Man gets most of it right. At about 5,000 people (I think) it finds a pleasant niche halfway between miniature local shindigs that resemble large garden parties, and giant stomping monster festivals with lakes of filth and crowds that could populate small countries.

On the whole it does the same thing with the music: instead of getting middle-grade mainstream bands, it picks up huge names from slightly outside the basic canon of rock and roll. Okay, Doves are a touch bland (although I rather like them), but plumping for Joanna Newsom on as the last night's headliner is inspired and adventurous without being unlistenably obscure (for most of the audience, anyway - I heard a few bewildered grumblings). She does win the 'awkward stage banter' award, though, for a weird ramble about swimming in rivers (and the harp retuning heckle: 'It was in tune this morning'; 'Welcome to Wales!') . And the Flaming Lips, well, the stories about their stage shows are true. I want more bear attacks and space bubbles in popular music. They make perfect sense as a headliner: ridiculously entertaining, totally off their faces, and completely accessible. If Wayne Coyne didn't have a band, he'd have a cult. And I'd join it.

Step away from the headliners, and the charming peculiarity of the lineup becomes even more apparent. The lower echelons of the stage times tend to be much more interesting than the guitar-bass-drums-yelping generica they could have become at a festival with more money to fling around. On the whole there was an intriguing mixture of folky and psychedelic poppy stuff that I rather liked. Put simply, there were a lot of banjos.

The highlights I saw coming were the Flaming Lips, Mumford and Sons, Beirut, Laura Marling and Wild Beasts. The ones that came out of nowhere for me were Matthew and the Atlas, Caitlin Rose and Joker's Daughter. Honorary mention to Coco's Lovers for losing power, but then opting for a barefoot acoustic performance from the middle of the Chai Wallah tent to an unexpectedly vast crowd (rain can do great things for little bands), and leaving everyone loving them. They clearly acquired a taste for busking: afterwards they were spotted playing all over the rest of the festival, still not wearing any shoes. Slightly disappointed by John Grant (once of The Czars). Some brilliant songs, and certainly the best voice of the festival, but the set was almost ruined by a truly awful wailing synthesiser keyboard. Still, nothing can stop Paint the Moon being stunning.

Also much fun to be had in the cinema tent in the mornings before the bands open up. I have now discovered that Buster Keaton is amazing (Jackie Chan was right all along) and that lovingly made short animations are among the lovelier things to watch when there is a monsoon outside. 

Oh, and they burnt a wicker man at the end (minus Scottish policeman. I think), which would have been amazing if the rain hadn't chosen that hour to go completely berzerk, and if some halfwit family hadn't insisted on thrusting a giant golf umbrella right in my face. They were wearing perfectly serivceable waterproofs, too. Bah.

Anyway, here's my first effort at a Spotify playlist. This is one played by each of the bands I saw, with the following non-Spotify exceptions: Joanna Newsom (does her log cabin not have internet?), Coco's Lovers, Dom Coyote, Brigyn (ironic folk cover of La Roux's Bulletproof? Yes please)  and Zen Elephant. Hope it works. 

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