[Listening soundtrack: Blink of a Nihlist – BC Camplight]
Day 1 – Thursday
It’s been two years since I last went to a festival which involved camping , and this was my first visit to Greenman, a festival with a tendency to get a bit sploshy. So with a mixture of excitement and trepidation we set off on the long drive to the Black Mountains, laden down with clothing to suit every possible weather condition, including snow. At least we didn’t have the bother of erecting a tent having taken the Tangerine Fields option… Yeah I know it’s a sign of middle class sloth, but worth it not to have all that extra gear to drag around.
Arriving around teatime on Thursday and gear safely stowed in our tent, we set about orienting ourselves. As festival sites go Greenman really is a bit special, with its main stage nestled in a natural hollow and set against a spectacular mountain backdrop. It’s a compact site, with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, so we spent an hour or so poking about the various stages and stalls before making our way up the the Far Out big top to see what was happening, basking in the late evening sunshine.
With just one stage running for the first night, the Far Out was understandably rammed. We arrived to catch the end of King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s set making a big racket to an appreciative crowd. There seems to be an almost endless stream of Aussi psyche bands of whom King Gizzard seem to be the latest flavour of the month. I mean it’s fine and I guess if we had been down the front it would have been quite fun, but from the back it all sounded a bit Deep Purple meets Jethro Tull to my ears.
As King Gizzard came to and end the big top quickly cleared allowing us to bag a space at the front for Thursday headliners Wild Beasts, who are neither wild nor beastly. My feelings towards Wild Beasts are a bit odd, when I hear them on the radio I’m not entirely sure whether I like them or not. However I have seen them live a few times and always find them entertaining and enjoyable company; it must be my affection for Kendal mint cake. They are on good form as always and seem to have brought their fan club with them judging by the crowd of people near me singing along to every single word. Their current slinky electronic sound doesn’t translate as well to the festival environment as some of their older material, so closer of All The Kings Men turns into a mass bouncy singalong. All in all it felt like a nice gentle start to the festival weekend, and we returned to our tent excited about what the next day had to offer..
Day 2 – Friday
Friday arrives with a wet splodge. After a night of heavy rain we awake bleary and a little bit damp. I am immediately dispatched to procure cups of tea from the Community cafe, and have a crafty Welsh cake before embarking on the muddy trek back to the tent. We eventually sort ourselves out and headoff to the main festival site for brekkers before plotting our days entertainment.
First act of the day for me is Stephen J Adams on the tiny Walled Garden stage. The Broken Family Band were one of my favorite bands of the noughties; sharp, witty, often dark and cynical lyrics allied to great tunes, lent a slight Country tinge courtesy of Adams voice. He was in fine form today, despite the drizzly weather, backed up by a second guitarist, his set a mixture of songs old and new, plus a couple of obscure covers. Tears of Happiness, a song about Satanism and kind of an answer song to the old BFB track, Living in Sin was a real highlight, and I found myself singing along wildly. As ever his black sense of humor was to the fore in his between song banter; proclaiming, before the song Togetherness, that at least we now know who all the racists are… And where they live. He seemed to be really enjoying himself, and I saw him wandering round the site with partner and child several times over the weekend so clearly was making a weekend of it.
Next we head over to the main stage for Meilyr Jones, and as if on cue the clouds part and the sunshine floods down upon the Mountain Stage. Tall, thin, shoeless, dressed like he’d forgotten to take off his school uniform, and very Welsh, Meilyr was about to win the day at Greenman. Kicking off with the upbeat Dexys-like burst of How to Recognize a Work of Art, the addition of a trumpet player to the live line up makes all the difference. Great tunes allied to a hugely likeable stage presence makes for the perfect Friday afternoons entertainment. Angular like Jarvis, but without the sleeze, he was a non-stop ball of energy; his foray into the audience seeming perfectly reasonable rather than an annoying affectation. After an ebullient Featured Artist Set closer he hung around the the front of the stage, selling CDs and t-shirts, signing autographs and chatting to everyone. And as he went, the sunshine went with him.
In the olden days, when I was a youth, I had a cassette of songs taped off the radio. Yes that’s right kids, taped, no YouTube, no Spotify, no iTunes in the olden days. I played it all the time until it eventually broke…I was heartbroken. On the cassette there was a song called The Backyard by Miracle Legion. I knew little about the band but loved that song, it’s lyrics fondly remembering a simpler, more innocent time. In later years, when flicking through record shops I always looked out for them but there just didn’t seem to be any material available to buy. A brief Google search suggested that singer Mark Mulcahy had a life, both personal and professional, filled with tragedy. So my expectations of ever seeing them live were pretty slim.
Always suspicious of reunions I was not filled with confidence as they stumbled on stage; a post arrest Radovan Karadzic, Casey Jones, a fat Dennis Quaid and a Vegas card sharp. However, I could not have been more wrong. Mark Mulcahy demonstrated more life, soul, passion and fire in the belly than I could have hoped for. He danced and jiggled around the stage, his voice strong and rich, sounding like a man half his age. When they played The Backyard, well there were tears in my eyes.
We next wandered up to the Far Out to see Kamasi Washington. I have been enjoying his triple album, The Epic, this summer, so was particularly looking forward to seeing him live. However I have a complicated relationship with jazz, and unfortunately watching Kamasi confirmed all of my worst fears about live jazz. Firstly I struggle with instrumental music live, I need the central focus provided by a singer; but I guess that’s my problem, not theirs. Secondly they do the Jazz thing. You know, when one player takes a solo and everybody else stands back and looks on admiringly. Frankly they all seem to be having a far better time than the audience. So sadly, I never made it to the end of the set and bailed early to search of food.
After a sit down in the chilled out Babbling a Tongues field and some sustenance we had to make a decision on which headliner to see. Neither James Blake nor Lush were really floating our boat, so we opted for Kiran Leonard in the walled garden. It’s frightening that someone so young can be so musically gifted. After a couple of false starts Kiran and band launched into a wild and woolly version of Pink Fruit, the standout track from his last album. I am not entirely sure how he does it, I have never seen fingers move like that on a fretboard. Performance-wise, it is clear he is still a young man who has to learn how to really engage with an audience, but given time he has the talent to do something truly great..
Day 3 – Saturday
As I poke my head out of the tent door (do tents have doors? Just openings really.) , I felt a bit like Noah after the first day of the flood. It was time for a rethink on the day’s schedule. What we really need are some indoorsy things. So what better way to start the day than Pete Paphides & Bob Stanley’s fiendishly tricky pop quiz in the Babbling Tongues tent. This has multiple advantages as it provides a pleasant spot to sit down, on proper chairs, enjoying cups of tea and bacon sandwiches as well as being a right laugh. While not being in the prizes we achieve a respectable mid forties score and avoid the worst of the morning’s downpour.
As the rain abates slightly to a drizzle we decide to put up our hoods and venture outside. First up is BC Camplight in the walled garden. Philadelphia raised, Manchester based singer songwriter BC Camplight plays piano led pop in the classic tradition of Harry Nilsson, Elton John and Ben Folds. This is a surprise from a former musical compadre of War on Drugs and Kurt Vile. I can’t believe he has only just come to my attention because he is utterly brilliant and delivers a real shot in the arm to a damp Saturday. Looking like the lost Blues Brother and fuelled by Jack Daniels he is a real force of nature and every song sounds like your new favorite. Finishing on a wild cover of Nilsson’s Jump into the Fire he puts a massive smile our rain soaked faces. However, I do worry about how long he can keep up this pace, given the bottle of Jack he manages to put away in a sixty minute set.
Next I head up to the Far Out to catch Cavern of Anti-Matter, former Stereolab man Tim Gane’s Neu-esque outfit. Motorik drumming, weird bleepy electronica and psyched out guitar licks are just the ticket. I close my eyes and am immediately transported to mid-70s Dusseldorf, which considering I am in a field in Wales is some achievement. It’s odd juxtapositions that make festivals fun, so going directly from a set of driving Krautrock noodling to see Sheffield’s finest son John Shuttleworth is about as big a leap as it is possible to make. JS is hilarious as always but leaves us with an ear-worm that we are still struggling to shift a week later, ‘…I can’t go back to savory now, that shepherds pie was stunning, but I’m half way through me pudding…’.
Next we venture out into the pouring rain to watch The Magnetic North in the Walled Garden. A super-group of sorts comprising Carnival leader Erland Cooper, Gorrilaz/Verve axe slinger Simon Tong and folktronica goddess and all round genius Hannah Peel. This was on our must see list come rain or shine. Prospect of Skelmersdale, inspired by Simon Tong’s experience of growing up in a New Town and its later integration with the TM community has been playing in our house all summer. Live they are even better than we could have imagined, playing a mix of songs from the Skelmersdale album and the earlier Orkney record. Erland and Hannah in particular, have incredible stage presence. It has to be said, they have a sexual chemistry of the ‘get a room’ variety, but do sing the sweetest harmonies. Accompanied by a string section, songs build to epic crescendos, soaring into the sky and taking us with them. A cover of George Harrison’s Run of the Mill almost moves me to tears. The rain poured down but oddly it just added to the atmosphere of what was probably my favorite performance of the weekend.
Damp and emotional we decide to that ourselves to a couple of rather excellent Bloody Marys and a sit down under the trees….maybe it was my mood, but I swear it was the best Bloody Mary I have ever tasted. In a choice of headliners, I forego Laura Marling’s folk stylings to see Battles in the Far Out. I arrive in plenty of time to get a good spot near the front and, sensibly, deploy my ear plugs. The on-stage set up seems more frantic than usual; it later transpires they have driven overnight from Poland and only arrived forty five minutes before they were due to start. Understandably there is a slight delay to proceedings, but it allowed me some time to observe the world’s most laid back security team chatting and taking selfies with the crowd.
Built around the thunderous tub thumping of former Helmet drummer John Stanier, Battles are a ferocious live band. Drum kit front and centre, with a crash cymbal seemingly eight foot in the air, they make a wonderful racket. An underlying dense wall of odd noises and keyboard stabs, unearthly guitar effects allied to driving rhythms that seem to twist in all directions yet remain centred around a relentless driving beat, they sound like the best party on some far off alien planet. When they play Atlas, the ‘hit’, the crowd lifts off with them, bouncing along like demented fools. It was a brilliant performance and so very different to anything else I saw over the weekend, leaving me buzzing and elated.
Day 4 – Sunday
Don’t hold your breath, but I think it has stopped raining. Usually by the last day of a festival weekend I am on my last legs, running on fumes. Surprisingly we are all feeling in pretty high spirits this Sunday. We start the day with kedgeree and breakfast stew in the Babbling Tongues tent and watch the Mojo interview with Belle and Sebastian. Despite best efforts of the interviewer to bugger it up they make for an interesting interview while we make our plans for the final day.
We catch Genghar on the Mountain Stage; they don’t exactly set my world on fire but are entertaining enough. We decide to check out The Moonlandings next at the Far Out, but get distracted by something far more interesting. While passing the Round the Twist bar we noticed a small queue of people and decide to investigate. On hearing the unmistakable sound of Ezra Furman sound checking inside we immediately join the queue and are lucky enough to witness a small intimate secret gig. On a tiny stage, just Ezra and his guitar, in front of a small crowd, he delivers a short set of songs touching on his, sexuality, gender and self esteem issues. It sounds like a downer, but it really wasn’t, rather it was genuinely moving. A surprising cover of You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman gives some idea where his head is at right now. At the end of the set @realearthmother managed to grab the set list, narrowly beating a too slow hipster to the punch. Amateur. Ezra kindly autographs it afterwards and chats away for a while with J & P, which I am sure pressed all of the wrong social anxiety buttons for him. It was yet another highlight of a wonderful weekend of music.
To close out our festival weekend it is a triple whammy in the Far Out; Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Ezra Furman & the Boyfriends and Grandaddy.
First up is UMO a band we have seen several times before and it has to be said tonight did not show them at their best. The first time I saw them they had a lightness of touch which seems to have been lost somewhere along the line. Firstly they appear to have an new drummer in tow, who while perfectly adequate lacks the swing and feel of Riley Geare. I am not sure whether this is a permanent personnel change or an enforced one, but if anyone knows the story I’d be happy to hear it. One of the highlights of previous performances was Riley’s wild drum solo section; they try the same trick tonight but it just feels leaden. One of the biggest issues I have is that their live set seems to have degenerated into schtick; the drum solo bit, the keyboard solo bit, the bit where Ruban sits cross-legged on the stage, the bit where Ruban climbs up the scaffolding. It is a real shame as Multi Love was one of my favourite albums of last year. Nonetheless the crown seem to love it and I guess they were okay, its just that I have seen them when they were so much better.
Next up is Ezra Furman & the Boyfriend’s full band set and the difference between this and the earlier intimate solo set could not be more marked. I am pretty sure Ezra doesn’t want the ‘voice of a generation’ tag, but if he continues to deliver exhilarating performances like this it’s going to stick. It’s been two weeks now, so forgive me if I’m hazy on details, but in my mind he started off with a blistering Tell ’em All to Go to a Hell (set-list FM begs to differ). Anyway it felt like a statement of intent and the rest of the set followed in a similar vein. All the frailties of earlier seemed to float away, replaced by a confident forthright young man with things to say; Body Was Made dedicated to all the queers. The Boyfriends have become a lean, tight unit, honed to perfection by a relentless few years on the road. They sound like a cross between the E Street Band and The Attractions at their feral 70s best. A shout out to all the folks who supported them over the years in sweaty dives up and down the country reminded me of the first time we saw him in the damp and dingy York Duchess. Ending on a celebratory and chaotic cover of Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher made this feel like a real headliners set. Maybe next year.
After all of the euphoria of Ezra’s set, it felt like a tough act to follow, and if it had been another high octane band it could have fallen on it’s face. So how do you follow something like that; simple, it’s dumb, it’s Grandaddy. This is a band I had pretty much given up on ever getting to see live, having been on hiatus for so long but a sighting of Jason Lytle playing Hewlett’s Daughter alongside Giant Sand at Stewart Lee’s ATP gave me some hope.
They were really the perfect way to end this festival for me. Their sleepy eyed Texan wooziness and lullabies for the soul bring us gently back to earth, enveloping us in a warm comforting hug. They played all of the hits too, AM180 and Summer Here Kids being standout tracks for me. Ending on the long, weird and impossible He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’ s the Pilot was a bold move but fitted the mood perfectly, Jason Lytle’s heartbreaking lilt creating that special piece of magic that is required to end a festival.
Happy and elated we gathered to watch the ceremonial burning of the Greenman and fireworks display. I couldn’t help but reflect on what an incredible weekend of music it had been. I hadn’t seen everything I would have liked to (missed Malcolm Middleton, missed Whitney, missed Ryley Walker, missed Belle & Sebastian, missed Tindersticks) but hey if you tried to watch everything it would become a trial rather than a pleasure. And festivals are one of life’s real pleasures; you turn off the outside world for three or four days and enter a fantasy place, where your only concerns are what to watch and what to eat. More of that please.