I moved to London a little over a year ago, and to say it has been a tiring year would be not be so much an understatement as it would a downright lie; this year has maliciously burned my fuse to ashes from end to end, leaving me to flap around comically in a pool of hot wax and complain here and there to my family when it all gets a bit much. I’ve been emotionally and physically drained for what feels like a dangerously long stretch, and worked myself stupid just to exist in a city I am (finally) beginning to ‘get’. I have not been unhappy – I have fought off any such feelings by throwing myself into my career (apparently that’s a thing now) and into forming a brand-spanking new community. Work, social and romantic (har har) lives aside, though, until this weekend spent in the Black Mountains I had definitely not felt truly relaxed in over a year.
My love for Green Man Festival is no secret. I first attended at 17, with the promise of adulthood post-college ahead of me and a blossoming love of folk to attend to, and fell in love with the festival’s site. The music was obviously superb – it always has been; from Beirut and Joanna Newsom on the same night in 2010 to a bill boasting Iron & Wine alongside Explosions in the Sky in 2012 – but it’s Brecon and their beautiful Beacons that really have my heart.
The team behind Green Man have always been good to me. I’ve attended their festival now four times – the second and third of which I wrote up for my good friends at The Line of Best Fit – and have had a progressively more and more enjoyable time doing so. This year, however, the lovely folks at Bleached were kind enough to invite me to write my own take for this very blog, and so, although traditionally my articles about Green Man have been focused on artist performances, I now find myself in the privileged position of being able to write from the heart about an event I truly love.
I’ve said it all before, but I’ll continue saying it until my peers eventually tune me out; Glanusk Park, and the sloping mountains that surround it on all sides, are nothing short of heavenly, and this year they felt particularly so. I suppose that has a lot to do with where I’ve been living, for I have of course seen the countryside before; I grew up in it. I have seen winding roads and mountains and rivers before, and I have of course actually seen these very surroundings before – but perhaps the fact that I saw no stained brick walls, felt no grimy roads touch the soles of my shoes, inhaled no fumes and drank no London water for four days had a lot to do with the fact that I have never quite had my breath taken away like I did this weekend. Vividly I recall, on Saturday afternoon, standing atop the grassy slopes that surround the Mountain’s Stage and inhaling as deeply as possible, thinking as I did so of the sheer number of times I’ve inhaled the hot, caustic exhaust of a bus when stuck on my bike behind one. Quite the contrast.
The sublime location of Green Man is a significant part of why it is a uniquely beautiful festival; of why it is an escape from a hectic city life on a level that no other music event can offer. From playing Pooh sticks off a bridge over the River Usk to dipping in it in our underwear in Sunday afternoon sunlight (not something officially endorsed by the festival but personally a must), and from watching a band as immersive as Phosphorescent with the Beacons painted onto the skyline behind to driving in and out of the site over those very mountains, it’s a place where the very air feels like it’s nursing your wounds and bringing you back to full health.
Music, comedy, film and live conversation, however, is why Green Man is more than just an escape to the country. Even this year, with the festival featuring less huge names than it has in previous years, the music we encountered was unforgettable (albeit now a little hazy). I attended this year with my younger brother Theo and friends Robbie Wojciechowski and Will Slater – both other writers, predominantly for The Guardian and The 405, respectively – and I am beyond certain that we will be telling people for years to come about the experience of seeing Midlake perform on the Fritday night. A Bella Union-signed artist and something of a favourite of mine and the group’s, the band (now without their longstanding lead vocalist) delivered beyond what any of us could really have hoped for. We certainly weren’t expecting to derive such joy from their set, but from unwinding to the demure ‘We Gathered in Spring’ to euphorically howling along to the salt-of-the-earth lyrics of ‘Head Home’, I felt nothing short of true drunken ecstasy. The same was true for a host of artists over the weekend – standout sets from Ólöf Arnalds (initially under a tree with around ten strangers as I stumbled upon her doing a session in the Green Man radio booth, and later that night on the Walled Garden stage); those superb Southern-American rockers Band of Horses, who closed the Mountain’s Stage on Saturday night; the incomparable Patti Smith, whose vigorous set for the earlybirds on Thursday night was something we felt lucky to witness. Daytime performers like the inexplicably unique Sam Amidon, fellow Londoners Peggy Sue and another (very new) Bella Union act, Landshapes were also hugely memorable highlights. Watching artists on the Mountain’s Stage is regularly a blissful experience, but with the bluest of skies stretching above and the two ornate, umbrella-like trees to either sit under or clamber enthusiastically up, it’s paradise.
I’ve actually not even scratched the surface of all you will find at Green Man. Einstein’s Garden, for example; a stunning enclosure in the festival brimming with arts, workshops, bookshops, hammocks, banjos, secret music sets – all within a stone’s throw of a pop-up blacksmithing tent. That’s right. All this would be lost, however, on festival clientele hell-bent on destroying themselves and their surroundings, which is exactly not what you will find at Green Man. Consistently, the festival has proven to attract people who love the space, love what’s in it and love being together for four days. It’s this that makes it such a delight for families and young adults alike, with safety and security essentially a given, giving people the space to enjoy themselves as they like. Families with children enjoy the day in the festival (and often the night) and have a great space to retire to, and those with perhaps slightly less to think about have the pleasure of being able to trust that – well, nobody’s going to set their tent on fire.
We were also lucky enough to stumble into Jude Rogers’ live interview with John Cale of The Velvet Underground in the Babbling Tongues section of the site, which was a new and intriguing experience for me. A particularly memorable highlight, too, was settling down early on Sunday evening to drink a few drinks and watch Withnail & I in Green Man’s spacious cinema; let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like being in a large, friendly, booze-addled crowd and taking part in a round of cheers and applause when Richard Griffiths’ legendary Uncle Monty appears at the door.
Obviously, the food we ate was fantastic, and the booze we drank (for the most part) equally so – I will always have a bias for a festival that has a hundred-strong real ale-and-cider bar, and serves Wye Valley Brewery beers from my homeland, no less. To complain about food prices, delicious as all we ate was, would be inconsequential (I mean, it certainly wasn’t cheap) but alcohol cost less than London almost across the board. I will also always nurture a soft spot for the Strumpets with Crumpets stand at the arena’s entrance – unsurprising, really, considering they’re the kind of place that will serve you a hot ‘Bloody Mary’ crumpet dripping with butter and Tabasco at 3 in the morning. They also have the best coffee we found on-site (I’ve been trying to narrow it down for four years, and I feel like I’ve finally made up my mind) – heartily recommended by all four of us, as well as my own mother, who joined us for most of Saturday. Of course, that was the day it rained – sorry Mum.
There are actually countless moments of serenity and incapacitating happiness I could recount from this year’s festival, but I won’t, lest I bore the bollocks off anybody not present. After this many reviews of the thing, though, I’m running out of ways to say ‘please, for crying out loud, experience this festival for yourself’.
Here’s to Green Man 2013 – my God, am I looking forward to the next one.
A few dorks