Thursday, August 23, 2007

SWSL Green Man Festival Diary 2007

Friday 17th August

(With photos courtesy of Mel and Jen.)

I awake freezing cold in the tent and realise that no, it's no good - a trip to the toilet is indeed a necessity. As I shuffle along the path, I marvel at the fact that this truly is a festival that sleeps - there's no one around, and no sound other than that of the occasional snoring drunk.

Oversized gooey cookies for breakfast. Miniature speakers, attached to an iPod playing PJ Harvey, TV On The Radio and Jane's Addiction, do their valiant best to drown out the sound of someone playing the flute. Badly.

It's Sod's Law, of course - a new batch of the free pocket-sized programme arriving the moment I've parted with £3 for the deluxe unabridged A5 version. But at least in that version I get to read some of the artists' previews of their own appearances; I wouldn't otherwise have learned, for instance, that Gruff Rhys' recording of a duet in "really bad Patagonian Spanish" is all part of his "eventual goal of killing off all the colonial languages with bad grammar" or that Mike Clark of the Jicks is "a Cardiff Nursing School favourite" who owns "a restaurant that serves Standard Pub Fare, verging on the Gastro".

Sunshine, blue sky and a gentle breeze, but the odd suspicious cloud lurks in the distance. Time to venture into the arena...

As someone about to release an album whose lynchpin is called 'Tom Waits Rip-Off', Stephen Black aka SWEET BABOO (Green Man Cafe) could never be accused of taking himself too seriously. Other surreal acoustic gems performed under the red and white canvas include one about his one-eyed rabbit Mr Mario helping him break out of jail and another about discovering a wolf-boy in Grangetown but then being forced to drown him because he won't let Mr Baboo get near his girlfriend. 'C'mon Beef', meanwhile, is introduced as his "international superhit", an attempt to write a song like Feeder's 'Buck Rogers'. There is a poignancy about it all, though - Black is accompanied on vocals by Laura Bryon, vocalist / guitarist with Cardiff noise rock outfit King Alexander and former partner of Jon Clee. Jon, who not only designed the covers of numerous locally-released records but also promotional material for Clwb Ifor Bach, The Point, Forecast and the Green Man Festival itself, was hit and killed by a car in May, and this year's festival is dedicated to his memory.

The aforementioned 'C'mon Beef' having drawn Sweet Baboo's set to a close, I take a look around. There's Richard Arnold, Laura's bandmate in King Alexander; Mark Thomas of Attack + Defend; Graf from Gindrinker; the core of Silence At Sea; Gary of Twisted By Design; two members of Threatmantics; Radio 1's Bethan Elfyn; and Martin Carr from the Boo Radleys / Brave Captain. Truly, half of Cardiff is here. It feels like one of those episodes of 'EastEnders' when the cast decamp to Southend-on-Sea for the weekend.

Suncream is still very much the order of the day, but it's worth noting that a number of people are wearing wellies as if fearing the worst.

After the anti-folk, the folk. PAMELA WYN SHANNON (Green Man Stage) hails from the same American town as Dinosaur Jr's J Mascis, Amherst in Massachusetts, and is an equally arresting guitarist. But she's also an unreconstructed hippie and no doubt spends her time communing with the faeries at the bottom of her garden while wearing nothing but underwear made out of moss. Yet another song about nature - about a seed-pod called Pipkin which lands on her doorstep, to be precise - has me wondering whether I'm going to regret going to a festival which still very much retains its folk roots.

"They have that particular knack of being able to create uplifting music that's blessed with a delicious melancholia at the same time". The "they" in question are FANFARLO (Main Stage), and the opinion is David Bowie's. Named after a Charles Baudelaire novella, the youthful troupe - who also count Steve Lamacq, XFM's John Kennedy and the Fortuna Pop label among their fans - are a well-formed, harmonious and effortlessly charming blend of Sufjan Stevens, Camera Obscura, 'No Surprises' era Radiohead, brass and C86 aesthetics. While Swedish-born frontman Simon Aurell is unperturbed by the sight of his setlist blowing away, bassist Justin Finch is rather more excited by the sight of Darren Hayman walking past than a man with slicked-back hair, thick-rimmed glasses and heavily tattooed arms who generally looks like Mark Lamarr after a forcible indoctrination into the Hells Angels should be. Ace double-A-side single 'Fire Escape' / 'We Live By The Lake' is winging its way to me by post as I type.

As Jenni points out, it must be rather disheartening for a band like PETE AND THE PIRATES (Main Stage) to discover that of the few people paying them much attention, those most visibly enjoying their set are a bunch of pre-schoolers jigging away down the front. Presumably not quite the kids the NME-approved Reading quintet had in mind. Their flat sub Rakes indie suggests they'd be much better off opening up in the Carling Tent at their hometown festival - which, coincidentally, they're all set to do this Saturday, when the most enthusiastic spectator is unlikely to be a toddler playing air guitar with a stick. Wonder whose beer they'll try to steal there.

His hoodie up but unzipped, he's fresh-faced but burdened with a world-weariness that belies his age, bleating lyrics infused with a dry but devastatingly bitter wit over the sort of lurching alt-country doe-eyed emo girls swoon over. What's Bright Eyes circa 2002 doing here? Ah - but he's not. For this is GETHIN PEARSON, backed by his brilliantly-named band The Scenery. As someone who generally considers himself a fan of Conor Oberst's back catalogue, I enjoy it - but it really couldn't be much more derivative. Pearson even has a similar difficulty in restraining himself from passing sarcastic comment on other artists; chastising Sceneryster Steven Honeywill for taking time to downtune, he explains that the guitarist also plays in a Slayer covers band and wanted an inverted cross on stage and five lambs at the side of the stage to slaughter after the show, "but we thought we'd leave that to Robert Plant"...

Have they missed out an all-important initial from the programme? No. Half four in the afternoon, on the Folkey Dokey Stage - let's face it, it was never really going to be Richard D James aka Aphex Twin, was it? Instead it's plain old RICHARD JAMES, bassist with Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, who are taking an extended sabbatical. James has spent the Gorky's downtime working on an album, The Seven Sleepers Den, which - if this evidence is anything to go by - is sweet but essentially unmemorable folkified rock of the sort Lou Barlow could churn out in his sleep. But of course the partisan crowd guarantees him a good reception and I suppose it's pleasant enough to have in the background while sitting reading the Guardian over someone else's shoulder.

Back at camp to meet up with late arrivals, who've actually been doing the best part of a day's work. Tent logistics and refuelling on vino rosso may mean I'm missing bands, but nothing's really caught my eye in the programme anyway.

Spotted: a T-shirt with the slogan "God hates WAGs".

Massive bubbles float gracefully through the evening air, as long-haired boys discover that rolling down hills is just about as much fun as you can possibly have. A visibly refreshed dad decides to join in, and I move swiftly away to avoid the Vesuvius of vomit that's likely to result.

... And, right on cue, here's the other half of the creative partnership behind Gorky's. In truth, though, EUROS CHILDS (Main Stage) has all the best tunes, not least latest single 'Horse Riding' which is Gruff Rhys playing piano-led Ben Folds style power-pop and hence impossible to resist. The album from which it's taken, The Miracle Inn, is due out on Monday, and Childs will be celebrating its release in style with a set in Spillers - but it's worth pointing out that it's his third solo LP in the space of a year and a half, after 2006's Chops and January's primarily Welsh language album Bore Da from which several sprightly songs, including 'Henry A Matilda Supermarketsuper', are drawn tonight. Long may he continue to be productively influenced by "Roast Mind, Pissing Troll and Steve Winwood's Self Imposed Hose Pipe Ban"...

Turn down the lights, turn up the smoky fug. Less of the pop, a lot more of the psych. DEAD MEADOW (Folkey Dokey Stage) may not pull any surprises, but that doesn't stop them from being the best thing I've seen at the festival so far. One suspects that for Jason Simon, Steve Kille and Stephen McCarty music ended in 1973. The slothful hyperstoned drone and rumble of choice tracks from Shivering King And Others, an album of which I've gradually more enamoured, holds us hypnotised. Even when the trio feign to play it straighter with the initially more restrained material from most recent LP Feathers, songs like 'At Her Open Door' gradually drift off-course into the haze until all sense of focus and direction is lost - but I for one am not desperately keen to find a map and compass. Perhaps not quite as good as the last time I saw them, in Clwb last May (a gig which comfortably made my top ten of 2006), but it certainly comes close.

Next to me, intoxication levels are rising. "There's no anchor anymore..."

That's it - we finally crack, unable to hold out any longer, and surrender to the pie. I go for one of the seasonal specials, Poussin Boots (it's got chicken in it - see what they did there?), topped with an enormous dollop of mash and drowned in gravy. As good as it sounds, it's even better to taste.

Incredibly, the Portaloos are still both clean and stocked with toilet roll and hand sanitiser.

Another trip to the bar. Are my ears deceiving me (or being deceived by the effects of alcohol), or is local 18-year-old guitar prodigy GARETH PEARSON (Green Man Cafe) playing a finger-picking solo cover of the Jackson Five's 'I Want You Back'? I rather fancy he is, you know.

You may well not have heard of BILL CALLAHAN (Main Stage), and that may be because he's hidden behind the Smog moniker for all but the most recent of his twelve albums, this year's Woke On A Whaleheart. For someone who has worked with both Jim O'Rourke and Tortoise's John McEntire in his time, Callahan is not much of an envelope-pusher, instead more of a cross between Will Oldham (another solo artist reluctant to use his own name) and Tom Waits, the latter primarily because of his booming baritone which manages to make even cheery sentiments sound lugubrious and morose. Stomping single 'Diamond Dancer' gets Bethan Elfyn strutting about in front of us, but it proves to be something of a false start as the rest of the set is dominated by downbeat songs no doubt best appreciated from much closer in than our vantage point high up on the brow of the hill. And it's drizzling.

At what point do you accept that it's not just circumstances and that you just don't like a band? This is now the third time I've seen TUNNG (Folkey Dokey Stage), and they've certainly livened up since the first, at Summer Sundae almost exactly a year ago (since when I've also learned how to spell their name...) - but it's not third time lucky, even if I can admire the chap wearing the prodigiously feathered cap. Their new album Good Arrows is out on Monday, and I won't be buying it.

12 midnight
Bill Callahan must have the patience of a saint, that's all I can say. He's stood at the side of the stage watching his beau and Drag City labelmate JOANNA NEWSOM (Main Stage) perform her headline set. The songs are intricate and dramatic in their own fragile way, and her harp-playing may well be as mesmerising for everyone else as the lit-up names of the food stalls are for her, but try as I might I just can't get past that voice - squeaky and cutesy, like Cerys Matthews on helium on a particularly irritating day, it's not so much fingernails-down-blackboard as nine-inch-nails-in-eardrum. I'm told it's less mannered on latest album Ys than it is on her breakthrough record Milk-Eyed Mender - that might be the case, but I'm in no hurry whatsoever to find out for myself. Let me know when she tries some instrumentals.

Feeling very tired. Coffee's had no effect, we've been wandering around a lot, I didn't sleep well last night, we're saving ourselves for tomorrow - none of the excuses quite washes. OK, I think as I crawl into my sleeping bag, there's no denying it - we're getting old...

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