Tuesday, January 28, 2020

From Usk till dawn

With the first Green Man line-up announcement due at 9 am tomorrow morning, it was about time I revisited my hasty notes on last year's event and cobbled together a scattershot report...

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Green Man 2019 constituted my long-overdue return to Proper Festivalling - by which I mean putting myself at the mercy of the elements, staying under canvas for several nights in a row and playing the chemical toilet lottery. How different would it be with a kid in tow? Would I get to see a fraction of the things I wanted? And, perhaps most importantly, would I have the stamina to burn the candle at both ends, rather than just at one?

Thankfully, Green Man proved to be stupendously enjoyable for all concerned. It took just a few hours for Stanley to declare "I love this place" - before he'd even had the opportunity to explore the entertainment on offer in the Little Folk area and in Einstein's Garden; an indulgent partner and an extended circle of friends meant I missed very few of the acts I'd had my heart set on seeing; and courtesy of a potent combination of caffeine, alcohol and adrenalin I had sufficient stamina to dash about during the day, party well into the early hours and still rouse myself upright after a handful of snatched hours' sleep.

But enough of that - time to report back on what I actually saw, heard and ate...

Best New Discovery

A two-way tie between SQUIRREL FLOWER (Mountain Stage, Friday) and SHARON VAN ETTEN (Mountain Stage, Sunday).

The former, who I'd never even heard of, looked like St Vincent and sounded like Angel Olsen playing Snail Mail in slow motion. Her spectacular voice and shimmering chords cut through the midday drizzle and stunned me statuesque - particularly on 'Daylight Savings', 'Hands Melt' and 'Midwestern Clay', the three tracks that conclude her 2016 EP Contact Sports. And to think I'd have missed her if I hadn't succumbed to the lure of a first pint of the day at the Mountain Stage bar. Serendipity doesn't come much better than that.

Sharon Van Etten, by contrast, was already on my radar but for some reason I'd never listened to her records. A mystery given that her label Jagjaguwar has exceptional taste, and especially in light of how revelatory her performance was - the perfect Sunday evening soundtrack as the sun was setting on the festival, both literally and metaphorically. The journey she's taken from her indie folk roots to the darker, more dramatic material of latest LP Remind Me Tomorrow was in evidence, while lament for lost youth 'Seventeen' was a collective hairs-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck experience.

Honourable mentions for SONS OF KEMET (Mountain Stage, Saturday), whose invigorating, brain-scrambling jazz made me want to move rather than stroke my chin, thanks largely to the percussive genius of their double drummers and the funk basslines played on a tuba, and BIG THIEF (Mountain Stage, Saturday), whose warm, subtle and delicately balanced songs occasionally burst into guitar pyrotechnics that were as gorgeous as they were unexpected.

Brightest Young Post-Punk Things

There were plenty to choose from, that's for sure.

With the sleek, sullen machine music from Psychic Data, TVAM (Far Out, Friday) hit a dark groove but, like the accompanying visuals, gradually lost their appeal through repetition.

BODEGA (Far Out, Thursday) had the stage presence and a primitivist Parquet Courts sound (not surprising, given that that band's Austin Brown was responsible for recording debut LP Endless Scroll), but ultimately lacked the songs.

Meanwhile, oddballs SQUID (Walled Garden, Friday) were able to boast the brilliant 'Houseplants' but had nothing else to match - and the decision to deploy a female dancer with sunflower nipple tassels was dubious at best.

Victory, then, for BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD (Rising, Saturday), whose eccentric collision of post-punk, jazz, African rhythms, Talking Heads and even (to these ears) klezmer was absolutely astonishing. The vocalist was a study in intensity, the drummer was exceptional and the keyboardist somehow managed to look bored out of her brain. They were fresh from filling a gap up at the Far Out, and had clearly brought a lot of new converts down the hill with them. The worry was that they already looked discomforted in the face of the frenzied attention they thoroughly deserved - which doesn't bode well for longevity.


With PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS (Far Out, Friday) on the bill, this was never really going to be much of a contest, was it? Considerably heftier than your average Green Man act they may have been, but their stonergasm riffage didn't cause people to flee - on the contrary, they actually had punters scurrying into the tent, escaping the rain by wandering into the midst of a thunderstorm. At last - a band from Newcastle I can be unequivocally enthusiastic about.

YAK (Far Out, Sunday) also deserve a mention for their habit of swaggering along in a Strokesy fashion and then suddenly dropping down into a Sabbath register - as well as for Oli Burslem's ability to continue playing guitar while lying on his back on top of the crowd.

Least Surprising Surprise Guests

You could have banked on Gruff Rhys turning up at some point - and turn up he did, joining YO LA TENGO (Mountain Stage, Friday) together with bandmate and former Flaming Lip Kliph Scurlock.

But this particular prize went to THE WEDDING PRESENT (Far Out, Thursday), who, for the second year in a row, performed at very short notice. Amadou & Mariam's delayed arrival in Wales left the organisers with a bit of a headache, but one quick call to David Gedge - who was in rehearsals with the band up in Leeds - and it was problem solved. They may not have replicated the exceptional Bizarro anniversary set from May, but they were still brilliant - from a storming 'Corduroy', through 'You Should Keep In Touch With Your Friends' and a rendition of 'Kennedy' that had the whole tent bouncing, to an epic 'Take Me' to end, a laughing Gedge hoping that the PA wouldn't be switched off mid-song. Perhaps they might actually be invited to play from the start next year.

Most Crowd-Pleasing Show

Despite feeling compelled to watch YO LA TENGO, I had been fearing the worst - latest album There's A Riot Going On is (whisper it) a bit boring. Those fears proved unfounded, though - this was a true festival set, a smorgasbord of delights from throughout their career, including solid-gold indie-rock classic 'Sugarcube', James McNew's playful and jaunty 'Mr Tough', the breezy and percussive 'Autumn Sweater' and a stellar version of 'I Heard You Looking' that went on for an eternity and still wasn't long enough.

But if we're putting greater emphasis on performance, then EELS (Mountain Stage, Sunday) claimed the win hands down. 'Novocaine For The Soul' had me fondly recalling their TOTP debut and 'My Beloved Monster' was dedicated to "all the little brats" who like Shrek; 'Dog Faced Boy' was augmented by an appearance from its co-creator, John Parrish; the guitarist showed off his catwalk sashay; there was a special song to introduce the new drummer; 'I Like Birds', 'Souljacker (Part 1)' and 'Mr E's Beautiful Blues' were all marvellous; but the true highlights were 'Daisies Of The Galaxy' and 'I Like The Way This Is Going', both of which exemplified E's talent for crafting songs that are at once simple and profound.

Best Back-To-Back Tracks

CAR SEAT HEADREST (Far Out, Saturday) may have been a quartet once more, with gawky Joey Ramone-like songwriter Will Toledo back on guitar (hired hands Grant Mullen, Gianni Aiello and Henry LaVallee having scored a major-label record deal for their own band, Naked Giants), but they nevertheless pulled the same trick as they did in Cardiff in November 2018, pairing 'Drunk Drivers/Killer Whale' with 'Destroyed By Hippie Powers' for a knockout one-two combination. Coming mid-set, it meant they peaked too early - but what a peak.

Most Unsuitable For Children's Ears

You might have thought FAT WHITE FAMILY (Mountain Stage, Friday) - or "Flat White Family", as Jen insisted on referring to them (she clearly had Hard Lines coffees on the brain) - would win this hands down. But in truth they're a far less outrageous, confrontational act these days - subtly subversive ironists rather than in-your-face provocateurs - and the set felt surprisingly like a hit parade.

E, by contrast, took great delight in screaming "FUCK!" at sufficient volume to have middle-class parents within a fifty-mile radius of the site wishing their kids were temporarily deaf. And AUDIOBOOKS (Far Out, Thursday) got the festival off to a deliciously dirty start with Evangeline Ling's stream-of-consciousness "All I see is tits, tits, tits", sordid bona fide banger 'Friends In The Bubble Bath' and a new dark techno song that found Ling pleading with increasing desperation "Send me your pictures". Pitched somewhere between The Slits and The Human League, the art student's improbable partnership with warlock-like producer David Wrench is producing some exceptional(ly odd) pop.

Best Between-Song Patter

It's hard to look past that man E again, I think, joking about dying on stage and claiming that for once his shades-wearing isn't merely rock star pretension. But he was definitely given a run for his money by Matt Baty. Claiming that "Rock should be wholesome and hydrating" while swigging from a bottle that looked suspiciously like vodka, the PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS frontman transported us back to Castle Donington in 1979, where Status Quo were "expanding minds with their three-chord psychedelia", Judas Priest were set to headline and his own band were actually Twisted Sister.

Best Soul Bingo Set

OK, dabbers at the ready, eyes down... "Can I get a witness"? Yes. "I been..."? Yup. "My woman"? Yeah. A massive build-up to the main man's entrance? Yep. A white glittery suit? Uh-huh. A song dedicated to "all the ladies"?  Full house! LEE FIELDS & THE EXPRESSIONS (Mountain Stage, Saturday) pitched up in pretty much the perfect slot.

Worst Cover

A toss-up between EELS chucking in an ill-advised version of 'Purple Rain' early doors or CAR SEAT HEADREST deciding that a lead-footed take on 'Superstition' would make for a fitting conclusion to their set. Why?!!

Most Grating Musical Performance

ALDOUS HARDING (Mountain Stage, Sunday) caused much consternation, personally speaking, by sounding like the sublime Julia Holter one minute and then a nauseatingly kooky indie-folk sprite the next. Eluding narrow pigeon-holes is one thing, but continually trying on different styles rather than playing to your strengths is another.

That said, she was still nowhere near as irritating as the bagpiper who presumed (wrongly) that he would be a welcome source of distraction and entertainment for the new arrivals in the long Thursday afternoon queue for wristbands. Talk about a captive audience. The poor sods.

Biggest Disappointment

"Disappointment" was certainly not the right word for IDLES (Far Out, Sunday), who closed out the weekend with simultaneously furious and joyous abandon, and you can't argue with 'Samaritans' and a song called 'Never Fight A Man With A Perm'. And yet I found myself grumbling about an audience that was aggressively boisterous and wishing that I hadn't watched the Glastonbury highlights, because it spoiled any surprises in what had by that point in the summer become a finely honed (relatively speaking) festival set.

Meanwhile, with 'Metronomic Underground' STEREOLAB (Mountain Stage, Saturday) delivered ten minutes of head-nodding bliss but otherwise, as my teenage companion observed, looked like secondary school teachers on an away day trying to keep themselves awake. It didn't help, either, that I missed practically all of 'French Disko' due to an appallingly timed bar run.

However, that was all my own fault - unlike the organisers' curious decision to invite Elizabeth Bernholz aka GAZELLE TWIN (Talking Shop, Friday) to speak about the dark undercurrents in the countryside and the antipathy to the twee that informed 2018's extraordinary LP Pastoral, but not to actually perform anything from it on stage in character. She was in conversation with Jude Rogers and Quietus founder LUKE TURNER, who spoke engagingly about his unclassifiable debut book Out Of The Woods - not least when noting, with justifiable amusement, that it received positive reviews in publications as diverse as Countryfile, Church Times and Attitude.

"Wish I'd Seen More Of" Acts

BILL RYDER-JONES (Walled Garden, Friday), who was always the best thing about The Coral - something only underlined by solo records like Yawn; HEN OGLEDD (Far Out, Saturday) and their weird pastoral experimentalism; Aussie STELLA DONNELLY (Mountain Stage, Saturday), who played up her Welsh roots and entertaining the crowd with a cheery song called 'Die'.

"Wish I Could Have Seen Some Of" Acts

THESE NEW PURITANS (Far Out, Thursday), SNAPPED ANKLES (Walled Garden, Friday), DRY CLEANING (Rising, Friday), GWENNO (Far Out, Friday), ADWAITH (Mountain Stage, Saturday), FOUR TET (Mountain Stage, Saturday), AIDAN MOFFAT & RM HUBBERT (Walled Garden, Saturday), PEANESS (Rising, Saturday), JARVIS COCKER in conversation (Talking Shop, Saturday), TIM PRESLEY'S WHITE FENCE (Far Out, Sunday), JOHN TALABOT (Far Out, Sunday).

Best Food & Drink

Impossible to decide. I kicked off with my first ever Grazing Shed burger and never looked back, gorging on everything from glorious bacon sandwiches (well, smoked gammon in brioche buns) at the Hedonist cafe by the bus gate; first-rate fish and chips that provided the requisite pick-me-up when the effects of Friday night's 5.30 am bedtime were starting to kick in; Vietnamese steamed bao buns with sticky pork belly that were so good they was practically inhaled; a chilli and cheese dosa plus a bonus football-sized bhaji for an extra quid; and, last but certainly not least, a combination of French beef sausages and tartiflette that was tantamount to gout on a plate.

Add in a reasonable selection of drinks even at the standard bar tents and an enormous selection of ales in the courtyard, and it's fair to say that we ate, drank and were very merry indeed.

Roll on tomorrow's announcement and this August...

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