Photography by Autumn Andel
As an American, festivals in the UK are only five to eight time zones away, but might as well be in another galaxy. For starters, the art and activities are cranked up to 11. Also, the crowds are totally different. Think drunker, older, less drugged, more receptive, and prone to singalongs. However, getting in, out, and around a fest is a greater challenge. Rain and subsequent knee-deep pits of mud, as well as steeply uphill terrain, are the rule rather than the exception.
I opted to make my overdue return overseas to Green Man instead of a third trip to Glastonbury because I loved the lineup and wanted a new, more intimate experience. Green Man’s 20,000 capacity is one ninth that of Glastonbury, but once inside the gates, it still overwhelmed like a massive makeshift city spread across the emerald hills of Brecon Beacons.
Thanks to a stellar lineup, a gorgeous (albeit rain-soaked) setting, and one intimate, friendly vibe, the Green Man Festival was a golden affair. Like most festivals across the Atlantic, Green Man hosted predominantly residents from the UK. According to Wales Online, five percent of the attendees came from elsewhere, with the percentage of visitors from other continents presumably being a minuscule fraction of that.
Being an American tourist was a novelty that never went unnoticed. “Yes, I flew from Los Angeles to attend,” I told impossibly benevolent, inclusive, and coherent people throughout the weekend to their surprise. My outsider status even netted me a Sexwitch setlist from a kind fan and an onstage shoutout. That’s right, Emmy the Great called out yours truly for my long journey to Brecon Beacons before diving into “Swimming Pool”. All this should soon change, though, because the secret of Green Man is out.
Although the EDM and hip-hop stars that draw the big festival crowds nowadays were absent from the bill, the mostly guitar-driven festival sold out well in advance. Posts yearning for a hookup or warning of scam artists selling nonexistent passes steadily streamed onto the fest’s Facebook page in the weeks leading towards the event.
Rooted in folk music, the Green Man Festival has evolved over the years into an increasingly eclectic event while staying true to its origins. The organizers have a vibe and crowd in mind, and stick to it. Playing alongside an array of folksters (mostly based in the UK) was a varied, enticing collection of acts of various styles and eras picked from the best the 2015 festival circuit has to offer.
Main stage headliners Hot Chip, Super Furry Animals, and St. Vincent all represented contrasting sounds and styles. And speaking of St. Vincent, how amazing was it to see her get the top billing she deserves? More on that later, I promise, but a festival in the US needs to step up already. Outside the headliners, troubadours, post-punkers, beatsmiths, and indie rock experimenters all crafted a vibe of musical amazement and discovery.
An onslaught of activities and areas begging for exploration clashed with the impressive musical lineup over the most precious of festival resources: time. Green Man featured a beer festival with 108 local ciders, perries, and “real ales.” What constitutes a real versus fake ale is still unclear to me, but the boozy offerings outshined even the best craft beer tents at stateside festivals. The Green Man experience also included yoga, jacuzzis, educational activities, and entertainment for kids and teens alongside multiple stages for music, cinema and comedy.
Yes kids, activities. Green Man was somewhat of a family affair, allowing cool parents to indoctrinate their younglings into the way of the festival life at an early age. Slides, rides, performers, film screenings, and even the trees beckoned to kids and the young at heart. This all-ages environment made for a vibe that was more chilled than hedonistic. The sea of discarded laughing gas canisters at festivals like Glastonbury was nowhere to be found.
Situated in the lush Welsh countryside of Brecon Beacons, Green Man was a picturesque paradise. Sitting on top of the hill at the natural amphitheater of the Mountain Stage and enjoying the majesty of the mountains, sheep fields, and ancient trees was another headliner in itself. At the end of the weekend, everyone gathered at the top of the festival site for the ceremonial burning of the titular Green Man and fireworks extravaganza. A local told me that every ember was a wish by an attendee.
My wish? To one day return to Wales to relive the endless adventures, musical treats, and fully immersive experiences Green Man has to offer. Except, of course, with better weather and the strength to endure the long uphill marches from stage to stage.
Until that day comes, these were the best sets at Green Man 2015.
Early Bird Special
Despite Green Man’s folksy roots, the crowd really wanted to dance. Luckily, the festival provided multiple opportunities for exactly that.
In addition to late night DJ sets throughout the weekend, techno legends Leftfield filled the Far Out stage on Thursday night. And by filled, I mean nearly as many attendees swarmed outside the packed tent wanting to get down.
It’s been 20 years since Leftfield dropped Leftism, and the numbers still sounded fresh and full of life. It wasn’t a total nostalgia trip, though, since tracks from this year’s Alternative Light Source kept the outbreak of arm-waving bliss going.
Battle of the Weekend, Part 1
Scheduling conflicts range from a slight bummer to completely infuriating. In the case of Television versus The Fall, they can be utterly baffling. After all, why have two post-punk icons at the same time. Sounds nonsensical, right? In theory, yes, but in actuality, surprisingly less so.
Television started first, playing their oh so influential album Marquee Moon to a massive main stage crowd. Once the novelty of finally seeing Television live dissipated, it became apparent that the New Yorkers lacked definition at first. However, they locked into a good signal together as the set progressed.
Although the set didn’t reach any level of transcendence by the point it was time to depart for The Fall, all in all it made for a solid run of nostalgia.
Meanwhile, at the Far Out tent…
Battle of the Weekend, Part 2
In contrast to Television’s flashback set, The Fall drew primarily from their latest album, Sub-Lingual Tablet. Although The Fall lacks an album as seminal as Television’s Marquee Moon, Mark E. Smith and his constantly revolving cast of band mates instead amassed a massive, consistent body of work over the decades.
As illustrated by their selections from Sub-Lingual Tablet, The Fall moved on from the post-punk scene ages ago. Smith’s incomprehensible snarls and growls still dripped with venom and urgency, but the music mixed traces of rockabilly and tribal grooves into the dystopic clattering.
When going back to what made these bands so essential, Television gave Green Man the sound, but The Fall brought the spirit.
After a night and morning of nonstop rain, the skies finally cleared Sunday afternoon so Green Man could close on a sunnier, drier note. When the Staveley-Taylor sisters took credit for the sun’s return by telling a rapt crowd “you’re welcome.”
Maybe they weren’t kidding, because The Staves’ lush country folk ballads exuded a magical quality. Their harmonies reached their peak hypnosis on “Wisely & Slow”, when the sisters gathered at center stage to play and sing head to head.
Between songs, The Staves bonded with the audience by giving birthday and anniversary shoutouts and pointing out the sights they recognized from their previous Green Man appearance. It’s a safe bet this won’t be their last time here, because they felt less like invited guests and more like they were at home.
From the moment their blistering set began, Viet Cong sounded straight out of the ’70s. The Calgary post-punk quartet played it loud and anxious with hoarse, throaty howls, pummeling rhythms, and rusted guitars.
Lengthy instrumental sections dared the crowd to determine where one song ended and the next began. “We’re going to buy a map for our booking agent,” Matt Flegel revealed during the storm. Apparently he felt weird from being in Poland and England the last two nights respectively. It didn’t show.
A Saturday afternoon rain spell that rolled into Brecon Beacons just in time for the debut of Sexwitch curiously diminished as Charles Bradley took the stage. “It’s not gonna rain until the end of this show,” Bradley declared mid-set.
Bradley’s prophecy proved true, and the rain thankfully didn’t get its revenge until the late night sets. Nevertheless, the Mountain Stage remained cloudy, cold, and damp. Yet, the crowds on the hill couldn’t help but groove and shake along.
Why? It’s simple. Bradley’s vintage, soulful style and signature spine-tingling holler spread warmth to the body and soul. Between songs, he advised us to love and take care of Mother Earth, and never give up on our dreams, because they’re our gift to the world.
Essentially, Bradley was a second sun emitting healing rays of light.
Most Surreal Moment
At the start of his Thursday evening set, Dan Deacon likened the Friday festivities to the scene from The Lion King, where Rafiki presents baby Simba, and his set to Rafiki’s pre-party. What? Yep, that’s Dan Deacon for you. For the next 52 minutes, Deacon and his live drummer unleashed an apocalyptic fury of pummeling rhythms, warped electronics, and bizarre crowd participation.
After Deacon parted the crowd down the middle like a musical Moses, he challenged the crowd to a dance off, with the left side dancing as if Jurassic World was worth making (boom, roasted), and the right as if Game of Thrones was in a universe without patriarchy. The Thrones side clearly triumphed.
So, what does it all mean? It was as if Deacon was set on inducing overwhelming trips in whichever patrons took their psychedelics this early. For the rest of us, the set was a thrill ride and a course in the importance of surrendering to instinct and going along with the ride to wherever chaos may flow.
Biggest Dance Party
On Friday night, Hot Chip drew the biggest crowd of the day and possibly the weekend. All levels of the soggy natural amphitheater shook under the dancing feet of the head-to-head and shoulder-to-shoulder masses during bonafide festival smash “Over and Over”.
At that point, it was time to trek up the exhaustingly steep hill for Mew (more on that later), but I’m told the festivities never waned. Lamentably, this meant missing covers of “Dancing in the Dark” and “All My Friends”, as well as the climactic moment where Hot Chip dropped massive balloons on the crowd. Nearly an hour after the set’s end, I caught one fan still on the slope playing with a balloon, while another repeatedly muttered “one more song!” to herself. I’ll have what she’s having.
Extra kudos must go to frontman Alexis Taylor. In addition to the main stage set, he also played as part of Atomic Bomb and kept the party going until the wee hours with The 2 Bears and a Hot Chip DJ set. Yep, four consecutive sets in one night. On second thought, can I have some of that energy?
Decisions, decisions. Scheduling conflicts are, once again, the ultimate festival dilemma, and Green Man was no exception. It’s been ages since Mew toured the US, so ducking out of the ubiquitous Hot Chip early to catch them was a no-brainer.
Between the epic scale of their moody style and the high-pitched falsetto of Jonas Bjerre, Mew came across as the Danish answer to Radiohead. Their blend of intricate rock experiments and stadium rock moments served as a perfect counterpoint to the massive dance party on the main stage.
“Do you know this one?” Bjerre asked during the “Clinging to a Bad Dream / The Zookeeper’s Boy / Louise Louisa” medley. In response, the one-third capacity crowd of enraptured loyalists gleefully sang along without a care over what was happening outside the tent.
Sorry Super Furry Animals, but we just didn’t get you and ducked out extra early to get to Slowdive on time. Apparently, it’s a Welsh thing.
In any case, at some point during a lengthy festival, there comes a need to relax by going into a blissed-out state that’s not sleep, but not fully active, as a way to recharge. Slowdive gave the ideal set for exactly that with dream pop classics loaded with surreal, textured layers that whispered to be worn as sonic blankets. The shoegaze legends have been away for two decades, but their sound was as inviting as ever.
While relaxing with my eyes closed at the side of the tent, some fan took it upon herself to sneak and undo a button on my shirt and then hide. By the time I caught her, she had unbuttoned three. Shirtgaze?
“It’s a great festival, isn’t it?” Rachel Goswell asked before ethereal masterwork “Souvlaki Space Station”. Thanks to sets like these, absolutely.
Father John Misty
Green Man’s signature civility took a break when Father John Misty graced the main stage for the penultimate Sunday night set. Drunken, lovestruck fans across age and gender lines shoved to the front for a closer gander at J. Tillman, and to shout declarations of love and offers of hand-drawn portraits.
Between deadpan snaps about it being too early for a drum solo and revealing his favorite color during an impromptu Q&A session as a “deep shade of capitalist green,” Tillman and company dropped crowd pleasing hit after hit, rushing and gyrating all over the stage and throwing his guitar along the way.
In fact, his moves invoked memories of Jarvis Cocker’s sleazy charm. Once Autumn and I noticed it, we couldn’t unsee it. Since Cocker is back into hiding, every leap and thrust of Tillman’s hyper showmanship came as an extra treat.
After a mid-set barrier rush, Tillman remarked “I have someone’s hair in my throat. Very intimate indeed. It’s laced with LSD. Fucking hippies.” The fucking hippies couldn’t have been happier, as they shouted requests to have his babies, even after he told a bro this wouldn’t be physically possible. Don’t stop believing, sir.
Best Storyteller and Band Intros
Emmy the Great
“We come from the same vagina,” Emma-Lee Moss quipped when introducing her brother and guitarist Robin. After revealing she was unsure if her bassist was Dave or David, she let the crowd decide his name. #TeamDavid prevailed.
Laughter from moments such as these serves an integral role in the Emmy the Great live experience. Without the emotional lift that comes from her humor, the emotional gut punch from Emmy’s heartbreaking tales could be too devastating.
Newer songs such as the reverb-and-eerie-vocal-sample-drenched “Swimming Pool”, “Phoenixes” (think River, Joaquin, et al.), and the tentatively titled “Hyperlinks” revealed a major stylistic shift compared to the last time Emmy the Great played Green Man in 2009, touring the lo-if acoustic “First Love”. Yet, beneath the electronic textures of her new deconstructed pop style remained a constant: Emma’s knack for gripping confessionals and witty observations.
At an end that came far too soon, Emma and co. departed the Walled Garden stage. Not having it, the crowd hollered for more. She soon returned, and asked if she had time to do an encore (according to the schedule, she actually had 25 minutes), then called for Robin to join her.
In response, Emmy fanatics belted out pleas for “Canopies and Grapes”, “Trellick Tower”, “Two Steps Forward”, and many more. After deadpanning that she could bring us down all night, the sibling duo strummed into “City Song”, one of her oldest numbers. Emma accomplished exactly that, though, as she cooed the bittersweet closing lines: “They pulled a human from my waist/ It had your mouth, it had your face/ I would have kept it if I’d stayed,” sending the crowd away in a haunted awe.
Most Life-Affirming Set
Most random notebook quote? At some point during Songhoy Blues, I jotted down the following: “feels so good to be alive!” It wasn’t a quote from anyone on stage. Rather, the Malian quartet emitted that exact feeling throughout their set.
The story of Songhoy Blues is one of hardship. After Islamic extremists invaded and banned music, the band escaped to Bamako. In the face of death, music persevered.
Even without knowing their origin prior, the set soared with triumph. Between the utterly infectious West Aftican grooves and slick blues guitar licks in hyperdrive with shades of Hendrix were the incomparable shuffles of frontman Aliou Touré. His constant grins and animations left the crowd gyrating along and begging for more.
Songhoy Blues personified both the feel good power and crucial nature of music.
St. Vincent’s self-titled album tour is just about over, and in case you missed our coverage of Coachella, Sasquatch, Osheaga, Governors Ball, and so on, it’s been a brilliant one every time over the past two years.
The Green Man set, however, came with even higher expectations than usual. Besides being one of the last shows of the year, the set had an added sense of finality because, at last, St. Vincent was headlining.
A headlining set is exactly what Annie Clark delivered at the end of Green Man. Her android cult leader routine was as sharp as ever, with every solo, howl, gesture, or synchronized dance a visual treat. Clark seemingly chose every song specifically to dazzle with a constant flow of GIF-worthy moments and arm-thrashing musical chops. In other words, slow, quiet numbers were not allowed.
During an extended outro for “Every Tear Disappears”, Clark wailed a snippet of “Personal Jesus”, after which her acolytes screamed, “You are the real Jesus/Savior/God.” When she came down to greet the mortals on the rail during “Your Lips Are Red”, I got to hold her guitar for a couple seconds. During that brief moment, I felt as if I just encountered an all-powerful artifact far beyond my comprehension, like Mjölnir or the Infinity Gauntlet.
The St. Vincent live experience is too epic in scope to be relegated to a mid-day slot before an act whose style and sound is usually of less consequence. Besides, the dramatic lighting that illuminated the grand spectacle of Clark shuffling and shredding screamed to be experienced at night. So, when will a US festival ever deliver?
A few weeks before the festival, a Facebook commentator inquired about the “special guest.” As a clue, Green Man offered only that “it’s bewitchingly good.” In response, I typed “Bat for Lashes?” She cast a potent spell on me at Coachella 2013, so the name is inexorably tied to all things bewitching. However, I cancelled the comment because it just seemed unfeasible due to a lack of recent touring or releases. Oops.
After a week of playing the hangman game on Instagram, the Bat for Lashes social media accounts teased “Sexwitch” as some sort of collaboration with Brighton rockers TOY and producer Dan Carey, and that Green Man would host its surprise debut. But the reveal raised as many questions as it answered. What exactly is Sexwitch? An album title or band name? A song? An EP? As revealed by Far Out stage compere, Sexwitch is the name of the band.
A rare treat of sunshine ended just in time for Sexwitch. Perhaps they conjured the darkness (and torrential rain) necessary to cast their wicked spells. For six new covers of ’70s psych and folk songs from Morocco, Iran, Thailand, and the US in addition to their previous collaboration “The Bride”, TOY played their psych rock A-game in the shadows while Khan went into full tripped-out Bat for Lashes mode, like a mortal vessel inhabited by a goddess or higher being from a world beyond this one.
While TOY unleashed their ominous, thunderous sound, Khan dropped jaws as she howled like a siren and sensually stalked and danced across the stage, looking fully immersed in the magical moment. Welcome to the louder, darker side of Bat for Lashes. When Khan introduced “Kassidat” as “scary,” she wasn’t kidding.
Despite being their first ever live show, Sexwitch played together as though they were seasoned festival regulars, completely in sync with one another. At the cacophonous end of the set, Khan knelt at the front of the stage and aggressively headbanged as if to exorcise away a haunting spirit. As a live performer, Khan has always flaunted a penchant for the dramatic, but in Sexwitch, she devastates with a newfound fury.
Photographer: Autumn Andel