Notes on Green Man 2015
Posted on Wednesday, 26 August 2015 | No Comments
Not a review, but a tribute.
Plenty of festivals these days try to hide their origin. They try to remove the ritual rites of community at times of religious or secular moment from the records, this history of gathering and feasting that runs through these isles just as it does across many others. They know as much as we do that centuries of culture have left a deep-seated urge for mass jubilation and gathering, for a temporary state of being where the rules are loosened and behind the mask of revelry we can question and morph ourselves into a new version of ourselves, a liminal state of otherness that sits just outside our usual life. But for most festivals in this age - food festivals, arts festivals, and most of all music festivals - this is something to be kept as quiet as possible. An inability to stand up to the legend, or a refusal to even try perhaps? You might get to see the bands you like, drink some expensive beer, get out of town for a few days, but the real crux of the matter, that instinctive longing for days of saturnalia and carnival, is to stay in the shadows, in suppression.
Explicitly and implicitly, Green Man is one of those very rare events that makes this connection, that wishes to revive a certain sense of wonder and overthrow amongst the pantheon of bands-placed-haphazardly-in-a-field events out there. There is of course the occult ritual the festival is based around, the green man built each year to bring renewal and magic to the fields and burnt down at midnight on the Sunday night one his purpose has been served, the very public breaking of a spell that has been cast. But then there are other undertows that are harder to define. Green Man is, by modern standards certainly, a refreshingly sponsor-free and non-corporate environment - no Tuborg or the taps or Barclaycard stages here, praise be - and its music policy remains of the time (focused on folk and alternative rock, with a taste for modern electronics and experimentation on the side) yet very distinct from other festivals of a similar musical style like Latitude or End of the Road. Some surprisingly bold choices and bookings rule the day, there are a plethora of incredible new and emerging artists here getting their first chance of performing to a festival of this side, sets programmed early in the day are allowed more time than at most other festivals, and the live music goes on right until the very end of the day. The aesthetic, the lay-out, the invariably friendly staff: everything seems to have been considered with a care and attention far above their peers.
"Look to the mountain, look to the mountain" implored Jane Weaver to us on Saturday, but how could we not have done from the moment of arrival? That first sight of the Brecon Beacons in their full glory from the hill of the main arena is a rare, heart-stopping thing: I remain a life-long city love, someone who needs to dwell inside the chaos and movement of the urban for the inspiration to carry on, but what could ever be more serene and life-affirming than the sight of the mist falling over the peaks of those mountains. Wales is somewhere that, despite being a citizen of the isles, I have spent far too little time considering, visiting, coming to understand - if nothing else, this weekend has taught me the error of my ways in this aspect. And that arena that hosted Ms Weaver, the Walled Garden, quickly became a new-found home, some fragment found of the Blakeian dream and brought back to life: come the Sunday night, even after the DJs had finished and all the daft dancing, bad Corbyn chat-up lines and friendly drunk stewards were gone, we stayed up to soak up some vital afterglow that might sustain us. Even before leaving, I could feel the longing to be amongst this place of beauty once more.
Any festival will always be a choose-your-own-adventure kit: the friends you go with, the acts you choose to see or not see, the indulgences you make and the way you let the fates of weather, time and serendipity alter your weekend. For me, Green Man became something where I got to experience some moments of rare beauty and epiphany with a handful of my dearest friends. Numerous new in-jokes and suggestions, almost all of them entirely unpublishable for one reason or another, birthed from a river of cider , experiences reached together, connections re-forged, a confirmation that this was not a trick of the mind but a true delight. Some I got to spend more time with than ever before, others I saw gain a gleeful kind of temporary mania. One like me understood the genuine wonder of the Sun Ra Arkestra, almost fell on his knees as their procession moved through the audience after their astonishing hour of new-old sounds from outer space, grabbed me and hugged me screaming in ecstasy after this extraordinary display (a composer who left the earth realm twenty-two years ago, a bandleader who at the age of 91 still plays with more fire and force than seems conceivable). Would that all the world could experience the beauty of this miraculous legacy that the great Sun Ra left us, and that this incredible group that makes up the current Arkestra continues to keep alive.
The highlights are numerous, illustrious. Each headliner seems to take more pride than usual in their performances: Hot Chip put in a remarkable shift on the Friday, performing in other bands and providing DJ sets as well as their typically energetic, party-read set, St Vincent's current stage show becomes an even more audacious and distinct blend of futurist theatrics and rock and roll deconstructionism when placed amidst the mountains, while even an onslaught of rain during the entirety of their set (and a startlingly slow mid-section run) cannot remove the lustre when Super Furry Animals launch into Mountain People, which here leaves their Welsh fanbase especially in raptures. From Slug to Natalie Prass to Dan Deacon (whose deft blend of gooey pop hooks and abrasive noise, not to mention his hilarious showmanship, made his Thursday night booking a truly inspired one), almost every act seemed in awe of the event and the receptions they received - the one notable exception, a somewhat going through the motions Television, at least made up for their atypical cyncism by unleashing the fretboard fireworks on a closing Marquee Moon.
Yes, it might be the crowd themselves that deserve the greatest praise. Several jokes were made in our party across the weekend that if Labour really wanted to stop the Corbyn bandwagon, they should block exit from the site - surely this gathering of 20,000 must have been his biggest rally yet? Almost without exception, this was the warmest crowd I have ever seen on a festival site, everyone celebrating in their own unique way but with consideration towards their fellow guests, a gathering of open minds and open hearts that even the vast downpour across Saturday night and Sunday morning and ensuing mud on Sunday could not diminish. It is not hard to imagine that every single person in attendance would be someone you could experience real kinship with. When the time came for the Green Man to be burnt down, it felt like some improbable, miraculous family had at last returned home for a long awaited reunion.
Naturally, not everything is pure joy. I was grateful for the return of the sun on Sunday evening for the sunglasses I then had to produce, for the protection they gave me when The Antlers went into Putting The Dog to Sleep at the end of their performance and I felt the tears start to come. Green Man was always going to be an escape from reality, a chance to put the tedium on hold, but when you are confronted with the shock of a sudden break-up that arrives without explanation or warning, the headspin of denial, frustration and self-doubt that inevitably follows and the terrible, unstoppable cold of a spiritual and physical entwinement dramatically severed, that you were always just a scrap to be thrown away - when that happens, the hedonism and the communal nature of a festival becomes even more essential as an affirmation of life and hope, and that five minutes was my own personal moment of shocking, painful reality (see also: occluded catharsis, resigned dejection, absurd hopes, some glimmer of sympathy and understanding) amidst the rest. I don't know whether I would want to thank or decry the trio for that small occurrence. A glimpse of all I would say, should say, if not for the rising of a great, unbreakable wall. It's a passing phase that's out of me in minutes as I'm busy inexpertly shaking my stuff to the effervescent electronics of Sylvan Esso in the tent directly afterwards, and yet. Maybe this is the part that, sadly, makes everything else of my weekend make sense.
But sadness does not last long here. There are some tragic, terrible events that the performers sing and speak of - Charles Bradley's loverman shtick becomes something rather transcendent when you appreciate how late in life it was before attention finally came, because when he sings of traumas such as the death of his brother in his opening number Heartaches and Pain, he shows why the need for peace and love is so urgent, that to have the strength to still believe in a form of performative magic as a healing experience after all that might be the truest definition of dignity available - yet even these become sublimated to joy. See also an incredible performance from Richard Dawson, whose voice sounds as if ruptured from the Beacons themselves during The Ghost of a Tree, or a concluding The Vile Stuff whose devastating mix of alcohol, memory and religious query here emerges as the secret beating heart of the booking policy. Even the proudly un-lovely Mark E Smith cannot dampen the experience: his Q&A on the Saturday afternoon proves a curmudgeonly and curtailed event as could have been expected, but he bears some (it has to be said, remarkably stupid) questions from celeb fans like the forever useless John Robb and a would-have-expected-better-from-him query from Stewart Lee (getting his own back after years of jibes from Mr. Smith, perhaps?) with vivid, surreal humour. The poor, petrified journalist helming the session can't be said to have got away scot-free, but frankly it went as well as such a concept ever could have gone - now there's that Green Man magic for you.
I am not a believer in magic or fate or paganism (even if some of these concepts are of great intellectual interest to me), but on this first visit to Green Man I found a rare spirit in the air. Call it hope, call it solidarity, call it whatever you will. As much as the performances I saw will stick in my mind for a while, it will be that - for me - exceptionally rare feeling of belonging and internal peace that I got to experience during my four nights there. The return to normal life brings it the sadness of parting, the revulsion at the problems and frustrations that I must return to, the immediate longing to return. But to have felt that at all, to have experienced it with some close friends and to have seen an example of humanity operating at some minor level of grace - that is a benediction that must not be denied. My thanks go to all those who organised, who played, who worked and who came. Even in this crass, crooked world of capitalism and denial, a corner of compromise and decency can still be carved out. Now I must live my ordinary life again, waiting for the raising of the next Green Man, for the next stage of renewal.
For those expecting a more traditional review or a less personal piece to be filed here, I offer absolutely no apologies, but instead an explanation. Amongst other factors, one reason for the long breaks and gaps in updates of late has been the desire to find a new way of writing, something more honest and real. I still love music, love to think and write about it (and continue to do so elsewhere in a more conventional format), and intend to continue to do so. But I know that at some point, if I am to truly succeed in this life on a personal life, I need to start breaking down the walls of careful compartmentalisation and bolted-shut ideas that have been built up inside me. In a small way, this entry is me trying to start to do so. I had hoped that such a project would begin in joy: alas, it is now being birthed in despair. But suffering can end, will end. If and when this blog is updated again, I intend to start moving to a new way of writing, one that offers insight of a different kind. I do not know where this mission will end or how I can even measure its success or failure, but I understand that I have no choice but to do so. For any readers who wish to accompany me, I offer you my eternal gratitude. To quote Andre Breton: beauty will be CONVULSIVE or not be at all.