Green Man Festival review: Headliners Kings of Convenience and Ben Howard were the weakest aspects

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The Green Man festival’s Brecon Beacons setting regularly startles with its beauty. The Black Mountains – more like lush green hills – and open sky which tower over its stages don’t dwarf the performers, instead making them feel part of something bigger. A diverse bill leaning towards folk and Americana often rises to the landscape’s challenge.

The headliners are its weakest aspect, from the achingly twee relationship musings of Norway’s Kings of Convenience on Friday to Sunday’s blandly inoffensive, earnest Brits-winner Ben Howard. Band of Horses are much better on Saturday, with their rangy, defiant and emotionally frail backwoods Southern tales.

The bracingly eclectic day’s bill preceding them includes the 72-year-old English folk legend Roy Harper, who makes the hard-edged relationship reverie of 1971’s “Me and My Woman” gain cosmic scale, before melting hearts with “When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease”. He approvingly compares Green Man’s “scene” to festivals he played 40 years ago. As then, there’s a wider sense of culture, and no one in this sponsor- and corporate-free place is trying to sell you anything you don’t want. The great Welshman John Cale meanwhile marks his return from LA by saying hello and goodbye in his native tongue. The performance in between is bracingly unsentimental and forward-looking, recasting 1970s classics such as “Ship of Fools” with loops and raps.

Friday’s highlights included Midlake, in their first UK show since parting ways with their singer-songwriter Tim Smith’s insular Americana vision. “We’re still Midlake,” they cry at the end, not quite convincingly. Earlier, Edwyn Collins plays the most forceful set I’ve seen from him since his massive 2005 cerebral haemorrhages, limping off with an impish twirl of his walking stick.  

Sunday showcases the diverse, alternative folk music which the festival helped crystallise into a scene when it started 10 years ago. Lao’s “Midnight Feast” is a lovely, slow tune which hippy couples swirl and dance to in the afternoon sun. Ex-Hefner singer Darren Hayman plays new songs about modern relationships, but his sideline in 17 century folk is far more powerful, as with “Henrietta Maria”, a concisely epic historical love song about Charles I’s wife, steeped in blood. British Sea Power’s surging pop positivity is another late highlight. Then finally, a bit after midnight, the Green Man effigy is set ablaze, bringing a ritual end to a magical weekend.