Green Man festival review: An honourable bastion of fine sounds – and not a TikToker in sight

First Aid Kit, The Walkmen, and Spiritualized lead an eclectic, eccentric weekend in Brecon Beacons

Mark Beaumont
Monday 21 August 2023 18:21 BST
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<p>The wicker man catches light in a barrage of fireworks on the final day of Green Man festival 2023 </p>

The wicker man catches light in a barrage of fireworks on the final day of Green Man festival 2023

As the wicker man in the upper field – half asleep on his staff after 20 years of overseeing the Brecon Beacons’ most refined boutique festival – catches light in a barrage of fireworks, there is more than the usual sense of antiquity about the occasion. We’ve just spent four days at a refreshingly pagan sort of festival. Corporate sponsors shunned in favour of local real ale breweries. Bill curated for quality rather than commerce. Barely a shonky TikTok sensation in sight. Where most other major UK festivals are forced to pander to shallow, pop-timist stream-age tastes in order to maintain the profits of the Oasis/Arctic Monkeys years, Green Man remains an honourable bastion of fine sounds and suspiciously cloudy beers. Combined with its idyllic valley setting, what unfolds is an atmosphere of genuine celebration.

Bubbles and glowing Pac-Man ghosts fill the Chai Wallahs tent for Will And The People’s groove-rock carnival on Thursday night while acrobats dressed as clouds spray water-gun rain from on high at the Back Of Beyond circus-theatre stage. Pirates juggle sticks throughout Irish group Lankum’s set, itself full of mediaeval gallow drones, bouts of knee-slapping, and witch-dunking fiddle-folk. Statistics show that Green Man accounts for around 99 per cent of the UK’s annual injuries from being brained by a sprite-faced child with a spinning top on a string after one too many pints of Dark Side of the Moose ale.

There’s an air of broad-minded discovery to the place. Witness Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek in the genteel Walled Garden area on Friday, casting his affable Americana throbs into the night air where it mingles with an orgy of post-jazz noise blasting over from the main Mountain Stage courtesy of The Comet Is Coming. Or Warmduscher, clad in gas station overalls, as they drench the Far Out tent in garage-punk sludge that, in rare melodic moments, you might potentially try to limbo to. There is also Jockstrap – this generation’s answer to Portishead: vocalist/violinist Georgia Ellery’s vaporous whiskey bar-soul melodies melt into producer Taylor Skye’s corroded electronics to disorientating effect. One minute, angelic, abstract lyrics about masturbation, gaming and heartache are drifting across electro-classical tracks referencing Debussy and 1930s cinema scores. The next, Ellery is bent double on “Robert” – her vocals manipulated into smurfs and demons, like Linda Blair breaking into rap.

Yet this weekend is as much about discovery as it is re-discovery. During Friday’s first flush of rain, Glasgow rockers The Delgados revisit their fittingly elemental indie symphonies as if auditioning for an interval gig at the Royal Opera House. The self-styled “semi-legendary Wedding Present” – an indie-rock cornerstone and long one of this country’s most phenomenal live acts – crank out a fully-legendary set that mixes thrash-pop classics “Kennedy” and “Brassneck” with volcanic fan-favourites “Corduroy”, “Skin Diving” and “Loveslave”. Frontman David Gedge reasserts his standing both as one of indie’s premier songwriters and the Usain Bolt of rhythm guitar, born with a six-million-dollar strumming arm.

Slowdive arrive amid their own cultural re-evaluation. Singer Rachel Goswell gets into the pagan spirit in costume as the high priestess of an ancient Egyptian temple called The Two Haircuts of Sia. The band are welcomed back with open arms, not just by the crowd who relish the sound of the original purveyors of today’s reformed shoegaze soundscapes but also by us frustrated poet reviewers who are given the chance once again to wang on about glistening orbs of fractal sound floating through ice voids of rainbow reverb. Slowdive honour their lineage with “Slomo” (The Cure meet The Cocteau Twins in a floatation tank downtown), celebrate their critical peak with “Souvlaki Space Station” (crystals form on the crest of God’s buttcrack), and sink deep into “Catch the Breeze” (shard of light on the golden cross in the burnt-out wreckage of the sonic cathedral; I can do this all day).

The highlight of the weekend for many, though, are The Walkmen, whose suave New York garage rock illuminates their history as part-originators of what’s now called the “indie sleaze” generation (three of their five members were in the late-Nineties New York City scene pioneers Jonathan Fire*Eater). Once done relaying stories of playing Green Man the same year Van Morrison destroyed the peaceful valley vibe by helicoptering in, the band deploy plenty of proto-Strokes spider-leg guitar hook lines and dark carnival atmospherics pre-dating the Arctic Monkeys. Frontman Hamilton Leithauser croons through “On the Water” and “We’ve Been Had” like the king of the Williamsburg Rat Pack. They’re so confident that they uncage their only notable hit “The Rat” just four songs in. It chews straight into Green Man’s power cables, electrifying the entire sodden site.

The headliners need no re-introduction. On Thursday, Spiritualized test the moorings of the Far Out tent with their euphoric blasts of cosmic ballet (“Shine a Light”), intergalactic Americana (“Sail on Through”) and Oppenheimer gospel (“Hey Jane”). Friday’s bill-toppers Devo – only their second time playing in the UK since 2009 – face a good old-fashioned Brecons downpour with characteristic wryness. In keeping with their formative theory of humanity’s gradual de-evolution (“America has plenty of evidence,” claims multi-instrumentalist Gerald Casale), theirs is a 75-minute deconstruction of the festival headline experience.

They throw away their best-known song – “Whip It”, a pop Public Image Ltd – early on, tear the arms off their yellow boiler suits as they go and screen promo films encouraging the crowd to salute their corporate overlords. Their room-reading skills fail them, however, when they expect a 2023 crowd to pogo along to “Mongoloid” – but their art-pop credentials remain impeccable, particularly when doing evil robotic things to The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” or letting “Jocko Homo” gradually collapse in on itself.

Swedish alt-group Goat perform at Green Man Festival 2023

Saturday headliner Self Esteem is a clunkier fit. Picture the scene. Over in the Far Out tent Swedish alt-group Goat are busy personifying Green Man. Masked guitarists and a flower god bassist summon sacrificial Zeppelin grooves. They’re the funk party Ari Aster didn’t show us at the end of Midsommar. Two tambourine-wielding priestesses in psychedelic headdresses resemble ABBA on Sly And The Family Stone’s drugs. Cthulhu’s on bongos. Meanwhile, a few hundred feet away, Rebecca Taylor appears on the Mountain Stage in a grey suit atop a marble-effect staircase, surrounded by a trio of besuited backing dancers.

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Albeit impressive, Taylor’s contemporary dance routines can’t help but pale in comparison to Goat’s frisson of wild spontaneity. It’s like discovering you’ve taped over The Wicker Man with an X Factor final. Thankfully, her music is threaded with more interesting and engaging moments. A segment performed in Pussy Riot-style masks is striking, and the solo, pin-drop guitar ballad “John Elton” is soulful and moving. Taylor’s open-diary poetic interludes on “I Do This All the Time” and “I’m Fine” explode the emotional frustrations of modern womanhood. (The crowd barks like a pack of dogs in response to her explanation that a loud woof is a good way to fend off unwanted male attention.)

Sunday is a day of stylistic stand-offs. Tired of H Hawkline’s sunny brass pop on the main stage? Try Billy Nomates in Far Out, sticking it to her Glastonbury haters with an impassioned one-hander of backing-tracked power-pop and gutter-soul. Her only instrument onstage is a single cymbal, symbolic of her autonomy and a raised finger to rock tradition. On the final evening, Amyl and The Sniffers warm up the main stage for, would you believe, First Aid Kit. The former arrive loaded up with multiple lagers each, boasting about having dropped the most C-bombs on the BBC and giving the sign language interpreter plenty more swears to deal with. Over the next hour, the band gurn through snotty punk about pub bans, money stress, and global catastrophe. “This could be the last generation of the human race,” says singer Amy Taylor, clad in a bin bag bikini, before coming to a typically Australian conclusion: “Let’s Mad Max up on this b****.”

First Aid Kit headline the final day of Green Man Festival 2023

First Aid Kit are far less demanding of a one-minute broadcast delay. The Söderberg sisters – Sweden’s de-politicised (formerly Dixie) Chicks – couch songs of heartache, emptiness, shame and doubt in uplifting close-harmony country-folk. New track “Everybody’s Got to Learn” is particularly poignant, an open letter from Johanna to her daughter about the agonies in store for them both come those formative years. The set moves like seasons: after a stirring noir segment (“Rebel Heart” and “The Lion’s Roar”), the band strip down to an unplugged bluegrass quintet for infidelity ballad “Hem of Her Dress”, then go full Nashville, rattling through “Emmylou”, their tribute to the country greats, and a cover of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”. Ultimately, they bloom into country-pop showstoppers on “Out of My Head”, suggesting a Swift-ian turn in their future.

In all, Green Man is a rather magical cult happening that mingles timelines past, present and future. Up in the top field, as the annual flame ritual begins, it may be the psychedelic ale but you’d swear the Green Man himself opens one eye, nods to himself and settles in to burn a couple more decades yet.

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