A week prior to leaving for Wales’s Green Man Festival, I find myself trekking through a thunderstorm towards my town’s local train station. Excited to be a part of the festival’s reconvening for a second year running, I cycle through my iPod to last year’s Sunday night headliners, Wilco, and with a sort of self-congratulating wit pick out their 2007 opus Sky Blue Sky. My concerns for the following week’s festival evolve through opener “Either Way”. With a malicious sense of irony, Jeff Tweedy’s line “Maybe the sun will shine today” is – I kid you not – succeeded by the most apocalyptic of thunder clashes. Not exactly the premonitions you might hope for, I think. (For the benefit of our readers who might be more accustomed to warmer climates I’ll explain: this scene took place in a town an hour or so outside London. Wales leaves England cowering in its shadow when it comes to undesirable weather).
I hate to say it, but the rain does come to characterize the weekend as much as anything else, as the weekend is blighted by downpours almost without break. Luckily, no one involved is about to let that get in the way. Friday’s first highlight comes from Vermont born Sam Amidon, who plays the Green Man Pub Stage. Aside from his beautiful renditions of antiquated American folk songs, it’s Amidon’s often-surreal prologues and mid-song sermons (at one point about Jesus, and his partiality toward surfing) - aided by the fact that this particular stage is intimate enough to promote interaction between those on stage and those in the rain alongside a real sense of community - that sets the performance apart. When the decision is made that Amidon can take a short encore (even if the open view to the back of the stage reveals a flurry of hands from Amidon and tech staff that suggest that it’s more a realization that there’s more time than thought), it’s enough to convince those who had begun to flee to the cover of a nearby bar to about-turn and watch for a bit longer.
With a headlining Green Man appearance falling victim to a series of cancelled dates in 2008, Beirut make a triumphant return to the main stage this year – albeit one slot lower than they had previously held. It’s as if the entire festival has descended on the natural amphitheatre formed by the hillsides that look over the main stage, and even his worshipped wunderkind status fails to keep Zach Condon from looking taken aback by the response his brass heavy troupe receive. Condon never hogs the limelight though as he’ll often step aside to make flamboyant conducting gestures while trumpeter Kelly Pratt unleashes a towering and virtuosic solo.
Saturday offers an interesting compare and contrast exercise in two appearances from Johnny Flynn. First off, I’m lucky enough to be one of a hundred or so people crammed into London based record store Rough Trade’s tent for an entirely unamplified four-song set. Just over an hour later, and he’s commanding the main stage with admirable ease. Flynn keeps on stage theatrics and performer-crowd interaction to a minimum in both instances, letting his poetic lyrics do the legwork for him.
For those of you that have seen Saturday night’s headliners The Flaming Lips before, you know what’s involved. For those unfortunate ones amongst you, allow me to try and synopsize a Lips show for you. The set included, but was most certainly not limited to: psychedelic projections of female genitalia (which band members promptly emerged from as they walked out on stage, of course), acres of confetti, oversized balloons in a full spectrum of colors, two suspended disco balls, giant laser hands (yes, I mean what I say), and of course, Wayne Coyne’s trademark crowd surfing hamster ball. With this much life and energy projected outwards within the first twenty minutes, it’s unsurprising that the band are unable to sustain these levels of vitality, and midway through begin to loose the audience’s interest. But the band only briefly relinquishes their hold over the festival, and closer ‘Do You Realize??’ is a triumph.
The final day of the festival proves to be most fruitful. Not only is the sun out, but there’s something about the dynamic between the audience and performers that makes it something a little bit more special. After catching a set from Lone Wolf, which while pretty, is at times a little too placid, there’s a life affirming ear-to-ear grin of a performance from Darwin Deez on offer. Alternating between typical song performances and choreographed dance pieces with a comedic bent, it’s clear the response they receive means a whole lot to the four-piece. After the crowd’s display spurred Wayne Coyne on to describe Green Man as “The best festival we’ve played in ten years” the previous night, that same enthusiasm causes Darwin to emotionally and repeatedly exclaim “Yes!” before blurting out that wonderful sentiment of “We finally made it!”. Needless to say, this outburst only serves to increase the volume.
With the rain still at bay, the circus tent that acts as the second stage offers Megafaun and later The Tallest Man On Earth, whose reciprocal guest appearances provide highlights of both sets. Megafaun come close to topping Darwin Deez as most instantly loveable band of the weekend and again (I can’t say this enough) are one of those groups that seem totally humbled by the crowd’s reaction – seemingly stopping after every song to explain how much they’re enjoying themselves. Amongst the crowd, two friends of mine who had taken the decision to leave Field Music’s main stage set after just two songs (no first hand reportage on this, I’m afraid, but they were convinced they’d made the right choice). The Tallest Man on Earth’s appearance for Megafaun’s closing song “Worried Mind” is stunning, but doesn’t come close to Megafaun’s joining him at the end of his set. The group’s take on Gillian Welch’s “Everything is Free” is utterly heartbreaking, with the crowning moment an incredibly delicate banjo solo from Megafaun’s Phil Cook. Actually, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this was the best moment of the entire weekend.
Sandwiched between the two though, I find time to catch Laura Marling back on the main stage. It may be cliché to say that “you could hear a pin drop”, but in all honesty, it was deadly silent. There’s something in her voice that can wrap an entire field of people around her little finger. Later on, I catch the final fifteen minutes of Mumford and Sons’ appearance on that same stage. Even if their “anthemic” choruses might strike as a bit obvious, there’s no denying that they’re a band suited to the festival audience, and they draw more life and movement out of the otherwise calm crowd than is seen all weekend.
Despite the threatening clouds remaining dormant through the majority of the day, they release a veritable deluge during Joanna Newsom’s fourth Green Man appearance to date. After making the decision to leave Efterklang’s impressive show of musicianship in the Far Out tent, I’m pleased to find that Newsom’s set is utterly hypnotic – at times it seems that each of her fingers are working their magic on that majestic harp entirely independently of one another. And all the while, the songstress at the helm remains entirely unaware that she’s responsible for the crowd’s reverie, seemingly preoccupied with the surveying spotlights that highlight the downpour wherever they shine across the hills. It’s a fitting end to a weekend that means as much to performers as it does to the audience, regardless of the weather.