Nestled deep in the Welsh Brecon Beacons under a near-permanent shroud of mist, these days Green Man is less a well-kept secret and more a carefully guarded sanctuary from the commercialism, litter and claustrophobia that can plague larger festivals. The lineup is typically eclectic, with indie, folk and world music all well represented by a diverse cast of performers. It’s a slight shame that the three headliners are decidedly white and male, but elsewhere on the bill, there’s a lot to like.
The main stage is one of the best on the circuit, set at the foot of a mountain and opening onto a natural amphitheatre, and flanked by cladding that doubles as part of the light show. The evening sets here are something to behold, none more so than a triumphant set from Aussie rockers King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, who bring their acid rock riffs crashing into the Welsh valleys.
With the screens set up on a two-hour psychedelic digital peyote trip, the seven-piece rattle out jams from their impressive 13 albums, five of which came out in 2017 alone. The band are heads down, rock out performers, so the effort put into the visual art is a smart move, dazzling the crowd and providing a mind-bending backdrop to their guitar acrobatics. Borne of the harsh, vast Australian outback, their lightning guitar wizardry tonight feels like it could crack Ayers Rock straight down the middle.
Earlier in the day, retro rockers The Lemon Twigs give a taste of what to expect on their Arctic Monkeys support run, dishing out a series of confident 60s-indebted jams. Frontman Brian D’Addario owns the Mountain Stage while baffling some of the audience with his laconic drawl and erratic behaviour. Just what you want to rouse a mid-afternoon crowd.
Over on the Walled Garden stage (in a garden that is surrounded by walls, surprisingly), Snail Mail aka Lindsey Jordan shows exactly why we here at Dork are so enamoured with her debut album, aptly titled ‘Lush’. Jordan is a superb guitarist but doesn’t let riffing and solos detract from her precise indie rock songwriting, which has that 90s slacker pop vibe that we’re so fond of. Far from being one for the future, Snail Mail is blazing a trail right now.
Booked for an after-hours slot in the Walled Garden, HMLTD battle through technical difficulties and an incessant patch of rain, playing a set that does their theatrical, sleazy pop a disservice; it’s a shame they’re hemmed in the concrete courtyard.
Cardiff’s own Boy Azooga get Saturday off to a raucous start, their lynchpin Davey Newington clearly gobsmacked a the scale of the set and duly having the time of his life. There’s a lot of love for the local heroes and they more than lived up to the adoration with a riotous set that sees a brass section (and Bristol legend Big Jeff) join the band onstage for their final song. Expect to see Boy Azooga moving up to the upper heights of the main stage within a few years.
On a typically cloudy day, the sun finally breaks through for Courtney Marie Andrews as she belts out a stunning tribute to Aretha Franklin from the Mountain Stage, leading her band in a supreme cover of ‘Chain of Fools’. It takes guts to fill in for the Queen of Soul, but Andrews delivers a stunning vocal that blows away some of her more timid early offerings. The rest of her set focuses on ‘May Your Kindness Remain’, her record this year detailing the American cultural divide. It’s confident, precise Americana at its finest, and Andrews appears to be improving with each trip across the pond.
Veering to a totally different end of the spectrum Bo Ningen are another helping of Green Man’s buffet of psychedelia, the Japanese four-piece blasting their noise rock over a shell-shocked Far Out stage. What other band would spend the final fifteen minutes of their set thrashing out the same chord? Few could make it as captivating as Bo Ningen do.
Bringing her mellow folk to the Walled Garden for one of the standout moments of the weekend is Phoebe Bridgers, captivating a packed courtyard with her songs of love, life and death. The reverential hush from the gathered crowd is a testament to Bridgers’ ability to leave her audience hanging on her every word. A Spotify-bashing cover of Gillian Welch is an interesting diversion, and is the kind of treat more artists could include in their festival sets.
Fleet Foxes could have picked better ways to open their set than to declare it their “only show in England this year!” The crowd either don’t notice or don’t mind. The Seattle five-piece deliver their songs with vigour but its hard to escape the feeling that they lack a certain gravitas needed to headline a festival of this size. The set leans heavily on their latest album, but it’s not clear that the crowd at Green Man have kept up with the band since their late 2000s heyday. A fantastic band, but just a fine headliner.
Stella Donnelly eases an increasingly dishevelled audience into their Sunday afternoon with her chipper sense of humour complimenting her wry songs about relationships gone wrong. Festival regular Will Varley delivers a winning set at the Chai Wallahs tent, with the singer’s natural stage presence allowing him to entertaining children with songs about talking cats before ‘Man Who Fell to Earth’ provides a devastatingly human example of the suffering caused by decades of anti-immigration rhetoric. There are few solo artists who could juggle both extremes and make them both feel natural, but Varley has that lyrical knack.
Back to the Walled Garden stage and Vampire Weekend will be looking over their shoulder and anxiously eyeing their afro-beat indie crown. Sacred Paws won the Scottish Album of the year in 2017, and it’s easy to see why. Their brand of West African influenced indie bops is infectious and gets even stubborn punters clapping along within a few songs. Singer/guitarist Rachel Aggs is a master of the fretboard and brings a unique highlife influence, while it doesn’t hurt that drummer Eilidh Rogers can take a turn on vocals while tapping out complex rhythms. They’ve got the tunes; they’ve their own style and a fantastic live energy that should take them many larger festival stages in summers to come.
Winning the award for Coolest Person at Green Man and indeed in Wales, Anna Calvi demonstrates just how far she’s come since those early support slots with Arctic Monkeys thrust her into the limelight. A virtuoso guitarist, her sonorous voice fills the valley, with her hour-long set culminating in her Telecaster screeching with feedback.
Fenne Lily has to tell a few boorish blokes to pipe down during her set, but otherwise, it’s all good vibes, as the singer-songwriter jokes about the very personal nature of her music. This time last year she attended with her partner at the time, wrote some of the songs featured, then very abruptly the relationship ended. Those tales of heartbreak are now the springboard for an exciting future, with Lily having spent this year playing shows in support of her debut album. At ease between songs and perfectly in tune with her backing band, a set on the lakeside Rising Stage finds the Bristol singer ready to burst out onto bigger things.
At this stage veterans of the indie scene, Grizzly Bear are well placed for a sundown session of keys, chiming guitars and a fantastic light show. The easy feel to their music is the perfect Sunday evening wind down for those sprawled on the grassy banks nursing hangovers with boujee wraps.
Closing us out for Green Man 2018, The War on Drugs are another example of a worthy band handed a headline slot they don’t quite own. The five-piece have a fantastic sound, marrying the best bits of American heartland rock in a performance that earns favourable comparisons with The Boss’ own backing band. Where they fall down is a lack of variety, with a few saxophone solos not quite making up for the straight-ahead nature of the majority of the songs. Frontman Adam Granduciel is a master of his craft as he barks out tortured melodies and fires out squalling guitar solos, and there’s a lot to admire in the group’s pinpoint delivery. The set rarely lags but rather fails to reach the heights that the individual pieces of the puzzle hint at.
The real finale at this festival is the annual burning of the Green Man himself. There’s something primal and oddly purifying about watching a massive wooden effigy be consumed by flames and spit embers into the night sky. With fireworks exploding through the smoke, it’s a transformative experience.
Words: Dillon Eastoe