Festival No 6 review – au revoir to an eccentric, magical gem

Portmeirion, Wales
The last Festival No 6 ‘for now’ has awkward cultural copyists, but is saved by Franz Ferdinand, The The and Anna Calvi

Secret Garden Party had its last topless paint fight in 2017, Bestival has shrunk back to its boutique roots and now Festival No 6, set in the stunning Italianate village of Portmeirion (where The Prisoner was filmed) has declared its 2018 event the last “for now”. Perhaps Brexit Britain isn’t disposed to whimsical weekends, but No 6’s finale is more likely down to the challenges of staging an idyllic middle-class festival on the west coast of Wales in mid-September. Some years you’d think it was themed around Aquaman.

Thankfully, this farewell edition dodges the forecast monsoon and its first run ends as it began, as the most semi-magical weekend of the year. “I thought we’d have to rename the band Wet Wet Wet,” jokes the leader of the Brythoniaid Male Choir, conducting them through a greatest hits set of hymns, second world war commemorations and an accidentally comic cover of A Design for Life on the central piazza’s ornate colonnade. The festival’s iconic “boyband” are the fulcrum around which Festival No 6’s cultivated charm revolves: the intimate acoustic sets in the Town Hall, the woodland discos on floating dancefloors, the scenes from The Prisoner performed by the official appreciation society for drinkers on the terrace of the on-site hotel. Will Self attempts to upend No 6’s smug urbanity by regaling people in the piazza with an essay about urinating into a Dyson Airblade, but the exotic surrealism of this micro-Positano soaks him up easily.

On the Village Green, the musical bill feels secondary, but in tune. Synth rockers accompany bake sales at the Tim Peaks Diner, and Paul Draper (ex of Mansun), plays the singles from the band’s Prisoner-inspired record Six – a slice of misunderstood brilliance – to mark the album’s 20th anniversary.

Django Django and Everything Everything – the bubblegum Radiohead – lead No 6’s more pioneering charge, with their sunny space hulas, Afro-tronic larks and falsetto fripperies pumped full of sonic adrenalin. Unfortunately, No 6’s traditional retro strain has given way to a clutch of cultural copyists. Hurts dish out formulaic, cheesy pop bombast and the Horrors have spent so long failing to have an original idea that they now sound like a turgid mega-mix of 80s and 90s indie rock. Even Friday headliners Friendly Fires have returned sounding woefully dated, stuck in a post-indie 2009 that was rediscovering Chic – a throwback to a throwback.

With Jessie Ware churning out funk R&B so bereft of identifying features its own mother couldn’t pick it from a lineup, No 6 threatens to become a sonic washout. But Saturday headliners The The bring a stateliness to proceedings with a “career overview” of philosophical voodoo rock and horndog Americana such as the song Dogs of Lust. Then Sunday lands thick with treats: Gaz Coombes’ solo rendition of Supergrass’s Moving, the field-lifting greatest hits of the Charlatans and Anna Calvi’s brutalist, operatic desert rock.

Headliners Franz Ferdinand, in full Prisoner costumes and with a cluster of Rover balloons whipped straight off towards Newfoundland, are as energised as they were in 2004. They whip Portmeirion into an impulsive frenzy with the naughtiest noughties favourites (No You Girls, Do You Want To?) and reliably arch new disco monsters about journalistic ethics (Lois Lane) and 1930s airship disasters (Always Ascending). It is a fittingly wry au revoir, we hope, to a festival that is so much more than just a number.


Mark Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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