Green Man festival review – magical return for this psychedelic carnival

Glanusk Estate, Brecon Beacons
Mogwai, Nadine Shah, Fontaines DC and more mesmerise in the festival’s overwhelming, glorious comeback

‘This is friggin’ overwhelming,” exclaims Nadine Shah, grasping for words to sum up the hyper-emotional, multi-sensory overload that was returning to a music festival. Everyone present for the Tyne and Wear singer’s revitalising set of blown-out rock’n’soul early evening Friday will have known exactly what she meant.

Arms jabbed, throats and noses swabbed, antiseptic liquids flowing along with the real ale and the tears: Green Man was back. As with most festivals, last year’s Covid-related cancellation imperilled this carnival of pastoral-psychedelic delight beneath the Welsh mountains. But its late summer berth allowed organisers to gamble on restrictions lifting in time for a full return in 2021. Fans kept the faith – most tickets were rollovers from 2020 – and were repaid with a programme that, despite few international artists, still somehow felt as solid as ever: a magical mixture of cosmic rock, alt-folk, ecstatic jazz and sanitised hands-in-the-air club music.

Gruff Rhys.
Suitably special ... Gruff Rhys. Photograph: Polly Thomas/Getty Images

Practically every artist has new material to finally unleash, from records that have lifted spirits during dark days. What a joy it is to hear songs from Georgia’s superb Seeking Thrills live, in an energy rush of a performance ending with a sprinting, synth-spangled cover of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill. Inner Song, north Wales-born Kelly Lee Owens’ album of dreamy electronica, was another of last year’s best: her much-anticipated “homecoming”, as she called it, is nearly thwarted by technical issues, but she powers through to leave hearts and ears pounding. Bolstered by a three-piece band, Dan Snaith AKA Caribou’s live set is an object lesson in how to do main stage dance music with warmth, feeling and vitality.

Rain tips down Saturday morning, but thankfully the mud is drying by the time the ragged-edged folk alchemist Richard Dawson appears in the intermittent afternoon sun, extracting unlikely resonance from scraggly songs about quilt-making and exercise. Such is the rich legacy of weird and wonderful psychedelia that his band Super Furry Animals helped to root in the Welsh music scene, Gruff Rhys is practically a godfather to Green Man. His solo set, its crescendo an exuberant Welsh language samba workout to Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru, is suitably special. Later on he makes a cameo with headliners Mogwai, singing their 2001 collaboration Dial: Revenge – a deep cut in a set mainly anchored around the Scottish band’s recent album As the Love Continues, their first to top the UK charts. Post-rock’s underground heroes have suddenly gone overground, and yet without compromise to the dread and beauty of their music: feedback howls to the full moon as their signature pulveriser Mogwai Fear Satan rings its last.

The main stage on Friday afternoon.
The main stage on Friday afternoon. Photograph: Polly Thomas/Getty Images

Sunday is balmy and full of contrast. Erland Cooper carves out a moment of audacious tranquillity amid the festival din with his delicate chamber pop, at one point conducting his string quartet with a bird feather. Wearing headgear that makes them look as though they’ve recently extracted themselves from a bush, Snapped Ankles’ hurtling horror movie krautrock is anything but peaceful. Thundercat brings the party funk and a speed bass solo for every occasion, and Self Esteem’s celebration of pop’s immortal capacity to empower provides a rare technicolour moment. And long months off the road looked to have done nothing to interrupt Fontaines DC’s steady march towards becoming the post-punk band of their generation. Tracksuited frontman Grian Chatten prowls the stage magnetically, spitting sardonic songs about xenophobia, trampled dreams and casual violence with dead-eyed, gloriously un-sanitised fury.

With that a giant wooden sculpture of the Green Man, a mythological symbol of rebirth, is ritually burned, embers curling into the clear night sky. After the initial overwhelm melted away, being at a festival felt fantastically, reassuringly normal: a full hug after a year of elbow bumps.


Malcolm Jack

The GuardianTramp

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