Music Features

Green Man Festival 2005

It would seem that the broadsheets are working themselves into something of a mucksweat over the F-word. First there is the dizzying array of fancy monikers currently being bandied about, presumably to quell Surrey housewives' fears that 'folk', in its current incarnation, might have anything to do with its hazel-wielding, bell-bedecked, purist counterpart. Which, as the Margots all know well enough, is sinister, parochial, and something to do with inbreeding. New Folk, Folktronica, Freak Folk, alt.folk and Acid Folk have all found their way into the music supplements; The Telegraph plumped for "something which may or may not be Folk music". There seems also to be a corresponding concern that young people today are massing like Plath's mushrooms at every available opportunity to Do Things in Fields that aren't very respectable. Letting Jessica go to Glastonbury is one thing - we can watch on the tele, and those nice Scissor Sisters are playing - but beards, banjos and Wales are quite a different matter. One step away from a Dennis Wheatley novel, in fact. And judging from the overweight hack we spotted peering nervously about him from the safety of his four-by-four, it appears they really do believe their own hype.

Ironically, The Green Man Festival is a thoroughly civilised affair - more summer garden party than Summerisle. The bus that ferried us from the car park to the site took us past a field of horses that caused us to exchange a look of alarm - what were these people thinking? Had no one stopped to consider the inevitable consequence of placing them next to a field of revellers full of cider and mischief? Yet a glance at our fellow travellers gave rise to a suspicion that perhaps it was not that sort of festival: they were uniformly earnest, polite and sober, with nary an outsize pupil between them. Somewhat bemused, we developed a two-point plan: bar, then explore.

Red Stripes acquired, we took in the faded glory of Baskerville Hall, the 19th Century pile-turned-hotel that inspired Conan Doyle. Campers strolled through the entrance hall, scrutinised the paintings, admired the baroque furnishings of the Music Room, and formed an orderly queue for the toilets. Imagine an Evelyn Waugh novel peopled with the cast of a middle-class, pre-watershed sitcom, and you get some idea. With a mounting sense of the surreal, we learned that free workshops would be held over the weekend on 'Goethe's Theory of Colour' and 'Chladni and The Theory of Sound'. Perhaps spotting our consternation, a beaming Welsh security guard cheerily asked if we were alright for ghanja. Outside, young things lolled on the lawn, and we were treated to The Einstein Experience - a tiny darkened tent filled with ticking clocks, coloured lights, The Sands of Time, and two deck chairs. On exiting, a woman was bemoaning the fact that some batteries had failed. "Ah", intoned one onlooker sagely. "It's how Einstein would have wanted it".

Marvelling at the level of trust involved, and feeling a degree of guilt for our cynicism, we pitched tent. The camping field was a stone's throw from the main stage (not that there would be anything of the sort, thank you very much), and even guy ropes at full stretch failed to impinge on those of our neighbours. Who, we noticed, happened to be sporting the red wristbands that denote artists, rather than the green ones worn by proles like us - no snobbery here, then. As night fell, we trotted dutifully across to watch Adem, whose wistful croonings, performed live, underwent a transformation into something meatier, more heartfelt, and altogether more impressive. The Incredible String Band followed, under the auspices of a full, fat harvest moon, and although the papers have of late been painting a picture of herds of youths swaying along to A Very Cellular Song like so many alphas on soma, we couldn't help but feel that the billing was something of a token nod to the old order. The performances were sound, the songs safe and accessible, and the crowd sang along good-naturedly enough; but the applause was the affectionate, indulgent sound of parents at school sports day, rather than that of enraptured fans.

Ah, we thought. When The Music's Over... Now we'll see these nice, well brought-up girls and boys undergo some lycanthropic change and go haring up into the woods. This place will turn into one of Bosch's paintings. We replenished our beers and waited for the spectacle.

There's always that unique fear that develops at festivals - the vague suspicion that somewhere, somewhere, there's a tent having more fun than yours. What usually ensues is bands of thrillseekers undertaking a guy-rope scrambling Caucus-race away from the sound of guitars and towards the sounds of mischief. Not so here - the chorus of puking, substance-touting, and general wrecking was conspicuously absent, and a series of hushed, enthusiastic sit-ins between tents added a communal feel. The only sound to be heard by half four was a lone ballad issuing from the direction of the woods.

Saturday, therefore, we woke with unprecedented vigour and laid siege to the curry tent. Bypassing stalls selling homespun hats, vegan dust-burgers, and organic T-shirts in pistachio, damson and sand (which looked to us suspiciously like green, purple and brown), we joined the ranks of those supine on the lawn to soak up sun and cider. And stayed there for a number of hours, in fact. The beauty of this festival is that, no matter where on the site one may be, the main stage is not only visible and audible, but right in front of you, much like The Giant Ball and The Prisoner. According to the programme, four thousand people attended this year; yet judging by the preponderance of red wristbands, and the fact that we were on nodding terms with a fair percentage of those present within twenty-four hours, we'd guess that the ranks were swelled by a hefty percentage of artists. The relatives of organiser Jo Bartlett must have gone some way to making up the total: it seemed that wherever we looked we encountered a family member.

Early evening saw us checking out the Folky Dolky stage, a raised platform at the end of the far from cavernous hotel bar, which boasted the greasy carpets, smoke-haze and cross-legged audience of a London pub gig. We caught three movements of prog-...something from Pedro, a complicated, undulating sound-swathe that left us bemused but charmed, before heading outside once more for Bonnie Prince Billy. Will Oldham's lugubrious, treacly voice is another that benefits from live performance, sounding edgier and more unsettling - the Ovaltine richness is still there, but it's laced with poison. Old favourites Riding and I Am A Cinematographer produced and appreciative frisson in the crowd, and the inevitable choice of encore Beast For Thee was a satisfying climax. It's worth noting that although the set was beset by power failures, this did little to break the building momentum of what was in effect a very slow-moving crescendo, and the cheers that accompanied the return of light and sound outnumbered the boos when they failed.

On Sunday we felt like The Chosen Ones, having secured places in the 'Chladni and The Theory of Sound' workshop. A softly spoken Irishman, who seemed genuinely touched that people wanted to know about antinodes and eidophones, let us tinker with violin bows and arcane looking equipment; can't quite remember the science behind it, but we did make some jolly pretty patterns. And watching one rather over-zealous participant unwind his chakra was a rare treat, snigger snigger. We spent the greater part of the afternoon in front of the main stage with Tunng, ye olde dictaphone clanking away, collectively building a shrine to Red Stripe and Golden Virginia - check out the interview for what transpired. Arriving at the Folky Dolky stage early to bag the best floor space, we had the serendipity to catch Culprit One, a baseball-capped duo with sloppy grins on base and keyboard who pounded out a collection of energetic, early-ninetiesish tunes - think KLF's hyperactive younger brothers. By the time Tunng took to the stage, a steady stream of people into the room had severely diminished our tenure of carpet-space, and bodies were perched on every available surface.

Various stringed instruments were given a preparatory twang, a child's xylophone and other Early Learning Centre additions placed on hand, and percussion that included shells and bones strung on a length of line. The set kicked off with the mellow, acoustic-heavy People Folk, rhythmic and lulling, before straying into the darker and more sinister territory and Mother's Daughter and Tale From Black; the latter, happily, was its usual anguilliform and delicately menacing self. The sound was tight and well-timed, samples slotted in effortlessly; female backing vocals were provided by elfin Becky Jacobs (white dress, bare feet), who slapped her thighs and chest in time in an appropriately Eckland-esque manner. By this stage the overcrowding had become so severe that floor space became untenable and we were all obliged to stand, amidst heckles of "You should be on the main stage!". A couple of surprises - the previously unreleased Jay Down nestled quite happily alongside the album tracks, and a cover of Bloc Party's The Pioneers joined the ranks of All Along The Watchtower, Hallelujah, and The Man Who Sold The World, by putting the original in the shade. The quirky, cheerful Surprise Me 44 closed the set, with singer Mike Lindsay conjuring his shiny-eyed audience to join in for the Doo doo doos. Which they did. Brilliant stuff.

Post-Tunng provided us with our only real clash for the weekend, as we shuttled dutifully between the two stages. Joanna Newsom proved that a little-girl voice (sounding much like Tanya Donnelly's fey and slightly twisted sister) and a really big harp are sound enough to fill a main stage in a headline slot; selections from The Milk-Eyed Mender were whimsical, sly and enchanting. James Yorkston, minus his Athletes, provided a fitting counterpoint with his brand of lovelorn, raw, and curiously earnest Scottish folk. And although the lament Green Man Piles (improvised in response to one audience member's griping about sitting on the floor) is unlikely to be scheduled for release any time soon, it was damn funny.

We ended the evening holed up in the local club annexed to Baskerville Hall, a cavernous one-roomed building with the look of a converted cowshed, with a sticky bar, spit-and-sawdust floor, blazing lights and day-glo murals. A sort of psychedelic barn-dance affair, if you will. Up on stage were the fellows we'd camped next to, belting out something loud, infectious, and bordering on indescribable - the nearest approximation, perhaps, being 'Exile on Colharbour Lane' played at 45 rpm. In a good way. Good enough, at any rate, for the sea of sweaty, grinning, undulating young things crammed together inside, who looked suspiciously like they were having a great deal of fun without any artificial encouragement.

Reflecting on all this over a stash of squirreled-away ciders outside, we came to the conclusion that The Green Man Festival seems to be one to offend the sensibilities of various purists. Old School folkers - the benign, bespectacled fellows who smell of damp and tackle you in HMV if you hover too long over The Fairport Convention - were conspicuous in their absence. And festival snobs - that is to say, the sort of people who wax lyrical about mud, horrifying portaloos, tent-slashing, wrecking and bad weed being an integral part of the festival experience - would also find much to criticise here. If, however, you suspect that it might be nice to get within a mile of the stage without suffering a punctured lung, without that girl specially employed to sit on the shoulders of the person in front, and without the inevitable seventeen-year-old crowd-surfer's welly in your face, then we can recommend The Green Man. Perhaps it's a sign that we're getting old, but we were blown away by the sheer friendliness of it all. That, and the fact that we never had to queue for more than three minutes to get to the bar. It's charming, surreal, has great music and wild woods - what more could we ask? And Telegraph readers can rest easy, because in Hay-on-Wye at least, the kids are alright.