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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sophie Walker

Green Man festival review – the absurd, the wonderful and the otherworldly

Michael Kiwanuka headlining Green Man festival on Sunday night.
Michael Kiwanuka headlining Green Man festival on Sunday night. Photograph: David Wala/Avalon

The tapestry of Green Man is woven from a reverence for the past and the promise of a future that, for one August weekend, feels thrillingly attainable. Nestled in the natural amphitheatre of a Welsh mountain valley, for two decades the festival has offered a suspension of reality that its annually returning devotees can only describe as “magic”. Where else can you find refuge from a festival’s never-ending spectacles to hold a chicken?

In these intervening years, Green Man has fostered a certain intimacy with its audience, meaning the 25,000 tickets for its 20th-anniversary weekender sold out within three days despite the only confirmed headliner being Mercury-prize winner Michael Kiwanuka. But Green Man dares to roll the dice while remaining deserving of this blind faith. Though it remains loosely anchored to its folk-indebted beginnings, it also welcomes the absurd, the wonderful and the otherworldly.

The festival remains free from aggressive sponsorship, and phones, usually masted in the air during sets, are strikingly absent. The sense of escapism is quite clearly one of the main draws, and it bleeds into Green Man’s most mesmeric performers. The panoramic Mountain stage is opened on its first night by the warped, magisterial glam rock of Yves Tumor and Its Band. Sleaze and seduction coalesce into unholy extremes as Tumor cuts an otherworldly figure with their peroxide mane and bejewelled hot pants. They writhe on stage as if possessed, injecting their microphone into the speakers like a needle to a vein just for the thrill of the shocking feedback.

But Green Man also honours its musical inverse, welcoming the finely spun, transportive folk of Jessie Buckley and Bernard Butler to the Walled Garden stage at sunset. Their recent collaborative debut, For All Our Days That Tear the Heart, transcended expectations of an actor-musician project, and their gently nuanced sound turns out to thrive in front of a crowd. Black Country, New Road put their latest iteration to the test after the departure of vocalist Isaac Wood, after which they drew a definitive line beneath their previous material. Each band member takes a turn at vocal duties, adding new textures to their knotty post-rock, and they’re greeted by something close to rapture.

Jessie Buckley and Bernard Butler performing on the Walled Garden stage at Green Man on Friday.
Jessie Buckley and Bernard Butler performing on the Walled Garden stage at Green Man on Friday. Photograph: David Wala/Avalon

Green Man tempers its flashes of musical radicalism with all-too-familiar headliners. Top-billing veterans Metronomy and Kae Tempest get a fond welcome, and respects are politely paid to a dislocating performance from Kraftwerk, rendered through the disappointing lenses of paper 3D glasses. But it’s in the festival’s taste-making small print where you will find its most thrilling prospects.

Inspiring cult-like devotion and a sea of daft grins are Welsh-speaking surf-pop heroes, Melin Melyn. Shrugging off the weight of the world through their topsy-turvy outlook, they spin hilarious yarns inspired by life’s mundanity: an all-too-rare masterclass in the intersection of comedy and music. In an unexpected twist, a jet swoops incredibly low over the Walled Garden stage, but their charismatic frontman Gruff Glyn remains unruffled: “That cost us an absolute fortune – I hope you enjoyed it.”

The Far Out stage’s reputation precedes it, showcasing an array of acts on their way to hurtling out of the underground. Producer and songwriter Jessica Winter, collaborator with pop disruptor Jazmin Bean, unveils a set of gothic, pop-centric cabaret. She runs her gloved hands over her keyboard with operatic flair, before slamming the audience into a world of bleeding 808s and unsettling, hall-of-mirrors distortion.

Green Man’s spirit of subversion is shifted into top gear with the warped club-centric cuts of Bristol producer Grove, who sets dancefloor conventions ablaze with delight. A declaration of war is made to landlords, “energy vampires” and the systems that have failed us, indicative of the political discontent which colours much of the festival’s offerings. But more than anything, Green Man froths with positivity, which is captured best by Manchester band Porij, who kick off Saturday night with their infectious collage of vibrant dance sounds.

The Green Man itself is a symbol of rebirth which is common to a spectrum of ancient cultures. As it is set alight, the embers from paper wishes for the future attached to the effigy are surrendered to the sky, and there is the sense that no matter what lies beyond, while you are at Green Man festival, everything is briefly wonderful.

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