LIVE: Green Man Festival 2021

The best of British (and Welsh) talent truly came to life in the misty black mountains of the Brecon Beacons over the weekend, a welcome return to the alchemy of left-field music and mysticism that makes Green Man one of the wondrous festivals going.
Posted: 24 August 2021 Words: Tom Curtis-Horsfall Photos: Parri Thomas

The epic black mountains, laden in emerald flora and fauna, shrouded in ominous, moody clouds with the odd ray of sunshine bursting through. No, it’s not the setting of a wistful period drama. It’s where Green Man Festival takes place.

One of the main draws for regular festival returners is the mysticism of the Brecon Beacons, forever willing to take a punt on Wales’ biggest celebration of music despite the likelihood of it being a wash out on most occasions. Given the dire lack of connection to anyone or anything in recent times, concern about the weather was at the bottom of the pile. And the Welsh Gods of old took kindly to the first edition of Green Man in two years, plying us with bouts of sunshine virtually throughout. It’s so easy to digress about the scenic vistas, but let’s get to why everyone was there in the first place: experiencing live music up close and personal.

UK festivals, despite even being able to go ahead, have faced numerous challenges since being given the green light by the government. Aside from the issue of Covid-19 security, one challenge that feels more prevalent than most is the lineups. Festival lineups are usually laden with international artists, squeezing in various festival slots on Euro tours. Now that was out of the question with the need to quarantine, which meant the likes of Little Dragon (initial Thursday headliner), Viagra Boys, Puma Blue and more had to miss out. The onus was on British and Welsh talent, and they delivered.

(Photo: Eric Adyin-Barberini)

Talking of Thursday headliners, Tirzah replaced Little Dragon at the Far Out Stage and sent the crowd into dizzying trance, after Working Men’s Club had whet the appetite to dance with their bravado and brash energy. Friday began much less energetically as you’d expect after the festival-wide hangovers, so H Hawkline was on hand to liven up the main amphitheatre with his off-kilter brand of indie. “I don’t have my glasses on so not sure if I recognise you”, he wryly nodded to the lack of performing live for some time. The Welsh contingent was out in force to see him, inviting local legend Cate Le Bon on stage just to play tambourine, with Tim Presley of White Fence also strumming away in his band.

Katy J Pearson’s bright, evocative country twang - weirdly reminiscent of both Kate Bush and Emmylou Harris - was the ideal remedy to a patchy afternoon, and was joined on stage by producer Dan Carey whose presence seemed to be felt almost everywhere given his growing influence on British rock and punk music. It felt that literally everyone and anyone in up-and-coming British music was at Green Man in some capacity, and more often than not, they had an association with London label Speedy Wunderground.

(Photo: Kirsty MacLachlan)

The label, spearheaded by Carey and co-founder Pierre Hall were even bestowed with a dedicated two-page spread in the Green Man Festival programme, given the sheer amount of alumni or current artists on their roster that were booked to perform - Squid were secret guests, Georgia, The Lounge Society, Goat Girl, Stephen Fretwell, Sinead O’Brien, PVA, Martha Skye Murphy, and Lazarus Kane were all on the bill, and these are only the artists we didn’t get to see.

(Photo: Kirsty MacLachlan)

Friday was well and truly on a roll now with Nadine Shah and Django Django taking to the main Mountain stage, the latter of which were good value for energising the expectant masses - merging ‘Hail Bop’ into The Beatles ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was a particular highlight. Whilst Shame pummelled eardrums at the Far Out Stage, Caribou created a genuine sense of collective euphoria during his headline slot on the Mountain Stage, even inciting a birthday sing-a-long for his daughter. You could tangibly feel the raving crowd getting high off his crisp, clean production, and elongated, almost psychedelic versions of belters like ‘Sun’, ‘Our Love’, ‘Odessa’, and ‘Never Come Back’. Well, they may have had some other assistance, of course, but it was an impeccable performance which brought everyone together in more than a literal sense.

(Photo: Kirsty MacLachlan)

Kelly Lee Owens enchanted with her late night set, Ross From Friends soon after was a blurry affair, and by the time I knew it, Emma Jean Thackray was wowing the sleepy Saturday afternoon crowd with her versatile electronic jazz. Tony Njoku, NewDad, and the joyous energy of KOKOROKO followed, before stumbling upon the MONOPHONICS secret set, a super-group of Dan Carey, Fontaines D.C., Goat Girl, and DEWEY whose sludgy one-string punk packed out a tiny tent in The Courtyard.

It was a marked difference to who came next: LUMP. Laura Marling’s project with Tunng’s Mike Lindsay was an unexpected highlight, and arguably a set most in tune with the festival’s atmosphere. Marling’s restrained vocal performance and majestic presence were a given, but the decorum and dazzling emotion usually associated with her solo work bled into the electro-folk weirdness. It was strange, spellbinding, and funny - even the usual poker-faced Marling cracked a smile every so often.

(Photo: Parri Thomas)

black midi drew a major crowd, and I can’t stress enough that they are truly a band to experience live. Abrasive, mad, macabre, their combustible energy and technical expertise converted even me, a belligerent sceptic. Liz Lawrence was a hook-laden change from the frenzy of black midi, before Mogwai capped off the Mountain Stage with an atmospheric and emotional headline set made for the greenery and scenery surrounding them.

(Photo: Eric Aydin-Barberini)

Lazy Sunday’s are tailor-made for Billie Marten’s gentle allure and King Hannah’s smokey Americana, before hunk punks Crack Cloud got the memo about the searing heat with their semi-naked dress code. The emphasis on homegrown music meant that the best of British jazz was sandwiched between the indie, the folk, and the punk rock - shout out to Nubiyan Twist, Nubya Garcia, and KOKOROKO in particular. But it was the one international artist that managed to jump through the hoops of international travel that created the most buzz: Thundercat.

A character as esoteric as they come, the cosmic funk insanity that ensued during his penultimate performance of the weekend saw the Grammy Award-winning Brainfeeder artist (with the biggest bass to enter mainstream music, surely?) aimed straight towards the stratosphere. His drummer was chugging a spliff whilst digging into a rhythmic rabbit role, leaving just enough breath for the likes of ‘Friend Zone’, ‘Dragonball Durag’, and the flange-y favourite ‘Them Changes’.

(Photo: Eric Aydin-Barberini)

Then came Fontaines D.C., and they conquered. The Irish post-punk five-piece’s first headliner set was met with more excitement than cynicism, and the occasion didn’t seem to phase frontman Grian Chatten as he bowled out on stage to ‘Televised Mind’ decked out in tracksuit head-to-toe, channelling his inner Liam Gallagher. Tying it back to Dan Carey who produced the Dubliners’ two albums Dogrel and A Hero’s Death, it felt somewhat serendipitous that after the band’s meteoric rise that they’d ended up headlining here, a festival with such strong links to the producer. Powerful, dead-eyed, and anthemic as they come, Fontaines D.C. fizzed with the brash self-belief of a formative Oasis, and whilst it’d be unfair to call them an Irish equivalent, they’ve certainly ensnared young and old followers both sides of the Irish and Atlantic Sea in a similar way.

(Photo: Kirsty MacLachlan)

So much thought, love, and care went into the festival’s unique alchemy of left-field music and mysticism, encapsulated by Charlotte Church singing a traditional Welsh hymn and the spectacularly choreographed fireworks display before the burning of the Green Man effigy. Everyone involved made sure that the music and magic was felt, which forever makes Green Man Festival one of the most wondrous festivals to experience.

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