A couple of weeks ago, I packed my bags and headed to the Brecon Beacons for Green Man Festival. Having won Best Medium Sized Festival in 2010 and Best Grassroots Festival in 2012, Green Man has slowly etched itself onto the bedpost of the must-go-to UK summer festivals for its family-friendly vibe, support for up-and-coming alternative music and also general all round attention to awesome fun things you can do around the headline acts.
This was my fourth Green Man, but every time I’ve been to the festival I’ve had a completely different experience. And I’ll give it to you straight: this one was my favourite so far. The day-time line up was great, the late-night stuff consisted entirely of acts I’d have made an effort to go and watch at gigs, the food and drink were awesome, the education and entertainment around the music were all really well thought out, and it didn’t rain! (Much).
Also as part of my festival duties this year, I was taking a load of portrait photographs of people around the festival site for a side project called We Are Green Man, so I ended up talking to a lot more random people than I normally do at festivals.
Every one of the above factors led me to having my favourite Green Man experience to date. Want to get to the meat of it? Of course you do, unless you’re a vegetarian. Don’t worry, there are also meat-free options on offer. Read on!
I’ve also condensed my Green Man experience into a playlist, which you can listen to while you read this. Just to make you feel like you’re really there. Not all these artists played there, of course, but were snippets of things we heard going from place to place.
With its modest punter count of 16,000, the Green Man site is the perfect size for a festival. Just big enough to fill a couple of big stages and fields, but small enough that you can still pop back to the tent for a nap or to grab a jumper for when it gets nippy in the evenings.
I turned up to claim some camping space at Thursday lunchtime. We camped fairly near the West Gate entrance to minimise the trip distance to and from the car, and our initial campsite antics consisted mostly of pegging out a huge area for our people to deposit themselves in using wellies and plastic bags full of bags of crisps, putting up everyone’s tents in a mad rush trying to avoid the rain showers, and then realising we’d put up our goliath structure, a 15-man tent, inside out (“Strange – maybe you peg down the ropes inside? Oh wait….”).
I’d arrived early with my friend Leanne (Green Man was her first festival ever), and like proper nerds, we both had waterproof coats, trousers and umbrellas, so we could stand smugly watching optimistic festival goers (most of them under the age of 25) struggle past wearing only flip flops, denim shorts and vest tops (and that was just the boys, etc) under torrential downpours of rain. We were smug, but I was a bit disheartened. Festivals are a bit crap when it’s freezing, you’re sleeping outside and you can’t sit down anywhere.
The last Green Man I went to (2012), it had been raining solidly up to the festival so the ground was sodden, but the actual weekend was roasting, so you were sliding around in the mud in the mid 20 degree heat sweltering in your wellies, unable to sit down anywhere. This time, despite the rain that had been battering most of Wales in the weeks leading up to the festival, when we arrived on site it was surprisingly dry underfoot, and the rain helped our weedy hands get tent pegs in to softened ground. Bonus!
Rainbows! Get lost, rain
As it had taken so long to get the tent set up and then to wait for our other campees to arrive from Cardiff, we ended up missing Jimi Goodwin, who was on at the insanely early time of 5pm (and was the reason a couple of people came on the Thursday … oh well!).
By the time we got in, we went wandering around and ended up in Chai Wallahs for DJ Moneyshot and his reliable blend of party-pop hip-hop, which was a nice party starter, then headed for an early bed time.
Friday morning we had an early start so we could join the opening ceremony for the festival. So, at 11am, we made our way to Table Top, the flat area overlooking the Mountain Stage, to join the Druids of Stonehenge. They were wearing white robes, and by god, they were proper hippies.
Rollo, head of the druids…
Sending peace and love
We sent love to everyone at the festival, all over the UK and then all over the world (with a special shout out to Gaza), and then sent peace to the east, then the south, then the west, and then the north. We were told about how festivals were special symbolic gatherings of humans that go back for thousands of years, and how we were just carrying on that tribal tradition there at Green Man, and at all festivals we ever attend.
I had a quick chat with the druids afterwards who told me they were marrying a couple that afternoon at the Green Man, hand-fasting them. Congratulations by the way, Jo and Dave!
The rest of that day was spent exploring the site, enjoying a couple of the ciders from the Courtyard Bar and getting ready for that night’s festivities. I spent a couple of hours at the Green Man Rising stage, where upcoming talent is given a chance to tickle a festival audience, and we managed to catch Instructions (headed up by Spencer Segelov), who played some uptempo, brightly coloured 1970s tinged pop’n’roll.
After that we headed up the hill to the Far Out tent for Caribou with live band (along with the rest of the festival, who packed themselves in tightly for the set). It was a nice and deep electronic set, with some old and new tunes, although his need for a live band seemed questionable when half of the electronic stuff that could easily have been played live on a keyboard was still sequenced. Still, it’s always nice to have live drumming.
After Caribou the tent cleared out a lot (the end of the set was probably curfew time for a lot of mums/dads), and there was enough space to move around again and get ready for the Two Bears and their unhinged drag dancers, who sashayed,vogued, clashed with each other, marched on and off the stage (presumably to refuel themselves) cat called at the audience, and burst into impromptu routines every so often. I couldn’t tell you much about the set to be honest, but the dancers were most entertaining.
DJs Huw Stephens and Adam Walton
On Saturday we caught a lot of music at the main stage, including Angel Olsen (who was a little boring for me in all honesty) and Neko Case, who I enjoyed a lot. Some of our camp broke away to go and watch I Break Horses (who I heard were amazing, so quite annoyed I missed that), while I went to the Walled Garden to nerd out to singer songwriter and comic book artist, Jeffrey Lewis and his Jrams.
One of the many thousands of Spillers Records t-shirts spotted onsite over the weekend
The main attraction for Saturday was Mercury Rev – we got ourselves a viewing patch up on the hill around the stage towards the back for a nice view sat down. There was a lot of talk beforehand about whether playing Deserter’s Songs would make for a good headline slot, but they were great – my particular highlights having a little rumpshake to Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp and the massive expansive sound of The Dark Is Rising, that was so big that the Mountain Stage might as well have reached out and enveloped the entire universe.
After we had all rolled around on the floor for a bit, consumed by Mercury Rev’s warm fuzziness, we started the long walk up the hill, getting waylaid by toilets and cider and food on the way, towards the Far Out tent for The Field. This show was a particular highlight for me – he was playing solo without a band, and started off on his own on the stage in the dark, playing just one singular note. Then he played another, and added more sounds, a light came up, and slowly light and music increased until there were two huge blocks filled with light bulbs behind him wheeled out and blasted on towards the end of the set for the climax.
For those who had been warmed up enough, Luke Abbott took to the stage to bang out some tasty techno. We were many ciders to the wind by now so stayed for the entire set. It was a bit ‘too techno’ for some people we were with, though you’ll never hear me complaining about anything like that, so I stayed for the whole thing and then rolled with the remaining crowd into Chai Wallahs to drink some gritty and rather revolting, bottom-of-the-pan chai.
I have no idea what happened next, other than Chai Wallahs closed and we then rolled with the remaining people to the Denture Disco, where they were playing some tasty old skool jungle. Then that finished, and unsure of what time it was, we decided we better roll home if we were going to get any sleep at all and see anything on the Sunday. Part of the rolling home did actually take place with rugby tackles down the hill by the Nature Nurture spa … shortly after which I realised my purse had dropped out of my pocket. Despite a quick, very drunken search, I couldn’t find the thing, so had to spend a confusing 20 minutes on the phone to Barclays trying to explain where I was. “It’s a festival! No, it’s not a fairground … or a car park …”. Card cancelled, I rolled into bed just before sunrise.
Sunday’s music was provided mostly by the Mountain Stage, mostly for the reason that we got to the Table Top, found a place to collapse, and then stayed there as half of us had passed out. There was the occasional break for food or a flat white from the Welsh Coffee place. Luckily for us lazy (or exhausted) music lovers, Sunday’s Mountain Stage line up gave us Boy and Bear (who were uptempo and a lot more rocking on stage than their records suggest) and Anna Calvi, whose huge, powerful voice filled the amphitheatre and roused many of the Mountain Stage watchers to their feet (good work for that time on a Sunday).
A couple of the group wandered off on Sunday to explore Einstein’s Garden, and be taught some science. They wore prism glasses and learned about depth perception and how the brain adapts to that, and learned about nanos. I also briefly joined a flora identification tour, where we wandered around the site and learned the names of different trees, and we blew bubbles with some university students who taught us how surface tension worked.
After all that learning it was back onto the cider and then up to the Mountain Stage for Simian Mobile Disco who were playing Whorl live, and bringing with them all the new technologies they’d built to make new sounds – sounds that had never been made before! I’m not sure whether I recognised any of the sounds as anything particularly new but I did enjoy their set. My favourite part of Whorl though was making friends with the guy behind us, and his two young daughters. The older one was at that age where everything Dad did was embarrassing (especially his dancing), while the younger one just wanted to run around. They asked us where we had got our faces painted – I had a box of neon face crayons in my bag. And lo! The friendship was sealed. Dad got to listen to the whole of SMD playing Whorl, while his kids (Alex and Anna) got to paint each other (and us – though dad wasn’t mad keen on any painting himself).
Other musicals highlights of the Sunday were Kurt Vile (his big guitar sound was perfect for the Far Out stage), Real Estate and, finally, the Miserable Disco in the Walled Garden (which was a little bit like someone had moved weekends at Dempseys into a field in the Brecon Beacons). The best bit of that was when they played Kate Bush and the field turned into a mass of amateur prancing ballerinas.
The symbolic ending of the festival was the Green Man burning, but we got there a little late and being a tiny human, I couldn’t see anything. I just about saw the top of his head explode, which was pretty good, but he’s too small to have really seen anything. Next time stewards, get everyone to sit down, especially if it’s dry – then everybody gets to see!)
In conclusion then…
It will tell you, probably, all you need to know about the kind of people who go to Green Man when you hear that when I returned back to Cardiff after the festival, I was messaged on Facebook on Wednesday by a kindly lass who had found my wallet, seen my address on my driving license was in Cardiff, and brought the wallet back to Cardiff (where she also lived) to drop it off to me (thank you, Katy!!). I received it with all cards and cash still intact. And that is Green Man people in a nutshell.
Although this year I wasn’t camping with anyone who had brought their kids, we met up with some friends live in Crickhowell, who had brought their little boy for the first time this weekend. My friend Caz said their festival was pretty much the same – lots of frolics and silly antics, blowing bubbles, messing around – just a slightly earlier bed time.
If you’ve never been to it before, on first glance Green Man probably seems a bit like a giant creche. There’s an entire field dedicated to children (the Kidz Field), a garden dedicated to educational science mostly to do with nature and the universe (Einstein’s Garden) and even a section that’s for teenagers only (that’s right mum, why don’t you go listen to Simian Mobile Disco, you’re so lame). There are scores of teenagers roaming around, covered in facepaint and doing circus workshops with NoFit State Circus, while younger kids stick around mum and dad and learn about nanos and wear prism glasses to see how light affects your depth perception.
In case I haven’t spelled it out enough, Green Man is a very, very child-friendly festival, which makes it a family-friendly festival, which makes for a lovely atmosphere for other festival goers. After all, whether you’re related to them or not, you turn up with a bunch of people, share food and shelter with them for a weekend, help them out and have them help you out when you need it. That’s pretty symbolic of idealistic family life, isn’t it?
Editor’s note: food and drink at Green Man
There wasn’t really any easy way to get this into the review, so I felt like it needed its own section. Out of the nine people I came to the festival with, none of them had ever been to Green Man before. Between them, they’d done a load of other festivals, but agreed unanimously that the food and drink available at Green Man was the best.
The only negative thing any of them had to say was about the Courtyard Bar, which sold all the amazing ales and ciders – and that was only that whatever time you turned up there, they never seemed to have enough bar staff – the queues were pretty and it took ages to get served. But it was so very worth it. I met a couple of people who said they’d challenged themselves to try and work through every cider or ale on the list (bear in mind there were over 70 of each!), but all failed – they found one they liked, then didn’t bother with any of the others.
As a group, our favourite meals came unanimously from the Grazing Shed, for their burger with gorgonzola cheese. The Grazing Shed was also where my friend Bedwyr had his festival highlight – he saw the lady in front of him in the queue was having trouble getting ketchup on her fries. He offered to help her, and then realised she was festival regular (and his long time heroine) Caitlin Moran. He got a kiss on the cheek for his troubles, and was hopping around like the happiest man in the world for the rest of the weekend.
My only regret? I waited until Sunday night to queue up for that Goan Fish Curry everyone said was so good … only to get to the place at 10pm and find it closed. NOOOOOOOOO!!!!
I also have to give some festival love to the Welsh Coffee Company, who were providing the coffee at the Table Top Bar, overlooking the Mountain Stage. I had a flat white there on Thursday when we arrived at the site, and then queued up religiously every day for another. Seriously, their coffee is addictive. Also they were a really lovely bunch of people. On the Sunday night after the man burned, the Walled Garden closed and we were kicked out of Chai Wallahs (because frankly 4am on Monday morning is probably time for you to be getting back to your tents, hippies) we found them roaming around the festival site having their staff party, which we gatecrashed, and ended up sitting with them on the grass sharing my cucumber gin (which they christened a ‘courgette smoothie’. Also they have a member of staff who can say thank you in 22 different languages, which is a pretty good party trick. So thank you Welsh Coffee Company for making coffee like crack, and turning us all into addicts for life.
I can’t wait for next year. I’m going to get one of those damned Goan fish curries, if it’s the last thing I do!
Review by Helia Phoenix
Early bird tickets for 2015 are already sold out. Boo hoo! Keep your eyes on the Green Man Tickets page for when general release tickets go on sale.
the author, on a mushroom, of course …