Wales Arts Review Goes to Festival No.6


Festival No.6, Portmeirion, 13th – 15th September, 2013


Number Two: Quite a beautiful place, really, isn’t it? Almost like a world on its own.

Number Six: I shall miss it when I’m gone.

Number Two: Oh, it will grow on you.

‘The Arrival’, The Prisoner

My grandparents first visited Portmeirion in the 1950s, when on a holiday in nearby Criccieth they stumbled upon it by accident, suddenly looming out at them from across the bay. This was before Portmeirion was to be made famous by the cult sixties TV series The Prisoner and so you can imagine their surprise and even bewilderment at coming across an Arts and Crafts/Italianate style village surrounded by trees, while on holiday in North Wales. My grandmother always said it struck her as a magical place from that day on and in truth it must have been a little like walking through a wardrobe and finding oneself in Narnia such is the unapologetic atmosphere of magic realism that defines the Village and its surroundings. Holidays with their son, my father, duly followed and in turn my own parents were to take me to Portmeirion several times when I was a child, although sadly I never visited with my grandparents. Couple this with a teenage obsession with The Prisoner and you may see why I was particularly keen to attend the second incarnation of Festival No 6, having been unable to attend last years praise-heaped affair.

Wales Arts Review (or at least this member of Wales Arts Review) began the long, diagonal journey northwards under both a literal and a metaphorical cloud. The literal cloud being the deeply unpromising black-purple, puffy-eyed sky, the metaphorical cloud being the presence of far too much residue of whisky pumping around my bloodstream. While this may sound like the stuff of music journalism cliché it was, in fact, brought about through no fault of my own but rather through the coincidental and unexpected twin-visit of both an old friend and my partner’s Canada-based brother. Alas, much like in the scene from North by Northwest, whereby Martin Landau makes Cary Grant down a whole bottle of spirits, this turn of events served to metaphorically hold me down and, while forcing my mouth open, send an inordinately large amount of Isle of Jura gushing into my unsuspecting liver.

In any case, at least I wasn’t driving, and despite this and the mad-for-sadness-seeming skies, things were set much more on the right track by a wonderful lunch at The Felin Fach Griffin outside Brecon, a pub which we discovered upon entering had recently won no less an accolade than the Good Pub Guide’s Inn of the Year 2013. Something of a result you might very well say. A bloodstream-cleansing combination of butter-roasted Bryn Derw chicken served in a light, pea, spinach and tarragon broth, washed down by a fantastic pint of Otley ale (my Wales Arts Review co—conspirator, Craig Austin, meanwhile partaking of the most vast and sensational-looking Ploughman’s that I have ever enviously eyeballed), set the tone for a festival weekend which was notable for the presence of some genuinely delicious food and drink in place of those more-usually-to-be-expected twin stars of festival hospitality: insipid lager and meat-based products that contravene even the most basic of animal welfare standards.

But more about such supposedly un-rock-‘n’-roll topics as vodka, cucumber and elderflower cocktails served alongside scallops with celeriac puree and Old Spot lardons later. It is now time perhaps to describe the first musical highpoint of the festival, the very wonderful Neon Neon.

Festival No.6 – no doubt partly in recognition of the sweet madness involved in hosting a three day festival in the middle of September on the North West coast of Wales – has large tents in place of main stages, which was something of a relief when taking into account the extremely variable weather which characterised the weekend. The main stage/tent in particular proved to be an excellent venue in terms of sound and atmosphere. An enclosed setting was also the ideal environment for Gruff and Boom Bip to bring a stripped back Praxis Makes Perfect to No.6. The theatrical level of the performance was considerably toned down from the Cardiff/ London performances earlier this year and at times didn’t really consist of much more than Gruff holding up placards saying things like ‘Diolch’. Indeed all in all it reminded me more of seeing them on the Stainless Style tour. But this is no bad thing for a festival and the band were clearly on form, from the pop perfection of Praxis track ‘Dr Zhivago’ (with its flippant take on Stalinist censorship: ‘Cold war dictator/ I once believed but now I can’t accept you/ How you treated Pasternak/ You know you really upset me’!), to the sleazy, electropop perfection of early single, ‘I Lust U’.

The main stages/tents were in a field above the Village and after securing ourselves a pint of Snowdonia Ale from the pricey but certainly good quality real ale tent, we descended into the world that is forever inseparable from Patrick McGoohan’s surreal indictment of totalitarianism, democracy, state-sanctioned espionage and mind control.

And do you know what? It was better than I could have expected. The Village lit at night by lanterns and flares and marked by mime artists and unusual processions was truly a thing to behold. Having only ever visited in daylight before it was a thrill in itself to see the place by night but to see it thriving with people, and colourful, decadent, happy people at that, the Village came to life in a way that just isn’t possible when you are wondering around as a tourist. I wouldn’t want to go so far as to say that it felt like actually being in The Prisoner, but a tiny little bit it did, no question.

Even though the biggest bands played in the tents there is a case for saying that the events to truly treasure during the festival were the ones that took place in the Village, whether it be at the Caught by the River stage located appropriately by the water’s edge, in the Town Hall (where we saw a promising French Canadian singer called Caracol), the Stage in the Woods, or in the main piazza itself. It was here that every night the Brythoniaid Male Voice Choir sang a selection of songs ranging from ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ to ‘A Design for Life’. The kind of thing, really, that might not ordinarily be the Wales Arts Review cup of tea but in this setting and with the natural acoustics of the piazza it was not to put too fine a point on it, magical. (Hell, they even made by ‘Insurrection’ by Muse sound good!)

The evening ended with a return to the main arena to catch the end of inexplicable headline act James Blake. While by no means a moribund artist, Blake’s brand of XX-meets-Boards of Canada electronica really felt far too dull and coffee table-lite for a headline act, his impressive but strangely unmoving vocals meaning that the evening ended on a slightly non-plussed note (while a full-on National Theatre of Wales production of Praxis would surely have brought the house down).

Day two for your friends at Wales Arts Review began in the Heavenly films cinema hut, which was happily located next to a really quite reasonably priced cocktail stall. And so with our vodka, cucumber and elderflower cocktails to hand we set about analysing the Saint Etienne/ Paul Kelly tribute to the Royal Festival Hall, This is Tomorrow. A rarely seen and therefore preposterously neglected little film it charted the story of the Festival of Britain and how its modernist, Utopian-stylings were immediately dismantled by the second Churchill government, before going behind the scenes of the Festival Hall’s recent refurbishment. Set to some of the most gorgeous music Saint Etienne have made in years – Stepford Wives-style-flutes aplenty, always a good thing on a St Et track – and filmed in a style that can only be described as a pretty overt homage to A Bout de Souffle – the film is a tiny, undiscovered gem that is surely worth checking out on the new BFI/Saint Etienne boxset.

This was followed by a short and jolly Q&A with Saint Etienne themselves, wherein they revealed that the genesis of their filmmaking came about both as a result mainly of the advances (i.e. cheapness and ease) in digital technology, combined with the huge promotional video budgets of the 90s. Instead of making another ‘He’s On The Phone’ type video they made the sumptuous feature-length, Finisterre instead.

After this genuinely stimulating and thought-provoking event we ventured back into the arena to catch a little London Grammar and partake of the aforementioned scallops with celeriac puree and Old Spot lardons. London Grammar split the Wales Arts Review consensus somewhat; Craig Austin considered them deeply uninspiring while I myself found them frustratingly Florence Welch-like, but not without promise. The piano-led music was atmospheric, the lyrics sufficiently arresting, but the problem really was in singer Hannah Reid’s Florence-like yodeling, which frankly is annoying enough when Florence herself does it, never mind somebody who appears to have just stumbled out of a philosophy seminar at Sussex University. Having said that when it does work, as on a song like ‘Wasting My Young Years’, there is a certain amount of chemistry and poise that suggests their success may not be a flash in the pan.

Having partaken of said scallops, Wales Arts Review took it upon itself to have a wander by the beautiful, Manics-inspiring Portmeirion beach, having caught too little of John Cooper Clarke to give a properly critical perspective. Some white wine later we found ourselves in a state of Beatlemania-like excitement, queuing up for a viewing of Lawrence of Belgravia (which was to be followed by a Q&A with reclusive genius Lawrence himself!) in the salubrious settings of the town hall. Unfortunately, it became clear, having talked to some people behind us who appeared to be related to Daughter, the nascent band who it transpired we were actually queuing up to see, that bad luck had once again befallen Lawrence and the film had been moved to the tiny Heavenly Films cinema hut in which we had watched This is Tomorrow earlier that day.

As we had already seen this superlatives-are-really-not-enough film before and Lawrence himself appeared to be a no-show, we decamped to catch My Bloody Valentine in the main arena. Playing several songs from their astonishing comeback album mbv, they were, on the one hand, a magnificent live band, but on the other hand they were also, without question, unpleasantly and quite frankly, absurdly loud. By the time of the famous holocaust section of ‘You Made Me Realise’ I was feeling queasy and thinking for the umpteenth time about my ears and possible deafness. I really wasn’t thinking about the music and this seems somewhat self-defeating to me. Of more concern was the presence of a number of children in the tent for MBV, standing around with their parents and looking deeply unhappy – and in some cases actually crying. One particularly irresponsible mother was even trying to make her son wave his hands in the air to stop him crying. Wave your hands in the air? To My Bloody Valentine?

The next day began with sideways rain and anxious tweets suggesting Apocalypse Portmeirion would be the likely title of this article. However, the combination of having – thank God! – elected to stay in self-catering accommodation outside of the festival rather than camp, (it is possible to stay in some of the beautiful houses in Portmeirion but booking needs to be extremely early for this), Wales Arts Review were, in truth, not feeling so very bad. The hasty purchase of some cheap wellies and the fact that Portmeirion’s famously protected climate turned out not to be a figment of their brochure writer’s mind but actual truth, meant that by the time we had drunk our first vodka, cucumber and elderflower cocktail the sun was quite literally shining. Emboldened we took a tour of the woodlands raves, home on the Sunday to some rather poorly looking middle aged MDMA casualties, magnificent viewpoints and of course Portmeirion’s famous dog cemetery (the woodland grove with the swivelling statue heads that features in The Prisoner, somehow alluding us).

Next up was the always beguiling Caitlin Moran, who delighted in reminding us all about her censor-baiting tweets regarding the merits of Benedict Cumberbatch’s glowering deductive mannerisms and his ideal Sherlock-spindly physique. This, along with some more delectable Snowdonia ale, was followed by a fairly tiresome and self-congratulatory conversation between Guy Garvey and Stuart Maconie about lyric writing. If you like Elbow’s lyrics then this was the thing for you. If you don’t – I don’t – then Garvey’s choices of favourite lyrics at least served to act as an indicator as to why his own lyrics are so lightweight and pseudo-profound.

On a day which was unquestionably the best day for music, we made our way with some excitement to see Johnny Marr, whose festival performances this summer seem to have already passed into legend. And so it came to pass. His first song, ‘Generate! Generate!’ from the new album was good enough as it was, his band having built up some rare form and Marr himself looking like he had been zoomed in from one of those classic Smiths’ TOTP appearances. But next up he played ‘Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before’ and everything changed. My eyes welled up and there were genuine shivers down my spine for one thing. Being too young to have ever seen The Smiths live and having been enormously unimpressed with Morrissey’s solo rockabilly butchery of tracks like ‘Shoplifters…’ and ‘There is a Light…’, this really did feel like that moment when you hear a song you love for the first time, performed by the person who wrote it. And in this case it was a rejuvenated Johnny Marr and he was playing a song, (and indeed songs), that I have loved, and which have meant a great deal to me, for over half my life. By the time those glowing opening chords of ‘There is a Light…’ rang out with the same soulfulness and ease with which they must have rang out on the day Marr composed them – and when, indeed, Marr sang those lyrics with the kind of understanding that no one save Moz himself has ever managed – you were left in little doubt that you had witnessed something truly special.

Perhaps owing to this and to the fact that – due to being timetabled at the same time as Chic – they were playing to a practically empty tent, These New Puritans, seemed a little dour, while their intensity was muddied somewhat by sound problems which were no fault of their own. For all that there is still no one else making music quite like them in the UK right now and towering versions of ‘Attack Music’ – with its appropriate references to September – and the utterly fantastic, DJ Shadow-goes-contemporary-classical, ‘Organ Eternal’,  served to turn things around.

Wales Arts Review caught the end of Chic and have to admit to bellowing the phrase ‘fall into my arms and tremble like a… flowaaah’ in a no doubt annoyingly loud manner. But, of course, so was everybody else. The tent was rammed for Chic and without a doubt they were as completely fantastic as people have been saying all year. ‘Good Times’, ‘We Are Family’, the aforementioned ‘Let’s Dance’… all delivered with a joy and enthusiasm that along with Johnny Marr’s glistening, Irish folk guitar riffs served to turn the close to the weekend into a wild and celebratory affair.

All in all it might have seemed like a hard act for the Manics to follow but of course these days they have a Nile Rodgers-like armoury of instant classics in their repertoire that could, frankly, have stretched long into the night. This was underlined by the way they nonchalantly wandered on stage and broke straight into a magnificent version of ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. Now, I will confess to not having seen the Manics live for some years, not perhaps since their rather by-numbers Glastonbury headline performance in 1999, (and even to have gone off them somewhat between then and the devastating renaissance that Journal for Plague Lovers represented some ten years later), but here, truly was a performance of such power and confidence that I felt instant regret of the kind that you feel when you meet a dear old friend you haven’t seen in years and instantly hit it off again.

Because the setting was Portmeirion and because Portmeirion Beach was the setting for the cover of  fifteen-year-old-birthday album, This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours – the record, which I have to say, made me fall out of love with the Manics – they elected to play several songs from it. This could have been quite a bit of a negative for me but because MSP were playing with such verve and confidence it actually served to reinvigorate and highlight the craftsmanship involved in those songs. And with the exception of TIMTTMY’s one true moment of genius, ‘Ready for Drowning’, about the submerged Welsh village of Treweryn, they stuck to the singles like ‘Tsunami’ and ‘The Everlasting’, which were always pretty good live anyway.

It must be a good Manics gig if they only play one Holy Bible track and you still have a fantastic time, but nevertheless ‘Revol’ was still the evening’s undoubted highlight, preceded as it was by a touching and appropriate eulogy to Richey Edwards, from an emotional and pleasingly drunk-sounding Wire (Manics gigs are always at their best, in my opinion, if Nicky’s drunk – an expletive laden tirade against Michael Gove bears this out).

And so, with the sound of several thousand recession hit people bellowing ‘and we are not allowed to spend’ the magical, surreal, high-quality-beverage-and-food-providing, quite possibly unbetterable Festival No.6, drew to a close. Be seeing you next year. Mine’s a vodka, cucumber and elderflower cocktail.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis