John Lavin provides the first instalment of our Green Man 2015 review, including performances from Meilyr Jones and Gwenno.
‘There’s no green without rain, no love without pain.’ Steven Machat
To begin let’s not begin with the inspirational ‘Cracked Actor’-esque theatrics of St Vincent nor even the triumphant homecoming set from Super Furry Animals. Let’s not even begin with the fact that a not-bitter-at-all Wales Arts Review had a militant strain of summer flu for nearly the entire duration of what was an incredible if Biblically rain-lashed weekend. As Steven Machat said while talking about his new book Sacred Knowledge: A Rock ‘n’ Rollers Guide to Higher Consciousness in the Talking Shop tent, ‘There’s no green without rain, no love without pain’ – and who, after all, can argue with that?
But I digress. The point I am trying to make is No! Let’s begin with the better-even-than-St-Vincent highlight of the weekend. Let’s begin with the soon-to-be-superlative-bedecked Meilyr Jones.
Ex of Race Horses but now going solo, the Green Man programme describes Jones as having ‘embarked on a trip to Italy, drawn to the spirit of adventure he felt in the Romantic poets’. Well, the trip was clearly a worthwhile one. Race Horses were an underrated band but solo Meilyr Jones is a different prospect altogether. Solo Meilyr is a man, quite frankly, on the verge of greatness. A superstar, if there’s any justice, in waiting. And if that sounds grandiose then that’s perfectly fine because this is poised, innovative, literary and above all grandiose rock and roll music. Wales Arts Review also had the good fortune to see Meilyr Jones and his assembled group of disproportionately talented musician friends perform an instantly memorable set at Caught by the River Teifi on the previous weekend. One where we came away humming the melodies and reaching for the words to songs that we hadn’t even realised existed fifty minutes earlier. When was the last time that happened?
So it was with some delight that we realised that Meilyr Jones would be playing both a Saturday and a Sunday opening slot at this year’s Green Man, meaning that we would be able to see him live three times in one week (again, when was the last time you were so excited by a new band that you wanted to see them live three times in a week?) The music recalls Separations and Gift-era Pulp to a certain extent with its use of harpsicord, retro-futurist disco sounds and occasional Russell Senior-like squalling viola. Meilyr Jones himself, meanwhile, freed from his bass guitar, is an incredible frontman. Alternating between trancelike engagement with the music and Jagger-esque kicks and thrusts (Aftermath-era Stones feels like another musical touchstone), he is genuinely impossible to stop watching. Lyrics switch between the capital R Romantic of ‘Passionate Friend’:
Sometimes I am with the witches/ On fire…/ Sometimes all around with the honey in me/ I quicken/ Higher!/ Higher! ….What is this thing, this thing/ To which my darkness clings? Oh passionate friend….
and the Jarvis/Moz-like witticisms of ‘Featured Artist’, with its brilliantly wry opening of: ‘I am the face on the front cover of the Observer free music magazine…’.
But while this entire piece could quite easily have been written about Meilyr Jones, it is high time time we moved on to some of the other musical highlights of what may well have been, weather asides, the best Green Man to date. Thursday’s brief slew of gigs began with that other incendiary new Welsh artist, Gwenno, (see here for my review of her debut album Y Dydd Olaf). Alone on stage, surrounded by a raft of keyboards and technological equipment, Gwenno brilliantly recreated the sci-fi melancholia/ euphoria of subtle anthems like ‘Patriachaeth’, while all the time looking hardly able to believe the overflow of goodwill coursing towards her in the Far Out Tent. Dan Deacon followed and was a big hit with the crowd if not this reviewer; his brand of Animal Collective-lite psychedelic disco combined with an unexpected fondness for audience participation causing a much needed flu-relieving trip to the Rum Bar (very much this year’s Gin Tent). The now solely Neil Barnes-fronted Leftfield concluded an evening which always feels a little like the calm before the full-on-good-times of Friday, with a set which more than ably talked people out of that mindset, effortlessly melding tracks from new record Alternative Light Force with old crowd favourites such as the ever thunderous ‘Phat Planet’.
Villagers were one of those perfect late afternoon slots at Green Man, where gentle, mildly edgy, well executed folk music sits well with a choice selection from the array of fifty Welsh ales on sale in the Courtyard Bar. However, if Conor O’Brien sounded a little Bright Eyes-lite to these ears on previous record Becoming a Jackal, then the new material he plays from Darling Arithmetic recalls I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning perhaps a little too strongly. Atomic Bomb! the supergroup assembled to play the songs of elusive ‘70s electro-funk genius William Onyeabor, arrived on stage in the middle of what can only be described as a decidedly un-Nigerian weather pattern. What Onyeabor would have made of it is anyone’s guess but you suspect he would have approved. These are truly unforgettable songs and with Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip doing an excellent job of leading the group, the mood of the drenched, slightly-alarmed-looking festival goers went up several notches. Wales Arts Review then sped nobly through the deluge to see Emmy the Great playing in the Walled Garden. Emma Lee Moss’s new songs, as evinced by this spring’s S ep, are a lot slower, bassier and generally more LA-influenced than the bucolic stylings of her first two records, and this extended to slightly medicated-sounding takes on older songs like ‘We Almost Had a Baby’ and ‘The Easter Parade’. Whether this works so well with the old songs is a moot point but a spine-tingling finale of ‘Swimming Pool’ confirmed that the much promised new album is worth looking forward to. It also confirmed a notion that I’ve had for some time – that Moss’s songs grow in stature the longer you live with them. I was, for instance, a little unmoved by Virtue when it came out but it now rests comfortably among my favourite records of the last five years. Likewise ‘Swimming Pool’ seemed merely good when I heard it this spring but here it seemed at once both deeply sensual and indelibly melancholic:
Love was always something that I thought I would never go inside/ Now I’ve seen you here/ I don’t know how I even used to be alive/ Let me stay here for a while… until I don’t forget you.
I hadn’t listened to Trust Fund before and had assumed their name to be ironic, however, having listened to some of their onstage banter there seems little doubt that this is a name more intended to call a spade a spade. Because Trust Fund are undeniably quite posh. They also undeniably sound quite a lot like Tilly and the Wall – a comparison which doesn’t flatter them, I’m afraid. However, despite some occasionally banal lyrics they are a lot of fun live, especially when harmonising over punky stomps like ‘Cut Me Out’. They may not currently be the finished article but they are certainly a group with promise.
H. Hawkline’s album In the Pink of Condition is yet another superb new Welsh record to have come out this year and jangly, insistent, pretty, angular, Johnny Marr-ish tunes like ‘Ringfinger’ have the crowd eating out of his hand. Television, of course, were what only Television can be – magnificent. To listen to Tom Verlaine sing ‘The world was so thin/ Between my bones and skin’ in the suddenly serene, rainfree night, overlooked by the gloamy shadow of the Sugar Loaf was to be lost briefly in the same kind of romance that Verlaine was originally describing in 1976.
Glanusk Park did not favour the Super Furry Animals with any such lull in the deluge but at a festival so hewn in the image of that band’s politics, lyrics and visual aesthetics, the crowd were hardly going to desert them. Coming on to a magnificently full-on version of ‘Slow Life’, they played a set which seemed more or less identical to the one they played at Glastonbury, with the only disappointment being something of an over reliance on Rings Around the World, at the expense of some of the earlier gems like ‘If You Don’t Want Me to Destroy You’ and ‘Ice Hockey Hair’ that they dusted off at Cardiff and London earlier in the year. But even if the set list was familiar the show was no less spectacular, with the three Welsh language songs from Mwng and the penultimate ‘Mountain People’, proving particularly wondrous; the latter being played, as it was, in perhaps its most ideal setting; on the Mountain Stage underneath that loomy, gloamy Sugar Loaf.
Wales Arts Review then headed over to a rammed Far Out tent for Jamie XX’s elegiac, euphoric but perhaps slightly prosaic set before retreating to the Walled Garden and the sounds of SFA in-house artist and international DJ, the legendary Pete Fowler. The rain was particularly intense by this stage but a smattering of people danced on regardless to a gloriously day-glo Studio 54-esque selection of tunes that may even have seen two rum-soaked, flu-bitten members of your very own Wales Arts Review venture out into the deluge for ‘I Feel Love’.
Martin Carr must feel a little cursed. His wonderful, sun-dappled set of West-Coast-pop-meets-Welsh-psychedelia, would have ordinarily been a perfect start to a balmy Sunday at Green Man (this is August after all), but with everyone having been soaked throughout the entirety of the Super Furries’ set and with it then having rained all morning, it would be fair to say numbers were thin on the ground as Carr broke into The Breaks highlight, ‘St. Peter in Chains’. Your ever vigilant Wales Arts Review was there, however, and for all the adversity Carr and his band were on great form, playing another Mountain Stage-appropriate song in the great, Arthur Lee-esque, er, ‘Mountains’; before concluding with a rare outing for Boo Radleys’ masterpiece ‘Lazarus’; whereby Carr reminded us that he is not just a brilliant songwriter but one of the best British lead guitarists of recent times.
Black Yaya is David ‘Yaya’ from Herman Dune and his superb LP under this new moniker sees him take on a more electro 80’s aesthetic than his other band is usually associated with. For all that, live the songs were stripped back and often sounded more like classic Herman Dune, all delightfully Jonathan Richman-esque lyrics and lolloping shuffling acoustic rhythms. Either way the Black Yaya pseudonym seems to have reinvigorated Yaya creatively and a cover of Silver Jews’ ‘Strange Victory, Strange Defeat’ (a song he featured on Mixin’ With Herman Dune) was a real standout moment during what would prove to be a day of high points – a truly sensational song delivered with effortless aplomb.
The Staves delivered a ethereal set of hushed vocal harmonies and lilting guitars from their recent Bon Iver-produced album, If I Was, that seemed to go hand in hand with the new mood of serenity that the sun had engendered amongst the by-now-hardened Green Man-goers. If the morning had threatened a worrying Apocalypse Now-style scenario then the bewildering change in weather and temperament by the mid-afternoon verged, quite frankly, on the destabilising. A feeling not helped by the equally bewildering figure of Father John Misty. Misty divided the two Wales Arts Review critics at hand, with Michou Burckett (see WAR later this week for her piece on all things non-music-related at Green Man), bursting into floods of laughter at some of Misty’s more outré crotch thrusts and deep Ow-woah-woah-woah-woah-woah-woaaaahs. This reviewer could well see her point but fairly, slightly bewilderingly, enjoyed it nevertheless. Misty has an undoubtedly strong voice, and croons in a style that even recalls Glen Campbell at times; the music, meanwhile is unabashedly dramatic in a 70’s open freeway style. Indeed you couldn’t say really say there was much in the way of originality going on within the Misty remit but for all that it was an entertaining spectacle to watch while eating a fabulous West Walian Super Tidy Burger and waiting for St. Vincent to appear.
Annie Clark does not mess about. Coming onstage dressed in what appeared to be a be-thorned catsuit she wasted no time in dedicating her set to ‘all the dominatrixes and to all the dominated too’, before briefly ditching her aloof, Woman Who Fell to Earth starriness to make a joke about a Greggs’ Steak Slice. She then proceeded to deliver many of her best known songs, such as ‘Digital Witness’ and ‘Cruel’, early on with the kind of fearsome zest and insouciant swagger that suggest Clark is capable of becoming one of the biggest artists in the world. Always a brilliantly original musician, her Love this Giant collaboration with David Byrne – a man that is no stranger, of course, to outlandish theatrics – seems to have enthused her in regard to the possibilities of stagecraft. Because this was a performance rather than a gig, make no mistake about that – and when I mentioned ‘Cracked Actor’ earlier, it was not meant idly, it is a comparison that St Vincent more than adequately stands up to. Towards the end of the set Clark ran about the stage in a beautifully realised choreography of neurasthenic despair; the taut, crunching, never-quite-dissonant melodies mirroring the mind state that Clark was enacting. It ended, as it had to, with a curtain call and the feeling that Annie Clark had raised everyone’s expectation levels, both for Green Man next year but also for the possibilities of live performance.
For part two of our review click here.
Artwork © Dean Lewis