A towering green man looms over the Far Out area of the Green Man festival, in the Black Mountains of the Brecon Beacons. His fate is to be burnt at the witching hour, on the final midnight of this Welsh weekender, his leaves, roots, goat horns, and brandished bowl of fruit immolated just prior to an even bigger fireworks display. An ancient mythological figure of cyclic renewal, the green man’s roots might be pagan, but he persisted to the early days of church decoration, and his visage spans variegated global cultures. Greenery was fresh in the 2018 spring, but now as autumn falls, it’s time for flaming destruction. First, though, there were four days full of musical performances, with satellite spaces devoted to film, discussion, comedy, healthy living, installation art, and copious quantities of indigenous Welsh real ale and cider.
In its early years, the festival was much smaller, growing up in another location, though around this same Brecon part of the globe. Green Man’s musical bias is tough to shackle, although in its beginnings it appeared to sprout out of the folktronica scene, with early showings made by Tunng and Four Tet. Nowadays, it’s become increasingly guitar-centered, revolving around rock in all of its guises. Green Man has aura, rather than a fixed set of categories. Green Man always sells out its tickets well in advance, but this medium-sized festival never seems too overcrowded. This is a deliberate stance, allowing a relaxed progress from stage-to-stage, the eco-centric crowd being largely categorizable as “pagan-civilized.” And this year, there was cause for a renaming to Green Woman.
Longtime New Yorker Eleanor Friedberger now seems to have placed the Fiery Furnaces deep in the past, working away at a significant solo oeuvre. Appearing on the main Mountain Stage, she delivered a completely solo set, mostly singing and playing guitar, with a few numbers backed just by an electro pre-record, clunky disco-style. She projected confidently up and across the expanses and ledges of this natural amphitheater, conversationally delivering words specifically autobiographical, story-based, and wryly humorous. Clad in white jeans decorated with scattered cartoons, she communicated even more when downing guitar and pacing the stage, revealing an impressive pink, horseshoe design ass-pocket.
Later, Joan As Police Woman (Joan Wasser) switched frequently between guitar and keyboards, both involving a frontal placement, with her selection of funk-some songs and punchy delivery suited to the festival setting, rather than her alternative intimate theatre state.
As the latest new wave of British jazz gains momentum, the London tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia occupied a prime 3 pm sun-slot on the Mountain Stage, working with funk and reggae, as “Source” laid a deep, dubby foundation. The dungaree-ed Garcia’s solos unwound at length, with a warm, flowing detail, passing the baton to keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, who frequently entered a zone of jagged extremity, complex and convoluted. Dancing vibes combined with hardcore jazz tonalities.
Also from London, the four-piece Goat Girl are clearly perched on the ledge of massive success, at least in the grainy realms of heavy-twanging garage rock. Singer and guitarist Clottie Cream has a sonorous, low-rockabilly voice, arresting in the extreme, with the core guitars, bass, and drums augmented by guesting violin and keyboards, both of these dedicated to sustained noir texturing. Goat Girl’s songs clamped to the ears immediately, inking a sunny early evening into the deepest night. Another singer/guitarist, Anna Calvi has reduced her Gothic-flamenco quotient, still dealing with reverb and strategically placed fright-solos, but calming her newer songs down towards a more archetypal melodic rock form. Nevertheless, she retains the soaring and swooping vocal drama of old, seeming to exist out of time and almost out of genre.
Representing Wales itself, though lately dwelling in Los Angeles, Cate Le Bon took fewer guitar solos than usual, roping her two accustomed axemen into the same band. Tim Presley (White Fence) and H. Hawkline (also a solo artist) provided lead parts, most of which sounded transcribed from Le Bon’s original stylings. Chief multi-instrumentalist of this set (and the weekend) was Sweet Baboo (a.k.a. Steve Black), who mostly played baritone saxophone, aside from his familiar bass. Earlier, Sweet Baboo had also fronted his own outfit, relating amusing tales—both as introductions and songs—deliberately ramshackle, but sharply entertaining, even if his later pop-disco ditties didn’t match up with the set’s early successes. Black returned the next noon, in the Far Out tent, as half of Group Listening, this time playing clarinet and electronics, along with keyboardist and cassette DJ Paul Jones. They brought sensitive calm to the early daytime, operating as a kind of ambient covers duo, dipping into works by Brian Eno and Raymond Scott.
Even though 2018 brought fewer artists descended from the UK folk tradition, there were still burrowers into ancient vocabularies from other lands. Okay, so guitarist Jim Ghedi and folk-proggers 9Bach represented Wales, but the best ethno-sets arrived from A Hawk and a Hacksaw (this US duo playing Eastern European oldies on fiddle and cimbalom/accordion/drum) and Xylouris White (another pair, on drums and Cretan lute). The strangest folk artist was Alabaster dePlume, who sang, spun tales, told jokes, and made oddball pronouncements, sometimes with the aid of an acoustic guitar.
Green Man’s most overused genre label was undoubtedly ‘psych,’ as a vast majority of combos were tarred this way, very few of them actually delivering the full psychedelic promise. Japan’s Bo Ningen (lately living in London) brought back old rock ’n’ roll showmanship, sculpted with heavy, loaded guitar screams, but now toying with funked traces, completely freaking out at the climax with lead singer Taigen Kawabe dangling himself over the crowd whilst still managing to play his intricate bass lines.
A complete Green Man highlight was the Friday headline set by King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard, revealing themselves to have scaled amazing heights since their 2016 appearance. From Melbourne, they’re fronted by guitarist Stu Mackenzie, boasting two drummers, and a crucial foil in the person of Ambrose Kenny Smith, who swaps between keyboards, maracas, and an acid harmonica (this latter harp sometimes much too low in the mix). The centerpiece was “Crumbling Castle,” an epic prog-Arabic number that never flagged nor diminished in its absolute momentum. Sounding worryingly similar to Rush, the Gizzardy Ones hefted in repeated oud-like solos, infectious call-and-response vocals, and some doubled drum thunder that was intentionally shorn of snare reverb, flattened into a terse team-pummel. This suite-like song surely neared an hour in duration, and rarely have we witnessed such sustained symphonic tension, racked up tighter and tighter as it prog-regressed.