Pivot, Far Out Stage
At any other festival Pivot’s prolonged soundcheck would have been met with a squall of irritable heckling, bottles of urine coursing towards the stage in abundance: here it’s met only with beautific, somewhat cultish smiles. It’s an incongruous beginning, but then at a festival generally noted for acoustic strumming and Morris Dancers, Warp signings Pivot were always going to stand out. Abrasive from the outset, their caustic blend of sombre, glitchy beats, jarring guitars and doomy, cathedral vocals makes a strange bedfellow for a green and – so far – sunny Glanusk Park. Their energy, however, is captivating, the drive of their dark sonic palettes infectious: closer O Soundtrack My Heart’s abrupt timeshifts and bursts of violence play out like the soundtrack to a dark future noir, the sun outside the shadowed canvas burning our retinas as we’re sent blinking and hissing like Gollum into the late afternoon sun.
Gang Gang Dance
If any band can entice us back to the light, though, it’s Manhattan’s Gang Gang Dance – seemingly a band engineered precisely for the fading light of a summer festival. True, frontwoman Liz Bougatsos’ animal yelps and primal howls alienate many in the crowd, but for the rest their charged, brooding psychedelica provides an aptly portentous complement to the setting sun and the sinister, unblinking visage of the Green Man staring down omnipotent from the Main Stage speaker stacks. The insistent rhythms command movement: all around limbs spring to life, unbidden, even as their owners look on perplexed, critical faculties waning with their bodies already lost.
Errors, Main Stage
Owing to the distraction of a gaggle of druids we arrive late to the ever-excellent Errors’ set, although even a scant five minutes of their digitised post-rock manages to outstrip much of the weekend’s bill.
Now shorn of their numerous suffixes, Brightoners Peggy Sue impressed as usual with a charmingly low-key set of harmony-laden songs, vocalists Rosa Rex and Katy Klaw tag-teaming their way through an ‘extravagant’ forty-five minutes of folky, jazzy, slightly punky blues. There’s no Television, but Eisenstein makes up for it, as does their Missy Elliott cover and the beguiling narrative of new song Watchmen.
As with recent tourmates Gang Gang Dance’s earlier Main Stage performance, Animal Collective’s headlining slot is heavily divisive. Unlike their other UK festival appearance this year – heading up Glastonbury’s Park Stage – the audience here is skewed, despite a core fanbase huddled before the stage, more to the curious than the converted, with many onlookers more focused upon keeping track of their roaming offspring than in following the shifting rhythms and slow-burn builds onstage. Indeed, the family crowd seem more bemused than elated, and by the midpoint of their set Animal Collective have ‘succeeded’ in driving over half of their audience elsewhere.
The setlist itself doesn’t help: whilst arguably any Animal Collective show bereft of Fireworks is ultimately doomed to failure, compared to some of the year’s earlier live shows the selection here seems rather defiantly obtuse, lacking in the more organic elements – such as Panda Bear’s fevered percussion or awkward guitar work – that help to transcend the attendant restlessness that accompanies watching three men pressing buttons on a stage.
But then maybe this is for the best. The critical success of Merryweather Post Pavilion threatened mainstream status for a band that shouldn’t really be there: as the cheers that attend an early My Girls pine out and the bulk of the crowd migrates away to the food stalls, those remaining just dance all the harder.
Saturday afternoon sees our hangovers beginning to fade just in time for Phillip Henry’s slide-guitar/dub-harmonica performance in the Chai Wallah tent, the perfect antidote to any encroaching notions concerning the modern relevance of folk music. Whilst he references the past, covering Blind Willie Johnson and citing an array of varying world cultures, his approach is exhilarating, frenetic fretwork meshing with frankly stunning beatbox-harmonica to create music both timeless and contemporary.
Peter Broderick, Far Out Stage
Irritatingly, prodigal multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick opts to end his scheduled forty-five minute set fifteen minutes early, impassioned pleas for an encore meeting only with a sarcastic, standoffish response. But whilst stage manner might not be his forte, performing elegant, fragile compositions certainly is, with Broderick employing loopers to build songs up from a single layer to combine guitar, violin, piano and voice to stunning effect. Whether his musical audacity is overshadowed by his arrogance is open to debate: the beauty of closer Games, however, is not.
Noah and the Whale, Main Stage
Elsewhere, Noah and the Whale deliver a rather sombre performance, a setlist of unfamiliar material disappointing those at the fringes of the crowd holding out for the ukulele-whimsy of Five Years Time. Whilst a cataclysmic close piques the interest (and makes a nearby child cry, which surely constitutes some kind of success), their set jars with more relaxed late-afternoon festival mood.
Bon Iver, Main Stage
The most appropriate billing of the festival, of course, is that of Bon Iver, a band whose runaway success over the last year acts pretty much as an endorsement of green lifestyle choices. It’s also possibly the most anticipated of the weekend’s performances, Justin Vernon’s wilderness songs drawing a near-silent, reverential reception from the first chords of opener Flume.
It’s a familiar set but a honed one, yet whilst it’s the obvious choices from For Emma that get the biggest cheers – Skinny Love chief amongst them – it’s the newer songs that impact most. Lead EP track Blood Bank introduces a harder, rockier edge to the set, whilst the riff-driven Brackett, W9, Bon Iver’s contribution to this year’s Dark Was The Night benefit compilation, showcases the band’s talents, rather than just Vernon’s, boding well for any future material. Best of all though is the stripped-down tension of Babys, with its minimalist piano and repeated vocal refrain achieving an intimacy and warmth to help counter the Welsh evening chill.
As throughout this tour, the band close with the crowd interaction of Wolves (Act I and II), inverting the loneliness of the song’s inception to a scream-along of several thousand people (‘now when the song changes, you just yell anything you like…’). As catharsis goes, it’s pretty beautiful.
Gentleman’s Dub Club, Chai Wallah Stage
The perfect counterpoint to the day’s more earnest acoustic strumming, Leeds nine-piece Gentleman’s Dub Club defy the festival remit to deliver a frantic hour of, predictably enough, heavy dub and reggae. Whilst there are no surprises to the set we don’t really want there to be: it’s obvious at every point where each song is going – essentially building endlessly towards a massive bassline – and that’s the joy, although our tired bodies probably resented them for it the next day.
Love, Stop, Repeat
Heads foggy and bodies slightly indifferent, we’re relying upon the understated arrangements of Love, Stop, Repeat to introduce the day as painlessly as possible – which they do, if a touch soporifically.
Just as the very sight of an acoustic guitar is starting to prompt a Pavlovian aversion, Nick Mulvey’s liquid fretwork and powerful voice banish such heresy, his shifts in pace and intensity garnering unfettered admiration from the assembled.
As clouds range above the hills behind, Scott Matthews’ tuneful melancholia drifts as gently as the bubbles that often threaten to upstage him, unleashed just to the right of the stage by an indifferent punter. On the whole it’s a strong performance, his voice bristling with echoes of Jeff Buckley, although his stage banter is frankly embarrassing, and the weaker material is, unfortunately, drawn from Matthews’ recent second album. Songs such as a flawlessly-performed Passing Stranger more than make up for any weaknesses, however, and a delicate, soaring Elusive ensures no lasting complaints.
The Yellow Moon Band
Elsewhere The Yellow Moon Band play a lively, heavy, riff-laden set, although the late-20th century Windows Media Player graphics quickly irritate.
Amorphous Androgynous, previously the dance pioneers Future Sound Of London, and the curators of the Far Out lineup today, fill the stage, musicians sprawling behind an array of instruments both organic and digital. Despite an abundance of New Age babble (‘Are we really here, I ask? Are we psychedelic beings in a psychedelic universe? Are we multidimensional?’ Cue audience cheers of affirmation…) their music is stunningly contemporary, a wall of sound comprising a mesh of disparate influences from folk to rock to electronica, although their abundant visuals, which frequently return to a motif evoking Sauron’s burning eye as it sears into Frodo’s consciousness, still disturb nearly a week on. Best of all is their take on Falling Down, the Oasis track remixed by the band that all but reinvents it, shearing the song of the Gallagher’s vocals and installing the excellent Alisha Sufit instead, a creative decision that needs to be applied to all of their songs.
As tolerance for the folk aesthetic nears saturation point, James Yuill’s Green Man Pub stage headlining slot couldn’t be more welcome. Sure, that’s an acoustic guitar strapped to his back, but it’s quickly relegated in favour of brutal, Aphex electronica, guitar chords avalanched beneath a battery of beats and glitches. Yuill’s songs begin deceptively, riding saccharine vocals upon simple tunes, when suddenly, as with early highpoint Over The Hills, he’ll be remixing himself, twisting the layers of his own songs into infinitely more brutal forms as the feeble speaker-stacks crackle and distort and our own heads threaten to implode. By the time a guy in front accidentally elbows me in the chin I don’t even care: I’m deaf in one ear and I’ve dropped my phone and it’s still the highlight of the festival.