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Some 75,000 rock fans spent the weekend at the corporate-sponsored V Festival partying to the sound of hard-living bands such as Happy Mondays, Iggy Pop and Babyshambles. Meanwhile, somewhere in a Welsh valley, earnest men with ginger beards were listening to the sotto voce anecdotes of Vashti Bunyan, the folk singer.
Bunyan made a hippyesque album 35 years ago before retreating from music to live in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands. She recalled how she spent years on the road – sometimes in horse and cart – looking for that special dream place. Did she ever find it, asked the interviewer. Yes, she sighed. The audience held its breath. “Somewhere just north of Glasgow,” was the somewhat bathetic answer. Bunyan, who made a comeback in 2005 – helped, perhaps, by the use of “Just Another Diamond Day” in an advertisement – was one of the star turns at this year’s Green Man Festival, an event self-consciously forged as the antithesis of V-style mega-gatherings.
On Saturday night her gentle renditions of timeless acoustic songs caught the imagination of the crowd. The setting helped: a verdant park, dotted with ancient oaks, with the cloud-clad peak of Sugar Loaf Mountain behind. Green Man is one of a string of smaller festivals growing fast amid an explosion in the popularity of live music in the UK; its peers include End of the Road, Latitude, Big Chill and Bestival. Some complained that, with 10,000 people in attendance, the event was now too big. It began four years ago with just 345 people. Yet Green Man has retained an intimate, family-friendly charm, with a set list ranging from Misty’s Big Adventure and The Yellow Moon Band to the (perhaps) better-known Stephen Malkmus and Devendra Banhart.
The most recognisable name was arguably Robert Plant, still sporting a leonine mane and a range of grandiose rock postures trademarked in the days when Led Zeppelin had the world at their feet. The veteran rocker delivered plenty of less-than-familiar solo material, some with a world-music tinge, but also threw in a few Led Zep classics to appease non-fanatics: “Black Dog”, “Whole Lotta Love” and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”.
Plant’s songs have always had a strong mystical undercurrent, making them appropriate for Green Man’s countercultural pretensions. The same could be said of Joanna Newsome, the petite singer-cum-harp-player from California, who combined leaping arpeggios with off-beam lyrics delivered in a swooping, sometimes squeaky voice reminiscent of Kate Bush or Björk. Some regard Newsome as insufferably twee. But in this setting, with drizzle falling among the dark trees, the effect of her music was hypnotic, even enchanting.
Green Man’s prevailing style is folk music, but this encompasses a wide range – from the high-tempo psychedelia of The Aliens, fronted by former Beta Band member Gordon Anderson, to Seasick Steve, a bluesman who stole the show.
Seasick, clad in dungarees and cap and sitting on a wooden chair, played gritty, pared-down blues. With his rambling anecdotes – delivered in a deep-fried southern drawl – his grizzled singing voice and frenetic fretwork, he went down a storm. Stylistically, this was old-fashioned blues in the vein of Leadbelly or John Lee Hooker. The grey-bearded former hobo showed off his three-string red guitar, home-made percussion (“the Mississippi drum machine”) and other guitars, all of which cost little more than $100.
“It’s a pretty simple deal up here,” he deadpanned. The music sounded as old as the surrounding hills but marked the arrival of something rather special.