Festivals belong in fields, or so I once thought. “Just 20,000 people standing in a field” sang Jarvis sardonically – written, mind, before Pulp’s seminal Glastonbury performance in 1995. All you need to accurately recreate the typical festival experience is to simply erect a tent in your back garden on a rainy day, drink from a crate of warm, cheap lager and put on Radio 1. Oh, and don’t shower for three days. If you want to go the whole hog, why not get a dodgy looking bloke who apparently doesn’t sleep to stand outside your tent all weekend offering you drugs in lingo you’ve never heard before, i.e. “Want a scratch of bluff for a tenner?” To describe it as uninviting would be too kind.
Festival No. 6 however is not your typical festival and unless your back garden also includes a beautiful collection of pastel cottages and stunning views that truly belong on the Italian Riviera you’ll have to go some way to recreate it. As far as North Wales in fact, to the unlikely setting of Portmeirion. Designed and built by architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis in the 20th century as a post-modern interpretation of a Mediterranean fishing village and famously employed as the filming location for the cult ‘60s TV show The Prisoner, this unique location and its surrounding woodland is home to this most extraordinary of festivals.
After an exhaustingly long drive and an even longer wait to be assigned parking, my arrival on site is as disorienting and confusing as if the late Patrick McGoohan had written it himself. I slouch wearily past the main stage, Stage No. 6, where Patrick Wolf is performing when his vocals fleetingly mesh with the thudding house music from the nearby Kraken Rum Bar and for the briefest of moments a glorious new genre is born – deep Baroque? – and then it’s gone just as suddenly.
The first act caught in full are Gigslutz favourites Childhood performing in the shadows of the i Stage tent. Their set of tunes from first album Lacuna is chock full of the sounds of the ‘60s, or at the very least, how the ‘60s sounded to bands of the early ‘90s. Live, they inject some punky impudence into tracks that often sounded laconic on record like ‘You Could Be Different’, even getting a bit sultry for ‘As I Am’. The quartet close with a soaring rendition of ‘Solemn Skies’ and from inside the vortex of the swirling Horrors-esque outro, the sound you can hear is one of a very promising young group indeed.
Later, making my way with the throng through the forested areas towards the village and the estuary banks, a punter just exiting one of the coaches bringing people to and from the festival remarks “It’s a bit like Centre Parcs isn’t it?” No mate, it most certainly is not.
Beside the river in the afternoon sunshine, former The Teardrop Explodes frontman, celebrated author and certifiable crackerjack Julian Cope read extracts from his latest literary outing and first novel, the brilliant One Three One: A Time-Shifting Gnostic Hooligan Road Novel. Looking like the roadie in a rockumentary someone forgot to film, the mischievous character apparent in his writing – in the world of One Three One… Van Morrison is dead and Jim Morrison still living because his name makes for a better anagram, “Mr. Mojo Risin'” – is immediately recognisable in the flesh, describing his writing process as a “visionary state” comparable to Ezekiel. In the later aborted Q&A, he trolls a man who asks why he is killing so many trees producing his book, loudly declaring “If the book is as important as mine, the tree must fall!”
Next, while trying to find the appropriately secreted Lost in the Woods stage, I stumble across a raucous crowd in the central piazza enjoying folked-up versions of The Prodigy’s ‘Out of Space’ and ‘Backstreet’s Back’ performed by the Gypsies of Bohemia on the Bristol Colonnade. Their highly infectious blend of traditional Romani rhythm and sing-along hits made them an unexpected delight whenever they performed throughout the weekend and proved you don’t have to be a big name to be a hit.
By this point in the afternoon, it becomes necessary to seek refuge from the low summer sun so I duck into the i Stage just as indie-pop scenesters Spector take to the stage with the once-dapper Fred Macpherson looking markedly different with shoulder-length hair and high waisted trousers like he can’t decide whether to audition for Rock of Ages or Spring Awakening. Opening with ‘Celestine’ and finishing with ‘Chevy Thunder’, the majority of their songs still derive from 2012’s Enjoy It While It Lasts (apparently “it” lasts an age.) Fred assures us cryptically a new album will be out “in the fullness of time”. Of the new material aired ‘Sky High’ sounds most promising with a verse that sounds like Drake before exploding into a chorus worthy of a John Hughes movie theme.
With the sun now set behind the imposing peaks of Snowdonia, we’re treated to electronic maestro Simon Green a.k.a. Bonobo’s gentle pulses and moody atmospherics. If anyone has been put off Bonobo by having to speak to Vodafone’s customer services one too many times in the past as I almost was (their hold music is ‘Cirrus’ from last year’s The North Borders), I can tell you that live he is a different proposition entirely. Backed by a live band, the songs are given fresh warmth and soul.
It’s the perfect lead-in for tonight’s headliners London Grammar. It has been suggested it’s too soon for them but that simply smacks of the typical hypocrisy of the national music press who have been practically begging for young British acts to be given the chance to become headliners only to get one they would not have chosen themselves. Even despite their sudden rise, the trio have never shown the slightest hint of nerves at the big occasion and there have been many already. One listen to how single ‘Wasting My Young Years’ begins building to a predictable Euro-trance crescendo before abruptly paring back once more to simple, melancholy piano, broken glass guitar and Hannah Reid’s voice reveals the extent of the group’s poise and control. They give a captivating performance, Reid’s booming confessionals echoing through the silence of the awestruck crowd. I’m not saying they should always headline but tonight they fit the bill impeccably.
Saturday brings with it the threat of intermittent showers, interrupting so far the best weather the No. 6 organisers have been fortunate enough to receive. Holding a festival in the first week of September would bring its share of challenges anywhere in the world without having to contend with the famously irascible Welsh climate as well but we’re lucky as it soon passes and are gifted spectacular sunshine for the rest of the day.
Also bringing a bit of light to once dark places we have Peter Hook & The Light. As a vocalist, the former sideman adds additional growls to a raw ‘She’s Lost Control’, sounding not unlike the archive Joy Division live recordings that accompanied the recent reissues. With the levels cranked up and Jack Bates, Hook’s son, stage right adding additional bass this was surely a bone-rattling show for anyone who made the front few rows. On a nifty ‘Ceremony’ which neatly divided the Joy Division and New Order numbers extra credit must be given to Paul Kehoe who recreated beat for beat Stephen Morris’ metronomic drumming. Having dispatched ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ early on, the band close emphatically with an amazing threesome of ‘Everything’s Gone Green’, ‘True Faith’ and ‘Temptation’. Even omitting many of the better-known hits, it feels like a triumph and Hook knows it, ending shirtless and beaming.
Several of our staff here at Gigslutz have grown to like the group that had the enviable task of following Hook and company on Stage No. 6 Temples but I’m afraid I still can’t get my head around them. The Kettering foursome to me are purveyors of a brand of anonymous psychedelia alongside groups like Toy, also due to perform this weekend, hoping what they lack in catchy melodies they can make up for in hair volume. The Led Zeppelin-isms of standout ‘Prisms’ notwithstanding, I can take it or leave it.
Hot Chip singer Alexis Taylor brought his solo show to Festival No. 6 this weekend, touring Await Barbarians, a somewhat Spartan record here brought to life by a three person backing group. From the selection of instruments scattered around the stage alone, I could see I could get behind this: a Steinberger headless bass, electronic drum pads, harmonica and electric piano. Given that Taylor’s sweet spot seems to be caught between 1970s artpop and the 1980s soul balladeering of Lionel Richie and Phil Collins, these shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The mid-tempo tunes are a lovely interlude to a livelier set but seem monotonous one after another. His distractingly attractive drummer and quite possibly the funkiest handlebar-mustachioed Geography teacher ever on bass make up for it for sheer entertainment however. 2008’s ‘Made in the Dark’, a Hot Chip song in name only, is a highlight played on guitar instead of keyboard while ‘You Want Me’ and ‘Closer to the Elderly’ from the new LP are transformed into awesome extended jams by his band.
It truly is a day for a busman’s holiday. Later, I have the choice of Laetitia Sadier of “jusqu’à la fin” fame (look it up), moonlighting from Stereolab or Doves’ Jimi Goodwin. Having heard good things of his album Odludek, I plump for Goodwin. From that record, ‘Didsbury Girl’ doesn’t sound worlds away from his day job though ‘Live like a River’ proves something of a departure with a danceable groove until Goodwin forgets he isn’t Nile Rodgers, announcing “It’s Saturday night man! Best get your swerve on!” to a bemused sea of onlookers.
Beck brings to a close the second day of the festival. Kicking off with the familiar ‘Devil’s Haircut’ the first thing that strikes me are the equally familiar faces in the band: Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Smokey Hormel, Jason Falkner and Joey Waronker. Forget Beck’s back troubles, it must have taken years to find an open slot in these guys’ busy schedules for them to tour together. They are a formidably tight ensemble adding extra bounce to ‘Black Tambourine’ and ‘Hell Yes’ and flourish to more languid songs like ‘Blue Moon’, from this year’s Morning Phase. Disjointed it may be, it is still enjoyable to see Beck play a greatest hits set (the obligatory ‘Loser’ is included and rapturously received, although God knows why) even though this is an artist who has changed direction so many times in his twenty year career I’m not sure he knows which way he’s facing in the morning. The first sign of trouble comes with the muted applause for Midnite Vultures cut ‘Get Real Paid’. They ride it out and finish strongly with ‘Where It’s At’ but the overall feeling is mixed.
Three days in and disaster strikes! I’ve run out of teabags. Thankfully Tim Peaks are there for just such an event and I am eventually able to get enough caffeine into me to prepare for the rigours of the day. And what rigours… A lazy Sunday afternoon is ideal for indulging in some of the more cultural goings on at Festival No. 6, all in preparation for the cerebral jousting of Bez’s Question Time.
I spend the early afternoon in the company of The Times rock critic Will Hodgkinson and the gregarious James Endeacott, onetime Strokes A&R and the man who discovered The Libertines. (You can’t say he discovered The Strokes or Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis gets annoyed apparently.) What begins as an amiable chat turns into quite a tender discussion on the impact of music on the identities of those who lose a parent – Hodgkinson’s father joined an Indian sect and Endeacott’s left when he was very young – and how it has affected their own views on parenting.
It’s certainly more informing than what follows. In my eagerness to get a good seat for Bez’s debut in the arena of political debate, I inadvertently subject myself to a lecture from Andy Miller, author of The Year of Living Dangerously: How Fifty Books Saved My Life, in which he proposed a ten point plan for reading more. Number nine was, I kid you not, “Use a library”. In an effort to streamline things for Miller I’ve developed my own plan: 1. Read from top to bottom, 2. Read from left to right, 3. Turn the page, 4. Repeat steps 1-3 until book is finished. There you go, reduced by 60% and even with simplification, I still think I was less patronising.
What should be a punchline next comes as blessed intellectual stimulation: Bez’s Question Time. Regrettably, trading in David Dimbleby for the bloke who danced in the Happy Mondays, who is running as an independent candidate to be MP for Salford, gets pretty much the expected result. “Power to the people” and “the time for revolution is here” are simply catchphrases, at best Public Enemy songs, hardly a manifesto. Still, I would vote for him. It’s probably for the best I can’t.
By now the crowd in the central piazza is positively heaving for the fiftieth anniversary performance of the Brythoniaid Male Voice Choir. As their leader and soloist self-deprecatingly put it: “We’re the only boy band here tonight… and the oldest.” Reeling off standard after standard, from ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ to ‘’O Sole Mio’, including an unexpected interpretation of Muse’s ‘Uprising’ and of course ‘Delilah’ there’s an ease and a charm to their performance the bigger names on the bill fail to capture. They may have been joking, but for one weekend, they were the stars and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And so we make our way from the village to Stage No. 6 one last time for Martha and the Vandellas. Near the end of their set of Motown classics, there was a spine-tingling instant when the only thing you could hear across all the stages was the band swinging along to ‘Dancing in the Street’. It didn’t last long but I’ll take it as a divine gesture giving a legendary act their due, or perhaps even a short admission of defeat from everyone scheduled to play at the same time. Either way, it was more than deserved.
My history with the final headline act is a long one. As a lad, I attended my first football match in 1994, watching my beloved West Bromwich Albion play Port Vale at The Hawthorns. At that time, Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Go West’ was still a massive hit and the home crowd had adopted it as their own, singing “…Bromwich Albion” to the five wordless notes following the title phrase in what I’m sure you’ll agree is the finest lyrical arrangement since Tony Wilson discovered the third syllable in “England” for New Order’s ‘World In Motion’. I loved it then even though I wasn’t old enough to know what it was. I’ve been a Pet Shop Boys fan since then and yet I had never seen them live until Sunday. Hearing old favourites like ‘It’s A Sin’ and ‘Always on My Mind’ was incredible but the return of the Brythoniaid Male Voice Choir for a performance of ‘Go West’ in homage to their famous 1994 Brit Awards appearance was a truly special moment that I’m certain everyone present will never forget.
There’s much more to see and do and experience at Festival No. 6 than I have included here, from the comedy, secret raves in the woods, the cinema screenings and a lot more besides. Special credit must be given to the organisers for seamlessly transforming the unorthodox village of Portmeirion into the perfect festival setting and to the locals for their generosity of spirit. Remember, this is only the third year the festival has been going and it can only get bigger and better from here!
Diolch yn Fawr and be seeing you next year!