Review by Matt.
Now in its sixth year, Festival No.6 has steadily garnered a reputation for bringing the summer festival season to a close with the controls set firmly for quirk and charm. Taking place in and around the slightly surreal setting of Portmeirion, a tiny faux-Italian village perched on the scenic North Wales coastline at the foot of Snowdonia, the festival makes maximum use of the colourful nooks and crannies on offer. It’s been a festival I’ve long had an eye on and the excuse to use it as a celebration for my brother’s 40th birthday meant scant persuasion was needed to get me on board.
Obsessive weather app checking in the days leading up to the festival suggests that waterproofs and warm clothes will be the order of the day – a consequence of the inevitable gamble of holding an outdoor event in the emerging autumn (although let’s face it, no festival taking place in the UK is in any way guaranteed wall-to-wall sunshine). I’m only recently back from the Kendal Calling festival, this year beset by bad weather and ensuing site-wide ankle-deep mud, leading to an energy, and at times mood-sapping weekend. I’m thus intrigued to know how a festival charging £75 a ticket more per head deals with the elements. We’ll come to that…
Having arrived teatime Thursday and set up camp, Friday morning and afternoon leave us free to start exploring and catching the early acts before the rest of our group arrive later in the day. Music in the main festival arena doesn’t seem to get going until mid-afternoon so we amble aimlessly around the village venues, sitting off on the side of a small ornamental paddling pool in blazing sun with a beer (Morretti, £5.50 a pint, yowzers) taking in the gypsy jazz cover versions of The Gypsies of Bohemia. Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ via Django Rheinhart anyone? Actually, it’s much more palatable than that looks in black and white.
Kooky out-of-context cover versions seem to be a bit of a theme through the weekend. The brass band playing their version of Donna Summer’s “No More Tears” – chorus: “Enough is enough is enough” – win prizes for their timing as the rain slaughters down on Saturday lunchtime.
Our first foray into the main arena comes with some gasps at just how visually stunning this festival really is – the backdrop of the Snowdonian hills against the main stage is genuinely gorgeous, a real spectacle. Whilst here, we stay for PINS, which turns out to be a wise, wise move. They spin up a riotous and righteous post-punk groove, heavy on repeated slogans (“You say I’m bad like it’s a bad thing!”, “I’m only here to serve the rich!”, “If I was an ape, if I was an ape, if I was an APE!”). Their half hour passes in lightning fashion, always a good sign.
We’re back at the main stage soon after for one of the few acts on the bill we really have any vested interest in, Steve Mason. A long-time favourite since the early Beta Band days in the late 90’s, we find ourselves at the barrier in front of the main stage, part of a disappointingly sparse crowd as Mason takes the stage (although it does thicken as the set wears on). The set is largely drawn from last year’s “Meet The Humans” album and its predecessor, 2013’s “Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time.” In a sense, that’s a disappointment – Mason rarely breaks out in a frenzy of Beta Band nostalgia but it would have been good to have heard a few songs from his solo debut, “Boys Outside”. All that said, it’s great to see him on this form – he mentions how much he loves this festival and in as much as I’ve ever seen Steve Mason look like he’s enjoying himself, he does seem to be revelling in things here. Can’t help but feel that not playing “Dry The Rain” from The Beta Band’s first EP (one of the few he does roll out from time to time) is a bit churlish though given the squalls of rain that abound through his set.
As we stroll back to the tent for a pit stop, Charlotte Church and her Late Night Pop Dungeon are halfway through a cover of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”, and as we head up to the camping field, strains of her version of Robyn’s “With Every Heartbeat” suggest it might have been worth staying round for a closer look. And as we perch on camping chairs, sipping Strongbow (cos, y’know, classy) and refuelling on as culinary a delight as one can muster on a one ring camping stove, there’s a fairly crystal-clear soundtrack of Toy’s motorik psychedelia that says we might have been better just hanging out down there. Ah well.
Post-pitstop, and with the birthday celebration personnel complete, we head back to the main arena as The Cinematic Orchestra are leaving the stage, leaving us to kick heels until headliners Mogwai take the stage. Curious business, this band. I’m asked more than once what they’re like and each time struggle to verbalise anything much. Perhaps more than any other band, they defy description or category. So, it irks me that the only description that recurs time and again whilst watching them is that, for all their ebbing, flowing, swelling and swooning ambient artiness, they frequently recall instrumental interludes in Coldplay songs. In my heart, I know that’s not right or fair or in any way befitting of a band of Mogwai’s stature and status. But then I learn a couple of days later that my 10-year-old nephew (watching with us) has plastered them with the self-same comparison. Out of the mouths of babes and all that. The other thing that strikes me is that, given the often somnambulant nature of a fair chunk of their material, accompanying visuals are almost entirely absent. This isn’t music that necessarily speaks for itself so it feels odd that at least something in the way of a lightshow or backdrop isn’t on offer.
It’s fair to say no-one rises refreshed on Saturday morning thanks to the lively young man who has kept a sizable proportion of General Camping awake with his voluble gibberish and shrieking laugh (a little too chained to the mirror and the razor blade for his own good it would seem). In dribs and drabs, we make our way to the village to see what’s going on there. And what is going on is a monsoon of truly epic scale; sod quirk and charm, it’s a race just to keep in some way dry. Seeking solace, first in a craft workshop for the kids, then in an overpriced restaurant serving burgers that scream food poisoning, we decide the only thing for it is to take to the tent for a bit more Strongbow, the free Guardians being doled out and to wait out the rain.
And having waited it out, the reward for that is a four-band run of pure joy and exhilaration. I make an executive decision that the rest of the group can do what they want – I’m going to please myself tonight. Informing them to largely blank expressions that I’m off to see a band called Cabbage, I walk into the mud bath that is the Grand Pavilion (a rather grandiose title for the swampy marquee that makes up the festival’s de facto second stage). Screw what’s underfoot, oh god, these lads are incredible. Incredible. Joint lead singers Lee and Joe are perfect foils; one losing himself in furious assertion, the other more studiously focussed, both immense. It’s incredibly heartening to see a band this young still kicking up this kind of raw energy; I’m conversely dismayed to realise that the sum of the ages of those joint frontmen probably adds up to my own creeping years – a rite of passage I guess fortysomething music fans all go through. Anyway. Here’s another band who could eventually but rightly take their place in the (Greater) Manchester band roll of honour. That name might just turn out to be the only albatross round their collective necks.
I collect a beer and re-join the gang in front of the main stage as James Vincent McMorrow begins his set. Let’s just say he’s not part of the joyous four-band run and it would be doing dishwater a disservice to call it as dull. So, I inform everyone, to equally blank looks, that I’m off to watch a band called Jagwar Ma. Here’s a band, you suspect, that would be honoured to join that Manchester band roll of honour were it not for the fact that they were very much Australian. They do stir up hazy memories of Manchester music circa 1989/90 – musically speaking Happy Mondays are an obvious reference point – but the seamless joins of the set, the lighting which avoids picking out any individuals and the sea of bobbing heads gives things much more of a club feel. As does the lady beside me, in her late-fifties if she’s a day, who is throwing all the shapes of a kid in the Hacienda back in 1988. Which I guess, if she was an old-ish kid, she might well have been. There’s plenty of soul to be had in Jagwar Ma; no nasal flat vowels here, the full-throated vocals are the real deal throughout. They finish out on “The Throw” which comes with a trance-y reminder of “Wrote For Luck”, were it kissed by the beaches of South Sydney. Terrific. Really terrific.
Back then to base camp, left of the main stage. Wild Beasts are easing into their electro-poppish-male-angsty set and, again, they’re not part of the four-band run but I stick around as the kids gleefully muck around with glowsticks. I mean, the guitar player is playing his guitar with a bow and, y’know, unless your name’s Jimmy Page and all that. Anyway, I’ve promised myself half an hour of The Cribs back at the Grand Pavilion before tonight’s headliners. I’m intrigued to see what they’re like. Last time I saw them was a good few years back when they had Johnny Marr in their ranks and I might have been a little too in thrall to seeing a Smith in the flesh to really take in them in properly. They’re as raw and vital as I could have hoped, but I’m a little disheartened to notice a second guitar player just off stage filling out the sound. Jesus lads, let’s take Nirvana as an example, even they bunged Pat Smear on stage towards the end; nothing’s that sacrosanct. Nonetheless it’s a fabulous noise. I’m sort of sorry I’ve promised myself I’ll leave to see an acrobat on a large helium balloon – to be fair, it’s a lovely spectacle but when I’m informed that The Cribs end on “Mens’ Needs”, feelings are wrenched a little.
Saturday ends with Bloc Party and their taut, intense angst. It’s nominally a career-spanning set but the earlier, more traditionally indie-guitar-pop material is largely eschewed for the more evolved electronica of recent years. Kele Okereke’s yelped delivery provides the referenced angst but the musical backdrop frequently reaches euphoric crescendos, illuminated by a whirling neon lightshow. Indeed, by the time they play ‘Banquet’, well into the encore, it feels like a quaint anachronism, albeit a warmly familiar one. I swig the last of my Moretti and we trudge back to the tent to be lulled to sleep by an oddly vocal Jarvis Cocker DJ-ing at the stage just the other side of the campsite fence. A wonderful Saturday night. Wonderful.
Sunday came with grand designs. Oh such grand, grand designs. The Bootleg Beatles and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Cherry Ghost’s Simon Aldred with Joe Duddell’s No. 6 Orchestra, Public Service Broadcasting, all capped off by the headlining Flaming Lips. I mean, pick the bones out of that. We’ve already revised that. Certain amongst our number have decided they’ve had enough and the plan is to watch the Bootleg/Phil set and then pack and go. That’s then revised to packing up, taking the gear back to the car, catching the fake fab four then scooting.
And then. Ladies and gentlemen. The sodden and windswept experience of the packing up, the carting to the coach, the carting from the coach to the car means we have Officially Had Enough. Salt is rubbed into wounds by the glorious sound of The Flaming Lips soundchecking ‘Race For The Prize’, but the damage is done and we take our leave. There’s no two ways about it – my other half is so irked by the weekend, she’s vowing not to go to another festival ever. For my part, there’s been enough good music here to pull me back, but the way it teeters on autumn means I’d think twice; the camping areas are left to disintegrate into a swamp when some simple tracking or bark chippings would have made the going much more simple and the state of some of the arena areas feels downright unsafe. The premium price tag makes all that all the more irritating. “Be seeing you…” goes the Festival No.6 strapline. We’ll see…