By Greg Wetherall
The secret is out. Not merely a stylish bookend to the season, Festival No. 6 is the sparkling jewel in the festival calendar’s crown. Beauty, eclecticism and boldness. In fact, it is all too easy to exhaust the superlatives when attempting to convey the virtues of this boutique, bijou carnival of the arts.
Where else though could you experience the backdrop of mountains behind the main stage? Walk down to a beach? Amble through the woods? Witness Italian architecture? And drink in a castle? It is pretty magical stuff and both patrons and artists alike couldn't help but gush words of praise onto this festival in a manner I have heard at no other.
In terms of the programme, there is an amibitious reach at play. In recent years, a pretty pattern has begun to emerge in terms of headliners. The first night tends to be the untested (last year it was London Grammar. This year it was Metronomy). The second night is the mid-90s stalwarts (last year it was Beck. This year it is Belle & Sebastian). The final night is the heritage act (last year it was the Pet Shop Boys. This year it was Grace Jones).
But before we go to a breakdown of everything properly, and delve into the moments that made 2015, I would firstly like to let you in on some of the things that this scribe learnt across these few days;
1) Gaz Coombes told us that in 1994 (not 1995?) Supergrass shot their video for ‘Alright’ in Portmeirion.
2) Northern soul dance classes are the way to go as a festival side-attraction. Utterly fantastic fun. Bring it back next year.
3) The Welsh language doesn’t sound too dissimilar to Swedish to this Southerner’s ears.
Playing to a packed-out piazza, street urchin wordsmith of considerable talent and clout, Kate Tempest bedazzled with eye-opening wordplay. She is worthy of the awed reputation that surrounds her.
Mark Ronson turned up, played some records and, well, he didn’t f*** off exactly, after all, it was his 40th birthday (yes, I didn’t think he was that old either). He stayed for the whole weekend. Aside from playing his DJ set on the main stage, he took the time to talk with Amy filmmaker, Asif Kapadia, to discuss the dearly departed. The conversation was more satisfying than his DJ set, as he came across as a rather sincere and genuine admirer and friend of Amy’s; even taking the time to categorically say that he never wants to appear to be riding on her coattails or cashing in on her fame/success/tragedy.
Gruff Rhys brought his soundtrack to the Dylan Thomas film Set Fire To The Stars in the Gatehouse. He almost set fire to the tent with the screeching and scratching sax-assisted aural assault. Wonderfully evocative of the film’s rambling and ambling spirit, replete with its Woody Allen ‘Manhattan’ monochrome palette, Rhys’ soundtrack was equipped with enough classicism to satisfy the subject matter, but enough eccentricity to maintain his own unkempt reputation. The fact that the band were clearly a little under rehearsed only added to the charm, as the tent heaved with good will and applause.
New kids on the block, Manchester 4 piece, Spring King, rattled and hummed their way through a frenetic set. Their catalogue remains modest in number and style, but this perfectly satisfies an afternoon set in a tent. Their focus is locked onto the short, sharp, relentless shock that is usually the preserve of the hardcore punk scene. Fear not though; this isn’t music for the few. Tracks such as the Beats/Apple Radio launching ‘City’ might stand tall(est) as the welcoming beckon to newcomers, but their other material, including first single ‘Mama’, shines equally with a shabby, earthy resplendence.
The Bohicas played a short acoustic set for BBC radio prior to their iTent performance and they offered ample proof that great song writing should hold up in a stripped back setting. It proved to be the case here. Faultlessly executed, ‘Swarm’, in particular, shimmied with a nagging persistency. Wooden guitars couldn’t sully its power. Great stuff.
Steve Coogan appeared somewhat surprised in the stunning Piazza of the village to be greeted with quite such a huge crowd. Seemingly disconcerted, initially, and unsure how to play what was supposed to be a relatively serious Q&A interview session, he got the ‘Aha!’ out of the way early, which was boisterously received by a partially heavily inebriated crowd. He then proceeded to offer insightful and interesting accounts of his influences and motivators.
The best question of the audience participation had to rest with the woman who asked: “Steve, do you live in a hard water or a soft water area?” He loved it and so did we. A wonderfully Partridge-esque question to pitch.
Back to the music, and already looking at home on the big stage, debut album wunderkids, Catfish and the Bottlemen, entertained a sizable crowd with songs from the furthest reaches of The Balcony album. Clad in black, and led by talismanic frontman Ryan ‘Van’ McCann, the group raced through their set with poise and purpose. The likes of ‘Kathleen’ and ‘Cocoon’ stirred the evening air with vestiges of frustration, regret and persistence.
Let’s hope that their second record capitalises on the good ground covered thus far. Such a chord has been struck by this first album that the unavoidable, nagging sensation rests in the corner of the mind; could they be this decade’s Kooks? Let’s hope not. Still a bad band name though. Let’s just agree on this: song name’s featuring animals (particularly monkeys, for some reason) are good; band name’s featuring animals are not. Consider the evidence: Hootie and the Blowfish, Arctic Monkeys, etc.
The eccentric storytelling, pulpit-style sermons of Victor and the Rain Dog were a surprise discovery. Channelling a Matt Bellamy/Jeff Buckley vibe as though fed through a Jack White cordial at his most possessed, the tiny Band Stage is just the beginning for this group. Enchanting the gathered, further investigation proves that their recorded material does not yet do justice to the rockier proposition that they present in the flesh. Worth keeping an eye out for.
With a little fanfare, the Saturday night headliners took to the main stage accompanied by video footage of an actress introducing ‘Matador recording artists Belle & Sebastian’. Kicking matters off with the lead track from their latest record, ‘Nobody’s Empire’, video footage shifted to show snapshots of people protest and suffering in a moving aid to the Stuart Murdoch’s methodical, considered lyrics.
In between songs, Murdoch engaged with the crowd with his typical playful, teasing repartee and, on this occasion, even asked for an impromptu Welsh lesson. The front row obliged. As is customary in B&S lore, members of the audience were then plucked for stage dancing to ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’; the evergreen tale that rumbles with its elliptical melody line, repeating like a jaunty bacchanal, circling around and around, aided by wry, acute lyrical observations. ‘The Legal Man’ followed, with its raucous fuzzed-up guitar and jittery bongos, maintaining the wanton abandon both on-and-off stage.
Perhaps encouraged by the recent swift sell-out of their 20th anniversary shows for If You’re Feeling Sinister at the Royal Albert Hall, the septuplet plundered its riches frequently, but chose to dust down nothing from debut record Tigermilk. Closing with the rollicking, bluesy holler of ‘Me and the Major’, they left the attendees in no doubt as to why 20 years into their career they still bewitch and charm audiences the world over.
The Gramotones (soon to be renamed Cupids, apparently) are worth keeping an eye on. Their brand of retro, 60s pop sensibilities matched 70s-infused driving rock were a dose of the fresh as well as the arcane.
Upon close inspection, Stornoway have an enthusiastic ornithological slant to much of their material. This was something that singer and guitarist, Brian Briggs, gladly advised from the stage. As the sun offered its first true persistent break through the clouds of the whole weekend, revellers made the most of lying on the banks of grass and absorbing their dulcet, sweet tones. Closing with a cover of Yazz & The Plastic Population’s ‘The Only Way Is Up’ (itself a cover of a 1980 single by Otis Clay), they finally offered the one big sing-along that a main stage performance must surely require.
Seemingly invigorated by the sleeper, word-of-mouth, success that is greeting his second solo record, erstwhile Supergrass main man Gaz Coombes switched from acoustic to piano and back again with a restless curiosity. Truth be told that his new material has bold ambition, but it is still a few driving tracks short of being a rounded live experience. Props must go to his song, ‘The English Ruse’ though, which must be the song that Arcade Fire wish they had written.
Black Grape were far better than anyone expected them to be. After all, whenever Shaun Ryder’s name is attached to something, it is hard to think that it is likely to be anything other than a shambles. Suffice to say, his voice was in surprisingly good nick. If the wonderful Gypsies of Bohemia (do check them out, by the way) represent Festival No. 6’s unofficial house band, then Black Grape, this year, brought the party. Lithe, lissom and full of funk, Ryder was predictably dismissive in taking heed of the festival organiser’s request that they ‘stick to the first album’. He plucked ‘Get Higher’ from their second. One track after another elicited dancing from a hungry crowd. The penultimate ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ was proceeded by an explanation of the song’s genesis as a ‘straight-up’ hip hop song that their American label rejected because they said you couldn’t have ‘a white man and a black man’ together. They had to rock it up. Even if it was originally forced, it served adequate purpose. Wah wah riffs percolate within an already hectic sound. BG brought the bombast and the party. They sounded like Primal Scream on a very good day. An unexpected highlight.
James arrived late on Sunday as a co-headliner to run alongside the eccentric and beloved Grace Jones. Tim Booth executed his rambunctious dance moves of the flailing and discordant variety. The band diligently conjured breadth and beauty from a wide sonic palette, playing last album standouts in and amongst some of their best known hits (but wisely refraining from unleashing the millstone ‘Sit Down’, despite calls from the more boorish members of the amassed for them to do so). The striking thing about their catalogue is how comfortably the newer material, such as ‘Moving On’ sits alongside staples such as ‘Come Home’ or the pandemonium-inducing ‘Laid’. Beloved by many, and with very good reason, they were every bit worthy of their co-headliner status.
As trumpeted in many other reviews, this is a festival like no other (as co-opted for its tagline). A beautiful symbiosis of art and setting. It isn’t cheap, but it is one festival, more than any other, which seduces the senses on an unrelenting, perpetual basis. If you can stretch the budget, you’ll find your horizons will be broadened.
This jewel will sparkle for some time, in the memory of lucky attendees and on the festival scene as a whole. We are lucky to have this spot, and this festival, in these fair isles. A festival to be proud of. An essential visit.