As much as it shouldn’t, the story of Festival No 6 2016 must begin with matters meteorological. As we know, the British weather is a fickle and temperamental animal. Famed for its ability to flip from nice to nasty with alarming swiftness, it is depressing yet true that it is seldom the case in reverse. You know the days: you wake up and one look at the grey blanket of clouds tells you that this is it. Try again tomorrow.
In keeping accord with this peculiar mode, the ominous clouds that swelled over Portmeirion on the Friday morning were only ever going to embed themselves for the weekend. The test for the attendees (and the organisers alike) was whether or not they could maintain spirit, enthusiasm and their own well-being. On its own relative, festival-attending terms, this mud bath rivalled Glastonbury. Yes, this was about as bad as it can get. And the less said about the farce of trying to depart the park and ride site the better…
It was such a shame too. Especially for a venue like this, which relies on the resplendence of its setting and the exploration of its grounds. But by the morning of day 2, great swathes of the site were no-go areas, with difficult decisions being taken by the organisers.
Announced at the last moment as Friday’s ‘special guests’, the Kaiser Chiefs chose to remind people of Ricky Wilson’s day job when he’s not whoring himself out for publicity. They made quite a good fist of it. Always destined to be Blur-lite (which some might even say is a compliment in itself), they nevertheless ply their trade with commitment and gusto. This is partly sourced from Wilson’s needy preoccupation with being loved, which is often an affliction that plagues frontmen, but is perhaps more pronounced here. He can certainly not be accused of resting on his laurels, mustering every ounce of his energy to writhe, leap and bound about the stage space. And this was in spite of one leg being contained within an orthopaedic boot.
For the band as a whole, whilst it would be easy to think that their moment in the sun has passed (and when they initiate proceedings with 2005’s ‘Every Day I Love You Less and Less’, you cannot help but embrace this feeling), new single ‘Parachute’ struck an immediate chord with the gathered. It sounds like a generic pop song from, well, now, but it is equipped with the sort of nagging hook that could become annoyingly ubiquitous. Released in June, it hasn’t quite been the case. Oh well. Naturally, anthems like ‘Ruby’, ‘I Predict A Riot’ and the closing ‘Oh My God’ garner the biggest reactions and the most desperate pogoing, but you cannot deny that their whole set was the perfect accompaniment in mood for the sun setting over the Welsh mountains. They came, they rioted and they came close to conquering.
If one were to ask, it would be rather an easy to dissect Bastille’s far-reaching allure. After all, esteemed Smiths and Blur producer Stephen Street is known to have said that a hit record is 80% vocals and drums. Bastille make compelling testimony for this diagnosis, with their heavy reliance on the mix falling in that favour. Frontman and principle songwriter, Dan Smith’s silky, honeyed vocals dominate slice after slice of joyous slabs of well-constructed pop. Rather bizarrely, as strong as this sounds, it is not conducive to a fully satisfying live experience. There is a lack of light and shade to their musical wares, and the scarcity of their own original material and the weight of responsibility of a headline set at a festival is probably why they serve up a rather uninspired take on TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’.
It is when they dig out their own big hitters that they fare best, such as the opening ‘Bad Blood’ or ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’. Perhaps inevitably, it is the albatross of ‘Pompeii’ that shines brightest. The new songs, with a mix of success, do not attempt to mess with the template and formula. This is an expansion without being a rethink. On those terms, it must be said that most recent single, ‘Good Grief’, stands particularly tall.
Showcasing a feral, ferocious energy, Estrons are a force with which to be reckoned. Squalling guitars compete with the impassioned screams of their peroxide mopped female singer; this four piece present something akin to a CBGBs-era Blondie mixed with Siouxie Sious, Savages and Elastica. Refreshing in their full throttle assault, they point towards an interesting aberration in a world littered with dry and conservative guitar bands. Check out ‘Make A Man’ if you need further convincing.
M Ward, who aside from being a She & Him-ster and a Monsters of Folk-er, is a guitar maestro who has released a number of solo records since 1999. At Portmeirion, he proceeded to spend his time in the Grand Pavilion tent proving his musical chops. Exercising a Neil Young-meets-1950s rock n’ roll style guitar attack, his voice is a gruff Lou Reed and Dylan hybrid. Showcasing much of his new LP, More Rain, his knack for leftfield melodies and old-school classicism was an interesting experience. Although destined to remain on the fringes, his is a style of Americana worth investigating if you’re hitherto without exposure to him.
Having only recently released their debut self-titled album, and featuring in a prominent position on the main stage Saturday’s bill, Stockport’s Blossoms’ ascent shows no sign of abating. Their ease in front of their sizeable festival crowd was reassuring of their growing confidence and stature. Their sound focuses on a noticeably strong backline, and while this sound is slightly dominated by synth, bass and drums, it was evident that a complimentary guitar attack adds ambience and nuance. It is enough to differentiate them from the pack.
Plus, if you measure musical efficacy by how an artist can drag you in and enable you to inhabit the songs, then they already have this down pat. This included the shimmering ‘Blown Rose’, the pulsating ‘At Most A Kiss’ and the irrepressible ‘Charlemagne’. Of course, with only one album to draw from, there will be some entrants into a medium-sized set that will no doubt fall by the wayside as this promising band develops from hereon in.
A discovery on one of the smaller stages, Hot Feet were a delight. This is the sound of early Belle and Sebastian, Joni Mitchell and Laura Marling all rolled into one in a gently seductive and soothing concoction. Mellifluous sounds plucked from lead and rhythm guitar and ably enunciated by the light brush of the drums, they are in the process of constructing their debut album proper. It will be worth keeping them in mind.
In what was possibly the most emotional performance of the weekend, an orchestra played a tribute to the late, great David Bowie, under the name David Bowie Reimagined. Wisely opting to feature only female vocalists (rather than risk pure imitation with any male singer), Charlotte Church and Jacqui Abbott took to the stage amongst others. The result was a tear-tugging set that managed to also somehow simultaneously etch a smile on the face through those misty eyes. ‘Starman’ was, in the main, recast as a gentle elegy sung by Church; ‘Life on Mars’ was as affecting as ever, and the choice to play the more obscure in and amongst the famous was a tasteful move. Hunky Dory’s ‘Quicksand’ got an outing, as did Blackstar’s ‘Lazurus’. Closing with ‘Heroes’, this specially arranged tribute was hugely memorable.
As the penultimate act of the festival, Super Furry Animals were right to treat this appearance as the home show that indeed it was. Frustratingly, however, despite pulling out some of the standout material from across their career – which even found time to include their infectious, yet nonsensical, ‘Bing Bong’ from earlier this year - they were mired by a poor sound mix. It was one that had the bass far too loud and the guitars far too quiet. Obviously, the band had a different mix in their monitors and were oblivious to such issues. Hauling out the affecting, propulsive Welsh paean ‘Mountain People’, as well as the glam rock shuffle of ‘Golden Retriever’, they concluded with their traditional, expletive-ridden ‘The Man Don’t Give a F***’. They even found time during the extended electronic break to re-emerge from the backstage area with Yeti costumes on. Ever-eccentric and never dull, the world of alternative indie/rock is a more colourful place with them in it. They’ve been sorely missed. Let’s hope they are here to stay.
As the site became ever more perilous, with mud forming what could only be described as a mud-rink, Noel Gallagher had the duty of bringing the 2016 edition of Festival No 6 to a close. Armed with a catalogue of guaranteed crowd pleasers, he was exactly what the soggy masses needed, even if some did not previously realise it, or indeed not have originally wanted it. Opening with ‘Everybody’s On The Run’, he delved into his two solo records for the opening brace. He even prefaced ‘We Can’t Go Back’ with the rather ominous declaration, “This is for Oasis fans everywhere”. That might snuff out the rumours of an imminent reunion then.
Never shy of pleasing a crowd, plenty of Oasis songs got an airing, including a number of B-sides from their imperious mid-90s period. This included a full band take on the aching lament ‘Talk Tonight’ and the catchy ‘D’yer Wanna Be a Spaceman’. Last year’s Chasing Yesterday provided the brash, insistent punch of ‘The Texan’, which sounds like the most flattering take on the Rolling Stones’s ‘Bitch’ committed to a recording studio this century.
The biggest shock of the night came in the encore. After rounding off the main set with the glorious ‘Half the World Away’ and ‘The Masterplan’, Gallagher returned to introduce a special guest. That guest was Paul Weller. After running through the Jam’s ‘Pretty Green’, the masses lost their individual, and collective, mind as the iconic bass line of ‘Town Called Malice’ filled the moist night air. How do you top that? If you’re Noel Gallagher, it’s not too difficult a task. Weller bowed out and Gallagher concluded with ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’. Doused in rain, covered in mud and pretty cold, for a good hour and a half, this set banished the weather from being a conscious concern. Thoroughly entertaining, his booking was even more satisfying in reality than it might have appeared on paper. An unqualified success all round.
So, there you have it. That was an edited recount of Festival No 6 in 2016. In terms of criticisms, the quagmire encountered could have been aided by better contingency planning. Festival goers are an understanding bunch, and most appreciate that not too much can be done in the face of Mother Nature, but some wood chippings in key areas surely wouldn’t have gone amiss?
Anyhow, for those who attended, we got through it! For those who didn’t, you missed the mud (rejoice!), but you also missed some captivating, life-affirming and wonderful performances.