“This is the last ever Festival No 6!” yells Alex Kapranos from the main stage, decked out in full Patrick McGoohan blazer and number badge in honour of The Prisoner, the ‘60s series filmed in Portmeirion, and which the annual alt-rock pilgrimage here is dedicated to, watching his inflatable white ‘rover’ balloons fly off over the roof of the stage in high wind. “
There’ll be another one in two years,” says the shuttle bus attendant confidently, and hopefully he’s not talking shuttle buses. Confusion and misinformation shrouds the last Festival No 6 (“for now” according to official sources) and no-one seems to really know what the hell’s going on. How very Prisoner of them.
And thus season one of Festival No 6 – 2012-2018 – ends with a baffling cliffhanger, as mysterious at its close as it was at its beginning. What did it all mean, the obscure arts masterclasses, the surreal performance pieces, the eerie parades of neon skeletons? Who was behind it, and why did they trap dozens of people in a waterlogged car park for days on end in 2016? Was there a secret narrative at play or was it all just a chance to get wellied on prosecco in deckchairs on a giant chess board in the piazza of a magical Italianate village watching Tim Burgess sing Charlatans songs with a chamber orchestra?
As with the show, it’s best not to ask many questions about Festival No 6 and just soak in the oddity: The Brythoniaid Welsh Male Choir, a “boyband” with a combined age of over 4,000 introduced as “the real stars of the festival”, covering Rag’n’Bone Man’s ‘Skin’; the postman dressed in a suit made from brown paper packaging pushing a quaint bicycle into the woods; the secretive banquets in the onsite hotel; the Beatles tours of Brian Epstein’s cottage; the human chess games; the members of Six Of One, the official Prisoner appreciation society, riding around the squares and terraces on a rainbow trailer in full Village regalia, recreating scenes from the show.
Admittedly, along with the wash-outs that have marred several of the seven editions so far (2016 was almost washed off the face of the earth), the repeat appeal of Festival No 6 has been limited by its unchanging aesthetic, but at least the acts are still game. “It’s Festival No 6, why do you think we’re here?” ex-Mansun frontman Paul Draper, now looking like he’s twinned with Jeff Lynne, asks the main stage crowd before piling into all of the singles from his sprawling 1998 cult favourite ‘Six’, a record so inspired by The Prisoner it was named after McGoohan’s character, featured him on the cover and was just as baffling for the casual viewer. A billowing ‘Legacy’ and trans-anthem-before-its-time ‘Being A Girl’ form the centre-points of a set of psych-flecked pomp rock at its finest – Mansun hits like ‘Taxloss’ mingle with proggy new tunes and Draper even squeezes in a race through ‘Wide Open Space’, counting his remaining stage time down to the wire.
Friday sets the bar high for 2018’s ‘6. Everything Everything are an angular delight, still relentlessly breaking their own rules – in their hands craven baboons and fat children in pushchairs sound like perfectly normal subject matter for amphetamine electronica and sci-fi indie pop that now manages to mingle Radiohead with Howard Jones. And if Everything Everything are a barrier-rattling vision of alt-pop’s future possibilities, Ride are a visceral glance into its past. If anyone ever tries to convince you that shoegazing was mealy, whimpering bedwetter’s music, let Ride scorch their face off with the primal, savage and euphoric screes of ‘Leave Them All Behind’ or ‘Polar Bear’, songs that sound like they’ve been scraped straight out of the Big Bang. Still stratospheric, after all these years.
After which, headliners Friendly Fires can’t help but feel a little limp by comparison. That they’ve bounced back after six wilderness years straight into the boutique festival headline slots must give some hope to The Sunshine Underground – FF were never exactly the indie-funk U2, after all. And that early single ‘Paris’ sounds by far their most cutting-edge track tonight, with its Doppler synths and cavernous chorus, goes to show how derivative they’ve turned in their absence. Ed Macfarlane dad-dances through a string of interchangeable disco funk numbers with a vaguely carnival feel – ‘Can’t Wait Forever’, ‘True Love’, a ‘Blue Cassette’ that sounds like a Donna Summer single being put through a mincer. The set only really starts to sound relevant in the final stretch, when ‘Kiss Of Life’ exhibits some afropop depth and ‘Hawaiian Air’ takes off. These Fires are hardly raging.
Likewise, Saturday’s bill is underwhelming. Hollie Cooks does dub reggae covers of Delaney And Bonnie’s ‘Superstar’. The Horrors embody indie rock at its dreariest. Hurts try to work out how to make their boyband house epics look even cornier – satin shirt? Chuck out flowers during the big ballad finale? Get Adam Anderson to grow a heavy beard and wear a hat to look exactly like Robin Gibb? Do a song about someone who looks like a “gyspy queen” with “a black tattoo on her body”, a bit like David Brent?
Thank god for the arrival of Django Django in the Grand Pavilion tent, itching and boinging through elasticated, amorphous alt-rock, like a kind of electronic Ride. For Warm Digits and their driving krautpop, complete with video screen singer. And for Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, skipping between genres (Bontempi ballads? Aboriginal electro blues? Android marching band?) in half a clown suit.
And thank some dustbowl Satan for The The – a band whose name is such an internet-age disaster zone it’s no wonder they pissed off for 14 years and have returned as the weekend’s big retro draw. “You’ll notice the set is a career overview,” says Matt Johnson, pointing out there’s no new record to drive their reunion, “we’re just doing it for the love of it.” And he clearly does, tearing political noir rock like ‘Armageddon Days (Are Here Again)’ out of himself in chunks and growling through a steamy ‘Dogs Of Lust’ like Boris Johnson in heat. Johnson gets so carried away in his finely-wrought world of roadhouse rock, country grandeur and junkyard grooves, in fact, that he forgets the time, hits curfew and has his sound cut off after a fiery ‘Infected’. The Th, then.
The Biblical deluge that was scheduled to wash Portmeirion off the map on Saturday turns out to be merely a light drenching, so we enter Sunday in high – if mildly soggy – spirits. Watching a woman dressed as a seagull play acoustic jazz tunes in a gigantic golden birdcage is just the ticket, as is Gaz Coombes’ masterful reinvention as a motoric psych rock maestro. Lustrous folk tunes like ‘The Girl Who Fell To Earth’ and driving buzz rock like ‘Deep Pockets’ are the sort of stuff that would be the making of a whole new cult scene were Gaz a newcomer, and rock music had a shot at the singles chart anymore.
His solo acoustic take on Supergrass’s ‘Moving’ is a heart-warming reminder of more alternative-friendly times, a mood that The Charlatans take to majestic extremes. Dressed in the dungarees of a MDMAdferrit CBB’s presenter, Tim Burgess leads the Charlies through almost three decades of bangers, from baggy mainstay ‘The Only One I Know’ through Britpop’s finest country cracker ‘North Country Boy’ to 2015’s euphoric ‘Come Home Baby’ – proof that they’re still knocking out world-beating anthems to this day. If someone hadn’t already inadvisedly taken the roof off the Festival No 6 main stage, The Charlatans would’ve blown it away.
Over in the Grand Pavillion tent Baxter Dury is ranting about Boris Johnson during one of the Ian-ish semi-raps he spits over sophistico synthpop tunes adorned with lush female vocals that give him the air of the gobby lothario, a kind of lounge pop George Best. Then alpha female Anna Calvi sets about smashing gritty PJ Harvey desert rock and high art together, letting sweeping theatrical melodies and screaming guitar frenzies fight each other to the death over control of her music. At times you’d think a jellyfish was playing her subaqueous solos, at others she brutalises her guitar like a Hostel torturer. Incredible scenes.
Franz Ferdinand prove the perfect closer for the “final” No 6, throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the theme, and into their still glistening back catalogue. As though possessed by the spirit of James Brown, Alex Kapranos stirs the crowd into throes of lusty passion to ‘No You Girls’, ‘The Dark Of The Matinee’ and ‘Do You Want To?’ and spools out the more clubland grooves from new album ‘Always Ascending’ with a sense of the fabulous mildly lacking from the record. By the time they’re doing synchronised squat jumps to ‘Take Me Out’ and unleashing both a monstrous ‘Ulysses’ and their ill-fated balloons to Portmeirion’s high winds, Festival No 6 is going out with an unprecedented bang. Not a goodbye, hopefully, but more of a ‘be seeing you’ (ask a Prisoner fan).