Green Man festival 2021: there’s magic in the mountains, and a sense of renewal

Brecon Beacons, August 19-22: Self Esteem, Katy J Pearson, Melin Melyn and Porridge Radio crown a weekend of joy and returning normality

“Four weeks ago, we didn’t know if this festival would happen,” Green Man boss Fiona Stewart tells the crowd before Tirzah closed the Welsh event’s first night, and this sense of near-disbelief permeates everything about the event’s first day, as 2021’s festival season kicks on against all odds against the stunning backdrop of Wales’ Brecon Beacons.

Wet Leg, who open the Far Out tent in the early afternoon on Thursday, are also overawed. The significant buzz that’s stemmed from their superbly catchy, winking debut single ‘Chaise Longue’ has felt distinctly old-school, and it’s worthy of the hype. As the band close their set with the track, vocalist Rhian Teasdale seems blown away as the crowd take part in its call-and-response lyrics.

“If you could see my face right now, you’d see a massive smile,” Lynks says behind a glittery sequin gimp suit complete with devil horns, bringing outlandish levels of filth and clubby beats to the otherwise quaint Walled Garden. Across a 45-minute set, the star turns Courtney Barnett’s ‘Pedestrian At Best’ into a dirty club banger and leads the crowd through choreographed dance moves and brand new songs.

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Lynks performing at Green Man 2021. Credit: Nici Eberl.

As always at Green Man, there’s a big focus on Welsh music across the weekend, and it’s a portrait of a scene that’s thriving at the moment. From the ‘70s throwback rock of Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard to Boy Azooga’s funky indie, the Welsh scene traverses genre but feels tied together by its community aspect. Members of the two bands pop up on stage with all manner of other Welsh talent across the festival, and Green Man feels like the biggest weekend of the year for every Welsh act that performs.

It’s certainly the case for Kelly Lee Owens, who closes Friday night with the long-awaited live debut of ‘Inner Song’. She’s a ball of energy throughout her set as the likes of ‘Melt!’ send the crowd into the night dancing.

Also intent on having the best time possible is Charlotte Church, who brings her lauded Late Night Pop Dungeon to the Walled Garden. With covers of Destiny’s Child, Justin Timberlake and Radiohead (all in the same medley!) among many, many others, the spectacle is absurdly good fun, and the kind of quirky booking that makes Green Man stand out as an event.

The real standout from the Welsh contingent, though, is Melin Melyn, who simply delight the small Rising stage on Saturday afternoon. “The only way I thought I’d be at Green Man not as a fan was by selling hummus,” Glyn jokes towards the end of the set. Later on though, he’s more confident, making a call to the festival’s bookers for a headline slot on the main stage in 2022. They’re on their way.

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Melin Melyn at Green Man 2021. Credit: Kirsty McLachlan.

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Caribou, who close Friday night, are playing their first gig in three years and debuting songs from last year’s ‘Suddenly’, released just weeks before the pandemic hit. With the likes of ‘Never Come Back’ and ‘Home’ bolstering an already hit-packed set that closes with the blissful ‘Can’t Do Without You’, Dan Snaith and co. prove their headlining chops without a hitch, capping the set off with a euphoric new track called ‘You Can Do It’.

Mogwai are also playing their first UK show since they picked up a surprise Number One album this year for ‘As The Love Continues’, and songs from the album prove the highlights of their predictably cinematic, soaring headline set on Saturday. For Fontaines D.C., the following night, it’s their first festival headline set ever, and they attack it with an energy unique to such an occasion.

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Fontaines D.C. headlining Green Man 2021. Credit: Kirsty McLachlan.

There are a fair few acts at Green Man similarly making up for lost time on the stage. Georgia’s set in the tent on Friday night signals her arrival as a magnetic pop star as well as a supreme drummer and singer, geeing up the crowd like an MC and bringing euphoria with ‘About Work The Dancefloor’, one of the best songs of 2019.

In the same tent, two days later, Porridge Radio also prove that the pandemic can’t stop their momentum. Today’s set, which draws one of the largest crowds to the Far Out tent of the weekend, proves that their trajectory to becoming a very big band indeed is still guaranteed. Recent single ‘7 Seconds’ is already a bonafide festival smash, while the debut of a stunning, anthemic new song called ‘Back To The Radio’ proves there’s plenty more to come.

In the same tent across the weekend is Emma-Jean Thackray, who throws out positive mantras over swirling jazz, and Canada’s Crack Cloud, who are one of the only acts to travel from abroad for the festival. They make the journey immediately worth it, with interlocking guitars and chanted vocals making the performance feel almost ritualistic. Sinead O’Brien also enthrals the Walled Garden on Saturday, with her magnetic voice developing and improving over time, adding new textures to her spiky punk poetry.

Secret sets are also sprinkled throughout the weekend. On Saturday, Laura Marling shows up at the festival’s pop-up record store to play a quick three-song set, before later on she gets weird in a psychedelic, groovy set with LUMP. Squid are the special guests in the Walled Garden on Sunday night, and are greeted back by the Green Man faithful like one of their own.

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Laura Marling performing a secret set at Green Man 2021. Credit: Marieke Macklon.

Green Man 2021 feels defined by two artists though, and the excitement whipped up before their sets comes from good old-fashioned word of mouth. Everywhere you go across the gorgeous festival site on Friday, you’ll catch people discussing how excited they are for Katy J Pearson’s set – and they all showed up, too. Everyone who manage to ram themselves into the Walled Garden saw a blissful set of Americana-tinged indie, and the distinct impression that we were witnessing a songwriter levelling up in real time.

On Sunday, it was then the turn of Self Esteem. Featuring Pussycat Dolls-inspired choreography – as promised in her new NME cover feature – Rebecca Taylor previews upcoming second album ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ and takes a shot for pop stardom. “Keep lyrics uncomfortable,” a message on her drum skin reads, and previews of the new album signal a record that has a refreshing no bullshit approach.

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Self Esteem performing at Green Man 2021. Credit: Kirsty McLachlan.

The apex of the set, and a fitting end to the weekend, comes with the stunning single ‘I Do This All The Time’. She sings about being surprised that you made it this far, before laying out a manifesto for a better path forwards in its verses. By the end of the track, she’s in floods of tears, consoled by her brilliant backing singers and dancers.

A few hours later, the green man himself – a giant wooden sculpture that looms over the festival site all weekend – burns to the ground for the festival’s closing ritual, signalling the conclusion of a weekend of renewal.

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