As a weightless cocoon of fog expands over the verdant mountains that embellish Crickhowell’s Glanusk Estate, mist tickling the peaks, a vivid and sprawling wonderland of music, art and science is flickering into life. Winding through the patchwork fields of independent festival stalwart Green Man, there’s a choose-your-own-adventure element to the site that allows you to explore unearthed treasures all over: you can hug chickens or learn how to make a battery from a lemon in the Einstein’s Garden eco-playground; later you may stumble into Wishbone, a cabaret bar so well-hidden it might as well be mythical.
The symbolic Green Man effigy stands tall and proud at the heart of the South Wales site, brandishing a multi-coloured bow and arrow that’s pointed skyward. The sculpture watches over and figuratively protects the 20,000 attendees below, who keep the grounds as tidy as though they’re tending to their own back gardens. An air of inclusivity reigns: Welsh drag artists are welcomed with hugs and cheers from punters as they direct traffic at the front gate; a Pride-themed march charges through the site in a blizzard of rainbow flags and confetti canons.
This year’s edition is a cause for celebration for multiple reasons: not only is it Green Man’s 20th anniversary, but it’s the first time that the event has been able to run without previous COVID-related restrictions since 2019. On Thursday afternoon, the giddy thrill of being able to dance together again is ubiquitous – overwhelming, even. After west Londoner Gretel Hänlyn delivers 30 minutes of deep, brooding vocal theatrics with the force and poise of Florence Welch, she lobs a handful of Freddo chocolate bars into the crowd before her at the Mountain Stage. The front rows respond with enough excitement that you’d think she’d shared some kind of gold dust with them.
“Green Man is like Christmas for Welsh music,” exclaims Adwaith vocalist Hollie Singer, grasping for words to sum up the hyper-emotional mood amongst the packed-out crowd in The Walled Garden. Like the sharp and frantic Papur Wal that play before them, the Carmarthen trio prove why they’re at the forefront of a new wave of Welsh-speaking artists reaching an expanding audience outside of the country. To the rhythm of Singer’s Joan Jett-like growl, they batter their punchy alt-pop sound into feverish and exciting shapes. As a chant of their “eto, eto” refrain continues long after the band exit the stage, it wouldn’t be amiss to believe that their impassioned performance will soon be recognised as a watershed moment for Welsh-language music.
Green Man’s commitment to sharing and uplifting the Welsh language extends beyond its stages, too. Free five-minute lessons are available across the site – and it seems as though some of the artists have jumped at the opportunity to get involved. “Hufen iâ… I think that’s how you say ‘ice cream’,” exclaims Metronomy frontman Joe Mount, laughing as he butchers the pronunciation. The indie gang headline Thursday night – a first for the two-decade old festival, which usually opens proper on the Friday – and bassist Olugbenga Adelekan hops along to the band’s biggest hits (‘Salted Caramel Ice Cream’; a brilliantly twitchy ‘The Look’) with so much vigour that he practically levitates.
On Friday, Green Man’s brilliantly grimey underbelly is perfectly encapsulated inside the cavernous Far Out tent. A balancing act of real adventure and intimacy coheres as the afternoon rolls along: Bristol genre-rulebreaker Grove hammers out a mix of thumping UKG anthems that inspire a sea of gun fingers, before Viagra Boys become unlikely representatives of this festival’s ethos of community building. “I will remember your generosity for the rest of my life,” quips frontman Sebastian Murphy after a fan on the barrier offers to share a pack of cigarettes, making for a moment of respite before a primal squall erupts, grotty punk blown out by untameable saxophone solos that could start riots.
Bridging the arty and incendiary, meanwhile, is Mdou Moctar, a pioneering figure in contemporary Saharan music. After overcoming some technical hiccups, he dazzles with his taut guitar work, waggling his arms with abandon like an energetic wizard. Kae Tempest keeps the intensity burning into the early evening, stirring youngsters from mid-afternoon naps. “These are the days that I used to see in dreams”, the songwriter and poet repeats, and they could easily be describing the scene in front of them: a swelling crowd transfixed by Tempest’s searingly direct vocal style, shining in the calming, golden glow of the sunset.
Night descends and each audience member around the Mountain Stage is given a pair of 3D glasses as electronic pioneers Kraftwerk prove why they are legacy artists who remain at the top of their game. As they ride a victory lap of 50 years of their inimitable back catalogue, a surround-sound setup provides a hypnotic sensory overload. Children squeal with delight as they duck under 3D images of spaceships hurtling from the screen – and it’s genuinely moving to witness formative musical memories happening in real-time.
Playful, immersive eccentricity abounds as the weekend continues to unfold. Some artists encourage dancing into a blur: Porij’s pop-up show at Green Man Records is a hail of club beats and pure feeling, while a gaggle of inflatable cows bounce over the heads of those swaying along to the radiant Americana of Katy J Pearson, whose bright, strident vocal is accentuated by a seven-piece band. The liveliest of them all, however, is the staggeringly brilliant Melin Melyn, who are joined on stage by a dancing blackbird and a live painter, before their frenetic bursts of psych-y guitar are briefly interrupted by an impromptu flyover by an RAF aircraft.
Wandering around the grounds, you keep coming across other bands pulling off their own triumphs. In their first major UK festival slot since the departure of former lead vocalist Isaac Wood, the remaining members of Black Country, New Road are met with rapturous, minutes-long applause as they perform an hour of entirely new material. By cramming so many different sounds into their baroque arrangements, they leave your brain feeling like its own pulsing synthesiser. Flanked by just bass and harp, the Grammy-nominated Arooj Aftab also manages to make orchestral experiments weigh a ton; any doubts she could project her music – all intricate wisps and hints – in a large live setting are dispelled.
So much of this festival’s charm is its element of surprise at every corner, so when Sunday’s surprise guest turns out to be a familiar face amongst the Brecon Beacons – Gruff Rhys, who is perhaps to Green Man what Chris Martin is to Glastonbury, making cameos nigh on every year – it feels slightly disappointing. Yet here the punters’ up-for-it energy is such that it’s hard not to side with the ever-reliable Super Furry Animals vocalist.
Michael Kiwanuka summons the weekend’s biggest crowd with his titanic vocal range, built to shake and flatten the trees around us. Wondrous soul anthems from his Mercury-winning album ‘Kiwanuka’ supply a soothing comedown as he closes in time-honoured fashion, readying the thousands to parade en masse to the ritual burning of the Green Man statue. As the congregation gathers at midnight, flames begin to spit, jump and dance, while ribbony yellow and green fireworks intertwine, widening our eyes with wonder as the night draws in.