Amid the lush environs of the Brecon Beacons National Park in South Wales, the small-scale Green Man festival offers up an eco-friendly bouquet of musical treats for a discerning crowd. Julian Owen takes a visit Britain's festival landscape is changing. Summer's headline events remain intact, of course: the Reading and Leeds festivals still pack in the masses keen to gorge themselves on this year's big things, while at Glastonbury, the daddy of them all, 175,000 people lay friendly siege to a rolling West Country farm.
Over the past decade, however, it's become increasingly clear that size isn't everything. If you're going to subject yourself to a long weekend of Portaloos and sleeping under canvas, runs the thinking, why do so at an event where you may only be interested in, say, 20 per cent of the music? Hence the rise of what have quickly become known as boutique festivals, wherein large-scale, anything-goes line-ups are replaced by relatively petite affairs purveying more taste-specific musical treats. The Big Chill, for example, offers exactly what the name suggests: a hammock-laden site in the gracious wooded surrounds of deepest Herefordshire, this year soundtracked by the distinctly easy-on-the-ear likes of Spiritualized and Calexico. Northamptonshire, meanwhile, plays host to Shambala, a green-leaning affair initially grown from ad hoc annual parties. It eschews corporate branding in favour of discreetly organised chaos (as a pointer to its general ethos, attendees at the first official event in 2002 were given handmade clay pendants instead of wristbands).
Against this backdrop of quiet revolution comes this year's Green Man Festival in the stately environs of Glanusk Park, nestled snugly in the Brecon Beacons National Park in South Wales. And what a backdrop. Above the main stage, to a height of 596 metres, rises the lush patchwork of green hues that is Sugar Loaf Mountain; between the two meanders the lazily flowing River Usk. The festival site is hardly any less spectacular, strewn with ancient Celtic standing stones, a private chapel, farm buildings and stables, and shaded by a canopy of trees comprising more than 120 species of oak. Not for nothing did The Times newspaper once record that "of all the festivals in all the fields in Britain, probably the best field of all has been bagged by the Green Man Festival".
Still, let's not get carried away and drift too far down the rural idyll route. While Green Man may have first established its fresh young roots in the gently fertile terrain of alt-folk, Friday night's main-stage line-up gives clear indication that the occasional foray into horse-frightening noise is equally welcome. Brighton's British Sea Power have long been deserving of wider acclaim, a beautiful balance between pop nous, gilded edges (specifically Abi Fry's swooping strokes of viola and Phil Sumner's keening trumpet) and an arcing thrust that's redolent of their name: crowd-enlivening waves of sweeping, occasionally squally, guitar.
Roky Erickson began his musical life as the main man in The 13th Floor Elevators, the mid-1960s group whose penchant for all things psychedelic did for the blues what their contemporaries Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead did for folk: detonate it into a thousand technicolour shards. And what a long, strange, tragic journey it has been for him since: serving a three-year sentence in Texas's Hospital for the Criminally Insane following a drug habit, and later developing an obsession for junk mail that ultimately saw him arrested (and acquitted) on charges of postal theft. As the rapturous reception accorded last year's festival-closing set from the folk supergroup Pentangle proved, the Green Man crowd is generally endowed with a keen sense of musical history and loves nothing more than an unlikely comeback. So it proves this year too. Revived by recent collaborations with the likes of ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and the Scottish post-rockers Mogwai, Erickson flayed the crowd with the heaviest set of the weekend and, winningly, clearly enjoyed every last second of it.
Intense in a wholly different way, Four Tet (aka Kieran Hebden) cast a bewitching spell over the Far Out Stage. Slow-release electronic pulses built up and, after 10 minutes of percussive promises, the beat finally detonated. And how. Slowly rocking back and forth stage-front, standing behind a fully laden desk of trickery in near darkness, and cloaked by constantly billowing dry ice, the classic image of a mad professor was only slightly leavened by the fact that he was encircled by four black-clad women twirling spectacularly illuminated hula-hoops.
Saturday morning dawned quiet. Blue fingers of smoke betrayed the dotted remnants of last night's campfires and embraced the tips of the densely packed trees ascending from the festival's rear edge. Thick cloud, cast in every shade between black and white, kissed the peak of Sugar Loaf Mountain and hung equally low across the rest of the Usk Valley. There's a peculiar quality to this kind of weather in Wales - elsewhere, waking to a sight like this would be faintly depressing; here it felt darkly romantic. We are, after all, just south of the area where Led Zeppelin opted to "get it together in the country" and record their moodily melancholic, famously folk-leaning III album. You'd second their decision.
So would others, the Green Man founders Jo Bartlett and Danny Hagan included. The pair, better known as electronica-tinged folkists It's Jo and Danny, moved to the Brecon Beacons when they tired of the pace of life in London; it wasn't long before they were inspired to share their discovery with a few more people. Astutely, they turned to Kenny "King Creosote" Anderson for advice. As head of the Fence Collective, he was already adept at staging high-quality, small-scale events in the similarly unlikely surrounds of his Scottish hometown, Fife. Along with his fellow collectivist James Yorkston, he was one of the highlights of Green Man's one-day debut, held in 2003 at Craig Y Nos Castle, with the glorious old ballroom deployed as the main stage. It was attended by 350 people and Bartlett and Hagan were left with a mere £9.10 (Dh55) loss. The die had been cast: though the capacity of today's festival numbers 10,000, it could easily be more; that it doesn't comes down to the simple fact that, in line with the boutique festival trend, the underlying ethos is to prioritise the enjoyment of paying punters well above the making of money.
A two-day event was held in the Welsh/English border town of Hay-on-Wye in 2004. A three-day festival took place in the same location a year later. In 2006, there became the incarnation of the festival as we know it: Glanusk Park, with the Big Chill organiser Fiona Stewart brought in as co-organiser. Today, says Bartlett: "It's been such an obsession with us - we live it, sleep it, dream it - that we have to remind ourselves to take a step back and realise how big it's become. We've always put our heart and soul into it and are immensely proud that it's become a celebrated event."
A note in this year's programme helps highlight one of the causes for celebration, namely an un-preachy but firm eco-friendly stance: "The pond at the bottom of the garden is surrounded by art installations and glitters in the night. The frogs living in it seem as delighted at seeing the children peering into the pond as the children are seeing them, but we acknowledge that paddling in their home is impolite and probably frightening to them, so we respectfully request that you leave well alone." Glanusk Park's beautiful and well-established herb garden plays host to tents offering everything from Chinese and Thai massage to aromatherapy and a well-being workshop, including acupuncture, sports therapy, counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy.
Despite these attractions - not to mention the theatre and comedy performances, literature programme, film tent and more - it is the music that remains the number one draw. Saturday's highlights included Glasgow's sonic experimentalists The Phantom Band, while Noah & The Whale showcased a more glowering electric edge to their previously sunny acoustic disposition. The Wisconsin singer-songwriter Justin Vernon - stage name Bon Iver - was a real treat. Given that he recorded his debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, in a remote log cabin, it was no surprise to find he seemed rather at home here. His voice - with its Prince-like catches when it hits overdrive - lifted proceedings far above the norm. Jarvis Cocker, meanwhile, was all louche, gangly, easy charm in his headline slot; no need to draw on past glories with Pulp when his solo songbook includes the likes of agony uncle-turned-Lothario pop breeziness of Don't Let Him Waste Your Time and fabulously trashy fuzz-rock such as Angela.
Sunday saw the find of the festival. Zun Zun Egui are an extraordinary proposition, based in England but with members from Mauritius and Japan. They ply an East African-inflected rock 'n' roll that seamlessly takes in juju, Beefheart, Fugazi, tropicalia, krautrock and more. The beaming Green Man crowd appeared as won over by their charms as the chief Talking Head David Byrne, who invited them to support him at London's Royal Festival Hall in April. Camera Obscura are a swoonsome, lush pop delight; and The Dirty Three a case study in what a dervish of a violinist can achieve when flanked by similarly gifted and ambitious drums and guitar. Finally, Wilco closed out the weekend on a genuine high, with rough-hewn country balladry to break the heart and anthemic raggedy rock to mend it. Next year can't come quickly enough.