Green Man Festival
August 18–21, 2022
Brecon Beacon, Wales
A message appeared on the two large screens flanking the Mountain Stage at the Green Man festival in the Brecon Beacons, Wales. The multitude were urged to collect a pair of 3D spectacles from one of several locations, including the record stall and a couple of the larger bars. These would be required for Friday night’s performance by the German pioneers of electronic song, Kraftwerk, one of Green Man’s most enticing headliners in years. This festival had a kind of pagan folktronica genesis, but by this twentieth anniversary year it has long embraced a multitude of musical forms. Across five major stages, it was easy to craft a completely personal trajectory: crushed and bruised during the Swedish art-biker punk explosion of Viagra Boys; swaying ecstatically with the veteran Senegalese soothers Orchestra Baobab (there was a much greater African presence at this year’s festival); or spasming with complexity while discovering the new Robocobra Quartet, twitch-jazz judderers from Northern Ireland. We could also catch Tune-Yards for the first time in many years, or rediscover the heavy longhair guitar ejaculations of Crazy Horse, reborn via Ty Segall and his Freedom Band.
Green Man enjoys one of the most scenic settings of all possible festivals, surrounded by low mountains and rising forests, its Mountain Stage lying at the base of a huge natural amphitheater. Normally it rains heavily for half of the four days, but this time the heavens beamed. This was the sunniest Green Man for at least six years.
Back to our 3D existence: darkness had fallen, so it was time to don the glasses and brave the masses. Kraftwerk punctually started their oscillations at 10pm, unsurprisingly arranged in a row, each member standing before an identical plinth. Apparently the entire contents of their Kling Klang studio are now reduced to four laptops (or even to four tablets). All movement sprang from the behind-the-band screen, which closely linked its imagery to each song, comprising clean-lined airbrush style visuals, mostly with a suitability for jumping out, close above the audience’s heads. In past times, 3D lenses always seemed disappointing in their quality and their ill face-fitting nature. The Kraftwerk foursome made sure that this evening would exist on a superior scale, and as heightened sheets of activity marched outwards, the band placed somewhere in their midst, the vistas lined up sequentially. Perhaps this effect was not so pronounced further back from the stage, as the next day some curmudgeons were overheard as being unimpressed. They were probably sitting up on the tiered grassy ledges, far away and above. The Kraftwerkian sonics were supreme, with cutting snicks and undulant bass mass, vocals clarified for maximum lyrical minimalism.
Kraftwerk gradually revealed a tendency to introduce their numbers, most of them extremely famous and influential, presenting a version not too far removed from their vinyl forebears, then using an extended second section to pulsate off into an almost dub-version minimalism. It was as if a feedback loop was traveling from Düsseldorf to Detroit, and then back again, co-influenced and recalibrated. Cologne came to Chicago, bent out of shape, stripped and bassy, blipped and born again, right back to the Brecon Beacons. Monotone voices are the catchiest of all, but as if these songs were too dangerously compulsive, Kraftwerk ohm-itted two of their most nagging numbers, “Showroom Dummies” and “Pocket Calculator.” All others were present: “Autobahn,” “Trans-Europe Express,” “Tour de France,” and “The Model,” illustrating the precious content of their supreme songbook. Timed to coincide with a precise ninety-minute set, Ralf Hütter, sole surviving original member from 1970, was the last jump-suited, body-mapped being to step back, silently take a bow, and stroll purposefully offstage.
Two days later, we laid ourselves to rest in the Walled Garden, as Group Listening wafted across to the cider bar. This is a duo dedicated to the ambient repertoire, featuring keyboardist Paul Jones and reedman Stephen Black. Laraaji’s “All of a Sudden” manifested with a light drum machine beat, clarinet petals fluttering down onto piano keys, managing to be relaxed and softly anthemic. A double splash of The Durutti Column was chased by “The Happy Whistler,” courtesy of Raymond Scott. It’s a supposed lullaby that sounded slightly too hyperactive, faintly similar to Danny Kaye’s “Inchworm” (penned by Frank Loesser). Black’s eight-year-old son ran around, selling their merchandise. Group Listening closed with “Seeland” by Neu!, an insistent metronome marking its inevitable progress.
Black also appears under the guise of Sweet Baboo, a notable Welsh solo artist, as well as a regular bandmate of singer-guitarist Cate Le Bon. Her set partially clashed with Kraftwerk’s, but it was still possible to catch an hour afterwards, in the Far Out tent. Baboo favors baritone saxophone in her band, and Le Bon, surrounded by one of her largest line-ups, created a sound that was bordering on chamber rock. Mysterious, garbed in a flowing smock, she presented a set of new and old material, all witnessed through a gentle gauze that transformed the songs into elaborately-scaled mini-orchestration. Le Bon continues to command and captivate, as the leading voice of Welsh oddrock, joined by the returning H. Hawkline, her old guitar-web sparring partner. This was a lavish set, framing Le Bon’s songs in a successfully theatrical fashion.