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25 August 2021

Letters from Green Man: a music festival in the age of Covid

After 18 months away from live music and mass gatherings, being back felt normal – and right.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

“It still seems so unreal,” said Camilla Staveley-Taylor of the Watford folk-rock band the Staves, gazing out on to a sun-drenched Green Man Festival on Sunday evening. Similar sentiments were echoed across the weekend: “Are we doing hugs?” asked a woman, covered in glitter, as she was reunited with a group of friends on the campsite. “This is our second gig in two years. Can you tell?” joked the Bristol-based folk singer Fenne Lily halfway through her set in the Walled Garden. “Music is back/Like Johann Sebastian Bach/Music is back/Grab your mask and vax,” sang the comedic Canadian songwriter Chilly Gonzales in the literature tent. 

Green Man Festival, like most others, didn’t happen in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The live music industry as a whole stood more or less still for more than a year until restrictions eased on 19 July 2021 – and even then, the lack of a government reinsurance policy prevented many events from going ahead. In June the Association of Independent Festivals reported that more than half of UK festivals with a minimum capacity of 50,000 had been cancelled in 2021 due to uncertainty around coronavirus. After all those difficulties, that Green Man, an independent music and arts festival held among the Black Mountains in the Brecon Beacons, Wales, was able to go ahead – that thousands of people gathered in a field to sing and dance and drink together – feels remarkable.

There were Covid safety measures in place, of course: on arrival, all attendees were required to show proof of two vaccinations or a negative lateral flow test. There were hand-sanitising stations spread out across the site and fewer “touch points” than usual. Big-top tent stages that would ordinarily have been enclosed were opened to allow for better ventilation. “Be kind,” read posters across the venue. “Please be aware there may be longer queues this year.”

But such adjustments felt minor. The jubilance, and relief, felt by those for whom Green Man is an annual rite of passage was evident. Most had held on to tickets bought for the 2020 edition rather than asking for a refund, keeping faith that the festival would return – and in doing so, providing a lifeline for its organisers, who risked financial trouble if a last-minute lockdown made the festival impossible again. After the shock of walking through the gates, being there, even among crowds, felt normal – and right, because part of going to a festival has always been about leaving behind day-to-day life and stepping into a sanctuary. “What we did do is leave the old world at the gate/For three or four days/Suspend our disbelief at the mountains,” said the poet Will Burns, reading in the literature tent to open the festival.

Green Man has long instilled an affability in its attendees, artists and crew. The festival, which started in 2003 and specialises in alternative, folk, rock and dance music, hosts local Welsh businesses in its grounds, and has always celebrated originality. One of just five large festivals in the UK to have remained independent, it retains total curational autonomy, allowing music fans to wander from the pagan-inspired vocals of Richard Dawson to the buoyant afrobeat of eight-piece Kokoroko, on to the psychedelic art-pop of the Laura Marling/Mike Lindsay collaboration Lump, and then to the shoegaze of Scottish headliners Mogwai, in just one afternoon. Not even the lingering threat of Covid could dampen that autonomous spirit. 

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Across the weekend, there was a sense, more than ever before, that what was happening inside the gates was something special, something to be protected from the anxiety of the outside world. After a rollicking, emotional Friday night set, the Tyneside singer Nadine Shah, whose third album Holiday Destination explored the refugee crisis, asked listeners to “take the love you showed here and take it out in the world with you”. It’s not enough to be considerate and kind in here, she seemed to be saying: the outside world needs it more than this bubble.

The all-black feminist DIY punk band Big Joanie played a big-hearted and courageous set earlier that afternoon. They encouraged everyone listening to pick up an instrument when they got home, to start a band whatever their skill level. After all, the drummer Chardine Taylor Stone said, “there’s lots of mediocre white men out there doing just fine”; isn’t it time the rest of us had a go? Covid-19, Big Joanie reminded us, is just one hurdle the music industry needs to overcome: inequality and lack of representation onstage and in crews and music studios remain a battle that needs fighting.

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And a festival remains a festival. There was still a disgruntled couple walking away from the stage after two minutes of a set they deemed “the definition of wishy-washy”. There were still teenagers shaking off their hangovers in the morning sun, one explaining to friends that he had “always been a tactical chunderer”. And there was still a sloshed 50-something having the time of her life while doing interpretative dance with a bin liner during a set from the jazz-fusion bassist Thundercat – possibly the most accomplished instrumentalist playing on a pop stage right now. A year may have been lost, but the muscle memory of how to be in a crowd, how to lose yourself to live music, was not.

[See also: Why the government’s live events reinsurance scheme is too little, too late]