It’s Friday night and I’m being whipped by the wind as I put my tent up in a lonely corner of a field. The trek from the campsite, into Portmerion feels far too long in the grim rain.
Fortunately the weather lifts by the time I reach the village. This is a festival that exists in a dream-state.
There’s some synesthesic effect between the architecture, the music and the smell of food. A flaming torch procession lights up the night as ambient music blooms in the air. A UAV drone floats overhead, dimly bringing to mind the omni-surveillance of The Prisoner. Even without the festival, Portmerion would feel off-kilter: a recreation of the Platonic ideal of an Italian hill-village, perched over a Welsh estuary.
During Friday’s explorations I stumble across the Lost In The Woods stage, just in time to catch Badly Drawn Boy. It’s a small stage but he fits it perfectly – unaccompanied, except briefly for backing singers. For the most part, it’s just him and his guitar, amidst the trees. The Lost In The Woods stage is cosy. There is a big, free-standing floor lamp in one corner, illuminating everything with a deep orange glow. Like peering into a warm living room. After Badly Drawn Boy, I follow a parade back through Portmerion village and over to the main festival arena. The arena is big enough for two large stages (both covered over in vast tents), several smaller venues and a ludicrous array of food stands.
The woods get progressively more Lovecraftian as you walk through them
Later I watch James Blake perform his blippy, dark, synth music on Stage No. 6 (the main stage). He doesn’t quite work for me in this setting, although maybe that’s because I’m not really familiar with his music. It feels a little bare for such a big space.
On the Saturday morning I go for a walk deeper into the woods. There are various little stages and bars tucked away. At one point I’m accosted by artists, who adhere coloured dots to the clothes of passersby. I remain uncertain as to the general statement that this is making.
The woods get progressively more Lovecraftian as you walk through them, they contain both a dog cemetery and something called The Ghost Garden, which I fail to find despite following the signposts. One thing I do find in the woods is an impromptu band, handing percussion instruments to people and inviting them to join in for collective songwriting. Saturday is also when Stealing Sheep play (joined by the Harlequin Dynamite band for some of their set). The heavy rhythmic undercurrents of their music providing the perfect counterpoint to their vocal harmonies. This is irrefutably catchy music and I find myself humming half remembered songs for the rest of the festival.
Later, The Wave Pictures play the Lost In The Woods stage. They are chirpy and personable, with a penchant for extended and technical guitar solos not often shared by their tweecore brethren Allo Darlin. My Bloody Valentine play the main stage on Saturday night. It seems like a bold move to invite a shoegazer band to headline your main stage.
My Bloody Valentine make it work though. Their music is extraordinarily loud, a great sonic hammer bearing down upon the audience, underneath which their hushed vocals can just about be made out. The band as a whole manage to project an air of meekness, almost as if they can’t believe just how loud they are.
Frontman Kevin Shields hides in the shadows of his monitor bank and only acknowledges the audience twice during the set, once to apologise for a technical problem and once to announce their last song. During their last song the music descends into a squall of shrieking feedback. They keep it going for what seems like several minutes causing audience members to clutch at their ears, before abruptly switching back into the music they were playing. It is a hell of a way to end a set.
During the Saturday night, the weather worsens again. Several of the guy ropes on my tent come loose and I wake up entombed in a soggy, fabric parallelogram. It’s too wet and cold for me to even consider fixing the problem so I wrap my sleeping bag tighter and think bad thoughts about the lucky souls booked into Portmerion hotel. The weather remains poor for a large part of Sunday and the main arena and the woodlands are closed. I mill aimlessly around for a few hours vaguely wondering if I should just go home.
It’s Sunday when Portmerion’s magic breaks. I understand that festivals like this can’t control the weather and don’t want a few thousand people churning up the ground, but they need better contingency plans. I try to find something to do to kill time before hiding in the porch of the Tim Peaks diner. The Tim Peaks diner is a small gallery, temporarily taken over by Tim Burgess and his friends. The DJ inside spins weather related songs and everyone inside looks like they’re having a good time. During the bad weather, I couldn’t find much else to see and even the onsite film program seemed to have halted.
I got the impression that those behind the festival clearly care deeply about these things
By 3pm the weather gets better and the organisers allow people back into the main arena. It’s wet and slippy but I’m thankful they’ve avoided a mud bath. On the Sunday night the Manics headline the mainstage. It’s their first UK gig in years and it’s an
absolute joy to see them so excited. If My Bloody Valentine are stoic, the Manics are gleeful and excitable by contrast. They rattle through their early hits with enthusiasm, before playing a few songs from their new album. Their new songs don’t quite have the same energy as their early hits. But it’s hard not to get excited when they play the first few bars of Motorcycle Emptiness or No Surface All Feeling.
Festival No. 6 is as notable for its branding as its lineup. For months before the festival, the logo haunted me from magazines, bus windows and the corners of websites. At the same time, the lineup feels as heavily curated as the festival. Clearly someone has spent a lot of time, determining the feel of the festival, from the typeface, through to which bands/acts should fill which stages.
Throughout my time at Festival No. 6, I got the impression that those behind the festival clearly care deeply about these things, even the corporate sponsors felt like they had been chosen with specific demographics in mind. The curatorial and branding aspect of Festival No. 6 remind me of McSweeneys or BoingBoing – It is this aspect that most clearly demarcates Festival No. 6 from other small festivals. They have an incredibly clear idea of what they’re doing and aside from the weather, they didn’t put a foot wrong.