The story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk

When the future finally came, it sounded slightly familiar.

The opening decade of the 21st century was marked not by ground breaking forays into the future but by a re-evaluation of the past. The rise of freak folk, nu folk, wyrd folk - call it what you will - has produced some of the most fascinating music of the last ten years.

Inspired both by traditional music and ground breaking 60s artists such as Bert Jansch, Anne Briggs and more a new generation of artists took up the mantle.

Describing inventive experiments in folk music across the decades, Jeanette Leech's new book 'Seasons They Change' is a fascinating insight into this evolution. Written with a clear love for the music, ClashMusic has barely been able to put down the authoritative tome since it landed on our doorstep.

As a special preview, we have been able to get hold of a short extract. Containing the rise of Green Man, it captures the British scene at an important point in its history...

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These scenes were supported by a new live circuit, with specific modern folk events growing in number. There were large events, like the Moseley Folk Festival and Adem’s Homefires, alongside innumerable local folk nights that welcomed the new psychedelic and experimental acts. The biggest of them all was the Green Man festival, based in Wales and founded by Jo Bartlett and Danny Hagan in 2003 as a one-day affair at the small Craig Y Nos castle in the Brecon Beacons.

At the time, Bartlett and Hagan were performing and recording together as It’s Jo & Danny. Their debut album, the self-released Lank-Haired Girl To Bearded Boy (2000), was well received and led to a deal with RCA for Thug’s Lounge (2001), but the jump to a major label proved to be a brief, unhappy experience. “We got dropped,” Bartlett recalls, “so we were wondering what to do.” She and Hagan had recently moved away from the hubbub of London to the Brecon Beacons in Wales. “We were living in such a beautiful, awe-inspiring area that Danny, one night, had the idea – why don’t we start a festival?”

The pair decided to name the event Green Man after the folk legend of rebirth and re-growth. It seemed to fit well with their post-London, post-RCA outlook. The event was billed explicitly as a folk festival. “We actually thought it would shock [people],” Bartlett says. “We thought it was like calling something a punk festival in 1976.”

Strongly represented at the first Green Man was Fife’s growing Fence Collective, with both King Creosote and James Yorkston playing. By the time of the second year, interest had grown enough for the festival to relocate to a larger site at Baskerville Hall. This was the year that established Green Man as a central part of what was now seen as a ‘folk revival’ in the UK. The event’s two very different headline acts, Alasdair Roberts and Four Tet, represented
the breadth of the modern folk scene in the UK at that time.

“That year was possibly the most magical,” Bartlett says. It was also notable for the buzz created during a Saturday lunchtime set by a young harpist, Joanna Newsom. “She was astounding, just jaw-droppingly good,” Bartlett recalls. “The otherworldly, wonderful music that the Americans were bringing into it was just a whole other dimension.” (Newsom appeared again the following year, this time as a main-stage headliner.)

With the resurgence of interest in folk music gathering pace, Green Man needed to change location again, while Bartlett and Hagan found that they could no longer do everything themselves. “It nearly killed Danny and myself,” Bartlett says. “We had 2,200 ticket sales, then with the journalists, the bands, the stallholders, guest list, and so on we had about 3,000 people on site. You become aware that you’ve got to feed people, let people go to the loo, and entertain them. I don’t think we slept a wink the whole weekend.” To make matters worse, most of the stewards the pair had hired left their posts. Bartlett and Hagan had to undertake refuse collection duties themselves, while Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s headline set was interrupted by a power cut. “Somebody made a film of the festival that year and they interviewed us on the Thursday, and we’re all healthy, and we look really optimistic about the weekend ahead,” Bartlett recalls. “Then they interviewed us again on Sunday, and we were totally emaciated and wired. I’m sitting there fiddling with my fingers the whole time, talking like some nutcase.”

Green Man moved to the Glanusk Park Estate in 2006, when it was attended by 6,500 people. By 2009, the capacity had grown to 10,000. In the intervening years, the event has moved gradually away from billing itself explicitly as a folk festival. “It’s a very tricky thing,” Bartlett says. “The general public are a little bit scared of the word folk. And it’s more than just a folk festival, which is why I’m a bit nervous of being labelled.” All of this seems to indicate that folk had become mainstream again by the close of the decade, particularly with the rise of indie-folk acts like Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling, and Noah & The Whale, all of whom have found considerable success by combining acoustic music with a populist sensibility.

It would certainly have been much harder for these acts to break through without the important groundwork laid by Trunk’s Wicker Man release, The Memory Band, and The Owl Service, not to mention Alasdair Roberts and Sharron Kraus. But what this also indicates is that post-millennial British psychedelic folk was not a cohesive beast in itself. It was only a small part of a much wider rejuvenation for young British folk-influenced musicians during the first decade of the 21st century, and one likely to mix with other forms of music.

As such it was less identifiable, and less tightly knit, than the US ‘freak folk’ boom had been. It caused a smaller media firestorm and spawned fewer derivative artists. What happened now, in Britain and elsewhere, was a splay. The experimental flourished, and the individuals spoke up.

'Seasons They Change' is out now

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