As the estuary glistens and the sun burns the mountain tops a descending red, the thud of bass and rumbling chorus of numerous parties fills the salty air at Portmeirion in North Wales.
The question is which one to march towards? Will it be sylvan adventures in ‘The Woodlands’ and choices between bopping on floating pontoons in a Chinese garden or jagged techno whatnot at the tree-shaded ‘Dogon Village’; or tribal beats in ‘The Dugout’ or The Wedding Present at the Badly Drawn Boy-curated ‘Lost in the Woods Stage’? Maybe a massive audience event appeals, so it might be the rabble rousing Black Grape or the uplifting sounds of James, Mark Ronson or Metronomy that’s in order.
This is just a snapshot of the options at Festival No.6. If you suffer from decision paralysis, you’ll struggle. There are more than 25 other venues across the whole site offering everything from intimate acoustic performances in grandiose town halls through to lung punching sound systems in sweaty peaked tents. Hundreds of artists from an array of cultural spheres are packed into every nook of this layered Technicolor site.
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The deep-rooted need to periodically get right off one’s rocker is a British cultural necessity that harks back centuries to Pagan times, and Portmeirion is an incomparable place to do it in. What other festival can boast an Italian piazza at the heart of proceedings? The whole setting – famously used for the 1960s cult TV show ‘The Prisoner’ – is a spectacular folly surrounded by a stunning landscape.
What the organisers have excelled in, besides picking an unrivalled location, is booking a gloriously diverse line up that balances the big draws from the music world with the likes of Steve Coogan, Irvine Welsh, Howard Marks, Elaine Constantine and many more. Literature, comedy, poetry, dance, filmmaking – art in its many forms are all embraced and out there to be enjoyed. Unsurprisingly, such a broad range of performers attracts all sorts and smiling nanas rub shoulders with saucer-eyed loons, creating a warm and inclusive atmosphere all round.
A typical day might include a leisurely breakfast and morning dip in the estuary followed by Irvine Welsh conducting an open interview with Joy Division and New Order luminary Bernard Sumner, a musical interlude discovering someone you’ve never heard of, like the lo-fi northern rants of Mik Artistik, and a soaring set from an established act such as British Sea Power.
Follow this with a talk by director Kevin Allen about his film ‘Under Milk Wood’ bookended by more music from breaking-through bands such as The Bohicas and Catfish and the Bottlemen, some gourmet grub and a few drinks from one of the two actual pubs on site or a fancy vendor, a sweaty fun dance class from ‘The Northern Soul Dance School’ in Tim Burgess’s Tim Peaks Diner, some poetry and a hilarious talk from Steve Coogan that covers his whole career from Alan Partridge to his movies ‘24 Hour Party People’ and ‘Philomena’.
Oh, then a film screening and back to more music with a headline set from a topless, body-painted Grace Jones covering three decades of her modernistic grooves, rounded off by upbeat antics in a dance tent with the likes of Andrew Weatherall, UNA Bombers or Horse Meat Disco.
As with any festival, you disappear down the rabbit hole on Friday and emerge blinking into the dawn at the end of it all, the wealth of blistering performances blurred together into a barnstormer of a weekend. Highlights for Clash include Kate Tempest closing her set with a goosebump-inducing rendition of her poem ‘Hold Your Own’; The terminally ill, legendary drug dealer and author Howard Marks, aka Mr. Nice, tickling the crowd with anecdotes from his extraordinary life, like a swami emanating goodwill.
The Brythoniaid Male Voice Choir, a big gang of old boys in tuxedos, giving several rousing performances that included Welsh hymns, terrace classic ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and a pounding cover of Muse’s ‘Uprising’, while Gaz Coombes performs his new solo material with the No.6 Ensemble to an intimate gathering in the elegant confines of The Town Hall.
The last word goes to festival founder Gareth Cooper, who sums up the experience well, saying: “It’s been another incredible festival with show stopping performances across the board. Our wonderful guests were as ever amazing, generating an unparalleled atmosphere, but the star of the show yet again was Portmeirion itself – with the sun shining there truly isn’t a more beautiful setting on earth. Be seeing you all next time.”
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Words and Photography: Nick Rice