Given that last year I wrote of my concerns that Britain's finest festival may finally be entering a period of decline, this was both a reassuring and an exhilarating thing to behold. If I point out at this stage that my top ten performances of the festival (below) doesn't include Friday's headline from Mogwai - musical super heavyweights at the very top of their game - you'll get some idea of the standards upheld and consistently exceeded throughout a weekend in which I saw full sets from over thirty bands and I'd say there was only one (I won't identify them) who failed at least to have something that raised them above the level of mediocrity. The vast majority of performances had more: the edge, craft and originality that had characterised all Green Men pre-2011 and a fair few of them have already been filed among some of the greatest musical moments from what, for me, has now become such an instrinsic part of my August schedule that it's worth missing a whole weekend of football for. Rare praise indeed.
Although my priority is always to seek out the new, interesting and different within the Green Man schedule, I found time this year to check out a number of certifiable legends and wasn't disappointed here either. I understand why the aforementioned Mogwai were main stage headliners, but I still think the intensity of their performance is better served by a smaller stage. Nevertheless, they made it work and gave Friday night the close of play fireworks the festival lacked last year. Dexys were tight, professional and surprisingly pleasing, even giving a rapturously received 'Come On Eileen' a fresh makeover. Van the Man was slickness itself, running through the crowd pleasers with his legendary dextrous finesse, playing the audience like another instrument and getting a great tune out of it, particularly during 'Gloria'. I haven't liked much by Scritti Politti since 1982 and, of the two fixtures of their set from the band's finest period, 'Jacques Derrida' was robbed of its phenomenal 'rapacious, rapacious' closing rap and replaced with something rather more contemporary and decidedly flat. Still, Green's intros and intellectual charm remain endearing and pleasing. Apologising for the triteness of one of his lyrics, he pointed out by way of mitigation the Kantian and anti-pragmatist sub-text and can do this without sounding like a tosser. Unlike me, when I unwittingly found myself in beer-induced discussion at the front of the stage with a young female student as I clumsily articulated the finer points of Hegelian and Kantian idealism to her while probably coming across only like Bertrand Russell on the pull.
The finest of performances from the legends had to wait until close to the end of Sunday night, when Jonathan Richman marched onto the Far Out Stage with an engaging grin, charismatic drummer in tow, and delivered his brilliantly honed combination of lyrics that veer between the profound and the brilliantly ridiculous, guitar work that wobbles between the virtuoso and the audaciously untuned, and a performance that, after years of blurring brilliantly the barriers between humour and madness, still manages to do so in a manner that no one else would be wise even to attempt. Richman remains a unique performer and a veritable human treasure.
For much of the rest of the weekend, those of a new, brash and unpredictable ilk provided the bulk of the highlights. Particular mentions should go to the incredible racket produced by Three Trapped Tigers and Teeth Of The Sea. The percussive attack of the latter was only bettered over the weekend by the remarkable Stealing Sheep, whose sub-Slits fractured dynamism matched angular rhythms with the sublime guitar accompaniment of Emily Lansley (who appeared in session with her other band Emily and the Faves in my Dandelion Radio show last year). Remarkably, the intensity of the performance increased as the set went on and, had the vibrant crescendo not sadly ceased after 45 minutes, you wondered in what area of the stratosphere we might end up. This is a remarkable band, standing out even in the considerable quality of the company, courageous in its off-kilter explorations and sublime in the way it pulled off the challenge. Company which included ex-Gorky's Richard James' new band Pen Pastwn with what was billed as a warm up set. If that's the warm up, the mind boggles as to what James' new outfit might go on to produce. There was once a wonderful period in which Gorky's Zygotic Mynci were purveyors of a breathtaking music craft that combined tear-incuding melody with remarkable energy and vivacity unmatched by anyone else. If you were wondering where the latter in particular has gone, it's right here. Friends, meanwhile, brought the sheer artistic temerity that resides in a very singular form in Brooklyn to the Far Out Stage on the last night, with a bassist and drummer who came on like Tina Weymouth and Mo Tucker combining with a guitarist who looked like something out of The Fast Show somehow to produce B52s-style plastic funk overlaid by a sassy vocalist with, it appeared, Lady Gaga pretensions. And they made it work, adding a rich variety to a fantastically enjoyable last night.
Sometimes, of course, you find such brilliance in more understated forms. Cass McCombs and his band reminded me - pleasingly, because I'm prone to forget - that a standard rock guitar four-piece can produce a subtle deftness of touch and create its own very singular kind of magic. And The Wave Pictures, excellent in 2010, managed to crank it up a stage further this time, their intelligent lyricism and well-placed hooks bringing this year's fantastic 'Long Black Cars' album to evocative life on stage. Errors, I would dare to suggest, managed to trump even their mentors Mogwai while new recruits to the Rock Action roster, Remember Remember, weren't far behind. And a mention too for Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks whose hook-filled Mountain Stage extravaganza managed to improve even on their headlining performance of a few years back.
One disappointment? Alt-J, whose set I was looking forward to and to which a large audience had been attracted, seriously underwhelmed me and I was drawn away from the stage only to wander over to Einstein's Garden, a happy accident for there I found a three-piece called Glis Glis who the programme described as 'kraut-pop' and who I found myself bowled over by. Every year I promise myself to check out this stage more and every year I fail to do so and yet over the last three years I've found some of the festival's most endearingly quirky performers in its cheerfully odd surroundings. To Dalmatian Rex and Llwybr Llaethog you can now add the name Glis Glis. I picked up a CD from them and there'll be something from that when my Dandelion Radio show gets round to catching up with some of this in October.
Given the abundant riches on display, how to pick an overall favourite? I'm going for Tiny Ruins in the Walled Garden on Sunday night. Sunday was a remarkable day of bands even by the Green Man's standards, but the off-beat delivery and lyricism of these Anglo-New Zealanders has been thrilled to on my show and elsewhere on Dandelion in the past and to see them live only added to the mystique and aura. Just guitar and a sparsely employed cello augmented a heart-rending vocal performance that awed the crowd into a silent reverie reminiscent of that conjured up my Moddi last year but, amazingly, even better. Anyone who can experience the amazing 'Priest With Balloons' and not marvel at being part of a world that can conjur up such things must surely be tired of life. Green Man 2012 assured me, if I needed it, that I wasn't anywhere near ready to cash in my chips on that score just yet.
There were minor gripes. The failure of the promised Cappucino Porter to make an appearance at the real ale bar, for one. If it turned up after Saturday evening, this was too late for me as I'd long since got fed up asking for it and settled for the not inconsiderable delights of Green Man Growler, a hardy replacment but I'm a man who likes his porter, so small thumbs down there. One other thing to watch out for is the irritating tendency of the moat between audience and stage in the Far Out tent to become filled with assorted cronies and members of other bands, irksome because it creates an elitist, 'executive suite' feel (a load of them were sitting down during Errors - like a row of deckchairs) that's totally out of place at this most human and communally satisfying of all musical events. I'm pleased Jonathan Richman drew attention to it during his set because it needs to stop before it becomes the norm. Come and join us in the audience if you want to see the band. Apart from anything else, it's bloody great there. And Green Man - if you don't need the moat, get rid of it and just let us near the stage.
But it would be churlish to harp on about such things after one of the more thrilling weekends of my life. Thank you, Green Man, for comprehensively putting right the worrying glitches of last year. How 2013 will top that is beyond me, but I'm already looking forward to seeing it try.
Green Man 2012 - A Personal Top Ten
1. Tiny Ruins
2. The Wave Pictures
3. Stealing Sheep
4. Jonathan Richman
5. Pen Pastwn
6. Glis Glis
7. Teeth Of The Sea
9. Cass McCombs
10. Three Trapped Tigers
Fri 17 Aug – Green Man Festival
Tiny RuinsThe Wave PicturesStealing SheepTeeth of the SeaGlis GlisErrorsCass McCoombsJonathan RichmanPen PastwnThree Trapped Tigers