Festival No.6 is a funny old beast. Nestled geographically between Snowdonia and the Irish Sea, and taking place at the end of the festival season in the liminal boundary between summer and autumn, all signs point to the unpredictable. It’s an event that bills itself as ‘a festival like no other’, and weather-wise it’s a worthy billing. Throughout our weekend, thanks to the local micro-climate we’re treated to torrential showers that last barely a minute, glorious blasts of sunshine and gale force winds, each veering from one to the next with an abandon that sees all hopes of an accurate weather forecast soon cast asunder into the shin-high mud.
So too is Festival No.6 unique in its surroundings, set as it is among the gorgeous faux-Italian village of Portmeirion and its surrounding acres of blissful woodland, and it’s no surprise that the comparatively traditional central arena isn’t where the weekend’s true delights lie. Each of the three of headliners that take to the main stage there find their fortunes differ, not helped by particularly ropey sound that’s both too quiet and too easily buffeted by the intermittent blasts of wind, as well as a lack of big screens for those unfortunate enough to be stood downhill. Mogwai close Friday with a lacklustre show, the spacious sounds of their new album Every Country’s Sun not hitting the mark when the volume’s tempered down. That record’s peaks come when Stuart Braithwaite and co. ramp up the volume, swelling their vast soundscapes into a glorious, all-consuming crescendo. Sadly, stood towards the rear as we are, there’s not much opportunity to lie back and bathe in a sea of noise, mostly because the noise is quite difficult to make out. It feels like a missed opportunity.
Bloc Party, on Saturday, are a more varied affair. They start off somewhat disappointing, the now-familiar sound issues tempering an energetic performance backed by frantic, rabid lights, until strangely one of their most underrated songs kicks things into gear. The group’s third record, 2008’s Intimacy, is their most overlooked, a strange, flawed slice of bonkers electro-pop that was misunderstood on its release after the indie-disco fodder of Silent Alarm and A Weekend In The City. Live, however, that record’s lead single Mercury is just what’s needed to ramp up the energy, its walloping beat and freaky wobbling horns seeping their way in to inject a little dose of much needed delirium. From then on it’s a rush through the group’s greatest hits, lent a new intangible sense of life. It’s still a little difficult to hear, but closing renditions of Flux, Helicopter and This Modern love are undeniable in their headline-worthy brilliance.
The Flaming Lips’ Sunday closer is, as the Flaming Lips always are, its own beast. The band pull out all their regular stops. Horrific giant puppets wobbling about the stage? Check. Wayne Coyne riding a giant LED-light covered unicorn while donning ostentatious rainbow wings? Check. That fucking hamster ball he insists on rolling around in at least once every set? Check. It’s hard not to feel that everything’s a little calculated with The Flaming Lips – it’s notable that their actually-rather-excellent new album Oczy Mlody is all but absent from the set in favour of the Yoshimi-era hits – but visually they’ll never be less than stunning. Furthermore it would take a more stonehearted writer than I to deny the sheer glee of witnessing Yoshimi…, Race For The Prize, The W.A.N.D. and Do You Realize? live, while their whacked out version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity is a serene delight. If only we could fucking hear it.
That’s not to say the weekend’s bereft of entirely brilliant gigs. The Grand Pavillion tent, in particular, plays host to the best of Festival No.6’s music this year. Fast-rising neo-soul up-and-comer XamVolo, for example, continues to go from strength to strength with a powerhouse of a set that showcases his sublime, sweeping voice at its very best. Arab Strap, meanwhile, who precede the Flaming Lips, provide plenty of volume and an Aidan Moffatt on acerbic form. ‘You’ve been here for the whole weekend?’ he asks a crowd now cold, tired and drenched in mud, with a mixture of confusion, pity and disgust in his eyes. ‘I fucking hate mud.’ Their closing rendition of First Big Weekend Of The Summer on this, the last big weekend of the summer, newly twisted into a fierce, hard-pumping rave, is as worthy a festival closer as anything The Flaming Lips have in store. The Hercules and Love Affair’s set on the same stage in the wee small hours of Saturday night, is pure brilliance, meanwhile, a big fat slice of magnificent wonky disco-pop that’s perfect for the regulation Saturday night festival large one.
Yet it’s away from the arena that Festival No.6 is best experienced, in the flowing hill that leads down into Portmeirion, and back up again into the forest-covered hills that overlook the estuary. En route to the coast on Saturday we drop into a small tent to see Graeme Miller reconstruct his beautiful, affecting score for the original fuzzy felt version of The Moomins live, with an accompanying screening of a 45 minute episode. The soundtrack, commissioned when the cult program came to Britain with its original dinner-jazz backing deemed not-at-all-fucking-weird-as-hell enough, was reissued to acclaim on Finders Keepers this year, and live it’s even more of a delight, a blend of trippy madness and wholesome beauty that captures every essence of leaves many weeping.
Down in the town, around the central plaza of the city, lies another emotional rollercoaster on Sunday. Festival fixtures the Brythoniad Welsh Male Voice Choir, dressed to the nines in matching suits and blue bowties, deliver a powerhouse of a set for the last of their three shows. From the booming beauty of traditional hymns and the Welsh national anthem to a reworked version of Rag N Bone Man’s Skin, there set is bold, beautiful, and completely affecting. Their approach is simple, but their show is the weekend’s best.
Then, just as the crowd are left reeling in the plaza, unsure of just how to continue with their lives, let along their festival after such emotional bombardment, on step the Rajasthan Heritage Brass Band. Their set is magnificent in an entirely different way, bonkers and silly where the choir were earnest and heartfelt. They bring an eastern carnival down to the crowd, quite literally as they weave their way among us with brass blasting, as if demanding us to dance. We reciprocate as the band grin their way through some gloriously bizarre versions of Mamma Mia and the Cantina band song from Star Wars, while some women dressed as lampshades shuffle ominously on the outskirts (why, we’re not sure), kicked back into shape for the final stretch of the weekend.
A more emotionally consistent experience can be found in the woods, the leafy, hilly maze that surrounds the site. Getting lost in its many muddy paths can see one stumble on a myriad of delights, from stunning high-ground views in a rare clearing to hidden parties dotted around the groves, with the sheer scale of the woodland and the freedom we’re given to roam setting it apart from the so-called ‘forests’ of other festivals – little more than a few trees, a shit stage and a disco-ball.
After a final rave courtesy of the phenomenal Mary Anne Hobbs up in the grounds of Portmeirion’s imposing castle, we retire on Sunday night battered and somewhat bemused. It’s been a long old summer of festivals with differing fortunes – 2017 has seen its fair share of cancellations and disasters alongside its triumphs – and a long old final weekend. It could only end in just a little extra slice of chaos. We trudge, for the final time, up to the steep incline on which we’ve made camp, struggling through severe gale force winds, to find our campsite in tatters. My own tent, already held together only by a piece of string following a friend’s drunken fall and subsequent snapping of the poles, is on the verge of collapse, while two friends’ find theirs collapsed in on itself. Another is nowhere to be seen at all, and must be retrieved having blown away. I’m twatted in the eye by a tent-pole as we drunkenly attempt to reassemble it, and attacked by another flying mess of canvas caught on the wind. I call it a night.
Festival No.6 then, is a worthy closer to the festival season proper. Though it will always remain ‘a festival like no other’, in many ways it also sums up everything about the great British festival – brilliant and flawed, cold, wet, hot and sunny in equal measure, always on the verge of collapse but an essential, transcendent experience. Until next year.