Portmeirion – September 4th-6th
Portmeirion is a truly wondrous setting. A quaint pocket of quirky, Mediterranean bliss among the striking North Wales scenery, it sits in its magical, other-worldly wonder all year round, only to be invigorated further by the presence of Festival No.6 for one weekend in early September. With stages shared between the village itself, surrounding woodland and the main festival arena, No.6 has quickly joined the forefront of festivals when it comes to innovative, unique and meticulously crafted bills – that air of something special once again reflected in all the finer details of the 2015 edition.
From our first venture in to the village, that air comes to fruition as Kate Tempest takes to Portmeirion’s centrepiece, The Central Piazza. The gothic-inspired, pillared stage with surrounding roman statues and water features are a far cry from the concrete, everyday real-life from which Tempest draws her inspiration, but the potency of the poet’s recital couldn’t be more deserving of the grand stage. Her non-stop, rolling, half-hour recollection of her work navigates between heartfelt inner monologues and stinging social commentary – there can’t be a single onlooker not touched by this performance, and it’s reflected by the resounding standing ovation from every corner of The Piazza.
In the main arena the infectious presence of Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander followed by a party-starting mix of hip-hop classics and his own chart smashes from Mark Ronson transcend the early autumn drizzle to set the tone for Friday’s Stage No.6 headliner. Before that, Young Fathers stun the tented iStage with a typically bombastic performance – their brash, shattering percussion, full frontal atmospherics, and tribal influence are an alternative take to the majority of headline sets we’ll see across the weekend, but one that stakes the Scottish group’s claim with aplomb.
Whilst the aesthetic might be altogether different back over on Stage No.6, the theatrics of Young Fathers’ performance emanate toward a Metronomy outfit complete with synchronised dance moves, collective keyboard routines and a general sense that they’re hosting the biggest party in Wales tonight. Headlining a festival of this clout is relatively new territory for the band – and it’s a booking that may have raised the occasional eyebrow – but with what feels like a Mary Poppins’ handbag full of hits to cast over Portmeirion they live up to the billing in splendid style.
“Does anyone remember 2008?” asks Joe Mount before playing ‘A Thing For Me’, and you’re suddenly reminded that here plays a band that have been working their way towards this moment for the best part of a decade. It’s a show that marks the end of this Metronomy chapter too – it’s their final show before they take some time off – and as the band reveal that they wanted to find a special place to end it, the view down to the estuary seems the perfect fit for their defining English Riviera songbook. Make no mistake, Metronomy remain a force to be reckoned with in the live arena, and one that will be welcomed back with open arms when the time comes.
Saturday is, by all accounts, a more relaxed venture – we take the opportunity to take in the array of talks, woodland stages, sheltered coves and estuary views. It’s what makes No.6 such an attractive ticket across demographics and generations. After listening to Bernard Sumner chat with long-time pal Irvine Welsh about his childhood, the early days of Joy Division, New Order fallouts and the processes of the band’s new record, it’s the pontoon stages, hula dancers and non-stop disco of the woodland that forms the early afternoon’s entertainment. Later, Steve Coogan addresses the Piazza about his ever-changing relationship with Alan Partridge and the future of the Labour Party, before Mark Ronson and biopic director Asif Kapadia shed rare and intimate accounts of the life and legacy of Amy Winehouse – the day feels remarkably fulfilling considering that not a foot has been stepped within the main festival arena at all.
When we do, the backdrop to Belle and Sebastian’s headline set reads ‘Do something pretty while you can”. Over the past two decades they’re a band that have found beauty in every corner of their exploration – their sweet, delicate yet ever-conscious indie is just made for the ornate surroundings on offer in Portmeirion. Arriving on stage after a set from Catfish & The Bottlemen, Stuart Murdoch shows that there’s much more to being a captivating frontman than antagonistic egos – the Scotsman’s humour, charm and appreciation of his surroundings shining throughout the autumnal chill of the set. “This is a song from long ago when we were much more sexually active” he quips before playing ‘Seeing Other People’, before inviting a horde of audience dancers on stage for ‘Boy With The Arab Strap’ and juggling with the setlist to accommodate an encore request for ‘Me And The Major’ – his subtle showmanship leaves an overwhelming sense of warmth among the No.6 crowd.
Sunday’s highlights include sets from LA Priest and Ghostpoet, two artists at the opposite ends of their evolutionary paths. The former makes the most of his minimal set up – far from fully formed but tapping in to something truly unique. Using all of his Late of the Pier experience he plays the early afternoon crowd, at one point opening up a clearing in the crowd and encouraging a dance-off as he plays “something that I made up on Friday”. For Ghostpoet, those days of glitchy, stripped back live endeavours feels a long way behind, his journey across three records epitomised by the full-bodied and expansive nature of his full live band. The South Londoner draws one of the biggest crowds of the weekend to the i Stage as he embraces an almost frontman like persona, with old tracks like the stand-out ‘Finished I Ain’t’ sounding as fresh and distinctive as ever, only much much bigger.
As the weekend’s star attraction is welcomed on to stage by a mirrorball procession working its way up from the village centre, everything feels like it’s being put in to perspective. Grace Jones is a true icon, and remains remarkably on point. Now almost four decades on from her debut album, the No.6 crowd are treated to a show they’ll not forget in any hurry, and it’s difficult to imagine the spectacle and importance of Jones in her heyday whilst still capable of inspiring awe in this way. There’s a costume change for every song, and as much as this adds to the sense of occasion it doesn’t account for even half of the story. The 1-2-3 of ‘Love Is The Drug’, ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’ and ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ produce a triple threat of anthems to draw the curtain on another stunning edition of Festival No.6, with the bold, dynamic and unique presence of this one-of-a-kind performer proving the most fitting final chapter imaginable to a stunning weekend.