Portmeirion is awe-inspiring on even the gloomiest, most drizzly day in January. So last weekend’s vision of the Italianate village set against a blue sky, fizzing with all the music, energy and colour of Festival No 6 2014, made it even more spectacular. The combination of Portmeirion’s ridiculously seductive charms combined with the glow of the Indian summer sun coated everything and everyone at Festival No 6 with a patina of glamour.
This is Festival No 6’s third year. I had been curious to find out how they pack a festival into the village’s winding streets. What they have done is use the fields just above the village, which now sport the usual paraphernalia: camping areas, main stage, food stalls, bars. Except it’s all done with a little more aplomb, and there’s always the jawdroppingly beautiful backdrop of the estuary and mountains beyond, vying with the main stage action for visual glory.
You descend through an archway into the woods to find a market offering local Welsh produce from local shops: delicious veggie pies, game pates, and other local goodies to supplement the food stalls at the arena. From there you drop further down into Portmeirion village itself, where every corner appears to have something going on… cafes, bars, poets, processions, talks. During the day, crowds form orderly queues outside the Town Hall for sets by Steve Mason, East India Youth and Northern Soul dance classes; during the evening, crowds mingle with torchlit processions in the winding village streets.
If there is anything that feels like the centrepiece of the festival, it is the Brythoniaid Male Voice Choir, who happen to be celebrating their 50th anniversary over the weekend. Their rousing harmonies fill the Central Piazza and echo round the buildings, adding to the drama. On Sunday their performance of Go West is a tantalising clue to the evening’s main stage act.
Of the many acts we manage to catch: Friday evening on the main stage sees Bonobo deliver a swirling, atmospheric set to a large crowd. Bonobo’s chilled, sophisticated, dreamy music is perfect for a sundown set; each number cleverly adds layers to the mix, with the addition of vocals by Szjerdene Fox.
I recall Radio 6 presenters announcing London Grammar as a headliner with bemusement – should such a young band achieve this accolade? They certainly deliver a powerful performance and Hannah Reid’s voice has extraordinary range. From the opening notes of Hey Now to final number Metal & Dust, this is a note-perfect set.
Saturday and Sunday…
Saturday is spent drifting from one blissful discovery to another. From the hotel terrace looking over the estuary where revellers soak up the sun, watching paragliders, drinking Prosecco… to walks through to the Lost in the Woods stage where emerging bands are playing. Beyond this is what became a weekend fave – Village Limits – a magical secret clearing with a pond set in the middle of dense, lush foliage. You hop over the bridge and onto a pontoon to dance, while balloons and bubble makers add to the atmosphere.
Down by the water, almost hidden under the rock face is the Estuary Stage, a perfect setting for more intimate performances. Jimi Goodwin plays an engaging evening set and it was fantastic to be standing so close. I haven’t seen him since seeing Doves several years ago, so this was a perfect chance to hear his newer material from latest release Odludek. Half way through the set, Jimi suggests we turn round and admire the view instead the band… an almost full moon in a clear sky; the hotel pool glowing, the estuary with its dramatic, black mountains.
Tom Hickox delivers one of the most memorable sets of the festival. Intelligent, sensitively-crafted lyrics, a voice with the command of Tom Waits, yet with more than a touch of vulnerability, this was a captivating performance. Red Roses White is one of his stronger songs, with more than a touch of Nick Cave-style goth drama, and there’s something reminiscent of the 60s in the string arrangement.
The crowds – especially the Mancunians present – are then sent down memory lane with a fantastically energetic set by Peter Hook & the Light who delights everyone with some old favourites such as Love will tear us Apart from Joy Division days. Later on, Beck assemble a massive audience for a headline set.
We enjoyed a talk by vocal coach Juliet Russell (www.voicecouncil.com), who teaches us different vocal styles. We improved our own voice techniques by singing along with Beautiful by Christine Aguilera. One member of the Welsh choir was sitting directly in front of me and hopefully wasn’t too offended by my singing.
It is difficult to pinpoint the most spectacular events at Festival No 6. Bands. DJ sets, champagne by a castle along with Balearic style DJs, dancing on a pontoon. It melts into one blurry euphoric experience.
Arriving at Festival No 6
So – after so many superlatives, are there any downsides to Festival No 6? The beginning is not very promising. Due to its location, all car parking is at nearby town Porthmadog’s rugby club. Depending on the time you arrive, queues form for parking. After leaving your car, you drag all your stuff (ALL of it – there’s not really any ‘going back to the car’ as the park and ride is a hassle), to another queue which can last over two hours, to be processed through wristband exchange, and then to the car park for a coach to the site. My advice is to try and avoid 12-4pm on Friday. Those arriving early Friday apparently breezed through. Drinks are somewhat overpriced, especially the cider. I was expecting a pint and instead got a ring-pull can costing over £4.
Curating Festival No 6 cannot be an easy process. No festival in my experience has such a huge span of ages in attendance – there were younger people enjoying the fantastic lineup of DJs (Laurent Garnier in particular was superb), to ‘Cheshire set’ types at the hotel and champagne bars (where a Veuve Cliquot cost £13.80 for a small glass), to older revellers in their 70s and 80s.
Festival No 6 offers a range of different types of experiences, rather than a more linear curation as offered by some other festivals. There is a lot to take in and the site takes a good half day to figure out, even now I’m not sure I discovered everything. Shops and food stalls had been thoughtfully put together with the unusual taking precedence, and the preponderance of Welsh businesses taking part was commendable. This year’s event has no doubt been a success (attendance figures are certainly higher), and the event will now be a permanent fixture.
Did you attend? What did you think?