Now into its fourth year, Festival Number 6 feels as if it has fully got into its stride. It offers a dizzying array of intelligently-curated events, from bands and DJs to comedy, nighttime processions, workshops and talks, plus something this festival has come to excel in – interviews and intimate performances by a handful of the main-stage artists.
Not that you have to spend your day rushing in wild-eyed fashion from one event to the next. you could just opt to enjoy the setting and go with the flow, as Portmeirion’s Italianate village, woodland areas and estuary are astoundingly beautiful. I did talk to a few festival goers who had dispensed with any set agenda, and instead had spent their weekend sauntering round, soaking in the atmosphere and enjoying random events they just happen to have come across.
Friday’s highlights included a rare interview with Debbie Curtis. It has always been difficult for Ian Curtis’s widow, thrust into a spotlight she never wanted. This was a gentle interview in which she talked about Ian, his music and their relationship. Twenty-four Hours was the song with the most emotional lyrics for Debbie – hence the title of the talk, So This is Permanence.
Joy Division were referenced again on Saturday during one of the most popular events of the festival, an afternoon appearance by Steve Coogan in conversation with Amy Raphael, which ended with an audience Q&A session. Among the more humorous subjects were inevitable questions about the Labour Party, and the welcome news that a third series of The Trip with Rob Brydon is hopefully under way – the location for their gastronomic samplings still to be decided. The merits of living in a soft water area (better for tea-making) as opposed to hard water saw Steve talking with much enthusiasm – and he also reiterated his particular fondness for Joy Division.
Early evening saw a packed-out tent for an appearance by the brilliantly individual British Sea Power. This was a powerful performance, a sequence of rousing numbers, opening with Machineries of Joy, through Waving Flags to the emotive instrumental The Great Skua. The tent worked well for them, concentrating and intensifying their emotive sound. Oh for a longer set.
Headliners Belle and Sebastian wisely started with some of their dancier numbers to create a Saturday evening party mood with numbers like Allie and The Party Line. Stuart Murdoch was on talkative form and called audience members onto the stage to add to the atmosphere.
Portmeirion’s Town Hall with its wood panelling and carvings was the ideal setting for a series of intimate concerts. For the fourth year running, composer-in-residence Joe Duddell with the No 6 ensemble collaborated with several of the artists. With space inside for only around 100, long queues formed for these popular events way ahead of time, and many were turned away. On Sunday afternoon, Gaz Coombes was the featured artist in concert ahead of his main-stage act, performing with the Festival No 6 ensemble, and performed around eight songs, including Matador and Buffalo from his second solo album.
It is no wonder that Manchester band James continue to have such a huge following. The band’s well-known older material has eternal appeal and the newer numbers do not disappoint. Last year’s album, La Petite Mort, contains songs with a strongly introspective feel, such as Curse Curse. The set seemed somewhat short, but things were already gearing up for the main headline act, amusingly referred to by Booth who commented on Grace Jones’ demanding rider – whether true or not we will never know.
And so to the final main stage act. “Heeee-e-e-e-re’s Grace!” Unlike every other act so far, the stage’s curtains are dramatically closed while the stage is prepared. And unlike other acts, she’s late – just enough to remind us of her superstar status. But finally the curtains sweep open – and what is patently evident is that Grace has not been diminished by age… far from it. The style, the athleticism and the sheer utter magnetic showmanship are all there, her voice only marginally straining a touch.
Much of the set features crowd pleasers – Nightclubbing, My Jamaican Guy, each one with an impressive costume and headdress change, her body adorned with body paint. Grace swaggers and sashays around the stage, this woman is fearless and wonderful.
For the finale, Slave to the Rhythm, Grace performs her hula-hoop routine. Toward the end of the song, the hula-hoop almost invisibly spinning round her waist, she introduces her band, which includes her son. There’s also a round of applause for her slinky, athletic male pole dancer. Her performance comes to an end amid showers of gold glitter falling like rain, puffs of golden smoke and those ‘Prisoner’ style large white balloons.
Of the many other events over the weekend, there was a Northern Soul Dance class and an interview with Elaine Constantine, director of the Northern Soul film. Mark Ronson was just one of the many DJs playing late into the night. Last year’s Village Limits dance pontoon set in a picturesque clearing in the woods was in operation again, a perfect spot for a mid-afternoon dance in the September sun. 2014’s Welsh food market, situated in the wooded area between the arena and the village, has been replaced with a relaxed area called The Village Green with cafes, hay bales for seating, pop-up bands and a selection of food retailers. And the rousing voices of The Brythionaid Male Voice Choir filled the Piazza several times over the weekend, they have become a welcome ‘festival institution’, giving the event, and the central Piazza, a defining focus.
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 it’s a hassle to do more park and rides), 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.
Read about Festival No 6 2014 here (this was a smaller event – 10,000 as opposed to this year’s 15,000). Did you find this year too crowded, or was the Festival No 6 magic still there?