Festival No. 6 in Portmeirion is taking a year off in 2019, Getintothis’ Peter Guy on what the festival needs to do to ensure it comes back even stronger.
Festival No. 6 is to take a break in 2019. It needs to.
Not only is this a wise idea from organisers. It’s a good idea for regular attendees, resident artists and new fans alike. The reason is simple: it has lost its way.
The last couple of years Festival No. 6 has stumbled, or belly-flopped, over the line. The infamous car-wrecking mud-bath of 2016 was one of the worst music experiences we’ve ever witnessed at a festival and while the 2017 happening ensured mistakes were rectified and potential troubles negated, the result was a diluted experience paling in comparison to peak No. 6 happenings.
It felt like the magic had been lost.
But hey, before it sounds like we’re sticking the proverbial boot in, let’s redress the balance.
Festival No. 6 was twice this writer’s favourite festival of the year. That included 12 months of Merseyside based festivals and several from around the UK and Europe.
Festival No. 6 has also been responsible for several of our favourite moments from any festival anywhere in the world. And is one of few festivals that actually does live up to it’s mission statement: ‘a festival like no other‘.
At its very best, Festival No. 6 truly is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.
A little history. We’ve been going to Festival No. 6 for five years – the only one we’ve missed was the opening year – featuring the ludicrously brilliant billing of headliners Spiritualized, Primal Scream and New Order with a supporting cast of British Sea Power, Gruff Rhys, Mr Scruff and Richard Hawley – yet so few people actually knew it was happening. Or what it was.
It was such an unknown quantity in 2012 that we remember colleagues in the Welsh Daily Post newspaper office barely being able to giveaway weekend tickets such was the befuddled looks on people’s faces when you mentioned a festival taking place in the fantastical Gwynedd village.
And despite hurricane winds billowing on the final day, our first year at No. 6 in 2013 cemented itself as a must-attend happening for years to come.
Not only were there incredible live music bookings – My Bloody Valentine, James Blake, the Manics, Clinic and Wire – but the electronic and DJ billing was on a par with the likes of Daniel Avery, David Holmes back to back with Andy Votel, Justin Robertson, Mount Kimbie and Massive Attack‘s Daddy G.
But the bigger artists were a mere piece in the pie, for the smaller rising bands and wider arts billing proved as great a pull; see John Cooper Clarke, Irvine Welsh or Kermit from Black Grape waxing lyrical in the fabulous Greco-Roman piazza in front of a hundred or so blue and white striped deckchairs laid out on the immaculately cut grass chessboard.
Or the ‘new bands’ stages perfectly positioned on the Estuary Stage flanked by a Rough Trade and Heavenly Recordings merchandise area and a small open pool slap back in the middle of the viewing area as the likes of Bill Ryder-Jones, Temples, All We Are, By The Sea and Money all performed superlative sets.
Or how about disappearing into the woodlands and soaking up some cosmic disco in The Dugout (perhaps our favourite space of all at No. 6) or finding yourself at the Lost in the Woods stages and discovering a load of fresh new sounds.
Better still the late night Pavilion offered sets courtesy of Frankie Knuckles and the like deep into the darkness while during the daytime the quite beautiful Stone Boat stage overlooking the paddle-boarders and skinny-dippers in the River Dwyryd was like something out of an Ibizan getaway as Andrew Weatherall and his contemporaries blasted out sets up to eight hours or more. You literally danced til you dropped.
Then there was ascending the spiralling Rapunzel like tower into a crammed room for Tim Peaks as Tim Burgess casually read from his latest book or greeted fans to wax lyrical about his O Genesis Records signings – before the very same bands played in the tiny alcoves to 75 or so lucky people who managed to get in.
A little further down the path and into a more grandiose setting and you could expect to see the intimate Town Hall sessions as the likes of Everything Everything, Daughter, Steve Mason, Charlotte Church, Gaz Coombes, James, Blossoms, Temples, Nadine Shah and Palace all hooked up with composer in residence Joe Duddell to rework the band’s back catalogues into stripped back orchestral delights. These often proved more magical than the original compositions and witnessing them in the flesh were true hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck experiences.
Out in the fields and you could rely on No. 6 to always entertain deep into the night with their customary Heliosphere – a huge red ball with a trapeze artist swinging below as eyes and smiles stretched ever wider, while Stealing Sheep and the Kazimier collective were very often found involved in some form of torch-lit parade which weaved its way through the greenery and back into Portmeirion village. It’s funny to think that these special touches have now become ubiqutious at festivals around the UK – but save for Glastonbury (which let’s face it, is impossible to compete with), it was No. 6 which often led the way with imaginative arts programming.
Yet all this was mere window dressing for what Festival No. 6 is really about – the vibrancy of the fantasy village of Portmeirion and the celebration of Welsh heritage. Not since our trip to the Disney World on acid, that was Dubai Sound City, had we encountered such a unique world within our world. Seemingly tailor made for a festival rich in pageantry, performing arts, storytelling, poetry, provocative talks and discussion plus night-time revelry; the quite stunning surrounds provided the most perfect of settings for a festival.
And what the Festival No. 6 organisers did so well is to align the geographical surroundings to the Welsh spirit which coursed through the festival’s community. None more so than the centre-piece performances of The Brythoniaid Choir and their winning renditions of Welsh classics, traditional choral songs – and most spectacularly reimagined cover versions of the pop bands playing the festival – who could forget their version of the Pet Shop Boys‘ Go West, or the heart-swelling rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone. Meanwhile, a whole tent was designated to the very best in new, vital and leftfield Welsh contemporary pop artists.
It was these special touches, combined with a fantastic booking policy (intriguing headliners included heavyweight yet rarely ubiquitous acts such as Beck, Grace Jones and the aforementioned My Bloody Valentine while bravely backing ‘new’ or relative ‘underdogs’ top bookings too; see London Grammar, Mogwai and Metronomy) which made No. 6 so unmissable.
Almost inevitably, the festival evolved, and presumably in an attempt to make ends meet booked big pop act Bastille and rock and roll guv’nor Noel Gallagher. Capacity was increased and the site rejigged. On the face of it, it could have all worked. But the notorious Welsh weather has other ideas, and the whole masterplan was well and truly ripped up as Portmeirion simply sank into the mud. Along with the festival goer’s cars in Porthmadog.
We won’t dwell on this disaster, enough column inches were devoted upon it at the time, suffice to say though No. 6’s reputation among devotees and the ramifications were severely felt the subsequent year. Gone was the exquisite Estuary Stage. Replaced by a Gin bar. Gone was the Clough Stage and all it’s Welsh new music wizardry. Gone were the imaginative headline bookings with Bloc Party (a decade too late) and the ubiquitous Flaming Lips drafted in to top the billing while Lost In The Woods, usually an area of discovery, felt like an after thought – or perhaps a zone which could be closed off easily, should the weather prove challenging once again. Gone were the secret happenings – like Laurent Garnier performing on the Lake Stage.
While the remainder of the programme felt like it was going over old ground. It was good – but not Festival No.6 standard.
So, what’s to come? The 2018 billing does include a big scoop: The The and their return to the live arena promises much. But there’s no doubt, the overall impression that the organisers have made the correct call in taking a breather in 2019.
There’s so much we aren’t privy to behind the scenes at a festival – and running such a tightly coordinated one like No. 6, in the most special, yet ultimately difficult backdrop of Portmeirion – must be incredibly taxing to say the least. Budgets must be stretched beyond belief, artist bookings a nightmare to juggle – especially while remaining fresh and vital with your loyal fans, while also hoping to ensnare new attendees.
And, the greatest factor of them all for this festival – the simply impossible to predict micro climate surrounding the region – which can see sunshine turn to wild winds and relentless rain within hours. All of which makes it nigh on impossible to nail perfectly. That they have in the past, is little short of a miracle.
However, what No. 6 must do, is go back to its roots of discovery while remaining a festival wearing its Welsh colours to the mast. New artists have to take centre stage alongside an arts package which is married to the incredible backdrop. Forget the high end cuisine and focus on the magical moments which made the festival so unforgettable.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? We wish them well, because the UK festival circuit needs No. 6. Be seeing you, in 2020…
Here’s some of our Festival No. 6 photographic highlights from 2012-2017
“When we started Festival No.6 we had one aim – to create a completely new type of festival in a location unlike any other, catering for a different type of audience. Over the past six years, we’ve done everything we can to bring you an unrivalled festival experience in a truly unique setting, driven by a desire to do things differently.
No.6 has always been more than just a music and arts festival. It’s the ultimate escape from reality, a place you can see your favourite artists in a breathtaking setting, or discover new acts you’ll want to see again and again, a place where performers are as inspired as the audience – a platform to present new work and collaborations in unique and intimate venues, a place like no other where like-minded individuals gather and embrace new ideas, inspired to take risks and push boundaries.
In six short years the profile of the festival has far outgrown its intimate capacity, picking up numerous awards, gaining international recognition and becoming one of the world’s most unique festivals. We always knew we had something special but we never quite expected it to capture people’s imagination the way it has.
Running Festival No.6 hasn’t been without its challenges. Portmeirion is a complex site and we’ve had fun adapting and reinventing the festival every year but unfortunately No.6 is just not sustainable in its current format and so we’ve made the difficult decision to take a breather – 2018 will be the last Festival No.6 for now. We will of course be throwing an almighty party this year and will make sure it’s the most outstanding No.6 to date!
We want to thank everyone who has been a part of the Festival No.6 journey so far, including all the incredible artists and performers, our brilliant crew who work tirelessly in challenging circumstances, our loyal suppliers, our team of forward-thinking programmers and partners, Gwynedd Council, the Welsh Government Major Events Unit, the local community and our good friends Portmeirion – without their trust and support No.6 would have never have happened in first place.
Most importantly, we want to thank everyone who has ever joined us at Festival No.6 over the years. Taking a break is the right decision but not all is lost, we’re already thinking about the future… As Sir Clough Williams-Ellis said ‘Cherish the past, adorn the present and construct for the future’.
There are still a limited number of tickets available to purchase on our website and we hope you will join us this September in Portmeirion for the seventh edition of Festival No.6.
Be seeing you…”