By Stef Siepel
July 14-20, 2012
In our city, we basically have one local festival; a festival that immediately is kind of awesome. For seven evenings straight, about six or seven bands per day from all over the world will play, and everyone can enter the grounds (a lovely local park) for free. So if you’re from the city itself, it’s a walk and you are immediately surrounded by four stages (big, small, local, DJs), and even if you have to come from far, you only have to pay travel costs to be surrounded by the artistic. Every year they manage, despite dwindling funds, to book some bands of allure. This year, headliners probably are Twin Shadow, Kurt Vile and the Violators, and Zola Jesus.
Last year, one of the names on the bill was SBTRKT, who later went on to say they hated playing the festival because of a lack of a specific audience. Sure, if you play your own gig, or play an electro festival, you know that the audience is into your music. Here, not so much. You’ve got Kurt Vile versus Sharon van Etten, Zola Jesus versus Jazzsteppa, and dubstep DJs versus Ewert and the Two Dragons. If the line-up is eclectic, the audience is as well; it makes it all the more interesting to see what an artist can do with a crowd that does not necessarily know them nor is interested in that type of music. Twin Shadow, for one, had a big smile on his face when he said that this was the most fucked up audience he had ever played for.
Twin Shadow did not play his best gig. In part because of the horrible sound, which plagued the main stage for the first two days (and which certainly took its toll on Kurt Vile and his Violators). George Lewis Jr.’s vocals were barely audible most of the way through. However, it did not seem to bother the band that much, nor did it bother them that some people at the front were seriously drunk and seriously obnoxious. The singer laughed it off (this gig was days after his come clean interview on Pitchfork), and the second part of the set was stunning. They play live versions of the songs and not just ape the record, and these versions sound seriously good. ‘Run My Heart’ off of the new album is pure genius (both on tape as well as live), and the closer ‘Forget’ is still heartachingly beautiful. Rough start, but the band showed they know how to shake off both a terrible sound system as well as a wildly strange crowd (even for the festival’s standards).
Zola Jesus is even more of a highlight. The headliner of the Tuesday has managed to convince people to drive in from all over the country. The day went from not so good (The Jezabels) to pretty good (No Ceremony///) to Zola Jesus, who shows why she is getting all the buzz. The Jezabels look slightly awkward on stage, not sure what to make of the early evening (= not that busy) crowd, and the vocals sound quite thin (and I’m not sure she is hitting all the notes at that). No Ceremony///, in contrast, sound tight and manage to churn out some good vocals. Queen of the prom definitely is Zola Jesus though. Massive voice, massive stage presence, and massively tight play from the band; they really manage to deliver live. Definitely the band of the festival, as it was hard not to look at her, and hard not to be amazed by her singing and the quality of the songs.
There were also some little bands that did. For some, it must be massively daunting to play for a crowd that doesn’t know them, but Francois and the Atlas Mountains make it all work in hilarious fashion. When they come on they seem like a bunch of very serious French guys, but soon they get it going with their folky, summery pop tunes. Though I thought the album was spotty in places, the live show does know how to keep your attention the whole way through. The vocalist must have done some sort of dancing when he was younger, as even with guitar he manages to roll out some entertaining moves. It’s not just him though, as the rest of the band is equally dancing and doing some theatrics. It is like they are saying, Hey, we are having fun up here, and if you want to have fun with us, feel free to join in. This in contrast to Ewert and the Two Dragons, who also make folk (though less on the pop side), but their show is not quite as inviting for those who don’t know them (luckily for them, they managed to get some of their own fans out, which is an accomplishment in itself).
For some, it is their first visit to the main land with their current band, including for Breton. The band is kind of reminiscent of that Foals school of bands with the break beats and the shouty vocals, though it perhaps is a little more digestible for those not into something with the awful term “math rock”. They also have a video screen on which they are projecting images that I assume go with the songs (though I am not expert enough in the songs to link the two). They, too, manage to embrace the crowd, being delighted by the raucous reception for their first main land gig. Their execution instrumentally is pretty tight, and the songs are “complex” without losing ground in the listenability department. Another band’s first trip to the main land is new band Savages (which includes members of John & Jehn), an all female punk/rock band that knows how to do that genre. Punky, shouty, they’ve got the attitude down pat, and they have the skills to match all that. The songs include some insane guitar and bass action that make them a joy to listen to.
There are some “local” acts as well, both from The Netherlands as well as from our neighbouring country Belgium. From the latter, Kiss the Anus of a Black Cat has the most horrible name by far, but luckily they are quite mesmerizing with their dark synth wave. From The Netherlands, Bart Constant is impressive. Bart Constant is the new band of one of the members of the critically acclaimed About, a band which I didn’t find much to enjoy in at the time. This, for three quarters of its running time, is really good. It is a bit arty, the singing is a bit storytelling, and for the most part it also has a good base so there’s something you can easily latch on to while listening, which makes it way easier to digest. And I love everything that has a bit of horns in them, and there’s a keytar to boot (though, in all honesty, its presence was more prominent in terms of its physicality than music wise I thought).
Despite some terrible forecasts, the weather was only bad on the first day (which, for a free, outdoor festival, is huge), and thus the attendance was pretty decent all the way through. With some problems in the financial department I think many were afraid that the quality of the festival would go down (again, as last year’s festival already was a huge cut back), but the guys running the festival managed to put together a program with some excellent music. The only gaffe they made is that they deleted one stage (not that bad for me, I was never there anyway), but they put the way more popular electro stage with all the DJs at that exact same place. To go there, you have to descend some major stairs. In previous years, then you would have to turn right and walk a field of grass to get to the DJ dance grounds. Now, it was right at the bottom of the stairs. So you basically hit traffic, but in a way that is a good thing, for that means there were quite a bit of people, which hopefully is a sign that next year the festival will return with some amazing bands yet again.