There’s a strange thing that sets European festivals apart from our UK ones. It’s not just the distinct shortage of toilets, which miraculously remain queue-less and clean, or the really bad art (posh men riding dino-snails, anyone?), but the eclectic mix of massive headliners.
That may sound like an oxymoron, but the 26-year-old Eurockéennes, like Primavera, BBK and the like, brings together some of the biggest names across musical genres. The same couldn’t be said for Latitude, Green Man, Download or Reading and Leeds: you kind of know what you’re going to get with those.
Beside a picturesque lake in Belfort, France played one the biggest bands in Britain, one of the biggest artists in Europe, one of the biggest gods in musical history… and Skrillex. In a way, it was almost surreal to experience them all in just one weekend.
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Friday, July 4th
Friday, it’s fair to say, got a soaking. Dapper-suited Metronomy’s cheery electro-pop cut through the black clouds enough to have everyone dancing, despite the band admitting beforehand they hadn’t even planned a setlist – likewise the Flemish singer Stromae. He’s yet to become the biggest thing ever in the UK, but is comfortable with the title everywhere else in Europe, it seems.
But it was Pixies that made the day, giant mutant raindrops and all. The US alt-rockers, who previously played the festival in 1991 and 2004, continued their comeback with what seemed like a million people watching them, singing along to a mix of classic and new tracks. ‘Manta Ray’, ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’, ‘Wave oOf Mutilation’, ‘Here Comes Your Man’, ‘Debaser’ – hit after hit, almost seamlessly merging with new numbers like ‘Greens And Blues’. And wow, Black Francis still has a great scream in him. It was an excellent festival set, despite some dodgy trackie bottom attire.
Temples took to La Plage – a small stage jutting into the lake from its sandy bank – with a mix of fuzz and noodling guitar earlier in the day, although seemed a little lost in their flares and blazers during the few moments of scorching hot sun. Fat White Family, who pretty much opened the festival, whipped everyone into a frenzied state with a bunch of Sex Pistols meets Kaiser Chiefs numbers, but the whiskey-laden stage antics may have been a bit much for such early doors. As for The Dap Tones revival with Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, I’m sure all two and a half hours of it was bloody amazing… but it was so wet by then.
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Saturday, July 5th
Rocking up at a festival at 5pm is amazing. We may pretend we like a leisurely morning with a warm cider and banging head, but actually, a three-course cheese and steak-based lunch is what should really happen.
The music kicks off with a blinding set from Jungle – seven on stage create brilliant electro pop with a smidge of funk, with massive percussion, sirens and hooks. It’s like witnessing a modern-day Bee Gees… and that’s a good thing. Tracks like ‘Busy Earnin’’ and ‘Platoon’ get everyone moving in the sun.
Jagwar Ma took over a bigger stage with some looping and buzzing, but the loud spacey psych-pop of their set’s start couldn’t be sustained, and even the occasional “ça va, Belfort?” can’t keep up the energy.
Club Cheval, aided by some mighty visuals, however, totally got its groove on and set the crowd up well for headliner, M.I.A. – and everyone was up for her. Even better, the massive storm that was forecast didn’t arrive. We danced. We stayed dry.
M.I.A. brought with her a huge backdrop and a couple of dancers, who energetically pulled shapes in a little world of their own! She did her thing and she did it well, with ‘Double Bubble Trouble’, ‘Bamboo Banga’, ‘Paper Planes’ and ‘Bad Girls’ all sounding massive, crashing together hip hop, ragga, punk and some kind of spiritual, Hindi-laced electro. She’s kind of like a maxi-minimalist, with songs bursting with noise, despite not a huge amount going on. As has become her trademark, she got a load of people on stage. For someone who oozes cool, it was a treat to hear her shout, “I want the penguin!”
Then there was Skrillex. Do people really want to listen to Fatman Scoop samples? It seems that they do.
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Sunday, July 6th
Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil must have regretted having a huge beard after such a clammy heat wave of an afternoon. Luckily, as sweat dripped down his face, the rain dipped down ours, clearing the air for the evening’s music. The soaking kind of set the scene well for an immense set from the Scots – their loud, angsty rock packed with sing-along choruses, heavy drum fills and punching riffs. For a relatively early set, it felt almost like a headlining show. They ended with ‘Mountains’ as the sky split between a vivid blue and Armageddon black.
Luckily, the psychedelic rain dance performed by the excellent Goat (pictured, main) from Sweden meant we all stayed happy. Possibly the highlight of the whole festival, the band swirled its way through progressive ambient rock. Every lengthy track verged on the mundane in parts, yet became almost trance-like, zoning you in on the excellent musicianship and rhythms. It really was spellbinding. While the two Nico-like singers yelped and danced in their African tribal shamanic dress, it was the band that really brought something special, especially the djembe and almost cello-like guitar (and the bass player in a burka, looking like someone from Monty Python). Thank God they weren’t cut off, despite some worried tech, side of stage, making angry faces.
Talking of Gods: Robert Plant. Kicking off with Joan Baez’s ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’, Plant’s voice sounded as amazing as ever. It’s quite weird watching this musical institution on stage – some of his antics at first seem a little ‘old rocker’, or embarrassing, but as his voice warmed up into a Zeppelin scream and the band rocked out, it soon melted into something brilliant.
The new songs by Plant and his band, Sensational Space Shifters (awful name), see genres collide. Musicians and traditional instruments from West Africa played alongside psych guitarist Skin Tyson of Liverpool – formerly a member of Cast – a 1950s rockabilly guitarist and a guy on the keys who introduced some electro blips, which was a bit of a surprise.
It all goes a little Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ at one point – Plant taking to the bodhrán – but it soon crashes into a rock riff that everyone recognises. It’s brilliant, although ‘Rainbow’ and Howlin Wolf’s ‘Spoonful’ could have had a minute or so chopped off the end.
New number ‘Little Maggie’ sounded excellent. This psych-folk, electro world-rock is something you can dance to! But Plant knows how to work a festival, and it’s the Zeppelin tracks that make the night, especially ‘What Is And Should Never Be’, ‘Black Dog’, and his “old traditional 16th century folk song”, ‘Rock And Roll’.
The only thing is, it makes you wish you were watching a full Zeppelin set. It’s bluesy, soulful, loud and tight and, by about four songs in, it’s mesmerising. Ending with ‘Whole Lotta Love’ mashed up with Bo Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love’ makes the entire festival site go crazy, with thousands of people stand waggling their fingers in the air.
THE BLACK KEYS
The Black Keys, unfortunately, just can’t follow this – or the hilariously brilliant Ghost, the politest, campest death metal band in all of Sweden. While The Black Keys’ hits sound bluesy and feisty – ‘Dead And Gone’, ‘Next Girl’, ‘Bullet In The Brain’ – they just don’t have the hooks that Zeppelin had. But then, that’s a lot to live up too. They’re loud, distorted, the guitar is dirty and the drumming is fierce, but the lesser-known songs are forgettable. And what’s with hiding the other musicians behind a tower of amps and speakers? We can still see them!
SBTRKT, on the other hand, comprised the perfect end to a great festival. Poppy and catchy, a little dance was just what was needed to sooth the wellies-tired feet before home.
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Eurockéennes doesn’t have much of a presence in the UK, despite pulling in more than 100,000 people and being seen as the French Glastonbury over there, and with a huge number of UK acts on the line-up. Yes, it’s commercial and heavily sponsored, but it’s got a history – Bowie, Blur, Arcade Fire, Morrissey, Radiohead, Dylan. For a weekend in a beautiful setting, some great music and a lot of fine cheese, you can’t go wrong.
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Words: Gemma Hampson
Photos: see gallery, top of page, for credits