A Flemish welcome, a Christmas market and plenty of new music...

“Over in the corner we have CDs, and vinyl, which you can buy…” says one of the two frontpeople of a band called Peter Kernel, neither of whom is actually called Peter Kernel, confusingly. “Because we need to pay the drummer. And he’s expensive.”

Welcome to rock’s quirky underside. It’s festive fringe. Clash has trooped to a fine venue in uptown Ghent called Trefpunt to catch this Swiss/Canadian outfit, on the advice of a girl at a launch party earlier who’d journeyed over from Holland chiefly to see them, which isn’t actually that far but, hey, it says something. And she’s spot on. The only thing that trumps them at this year’s Glimps is the chocolate-topped pain au chocolat they served at our breakfast haunt - and that was genuinely life-changing.

It’s a good place, Ghent, capital of Belgium’s Flemish-speaking Flanders region, and Glimps Festival is the perfect time to be here, as you hurtle through Christmas market stalls in search of venues selling the best beers on the festival circuit, to check anything from church-based Scousers to overblown indie-pop to Touareg synth-rock. Gotta work off those pastries.

The Danish Daniel Johnston/Adam Levine/Kurt Cobain

So, yes, Peter Kernel: the first and best band we see across the three days. It’s actually a likably irreverent couple – Aris and Barbara – who are undoubtedly indebted to ‘80s/90s alternative American rock, but spin it their own arty way. They’ve apparently been knocking about for a decade, but are clearly still experimenting. “Hey,” Aris yells at his soundman during one between-song FX discussion. “Can we put some reverb on the crowd?”

Elsewhere the fertile sound of Denmark is a focus this year, although back at Trefpunt a different brand of US band comes to mind: Maroon 5. Keep Camping are an extraordinary proposition in a tight venue at a showcase festival, although they’ve presumably convinced themselves that this is just a warm-up for the stadium show that’s happening… one day.

This is one of those bands that look like they start each gig with a motivational huddle, led by a high-energy chap who keeps serenading particular girls in the audience, some of whom look deeply bewildered. They’re just wildly out of place, in truth, and while the enthusiasm is admirable, they really need to get massive before this starts getting seriously awkward.

That same evening we catch that band’s absolute antithesis, their compatriot Jacob Bellens, who’s sort of Denmark’s Daniel Johnston but (surely to Keep Camping’s chagrin) is playing a much bigger venue; the festival hub, Handelsbeurs. A complicated soul, Bellens is co-founder of an outfit called Murder but here is in solo mode, manning a keyboard in a fusty sweater and slacks like your uncle giving a Casio recital at Christmas. The big difference: here the songs are rather wonderful, so much so that at one point one of his back-up guitarists wanders off to watch from the audience.

Perhaps it’s an odd rule at this venue, but later that evening another fine Danish act’s frontman turns up sporting bizarrely dull middle-aged-dad clothes too. Yung, also from Denmark, are Nirvana copycats, which is no bad thing, but the frontman’s bought-by-his-mom chic is a bit distracting. “His waistband is SO high,” says a transfixed girl nearby, shaking her head in wonder. “They’re never going to get anywhere like that.” True, sadly. Wardrobe!

Exploding Supports, Bad Positions And War

Having marvelled at the Yung fellah’s waistband, Clash then suffers a karmic wardrobe catastrophe while nipping into the Brit-based indie/world combo Cristobal and the Sea. Arriving mid-song and leaping into a recently vacated front row seat, there’s a dramatic snap as your correspondent’s much-abused belt finally surrenders to basic physics. Damn those seductive pastries.

Still, being unexpectedly stuck there does raise a question, about how location can affect your judgement. A few weeks back I watched the same band from the back of a venue in Hamburg, and was underwhelmed, though others loved it. Here, up close, their barefoot winter beach party feels fantastic. Perhaps gig reviewers should disclose more info under each byline: “By Stevie Jadedhack, fifteen rows back, arrived late, left before the encore.”

There’s always some tremendous randomness at Glimps too. On Clash’s first visit, Luxembourgian instrumental stuff seemed to be everywhere. Last year we caught a jazz trio reinterpreting Indian classical music. And this year it’s Kriget, Swedish for ‘war’ (they should really team up with Murder, call it the Western Foreign Policy Tour), a Stockholm trio who make dance music with drums, bass and sax, which works a lot better than you might imagine. It’s like Kenny G meets Underworld, if Kenny G was an absolute noise monster.

Icons, Morons And Antidotes

A new Glimps venue this year is the mighty St Jacobs Church, and performing right underneath a huge, unnerving model of crucified Jesus is ex-Coral guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones, slightly incongruously, who’s on decent form but struggles to compete with the God stuff. You can’t help wandering off to look at the mind-blowing frescos rather than offer your full attention.

Music Mania also features much visual stimuli: it’s a corking little vinyl-everywhere record store, where Clash catches the excellent Pruikduif, a local trio who play often intricate, sometimes psychedelic post-punk to an enthusiastic crowd that continues outside. Although mounted above them is another mesmerising sight: the theme to the 1985 Mel Smith/Griff Rhys Jones movie Morons from Outer Space. But… why?

While the enthusiastic response is welcome for those guys, it’s almost a relief at the next show. The feelgood hit of this year’s Glimps is undoubtedly Kel Assouf, led by the exotically-robed Anana Harouna, who’s from Niger, was exiled to Libya, joined a rebellion, and is now in once-peaceful Belgium.

You’ll probably be aware that this Brussels’ North African community has been under the media microscope of late, but Harouna’s band could easily help diffuse that tension; a multi-national, cross-cultural quintet who make funky but issue-laden Touareg rock, they receive such an ovation afterwards that the performers all end up taking a well-deserved bow.

The only other band we saw do the full curtain call? Keep Camping. Well, maybe one day they’ll be important too.

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Words: Si Hawkins

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