“May we take the piano?” ponders the polite female half of a funky young couple who’ve just sauntered into Ghent’s pleasingly rustic Trefpunt bar, which is attached to the venue of the same name that Clash had hopelessly failed to gain admittance to a few minutes earlier. Such gig-blocks are an occupational hazard at multi-genre city festivals, but no matter: sometimes music comes to you.
Having slipped onto the stool, her fella then lifts the lid and launches into an impromptu array of epic ‘n’ edgy classical pieces; head jerking, digits flashing like a barroom Rachmaninoff. Reactions from the pub staff? They seem pretty much oblivious. This sort of thing must happen all the time in downtown Ghent.
As the local mayor proudly informs us during his opening speech to 2014’s Glimps Festival, Ghent – capital of Belgium’s East Flanders region – was made a UNESCO City of Music in 2009, and while we don’t really know what that means, it certainly sounds impressive. We do know that this river-strewn city is famous for crossing the musical streams: its multi-room mixed-genre house party scene most famously begat Soulwax, whose rock/dance mash-ups did much to help foster the gloriously mixed-up music world we revel in today.
Indeed, the folks behind Glimps actively accentuate Ghent’s inclusive bent by inviting absolutely anyone they fancy to Flanders each December, be it an eccentric Polish one-man band (Bajzel), a Belgian/Italian jazz act who only play Indian classical scores (Ragini Trio), or the finest math/prog band in Slovakia (Nvmeri). It’s much like the European Song Contest, but with a better loony/genius balance.
Piano boy aside, Belgium’s top outfit this weekend are A/T/O/S (aka A Taste Of Struggle), which is a bit of an unfortunate acronym as that’s also the name of the loathed assessment body who’ve been viciously chopping needy people’s benefits over the last few years. This duo also looms imperiously behind a desk, but their cuts are far more enjoyable: crunchy dubstep from a surly baseball-capped chap and sultry words from a sassy lass who also mucks in with the knob-twiddling, rather than just swanning about stage-front. Fine work.
Germany’s big hope, Aloa Input (pictured, main), make an effort too, particularly with their visuals. This thoroughly agreeable indie-pop trio favours accessible tribal rhythms and eye-catching films, including, for their final song, huge tasty-looking fruits and vegetables. Which is ironic, if you’ve ever tried ordering vegetarian food in Germany.
The weekend’s best 2015 heartthrob bet? Afterpartees are from the Netherlands, where you can imagine they have the local ladies, and some of the lads, well lubed. Led by a pointy-cheekboned pretty-boy and all resplendent in snug ‘n’ trendy tees, they’re musically tight too, rattling through a giddy rush of punky noise McNuggets. All sung in English, of course, even though Flanders’ native language is Flemish, a variation of Dutch. Misguidedly trying out your GCSE French here is even more frowned upon than in France.
Belgium may have a bland reputation but there’s an enduring tension between Flanders’ Flemish speakers and the Francophone Walloons down south (in October the Guardian described their newly installed coalition as “the most combustible administration in the country’s history”), and it apparently applies musically, too. There are bitter whispers around the festival conference venue about disparities in funding between those singing in the two tongues.
Lord knows where La Chiva Gantiva (pictured, above) fit in. Formed in Brussels by three Colombians, LCG feature both Walloon and Flemish Belgians, plus members from France and Vietnam, and sing in Spanish, French, and some mutant hybrid of the two. Their bastard Afrobeat won’t be for everyone but there’s a trippy energy here and a rock-band dynamic, sometimes veering into Rage Against The Machine territory. They might also be singing about fruit and vegetables for all we know, but by crikey they do it with passion.
We chilly northern Europeans can’t always generate the same heat. The Brussels-based electronica duo Hydrogen Sea are much buzzed-about and pack out the very posh conservatorium, but the shapeless warblings of winsome chanteuse Birsen Uçar aren’t Clash’s cup of, er, sea. Outwardly similar but much more engaging are Sea Change, from Norway, on straight afterwards at a more secretive location, a converted cloth-measuring hall from 1770 called the Lakenmetershuis. Flanked by guitar and button-pushing geezers, the laptop-wielding Ellen Sunde emits melodic pain-shot shards of electronic spunkiness, subtly sugar-coated bursts of hurt. Highly recommended.
For sheer onstage intensity, though, the Glimps gong goes to Italy, and festival-finishers JoyCut, who make Death From Above 1979 sound like the Carpenters. Stuck directly behind one of their two drummers, tactical loo-roll stuffed in earholes, we’re fascinated by several empty glasses which vibrate toward the edge of the stage like escaping refugees, powered by the sheer awesomeness of this trio’s two-drum shtick. Those drummers are fronted by a hairy Bobby Gillespie lookalike on knobs/wails, and the overall package is as life-affirmingly invigorating as a cold swim on a crisp winter morning. It hurts, but it’s worth it.
Congratulations to the Italians, then, unofficial winners of this year’s Glimps: they formed, they toured, they conquered.
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Words: Si Hawkins
Photos: Caroline De Meyer