Vivid sights and sounds on the continent...

“The next song is about Chris Brown and Rihanna’s loving relationship,” says Mikhael Paskalev, who is, naturally enough, a Norwegian country-rock singer. Well, who better to pontificate on the pugilistic sweet-nothings of R&B’s foremost couple than the Nordic Gram Parsons? He and Chris are highly unlikely to accidentally bump into each other and start a massive bar brawl, after all.

The likably melodic Paskalev is one of many unheralded highlights at the 35th edition of the famously in-touch Rencontres Trans Musicales, known locally as Trans. Based in Rennes, Brittany’s picturesque, pastry-obsessed capital, this annual end-of-year get-together is perhaps unique in terms of the diverse array of acts that can be accommodated in the varied halls.

It’s two festivals in one, in fact, with most of the main Trans turns playing in converted airfield hangers on the town’s outskirts, the biggest of those holding 7,000 people, while the offshoot Bars en Trans crams as many as possible into numerous city-centre pubs. Quite a contrast.

Some huge names have come through Rennes on their way to the top – most famously Nirvana – and it’s interesting to watch how this year’s hot tickets handle big venues. I hadn’t seen London Grammar live before, for example, but they do fill their vast hanger rather well, without being in any way original, or even particularly charismatic. Classic big-stage trip-hop is no bad thing to be aping, though, and Portishead were another prescient Trans booking, early on, although this is more London Grammassive Attack. But without an ounce of the cool, or any discernible image. Honestly, somebody buy them all some jaunty hats.

Much more original are a youthful outfit from Paris called Le Vasco, who throw every new sound they can think of into their restriction-free hip-hop/rock. Louise Calzada is the rapping, ranting, rather wonderful force of nature with the microphone (and a trademark hand-held lamp), backed by a gaggle of pals working in gong noises, air-raid klaxons, orchestral bits, and a very distinctive soprano saxophone. The mind boggles whether it’ll work on record, but they’re captivating on stage: you can’t wander off for fear of missing some bonkers new development.

The act causing most excitement among the locals, though? I’d picked up on Stromae on the journey over, the cheesy-looking Belgian having garnered a whole five-page feature in the classy Eurostar magazine. He’s clearly on the cusp of hugeness, on the continent at least, so much so that even that 7,000-capacity venue is massively oversubscribed, and many are turned away. I steer well clear, as there’s a worrying whiff of Mika about him.

On Saturday night I eschew the hangers altogether for a trawl around Bars en Trans, the highlight of which are The Missing Season, local chaps who favour a pleasingly melodic brand of jangle-rock, and might well have soaked up some of Mogwai’s fine French soundtrack work too, given their soundscapey diversions. Although I find myself equally transfixed by the frontman’s T-shirt, which progressively changes colour at the back of this sweaty medieval pub, as if to indicate exactly how much passion he’s putting in. Eventually just one dry spot, right in the middle of the chest, in almost exactly the shape of the United States of America. Oddly hypnotic.

Back at the hangers, I somehow manage to get side-of-stage to watch the gaudily attired Parisian psych-poppers Moodoïd, also hotly tipped due to their Tame Impala links and an impressive recent EP. I’m a bit underwhelmed, in truth, although watching them wander pensively beforehand probably killed the mystique somewhat, and it apparently sounded a lot better from the proper audience areas. Which makes you wonder if every band’s friends and family spend each concert standing side-of-stage, secretly thinking they’re dreadful.

The Jacuzzi Boys, over from Miami, are a lot more straightforward, a rollicking garage-rock cacophony that’s great fun for a few songs but gets tired as quickly as a pensioner handcuffed to a treadmill. I resort to making my own entertainment by convincing a nearby hack that they’re so-called due to being from Bath.

Other hanger highlights? Luke Jenner, late of The Rapture, now doing some unlikely Ben Folds-like piano business, concluded with a crowd-pleasing version of a Van Halen classic. Bogota’s Meridian Brothers, who are the sort of band most of us only see at open-minded festivals like this: officially a one-man band, but with several shiny-shirted folks on stage, including a secret-weapon girl drummer who can only just reach the cymbals she’s absolutely clattering. They make a splendidly varied collection of noises. And Oum Shatt, from Berlin, who look a bit like Franz Ferdinand but have a big Arabic influence, which adds extra spice.

The most vivid sight of Trans 2013, though, are the evocative disco outfit Escort, who pretty much fill that hugest of hangers on Friday night; and that includes the mighty stage, which is packed with, ooh, about 20 assembled players. Like London Grammar, they aren’t hugely original. Unlike London Grammar, they’ve got more charisma than the lord mayor of charismatown, in the shape of the tall, red-wigged, bass-spanking, Paris-born frontwoman Adeline Michele: think Bowie’s outrageously cool bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, gone disco.

Out and about in Rennes the next night I spot a few more Adeline lookalikes, working the red wigs. Give it a few months and we’ll all want one. Adjust your Christmas lists accordingly.

Words: Si Hawkins
Escort photo: Nicolas Joubard

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