Damian Leslie and Richard Foster take in yet another magical festival weekend at Haldern Pop.
(Damian) It has been said before and it will be said again, right here, that Haldern Pop isn’t like other festivals. Sure, it offers you the usual recipe of a decent lineup of bands, a field in which to pitch your tent and a chance to lord it up with some friends, a BBQ set and too much alcohol for a weekend but that’s not what makes it special. This is perhaps not the best place to start getting philosophical; it is merely a festival review, after all, but I do think that the ‘experience’ of Haldern is much more than just a handful of decent ‘sets’ and the availability of reasonably priced lager and fried potatoes. The best part of going to Haldern is never the music, not completely, it’s just being at Haldern.
To illustrate the point, the concepts of space, place and time were discussed quite openly throughout this year’s festival, both in official seminars as well as backstage around the campfire. Those discussions ranged across themes such as the concept of a meeting place and its purpose, to the ways in which we unintentionally limit our own sense of space and experience through daily digital interaction that is of little value. Or how a community can ‘open its doors and hearts’ to a bunch of global travellers for a few days, while debate endlessly rages over the movement of people. It all boiled down examining the values or importance of a festival like this, not just economically, but spiritually, ethically and culturally. Something you don’t get that at your average Big Weekender. Listening to this range of discussions and performances, it became abundantly clear that many of us are simply struggling to make sense of the world we currently find ourselves living in, uncertain of our place and role in our society and that uncertainty became visible on numerous occasions this past weekend.
First case in point, the bizarre, baffling and occasionally extraordinary main stage performance from Benjamin Clementine on Friday. Thrust onto the larger stage in an early evening slot his performance brought a sense of theatre, drama and conviction to the stage for about half an hour before destroying the illusion almost completely with what seemed a deliberate yet quite unsettling outpouring of self-doubt and anxiety. The set became ever more difficult to watch, even for his band, who seemed to have very little understanding of what was unfolding in front of them or how to handle it, and yet it was by no means a disaster. The crowd really wanted to love him, it just seemed like he simply isn’t in a headspace at the moment where he can contemplate or accept that adoration. It was a captivating performance, for many reasons and one I’ll not forget in a hurry.
Contrast this with a truly powerful one-two-three punch of Spiegeltent shows from the Thursday night. Trapped in the tent due to inclement weather of quite hideous proportions and the lack of a rain jacket, we found ourselves entertained firstly by the strength and confidence of Hurray for the Riff Raff, whose collection of intelligent, sharp and charming blues-pop songs can’t fail to entertain. If you’ve never seen or heard of them, then they come across as a clever mix of New York New Wave (Blondie, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, etc.) and Southern bar-blues rock. They weren’t the only band that weekend to feel the need to comment on the state of the world but they found the strength and conviction to control only what they can, their show. A quite brilliant and understated performance.
Following that, we met the happiest bunch of Australians this side of the equator. Parcels are a bunch of Aussie high school friends that look like a bunch of extras from Richard Linklater’s ‘Dazed and Confused’ and yet have decided to go all KC & The Sunshine Band instead of AC/DC. Well, if the world’s going to hell in a handbasket, you may as well dance. They may not have found a true chorus yet, but they sure know how to create a mood. Parcels have obviously studied the Nile Rogers guitar handbook so that should tell you enough about their kind of sound but this was a joyous moment to behold. The tent was bouncing from the first note and they simply stormed it. A pure blast of goodwill and high energy, they left everyone smiling and sweating, which is always a great state to be in.
From there (in typical Haldern fashion) things lurched in yet another direction, to the calm, precise and ethereal compositions of Lisa Hannigan. What’s amazing about Lisa is her ability to craft something so captivating from what can seem such fragile and sparse arrangements. There’s a country-flavoured-tinge to her compositions that often gets overlooked due to her Irish background but her ability to capture your attention with little musical accompaniment is extraordinary. To follow an energetic band like Parcels with a set so low-key meant everything could easily fall flat on its face. But not here. It was exquisite, totally captivating from beginning to end, and helped immeasurably by the Cantus Domus choir for a track that reduced more than one member of our party to tears. Sometimes you just find yourself lucky to be in a place at a certain time. Glancing at the programme, I noted that Conor Oberst was on the main stage. If the weather had improved I probably would never have stepped inside the tent for Lisa’s set. I am so, so glad I didn’t move.
Perhaps the most magical moment of the weekend came with the performance of TootArd in the Haldern Pop Bar on Friday morning. Now, the Haldern Pop bar may be the place many festival goers head for each morning simply to use the facilities but occasionally it plays host to some pretty incredible festival moments. This was another of them. TootArd (Arabic for Strawberries), come from a mountain village in the Occupied Syrian Golan Heights and their quite unique take on ‘roots reggae rock’ with an Arabic lilt took everybody present by complete surprise. The crowd took to them immediately. Within seconds heads were nodding, within minutes people were dancing and by the end the place was literally bouncing. They had to play two encores, the crowd simply would not let them go. And this was an early morning gig! They left, like heroes. I’ve never seen a band have to hug so many people after a show.
I have to mention Afghan Whigs’ fiery set on the main stage on the Saturday.The material was drawn mainly from last two albums but closer Faded was excellent, and it – alongside Kate Tempest’s corruscating show and an exuberant display of (over?) righteous anger from the Idles’ gig – was a great way to draw things to a close. Tempest seemed to be in tears of happiness at the end of the gig, such was the festival’s accepting, inspiring nature.
(Richard) A creative magic hangs heavy over the village for the duration of Haldern Pop festival. The event has a discernible sense of the wyrd about it, which translates from the festival grounds to the village and the farms in between. Some speakers – amongst them Glastonbury’s Martin Elbourne – were quick to point this factor out. And yes, sometimes I feel as if I’ve been transported to a landlocked, German equivalent of Summerisle, albeit without the unashamed group sex and ritual sacrifice. That’s in the main because no-one really seems to know what to expect from any of the gigs. Or the weather.
One thing that’s made a noticeable, concrete difference to the festival has been the hosting of gigs in the village church. Once the scene of desperate fighting at the close of the Second World War the church has hosted a good number of extraordinary gigs over the last half decade. It’s difficult to have a bum gig in a church it must be said, but it’s increasingly common in my gig-going experience to witness ones that are just ok. Luckily we got Mario Batkovic kicking out the jams. Robed and booted from head to foot in black, the fellow looked like a mix of shy farm hand and no-nonsense barman in a boozer for metal heads. His set was something else again. Batkovic nailed the audience in place with four or five lengthy and often steaming mic’d up accordion work-outs; one of which sounded like a menacing, dosed up take on Britney’s ‘Oops, I Did It Again’. Cowed, the audience quietly got on with soaking this singular talent in and got more out there as Batkovic laid down the law. The sense of running wild free and deliciously out of our bonces on some Swiss mountaintop was overpowering. High Magicke floated round the church pillars like gossamer in the wind.
Other wyrd lunacy made its presence felt in the Pop Bar on the Sunday with the brilliant White Wine. Their transition from duo to trio has been the making of them; Joe Haege’s itchy but ever-accessible muse getting a third dimension to inhabit. And the depth and power of the drumming has seen White Wine’s music blasted out of the old “interesting millennial alternative pop” bracket into spaces once inhabited by classic weirdo, or spacey pop bands like Talking Heads, Maximum Joy and Devo. The new tracks – and the tracks of the most recent LP – have an inherent grooviness to them that’s not too far away from Ege Bamyasi era Can, too. Albeit coming from a very, un-sultry, un-Damo like place. Itchiness, restlessness. Eccentricity made protest pop. That’s the key. (Oh, and when was the last time you saw a bassoon used in anger?) As usual Joe ran into the crowd, looking like a man who’s left his suitcase on the train, holding onto people, yelling, prostrating himself on the ground, and howling out his allotted part. Damian reckoned he looked like a KPMG employee gone mental and I have to concur. As usual the audience took this charming bag of nerves to their hearts and demanded encores despite the place being hotter than a Finnish sauna.
Otherworldly Wyrdness was on display in the Spiegeltent. Aldous Harding’s gig was a slice of languorous, sometimes skittish cabaret delivered by a Rock Matron of high power. Later there was Let’s Eat Grandma to contend with. What to think of this act? Musically It was great; I was expecting C21st Teen Emoting aplenty (and yes we got that) but bits came on like Fried-era Julian Cope (long drawn out bedroom laments driven by melancholy keys, simple plaintive guitar trills) other bits like a feminine take on 3 EPs-era Beta Band. Other bits sounded like drugged up 90’s chart fodder. But just at the point I got lost in the music I couldn’t escape the fact they’re both young enough to be my daughters. Skipping, handclapping, hiding behind their instruments, they played with the idea of what you’d expect a precocious well brought up kid to do through the spectacle of two kids actually doing it. Taking the piss out of being a kid whilst being a kid… In this they are adept at throwing the questions of whether this is festival fodder really back at the audience, ones that can’t be summed up in a live rock review. Still it was a great gig, is that enough?
Ah Haldern Pop… I’m sat at home writing this from 48 hours before and it already feels like a million years away, in another galaxy. What did Damian say about space and time?
(Pics – thanks to Mac!)