What Is a Festival?
(Richard) You could argue that question boils down in the end to a very simple answer, a stage, of whatever sort. And keeping things simple, celebrating the essentials of why we go to festivals, is something Haldern Pop is very good at. The event increasingly reminds me of John Peel’s estimation of the celebrated British rockaboogie band, The Fall; “always different, always the same”. Haldern has traced out some familiar rhythms and pathways to tread this last 15 years or so; from the Spiegeltent to the Hauptbühne, from the Pop Bar to the church, and back again. But every year some magical, musical time-space wobble occurs, and you stop to wonder where you are.
This, then, is the story of five places in Germany in 2019.
Take a Pew, Why Don’t You? Haldern Church
(Damian) It’s a little after lunchtime on Friday 9th August, 2019 and you find us sat in Haldern’s church. We’re currently watching a skinny man decked out in a yellow vest and scissor-cut lime green denim shorts rubbing together what looks like two sponges wrapped in sandpaper. And I, for one, am smiling. No, make that grinning from ear to ear. For a little more context, what we’re gathered here to witness is members of Stargaze, the orchestra led by the charismatic conductor André de Ridder, and guest star Greg Saunier, drummer of the mighty Deerhoof, play Beethoven’s 8th and we am loving it.
The classical world has its merits (and there are many of them) but there can be a little too much starch in the collar at most performances for my liking. But today, given the tropical heat, trousers are only barely on the agenda it seems and what makes this particular performance so joyous is that there seems to be little shown in the way of reverence to Beethoven. Instead, Saunier and co are playing with Beethoven. Watching Saunier, crouched behind his trademark minimal drum kit, smiling and laughing as he fidgets around with lanyards and sponges, tapping out intermittent percussion threads on his snare and bass drum is infectious. The group look like they’re having a ball and that joy spreads quickly throughout us in the audience.
Stargaze and Saunier simply pulled the 8th apart and reassembled it in front of us in the manner of a small child building a bridge with Sticklebricks. It was quite chaotic, ramshackle even and yet beautiful and strong at the same time. The music seemed to fly around the nave, bouncing off pillars like a group of excited children playing among a copse of trees. It was, in a strange way, like taking part in a thrilling game of hide and seek, the music that was at once so familiar appearing new and exciting at the same time. The result was a rediscovery, for me at least, of just how bloody magical Beethoven’s music can be. This was the most exciting reinterpretation of his music I’ve heard since the Clockwork Orange soundtrack.
Haldern’s partnerships with Stargaze and the choir Cantus Domus have blossomed over recent years into a truly remarkable, symbiotic creative relationship. Many of these collaborations find a home within Haldern’s church but you can often find members of each troupe cropping up elsewhere. This year, for instance, Cantus Domus swelled out Patrick Watson’s sound to a quite otherworldly degree, emphasising the etherealness of his vocals especially and in turn reducing a tent full of people and half a watching beer garden to gibbering, blubbering wrecks. To be honest, Patrick’s ‘thing’ is not really ours but there’s no denying the impact that set had on the crowd gathered to watch it.
(Richard) Confession time. I’ve never been a huge fan of gigs in churches. Maybe it’s the nagging feeling that the idea feels a bit of an exercise in validating pop music. As Damian says however, the shows in Haldern’s church have developed a rhythm and a sense of their own identity over the years, thanks to Cantus Domus and Stargaze creating a framework that allows shape and meaning to the programme. For a performer new to it all, though, playing this austere space remains a daunting proposition. I suppose playing a gig in a place designated for worship can degenerate into a battle of wills between you and “The Lord”. We saw two contrasting approaches this year with the bravura of Kirill Richter’s gig and the inner space explorations of Maarja Nuut & Ruum. Richter first. Accompanied by violin and cello, the Russian pianist’s romantic, mellifluous playing brought sparkle and verve to Thursday’s early evening programme. There is something very youthful and Apollonian about Richter. His is a popular classical music that relies on an outward expression of technique and showmanship, something that has to be played on the front foot. Often the music was tossed between the trio like a hot coal. One passage, relying on a deft switch from violin to piano, was breathtaking; Richter grabbing the note proffered by the violinist as if he’d caught a feather in mid air. I can’t remember hearing such a “note-perfect” moment, or witnessing such a dazzling piece of playing in a long while.
By total contrast Maarja Nuut and Ruum (known to his mother as Hendrik Kaljujärv) happily retreated into a world of their own imagining. Stripping back their set to deal with the church’s acoustics, the duo concentrated on building up an atavistic ecosystem of electronic space that pulsated and throbbed against the masonry. Now and again we got an enticing glimpse of Nuut’s artistry with her violin, but these were employed as a tease, quicksilver prompts to keep us on our toes. Nuut has come a long way from the “simple” folk-classical fiddler experimenting with loops to an adventurous musician who draws deep on her Estonian heritage to create abstract forms of dance and electronic music. The show looked to seduce, maybe even toy with the crowd’s patience, daring them to totally surrender to an antediluvian atavistic drone show.
See You in the Youth Club!
(Damian) The Jugendheim centre, nestled down an alleyway in Haldern village centre, is a simple room with glass walls along two sides. The stage is only a few centimetres high, and so the bands are often invisible to anyone behind the first three rows but it’s such a fun room to be in and it’s nice to give props to the spiritual heart of where this whole Haldern Pop thing began, some 36 years ago. This year, Sea Girls impressed. Their steady raft of tight, driving and hummable indie pop went down as well as a coke with ice in a real glass. Then there was the impressively dressed Kikagaku Moyo who spun us all into another dimension. A dimension where sitar solos and bizarre percussion interludes are the norm and fashion magazines still covet 70’s hair and tight flares. The Tokyo band were a real treat, crafting short wig-out guitar and sitar sections that could have run on forever as far as the audience were concerned, although the mid-song collapse into a bizarre percussion ritual became a little grating after a while.
(Richard) For once – and pray, hold me tight as you administer the smelling salts – I thoroughly enjoyed a gig from a singer songwriting duo. Tangarine are two Dutch brothers whose music would normally pass me by. But standing outside on the car park after popping into a nearby supermarket for some aspirin, I found myself rooted, hypnotised by their charming set of folksy pop. I suppose that shows what happens at festivals; you get caught, moved, altered even by chance moments. Tangarine’s patient, well-crafted tracks have a surety and moral certainty about them that is very giving and on this performance, inspiring.
A Swift Half in the Pop Bar.
(Damian) The Haldern Pop bar is a designated meeting point for most visitors. It’s a nice little place that feels like it’s been here for centuries, even if it’s less than ten years old. It’s also a place where bands play, if they can fit on the stage and there’s something about the early Friday morning slot in the Haldern Pop bar that never seems to fail. This year, the oh-so-charming Dylan Cartlidge stepped up to the plate and had both the bar and street outside boogying on down to his proto-rap-funk-pop stylings within minutes. He looks cool as mustard – that afro, those shades! – but it was his sweet sense of innocence and charm that won everybody over. There’s a vulnerability to him as a performer that is captivating. The set was a little rusty on occasions but we can forgive that as it can be difficult to play rock and pop in the morning. Besides, if you’ve got the guts to do a freestyle rap and incorporate a second language into it, then we’ll go with you. His set was a delight.
A short time later we saw Gurr with their shouty, spiky pop-rock anthems. They got things so hot and bothered that people were fainting in droves and quickly scrambling for the door in search of air. We should also say there was lots of bouncing. Even outside in the street. Incredible scenes. Later that evening we watched their singer being carried around like a heroine in the Niederrhein tent. The two sets smashed. They simply conquered Haldern. Great stuff.
(Richard) Actually Gurr are a brilliant live band. Their fizzing hooky guitar pop has nous and wit and glitchy and low-rent glam that’s equal parts B 52’s and Anat Ben-David. It’s the sort of music for all seasons, a simple pop music construction kit that can be packed and unpacked and put to use anywhere. And, unpacked and dusted down in the Niederrhein tent in particular, Gurr magicked up an explosion of sparkly pop fun high on life itself, eliciting a baying response from the crowd. Truly, they are “great stuff”.
Getting High on the Mainstage
(Damian) The festival’s main stage, is the place where you’d expect the more polished and perhaps less experimental offerings. And yet, over the weekend, it hosted acts as varied as the sunny, gorgeous pop of Kat Frankie (nice matching outfits), the deep, bass-heavy rock of Kadaver (good facial hair), the clever, twisted dance pop of Sophie Hunger and the laid back, slightly warped dub-funk of Khruangbin (are those wigs?) (Richard – I don’t know. But they looked like wigs…).
I’ll give Khruangbin props as I thought their psychedelic surf dub seemed to fit my mood perfectly in the Saturday afternoon sun but they were easily the most divisive band of the festival, judging by the conversations we held. I quite enjoyed the theatrics of their show too, which consisted of a range of polite walks, nods and curtsies thrown in for reasons best known to themselves. They charmed me. They disgusted others. The drummer didn’t look best pleased either.
Other things of note on the Hauptbühne: James Leg’s gravelly voice and standard bar-blues was what you’d expect, but I was impressed by the quality of his guitar solos. If only because they were played on a keyboard. And his new drummer is amazing. (Richard – I thought they were great but, yes, that kind of music doesn’t seem to offer any surprises does it?) Gerry Cinnamon had enough charisma to give me an idea as to just why this cheeky chancer has suddenly taken what seems like a clever busker’s act into arena headlining territory in the UK. It still seems like a cheeky, smutty Ed Sheeran act, but it’s a bloody fun one.
Brandt Brauer Frick took this year’s award for Band I’d Rather Listen To While Wandering About The Festival Ground, if only because watching a couple of guys twiddle knobs behind desks gets a little boring after a while, even if they have a live (and bloody good) drummer. Having said that, I liked their set a lot and just spending some time chatting and laughing with friends, telling stories and enjoying the weather while their bleeps, clicks and not-quite-dancey dance beats passed the time very nicely indeed. Runner up in this category: Whitney.
(Richard) I really liked all the whirs and clicks and added thumps. Even if BBF’s gig did to all intents and purposes look like a live soundtrack to some lads building a model railway. And you are right the sound they made suited the afternoon brilliantly, though watching from the sidelines was instructive – if only in learning that these seemingly tranquil “laptop gigs” are often held together by chance and string.
(Damian) I thought Loyle Carner’s set was a delight too. There’s a laid back coolness to him and a subtlety to his rap delivery that is quite refreshing. I’m not sure if adding three football shirts on some plywood really counts as a stage show, (Richard – apparently it’s a family thing) but the guy oozes cool and confidence and it’s great to see him growing into a performer of note. But then Michael Kiwanuka turned up and it was like somebody had brought the professionals in. Technically, his headline show was a masterclass and the quality of sound was impeccable, at least for the majority of the set. But what made the gig so special, and it was, was that you could sense the vulnerability of Michael. There’s a shyness still sitting at the core of him and as the night grew darker, you could sense his nerves clearly but the warmth from the crowd seemed to give him strength and you could see him becoming bolder before your eyes. He just got stronger as the show went on. The crowd truly lifted him, and they could sense it. In turn, he then lifted them ever higher. By the end, I saw more than a handful of people in tears. People were hugging each other, holding hands and just smiling, happy to have witnessed something this personal and beautiful.
Let loose in the Spiegeltent
(Damian) The main stage may be the central point of the festival, but the mirror tent is its beating, spiritual heart. Where the main stage is a space of joy and familiarity then the Spiegeltent (their word, not ours) is an invitation to a journey of discovery. A few quick words of praise should be given to Blanco White who impressed us greatly. His kind of intricate, impressively arranged folk music, as well as his vocal delivery, reminded us a lot of Damien Rice. It’s hard to deny the talents of a band and an artist when songs are as well crafted and played as brilliantly as these, even if it’s not your kind of thing. (Richard – true; I would never reach for this kind of music, but White conjured up some astonishing moments of pure folk-pop that literally stopped the room.) And let’s give a little thanks and praise for Barns Courtney, who truly shook the wooden foundations of this tent with a barnstorming set. With Courtney, the old-fashioned ideal of a rock star in leather jackets and tight jeans is still alive and well. However hoary that sounds I simply can’t tell you how enjoyable the last ten minutes of his show were but I can say that there was a lot of jumping around involved..
As for jackets, somebody please tell Keir that, when on stage, you either leave yours on, or off. He simply must stop with this routine of picking his jacket up, draping it over his shoulder for ten seconds before dropping it on the floor again. Repeatedly. And often more than once per song. It’s quite distracting. Aside from that, Kier blew my socks off. How the hell do you describe him? A living mash-up? In the space of four songs I thought I was listening to Prince fronting Depeche Mode, Aretha Franklin singing for Thunder and David McAlmont screaming over a Nine Inch nails track. I literally had no way of deciphering what I was witnessing into something coherent. All I know is that songs as dramatic as these drift perilously close to Meat Loaf territory and yet I couldn’t help but enjoy what I witnessed. The lad has a range that most pop divas would die for and the show was at turns hilarious, exciting and totally fascinating. It was a triumph, or at least part of me thinks so. The other part of me is shaking in a dark corner. I also want to give some time here to Stella Donnelly, who seems to have resurrected the style of delightful Australian indie-pop that the Go Betweens used to deliver. I never knew I’d been missing that kind of thing until now, and now I want more. She’s bubbly, chirpy and oh so delightfully foul mouthed. Also, I was bowled over by the real sense of determination, confidence and purpose that oozes out of her, even when she’s rolling around on the floor doing Pilates exercises. I think she’s incredible and this was a show of real strength.
(Richard) I agree, Stella Donnelly’s was a brilliant show, one of my favourites from this edition. The Go Betweens reference is a smart one, and I sometimes thought of the chirpier, hookier tracks from Throwing Muses. To wit, she has a clever way of making simple pop music do the heavy lifting for much larger and more abstract ideas. And use it as a champion and an emotional salve against much darker and difficult issues. In others’ hands her music would be prissy or self-centred. Donnelly’s wry delivery, open-hearted spirit and can-do attitude (and, yes, messing about on the floor and daft dancing) had this old hand on the verge of tears.
(Damian) But Black Midi? Bloody hell! I said immediately after their set that this was the gig of the year and I’ll still stand behind that. I’m not sure I enjoy everything they do, or even understand it – hell, I’m not sure they do – but bloody hell they go at it with ferocity and verve. I’ve seen them described as an experimental rock band, but that’s just because nobody knows how to pigeonhole them. Here’s why – you can’t! They simply play everything you’ve ever heard, all at once, and then strangle it with feedback and bludgeon it to death with some relentless – relentless! – drumming. They are extraordinary. I don’t know what to make it of it all but I don’t care. I can’t wait to do it all again.
(Richard) I’ve seen Black Midi a lot this year. And finally – after a mesmerising, battering Haldern show – I think I can put my finger on why I find them so addictive. In a way they are a very traditional band. And that, combined with the freeform spectacle they give, both enervates and relaxes an audience. Behind the barrage of seemingly disconnected passages of sound and experiment is a band who know how to play the stage, how to soften up their audience, the way a band like Led Zeppelin or The Clash would have done. The onstage prowling and side-on soliloquising is very theatrical, the set up – playing in a line – very Bunnymen. The cod-irony of the intro music is there to create contrast and to reassure. The long extempore sections are Interstellar Overdrive or The Faust Tapes stripped of the hippy conceits and given some C21st cyberforce. Upgraded Radiohead if you will. Like the Bunnymen of old their rhythm section is key, a sonic conger eel that slips and flows through the set like a glistening dark shadow, allowing the theatrics and cut-ups to do their work. Enough of my theorising, they are a magnificent band and they took Haldern apart.
(Damian) If Black Midi was the gig for me, then Alyona Alyona’s was the gig for Haldern. This was truly one of those magical Haldern moments. Barns Courtney rocked the place, Fontaines DC got some pogoing going but nothing, (nothing!) came close to the party atmosphere that Alyona Alyona mustered up here.
The crowd simply reached out and fell in love with her within seconds. So what if she’s rapping in Ukranian and we can’t understand a word? The beats are good (the live mixing was bloody ace!) and the delivery is exceptional. As I understand it, Alyona’s a bit of a social justice warrior. I don’t want that to sound too dismissive or flippant, it’s not meant to be. But the crowd here knew nothing of that. We just knew that this sounded good, bloody good and we were here to have a party. And party we did. All of us.
The ENTIRE tent was dancing, from almost the first moment. People were on chairs, tables, bars, posts – anywhere they could get really. Hands and arms were waving, bodies were moving and the cheers and applause, well, I’ve heard nothing quite like it in this tent before. Alyona and friends were cheered from the stage in a fashion you’d imagine is normally saved for returning sporting heroes. If this were the Champions League of festival performances, this little unknown team from Ukraine just upset the applecart and took home the silverware. She greeted the crowd, danced out of the door with a smile on her face and the crowd sang a simple refrain from one of her songs for a full fifteen minutes after she’d gone. This was one of the most triumphant shows I’ve seen in many a year.
It was astonishing.
Lastly, I just have to talk about Rayland Baxter. He played on the Friday evening and followed the shouty and loud Fontaines DC onto the stage of the Spiegeltent, just as Idles were getting underway with their serious racket on the main stage. And Ildes were loud, as I am sure you can imagine. Their sound barged into the tent as if the doors and velvet curtains weren’t there. Now, Rayland Baxter is the perfect fit for a late night show in a tent. His low-key, scuzzy alt-country songs are a great accompaniment to a hot summer night, and I was looking forward to having a few drinks and relaxing my way into the early hours of Saturday. But there was that almighty racket going on and I worried for him.
He was joined on stage by two friends, playing keyboards and drums and they began by trying to combat the sound. Very quickly, however, it seemed that Rayland picked up on the fact that, while there was a lot of noise outside, there was very little noise inside. And that’s not to say that the crowd were dismissive. No, the crowd were really attentive.
A few songs in, Rayland asked his band to leave the stage. He told us that he wanted to try something and then the gig took off in a totally different direction, playing quieter and quieter until he was barely whispering, hardly touching his guitar strings at all. And the audience went with him. It was fascinating and, in terms of the situation he’d faced when walking onstage, it was one of the bravest, boldest moves I’ve ever seen anybody take. It worked dramatically. As midnight was lost behind us we entered into a true witching hour. Idles didn’t matter anymore; here, in the Spiegeltent, we had our own space of peace and calm…
And that’s exactly what Haldern is. It’s a festival that offers time and space to create in the moment, outside of expectations. And on the whole Haldern’s audience are ready for that. They embrace it. Each year the crowd at Haldern amazes me with their patience, respect and attentiveness for whoever is on stage. Everyone is given a fair crack of the whip and if the artist embraces that and their moment, then Haldern will embrace them fondly.
It is a place like no other. And in a world like the one we find ourselves living in, it’s a more important space than ever.