Another year, another Haldern Pop Festival. How do they do it? Last year the festival turned on its head and became an international broadcast. This year, it managed to find a way to reacquaint us with, well… ourselves. How to get to know people again was one of the underlying motivations of Haldern Pop Festival 2021, which ran from Thursday 12 to Saturday 14 August. Meeting up meant going to new places, by bike or foot. Stages were spread across the surrounding area, guides bringing festival goers to see machinations of the line up in fields, lay-bys and previously unused locations in the village; as well as the church and a compact “main stage” on the market square outside the Haldern Pop Bar. Friendships and contacts were formed on the way, on byroads and in farmland. Artists like All The Luck in the World and Tim The Lion Tamer flourished in this atmosphere of gentle reacquaintance, allowing everyone to connect with their softer, more reflective sides. All quietly heroic and healing stuff, just as it should be. Given Covid, this state of constant motion in unexpected places fitted with the uncertainties around the line-up. A number of cancellations and readjustments meant some artists found themselves having a very busy weekend. The marvellous British singer songwriter Sam Berridge found himself playing a double ration of gigs, including a Catholic service.
Light and Dark in the Niederrhein
If there is one thing Haldern Pop Festival should be noted for, it is for its unpredictability and contrast. One minute you’re basking in the postmillennial glow of a modern classical concert in the church (and hoping for a Better World for Young People), the next you are crushed by dark industrial guitar noise from the north of Poland, with all the attendant weight of history and circumstance that that brings.
One bringer of light was Sam Berridge, whose beautiful, mellifluous love songs graced every part of the festival grounds, on every day. It wasn’t the sort of thing we thought we would enjoy; a singer songwriter who has a beautiful voice and whose work is reminiscent of James Taylor isn’t something that’s going to raise the pulses in Hackney, say. But Berridge’s obvious talent and carefully crafted repertoire had some indefinable, almost acid-baked elements that transcended the blueprint. After a while we suspected Berridge of having an Inner Eye. And at times, especially on the main stage on Saturday, such was his music’s languorous power it could have stopped the clocks. Elsewhere we were charmed in the church by a beautiful mix of choral work and ambient soundscapes set by Cantus Domus and Speh und Frost and a beautifully heartfelt, nay, tearjerking set from British pianist James Heather, whose simple, reflective Muse walked gracefully through the aisles on Saturday. Rapper Denise Chalia and crew gave an incredibly sassy and uplifting show on the main stage that same afternoon, one full of good will and crisp beats. The show’s take on her Irish and Zambean heritage was at times euphoric and we enjoyed it immensely. Another potent dose of Friday Feeling was served up by France’s avant-garde troubadours Catastrophe, whose wanton frippery, deliberately naff lyrics and acid dancing had us at turns wishing we could shoot them for crimes against words and realising that they held a key to that rickety bridge between pop music and avant-garde. No tiresome Zappaesque Lumpy Gravy here. Catastrophe’s proto glam-rave abandon had people careering about the market square in wild abandon. All at a Covid-mitigated distance, of course.
Ploughing up this Garden of Good Intentions, like some industrial digger carving through a site of special scientific interest, were Trupa Trupa. The four piece rock band from Gdansk have a formidable new record in the offing, and we got the odd number: poppier and more direct in approach. Not that that point would have been noticed by a numbed crowd on Friday night. Sharp and acerbic, and possessing a great melancholy that they can never shake off despite their courteousness, Trupa Trupa played their debut German show on the market square as if it was the signal for Ragnarok to be unleashed. Crushing electronics, haunting, half poems-cum-incantations and a shuddering machine-pressed beat brooked no defeat. Taken as a whole their music has an internal logic that, when unlocked by the listener, is impossible to ignore. And this gig was the amplification of that logic made flesh. Some left, maybe unable to square the noise and the blinding lights from the stage as well as this new strange band from Poland with their handmade instruments and gnostic worldviews. Was this entertainment? Others sat utterly entranced by Trupa Trupa’s metal machine music. A classic Haldern moment.
Grooving on an Inner Plane
Have you ever seen wild cheering in a church? Ask Yegor Zabelov, who was moved to tears by the reception his gig got on Friday. Zabelov has had quite the time of it recently. The Belarusian is now settled in Gdansk and happy to concentrate on what he does best, namely find a mindmap between traditional accordion playing and post-rave, beatless soundscapes. His music is a testament to the power of the imagination. No-one would imagine that making Aphex Twin-like ambient noises on an accordion was possible. Nor could one feel, watching Zabelov, that he’d never been entranced by the drops and breaks in club tunes. Those moments of manufactured electronic euphoria have somehow made a leap into Zabelov’s oeuvre. Yet his spellbinding, emotive playing transcended time and could have easily been a homage to the rivers, forests and wide plains of his homeland. Other, less ethereal grooves were lathed by urban duo Faux Real who cooked up an invigorating and ever-so-slightly camp electro-noise shock in the sedate village square. Gesticulations, lizard-prince writhings and dirty choirboy smut drove matters; their sleaze-pop music was in essence a choreographed moment in an alternative neon-lit rock universe, where Jagger meets up with Vega and Dinger in a downtown D-dorf bar. Weirdly, despite the shamanic strutting it felt as if they had no need of an audience – but yet desperately wanted an audience at all times, if only for the purpose of silent adoration. Watching them was a marvellous way to spend a Thursday afternoon.
Another deep groove was instigated by Iceage’s Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, who was making operation notes from underground all weekend. Playing in the church (a set that included a shapeshifting version of ‘Amazing Grace’) was a prequel to his part in a brilliant, multiple artist cabaret set that closed Haldern 201. Backed by the wonderful s t a r g a z e, an assured Rønnenfelt ran through a number of new songs as well as a couple of Iceage numbers including an absolutely smoking take on ‘Vendetta’, from the band’s latest LP, Seek Shelter. He really has something about him.
We Want Rock
Haldern has always danced to the thump of a tom and the twang of a six string. Albeit not in the way many music circuit types are led to expect. This year saw enjoyable surprises from Johnny Mafia whose loose, Velvetsy rock and roll was great fun, as was Finland’s Holy, who got enjoyably lost somewhere in 1982 and, on the evidence of this gig, don’t fancy coming back just yet. For their part, Japan’s Kikagaku Moyo set up a gentle and increasingly mind-melting afternoon groove; one perfect for playing dominoes to, and something that could have led to a mass outbreak of Horizontal Audience Syndrome. Most enjoyable of all was International Music, a German trio from Essen who have built up quite a reputation in their homeland. Their patient, simple guitar-based music had a confidence and clear focus to it. That they had hooks aplenty and wry observant lyrics (a song about notorious Habsburg minister, Klemens von Metternich what is all that about?) didn’t hurt either. A poppy and straight, electric guitar take on the funny leftfield alt-folk of Witthüser & Westrupp? A German C86? Maybe, not that they would know… On the evidence of this gig, though, International Music certainly seemed comfortable inhabiting an alternative, independent space in Germany. Intriguing.
Sadly, Black Country, New Road had to cancel. One of the most exciting acts about, we had been charmed by them at Haldern 2020 and – like many – we were ready for more. Frantic last minute telephone calls over the border brought recompense in the form of Rotterdam’s Rats on Rafts. Rats have been through many changes this past few years. They’ve always been a special band, now, after a year or so of recasting the creative runes, they are something quite special again. Evolving from a four piece to a five piece has brought a new dimension to their sound and show, one more concerned with opening up their sound and looking to harness their music to a clear narrative. On Saturday, they just blasted Haldern to a crisp. Playing their latest record from first to last and with their terrific – maybe greatest – single-to-come, the monstrous groove known as ‘Osaka’ as a mid-gig highlight, the band changed tempo and mood with a visible assurance. Singer David Fagan’s gnomic pronouncements and guitar blasts were brilliantly offset by the twin counter-attack of Natasha van Waardenburg and Doortje Hiddema. Guitarist Arnold Verheul, too, revelled in a more prominent role. No longer just steadying the ship, his intricate patterns fleshed out the band’s wider sound and gave an emotional anchor to the clever chops. Their drumming, always thunderous (going on shamanistic), has regained its authority courtesy of Matthijs Burgler whose steady beat brought a clam to the eye of the storm. And this Haldern show, however unexpected, was triumphant; appearing as it did by magic, typifying this ever-surprising festival.
Haldern wouldn’t be Haldern without a walk on the wyrd side. Encounters this year took the form of a detailed explanation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni to local Youth and a Covid-mitigated chat in the bracing night air with a gentleman built for bear wrestling; one who favoured wearing a towel and baseball cap combo, adored with faerie lights. He informed us that he was “in a boy band”. Always different, always the same, that’s Haldern.
Richard Foster with heartfelt thanks to Damian Leslie. Photos courtesy of the author and Trupa Trupa.
This review is dedicated to Klaus Fiehe, the German John Peel.