St. Malo, Brittany, France)
14th to 17th August 2013
Louder Than War review the ten best bands who played the groundbreaking french music festival La Route du Rock.
Saint Malo’s La Route du Rock, held annually in the glorious surrounds of a 17th century French fort (originally built with the intention of keeping out the marauding English) just gets better and better. During its impressive twenty-three year history, the festival curators have managed to stick to their principles, attracting eye-catching headliners while remaining dedicated to discovering tomorrow’s leading luminaries today. Almost a quarter of a century on and this heady mix is no better exemplified than a bill that includes – at one end, the might of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – and at the other, the awesome promise of Dutch singer and multi-instrumentalist Jacco Gardner.
Squarepusher and Aphex Twin have headlined the Bretagne event in recent years and the inclusion of the likes of TNGHT, Hot Chip and Zombie Zombie make the titular claim of the fest something of a misnomer, but what you are definitely guaranteed is an incredible soundsystem built to cope with whatever the genre – whether it’s fuzzy in the middle or bass heavy – and with full capacity peaking at around 10,000, it always feels intimate.
Here are ten things that happened at La Route du Rock 2013…
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds came, saw, conquered. Festival season might be drawing to a close but the Bad Seeds show no signs of abating. Nick Cave is in irascible mood, seemingly brought on by a dislike of photographers flashing at his chrome dome, but thankfully his disposition lightens a little (he’s just vaguely murderous now) once he’s cleared the photo pit. Mick Harvey is out. Erstwhile founding member Barry Adamson is back and filling in on the drums next to Big Jim Sclavunos. This rebalancing seems to bring with it a new intensity, and as the long finger of Nick Cave lurches further still into the band’s dark history we’re treated to the ferociously punchy ‘From Her To Eternity’, a discombobulating ‘Tupelo’ and a stripped back, bluesy ‘Stagger Lee’ (though don’t be fooled – there’s an iron fist in the velvet glove). Most stupefying of all is the modern classic ‘Jubilee Street’ that gains momentum as it hurtles along, breaking free from the fetters of the recorded version, coming on like the Stones at their most imperious. Dazzling.
Tame Impala not as awesome as a koala. From one Australian visionary to another, which is quite something when you consider Neighbours, Tim Minchin and a conditioner that stops your hair frizzing are the country’s only other major contributions to popular culture over the last 20 years. Actually psych rocker Kevin Parker, with his bare feet and gaudy neck scarf, doesn’t look unlike comedian Minchin from a distance, though he’s very serious about his own craft, sometimes infuriatingly so. For my money, Tame Impala are devoid of the playful and ebullient experimentation on girlfriend Melody Prochet’s stunning Melody’s Echo Chamber debut (Parker produced it), and were he to mess around a bit more with his own live shows then it might not feel so arse-gnawingly earnest. But full marks for flanging up the drums on stage, recreating that future-retro sound first employed on Hendrix’s beautiful ‘Axis: Bold As Love’. Tame Impala might be the best thing to come out of Australia recently, but they’re still a long way off being as good as a koala bear.
Domino showcased acts new and old. Nouvelle Vague is French for ‘new wave’, and the day before La Route du Rock kicks off officially, Domino showcase some of their talent at La Nouvelle Vague in Saint Malo … even if some of it isn’t strictly new. Why Clinic have been donning scrubs for the best part of sixteen years influencing everyone from Radiohead to Suuns, and in all honesty it feels like they have too. Where they once seemed mysterious and innovative they now give off the air of a tired psych garage band winding down slowly, heading for ignominious and unexalted fade out. They’ll probably be playing together sixteen years from now that said. Julia Holter is a breath of fresh air in comparison, a three-way fusion of fearless talk, free jazz and Eleanor Friedberger, while Austra have everything in abundance except memorable tunes. The Domino Recording Company is one of the most cherished labels in the UK for good reason, because it isn’t afraid to take risks and thrives on eclecticity, even if occasionally those risks don’t pay off.
Iceage sulked. A lot. In days of yore, rock stars used to mooch around obnoxiously behaving like they were as misunderstood as they were creative while the earth only turned because it was propelled by their music, but then they realised how cliched and old hat that was and stopped. Iceage never got that memo. The discourteous Danes sneer their way through a press conference and on stage singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt looks like he’s just been told to tidy his room. The dour punks invoke some of the spirit of The Birthday Party slowed down, though their attitude is so bad that they would surely implode in a fit of lassitude if they could only be arsed.
Jacco Gardner was the Fresh Prince. La Route du Rock has an uncanny knack of finding astonishing new talent, and 2013’s new name to drop is Jacco Gardner, a Dutch multi-instrumentalist with a fine line in swirly organs and psychedelia. If Gardner is a retrogressive thief then his swag bag contains cuts from Syd Barrett’s bonkers brain and Paul McCartney’s peripatetic bass plods, with songs as good as the Beach Boys from the old days and Connan Mockasin from the new. And that’s the key really, the songs are great, and when songs are great there really is no arguing.
Parquet Courts were surprisingly gracious and… nuanced. If you only read the music press and didn’t actually bother listening to any music then you’d assume Parquet Courts were a hardcore band as blindingly barbarous as a Cerebral Ballsy or a Gay For Johnny Depp, not that you’d know what Cerebral Ballsy or Gay For Johnny Depp sounded like listening to no music and everything. Anyway, they’re not. They’re more song-based, and those songs are of different breeds and varieties. Along with obvious influences like the Ramones, you can hear Jonathan Richman and Sonic Youth and even the Beastie Boys in there, and Mr Street Hassle himself Lou Reed. They might look like badass hipsters but they’re so appreciative of this admittedly delighted French audience that one almost sheds a tear at just how polite they are. Kids today…
Allah-Las scraped the barrel marked 60’s pastiche and made a horrible noise. Really, if you think the apex of human achievement is the fucking lavalamp then you and the Allah-Las deserve each other.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor sat around mostly. One anticipated something more visual from Godspeed, some kind of post rock shock, when in fact they sit around in a huddle like apocalyptic refugees gathered around a fire trying to avoid hypothermia and giving birth to two-headed children. Grooving to Eastern European rhythms, the noise seems to swell from within those grooves to become something altogether more cacophonous, while the soaring melodies that emerge are bleaker than one might have expected, perhaps better conveying the times we’re living through than most bands with a vocalist ever can.
Concrete Knives were a surprise smash. Coming from nearby Normandy, Concrete Knives were always likely to muster some partisan home support, but their live show is a thing of wonder that transcends what’s been recorded so far. Vocalist Morgane Colas is dressed like Jeanne d’arc, dances a bit like Max Wall and towards the end drops herself into the crowd for the most nonchalant crowd surf in history. They’re one of those modern bands that has percussion on stage, although they do it with a certain vitality. They drop an unironic version of ‘Hotstepper’ by Ini Kamoze into the mix and the crowd goes batshit mental. Quite right too.
Suuns found themselves a hard act to follow. It was a Saturday night here two years ago that Suuns blew away just about everyone at Le fort de Saint-Père from the mainstage, announcing themselves to a mainly unsuspecting audience who now no doubt love them. The Montreal four-piece were asked back and their song ‘Arena’ – one of the great cult bangers of this last decade – slays once again, though the new album finds them in contemplative mood at times and that doesn’t always translate. Title track ‘Images Du Futur’ resonates, but ‘Edie’s Dream’ is a little too off-kilter and obtuse for almost everyone bar the most stoned to really get a grip on live. They’re a band that will plough their own furrow and that’s to be applauded. Stubborn refusal bodes well for the future, though the road to enlightenment may be fraught with danger.
All words by Jeremy Allen. More writing by Jeremy on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.