Who likes big festivals these days?
Well, me. I could be converted.
I’ll say it now, why not. Roskilde is a super festival with many good causes and proper, grassroots social activism underpinning it. Doing good things to do good things is goal number one here. We hear uplifting talks and note down helpful, real-life tips on feminist and trans activism and fighting artistic censorship, and learn that our tents are given to refugee charities. There’s a lot of intriguing audio-visual and sculptural art scattered about the site, including a set of tents where Beautiful Danish Youths put headphones on you, so you can drink in wild and giving drones. There are clothing stores dedicated to flogging you threads of the most sustainable material and cut. And if you go for a wander you find a place called Flokkr; a community centre where all sorts of inspiring stuff happens. The whole experience is a weird, reusable, socially conscious take on the never- ending C21st luxury train many in the West don’t want to admit they’re participating in. Recycled luxury. Nothing actively goes to waste. For example the leftover food from the multiple food halls gets prepped in order to be served to locals in need. If you think I’m reading from Thomas Moore, you’re mistaken; it’s no pipe dream. It’s just a shame it has to be on a music festival…
We’re here for the music, of course. The festival’s been around long enough to have developed its identity separate from the whims of the festival booking circuit. No bare-chest beating about the line up that you find at other “tasteful” festivals (I’m looking at similar in the Benelux and Germany here), rather, everything seems to fall into place, with room (literally) for everyone to soak up their sonic thing. Louder than War’s thing is an old cowshed (or variant on a Nissen hut) called Gloria, where the weirder noises are made.
These Scandics are curious folk; nearly every show is packed in Gloria, even for the more esoteric stuff, like Astrid Sonne. And with reason, as there were some killer gigs here. Yves Tumor played a blistering set that took a full quiver of Black Country Rock barbs into Detroit, to melt them slowly over a roaring performative fire. The drummer was on the one and not coming off it, thank you very much, whilst the bassist somehow dropped anchor just north of the earth’s core, massaging deeply buried, molten grooves into the sound. The rhythm section provided a platform for some Clockwork Orangery courtesy of the singer and guitarist, who really should just get a room. They make superb, burning rock music. By total contrast, Tirzah ran through a fabulously dry, laconic performance, the distances created by the delivery of her sensual lyrics and the clever itchy urban pop music (that was like a frisky dog, always on the cusp of slipping the lead to sniff the lamp post) the key.
We’ve mentioned Astrid Sonne, and should give her her due here. What an intriguing set! By turns academic rave, violin standoff and deconstructed bedroom soul (courtesy of some nobs, wires and cables), it’s impossible to pin down why this music she makes is so moreish. Sonne’s sound reminded me a lot of what the Monika label have been doing for years; it’s fresh and confident femme chamber pop, with a dark twist. And, after about 20 minutes, I wasn’t sure whether Sonne was real or some beautiful and talented robot, programmed to fuck with our senses. Check her out. In total contrast Rival Consoles gave a full-on human set; empathetic, warm and healing techno that was never predictable or dumb. I’ve often thought how boring it must be playing this kind of music live. Standing there, quietly checking your inbox whilst everyone is content to surf the same beat for a good 20 minutes. Like schlepping up multiple servings of baked beans on toast. But Ryan West seemed determined to find a way into his music, to show us its human qualities whilst it was being played. And whilst watching West, it was endearing to watch the crowd (a number of whom may have just wanted to bop, not chinstroke) who ultimately responded by gyrating and gurning along as best they could.
Pick of the bunch had to be Crack Cloud on the Thursday night, who ran through a blistering set, full of intent and power. On this evidence they are a strong, focussed act, with tricks and licks that belie a very canny pop sensibility. An old crock like me could see their music as an aural take on the Josef K title, ‘Radio Drill Time’: future-industry music, the body disciplined into a producer. Showtime comrades, it seems. The drummer led the charge on the night, the obvious heart of the band. The other six “contented themselves” with being superbly drilled musicians, able to pack in multiple instrument swaps along the way. They were an intriguing watch, never mind listen (it was my first time seeing them live). But, despite Crack Cloud being very much of the now, and the members giving the feeling of having something fresh and interesting to say, I was spending far too much time swimming about trying to place their music. I couldn’t fall for the “return of weird guitar bands” meat-and-two veg PR gruel, no thank you. Then it hit me. Taking the fabulous, booming funk of the rhythm section, the chopped meat of the guitar lines, the sax rasps and clever, slightly abstract synth runs, they had somehow channelled the “totaal” post-punk of Nasmak. Especially Nasmak tracks like ‘Bo Dance’ and the seminal lost LP, 4our Clicks. Furthering the Dutch analogy Crack Cloud’s music is like Cruyff’s 60s-70s Ajax team; each player able to play out of position to open up new possibilities and change a simple proposition into something poetic. It was an amazing show and the Nordic horde bayed its appreciation.
Other fab action happened in the Pavilion tent. Special mention should go to Guadalajara’s Descartes A Kant. Looking like they’d stepped out of a Neue Sachlichkeit painting, the three front women harangued and howled and Cramped up the volume, regularly releasing ferociously hot and toxic blasts of guitar and samples. This was a brilliant display of rock cabaret, with Goth-rock, grebo, psychobilly and metal all thrown into the stew. A bit like a fully amped up Bongwater from back in the day. (There was plenty of Ann Magnuson’s showgirl patter on display too, though that thought bubble is mine, not the band’s.) No matter, the ladies preened and shrieked and flashed their knickers – sometimes dipping into the audience to pluck up their prey – whilst the lads stuck to the back of the stage and wore gimp and surgical masks, as required. Despite the brio of this punk cabaret – and, I suppose in true Mexican tradition – the grisly and morbid subject matter inspired by their native land was never far away; with songs about shootings, Catholic guilt and forensic investigations to the fore. It worked wonders on a midday crowd, who were transformed from pleasantly uncomfortable to fully converted by the end of the set. More stellar noise was provided by Black Midi, who played their part as rock’s tricksters to perfection. They can play like few bands, and are experts at summoning up spirits when needed. They have something of the theatre about them, too; pacing the stage as if giving soliloquies in a sixth form production of Shakespeare. It’s funny, though I could see how it could irritate and confuse. But when the loud bits came, all hell was unleashed and the crowd, sticking around like noise junkies for the next fix, responded with utter abandon. After a while it struck me that a Black Midi gig is as close as you’ll get to a late sixties festival experience (albeit better amplified). Long long stilted passages which sound like the quiet bits in ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ or ‘Aumgn’. We just needed a random bongo player. But you really couldn’t take your eyes off it. I’m still intrigued.
We did get outta Gloria and Pavilion, I promise. We briefly indulged in the fabulously performative electro pop of Lydmor and swooned to a superb set by Spiritualised (who – given the righteous racket they made – had evidently found a new electric mainline to tap into). We were sandblasted and lifted up by the rock hombres of Philip H Anselmo and The Illegals. We got woozed out to a great Aldous Harding show and tarried awhile in Julia Holter’s faerie grove. We shuffled along in a sub-rave stylee, with what felt like the entire festival crowd, to a fabulously glitzy Underworld set. We were mesmerised by the Sun-Tropicalia deconstructions in Jorge Ben Jor’s afternoon set on the Thursday and were sandblasted by raw teen emotion during Robyn the night after. We grooved and gave forth supplication to Bombino. We ate a lot of pork sandwich with red cabbage. Read that how you will. We lived, and loved. But most of all, whilst ineptly pacing round the saintly helpers who deconstructed the tents on the last morning, we pondered about the ongoing brilliance of The Cure.
To say The Cure were epic at Roskilde would do them a disservice. Nearly thirty songs, most of them hits or loved album tracks, says one thing. And of course, watching them run through such a set, you realise Smith’s songwriting is anthemic; ‘In Between Days’ and ‘Just Like Heaven’ acting as a straight left and right for the 40 something romantics in the crowd. But it wasn’t just that, or the clever way tracks were twinned or tripled to deliver the right moment (‘A Forest’ and ‘Primary’), nor the playing, which felt effortless.
It was the realisation that maybe their time is now, not 30 years ago. Robert Smith is the king of setting private emotions feelings on a grand stage. An open secret played in private places, the band have been posting their private feelings and emotions for all to decipher this last 40 years. Connected by its relentless investigations of the psyche, what struck me was the egoless nature of their catalogue. And something in this public-private self-effacement has now made their music egoless and weightless, it’s slipped the moorings of earlier ages. No summoning up tired old tropes of past scenes for this lot, rather the affirmation that The Cure have new meaning in our inside-out age.
Okay I will let you into a secret. I’ve never been a massive fan, rather a very respectful bystander, who’d allow himself to have his arm twisted by his morose, patchouli-stained Goth mates to go and watch them back in the day. It’s only after this gig, watching Roskilde being cooked up and served to itself by a masterful band, watching the most ridiculously giving encore in history (including ‘Friday I’m In Love’, ‘Lullaby’, ‘Why Can’t I Be You’ and ‘Boys Don’t Cry’), maybe, yes, their time is actually now.
I could get into this big festival thing. It can’t always be this good, can it?
(Photos courtesy of Kim Matthai Leland.)