Photo courtesy of Hans Jellema and WTTV
Like many other places in this last decade, Leeuwarden, capital of Friesland up in the north of the Netherlands, has caught the festival bug. There’s no point analysing in depth the socio-economic arguments round this phenomenon in a rock review. But suffice to say Welcome to the Village is one of the sharper exponents of the wider trend. The festival cleverly uses millennial concerns (waste as taste, gourmet food and drink, local ecology and alternative health showcases, multi-disciplinary projects) in a beautiful setting; gluing the whole shebang together with some great, varied music. So forward thinking are they, they banned selling chips!
Now, please don’t think my sneering about the festival’s policy round the lack of chipped potatoes is a precursor to a hatchet job. It’s the one thing that felt a bit weird. Let me state now; it may be a long way to go to get to Welcome to the Village festival, but it’s worth the hike. And I’ve laid out a few pointers as to why.
Location Location Location
There’s something very soothing about the presence of a stretch of water near a gig. The festival is set in a large municipal park which boasts a number of lakes. Even better, some of them have small beach areas. The organisers of Welcome to the Village festival (henceforth known as WTTV) use them cleverly to their advantage, plonking three stages near lakes, and one craft-beer-cum-gourmet-grub bar area (gloriously) near a long beach. Over the weekend I spent a lot of time necking local ales listening to some surprisingly good and well thought out deejay sets. When was the last time you heard the Cocteau’s Aikea Guinea or a dub-Neu! mix float majestically round a public space?
The gigs by the water seem to be blessed with an extra level of lunacy. Superb sets by Los Pirañas, Konono Nº1 and Chouk Bwa Libète from Haiti were undoubted highlights for many at the Blessum stage. Two gigs stood out on the Ravenswoud (Ravenswood) stage over the weekend. White Wine’s set on the Friday day was a special joy. As with any performance from this strange pop band, the songs were whipped into a frenzy and left to spin and unwind round the canopied space. White Wine’s music is bombastic pop in a very good way. Driven by a smart and generous intelligence, the set is full of booming and crashing power chords, cranked up guitar flourishes and keyboard screeches. Somehow White Wine’s music works best when the emotion conveyed in the music takes its bodily form in Haege’s demented stagecraft. The repeated forays by singer Joe Haege into a grinning crowd worked a treat on this sultry day. Though this approach can be hit and miss; the last time I’d seen them, in a woefully under-attended gig at the much-missed SUB071, a dog had sniffed Haege’s arse during his assault on the audience. But this time he was hugged, danced round and encouraged to run about like a kid full of cake at a wedding. It has to be said, too, that adding a drummer to the duo is a massive advantage. The make-do-and-mend nature of Joe Haege and Fritz Brückner’s ferocious, DIY soul-pop is still intact, but the drums give it a sort of analogue space and an extra grandeur that drum machines can never convey.
The other cracker was the gig from Stuttgart trio Die Nerven on the Saturday. Die Nerven make big, bold punk music with populist melodic flourishes; a bit like Sham 69 or Skids in places, but with a harder, more metallic core. They are also adept at playing to an audience and letting their music build up an unstoppable momentum. And their music always looks to find a tipping point, a point where the audience surrender to whatever the band throws at them. This is normally courtesy of the hooks spewed out by a grating, chugging guitar, pitched at a lovely, Swell Maps thinness; a buzzsaw jangle that can increase in power when needed. On the night the tent rocked and heaved to their punk charges, half the audience nodding along earnestly to the barked out message, the others swaying around drunkenly, losing it in that day release manner you see when you pitch a hard-rocking and right-on German punk band to a bunch of outsider locals. One other thing. Die Nerven’s drummer Kevin Kuhn lived up to his profession’s “Moon the Loon” heritage with some insane posturing, stick biting and general madcap nonsense from behind his set. In a perfect world he and the wonderful drummer from Belgrade’s Repetitor, Milena Milutinović, should have a drumming gurn-off; to see who can be the most expressive drummer in mainland Europe.
What else? Well the set by up-and-coming harpist Remy van Kesteren on Sunday morning in the Blessum tent was an unexpected delight – mainly because the band pulled every uncool move possible and got away with it. Exhibit one was the beshaded and behatted keyboardist, the second being the long introductory chat from the debonair Mr K (a chat that asked us to like his music (!))… In mitigation, the harp-meets-pop work outs were straight out of the Alan Hawkshaw book of arrangements. Some of these were truly fabulous; brilliantly played and unashamedly emotive. Every sonic curlicue imaginable was added; and the low grade funk-cum-easy listening palette was light and incredibly refreshing. Van Kesteren’s own solo pieces were also beautiful; expertly presented and reminiscent in spirit of the mystic, pastoral patterns woven by Nick Drake or Bert Jansch. People just grooved on by the lake, looking out at the shimmering patterns on the lake’s surface, maybe using this mercurial music as a soundtrack.
It’s quite the thing these days to have alternative acts from around the world at a music festival. Whilst this trend can be seen as part of a wider predilection to grandstand, culturally, (especially to the local council), it’s a good thing in my books. Even if it means that for now, we get the spectacle of predominantly white and affluent audiences extending their (cultural) tourist’s gaze on performers from other parts of the world. Dutch rapper Fresku did wryly point to the fact that the crowd was predominantly white during his set. Still, what was he expecting, given he was playing in a field in a provincial, settled, agricultural part of the Netherlands? I think on the whole, given the happiness that was about at the festival it’s unfair to castigate everyone as cultural grazers exploiting their privilege and means. Music is a great binder, teacher and enricher and can help overturn these things in any case. In any case, it’s not all that long ago that alternative festival programmes were stuffed full of endless sub-versions of the Strokes or Libertines. And that was a right pile of shit, thinking back.
Enough pontificating, onto the music! Those into sounds from other continents were treated to a whole set of great acts at WTTV. For one there was a mesmerising set by local punk hero, Zea (aka Arnold de Boer, aka Arnold de Boer from The Ex) and Ethiopian masinqo player Afework Nigussie; which had the audience entranced in the Blessum tent on the Saturday afternoon. Nigussie’s otherworldly improvisations, driven by his command of the masinqo were spellbinding; at times stopping time and space in their tracks. When joined by de Boer, the two seemed to delight in throwing odd time changes or notes into the mix, looking to incorporate them into a wider sonic whole. Their raga take on Leadbelly’s Bourgeois Blues was special too, wandering off track and back repeatedly in a sort of Happy Sad-way.
Then we had Tinariwen, who played a blissed-out but commanding set to a very receptive and mixed age audience on the Friday. (I mention this because there seems to be a lot of second generation hippies or older world music fans up here in the Frisian wilds, not just hipsters being dutiful to what they are told to like.) The band kept everything on the right side of easy, realising that the music was floating out over a huge portion of the festival grounds, and managed to instilling a gentle pulsating soundtrack to the crowds wandering round the attractions. It would be a dereliction of duty not to mention the brilliance of the Los Pirañas set at Blessum on the Saturday. The gig whistled along at a great pace; the Pirañas’ intoxicating blend of pysch, Cumbia, and “Tropical glitch” the driving force of a delirious and increasingly sweaty tent. Guitarist Eblis Alvarez coaxed one weird noise after another from his guitar, heroically pulling faces throughout, just to ensure that everyone got the message to go as goggle-eyed and cartoony as possible. The tent complied, throwing more bad dance shapes than you could shake a stick at. It was perfect. Konono Nº1 provided a steamy and loose set in the same tent later in the day, their soundcheck somehow becoming part of the gig. Rave on. Toppermost of the poppermost though, has to be Haiti’s Chouk Bwa Libète, who kicked out what seemed to be a relentless and most-rhythmical incantation. What dark art summoned that energy can only be guessed at. So powerful were the vibes that Konono Nº1 turned up to watch and dance along. It was a brilliant gig, and nigh on indescribable.
Konono Nº1 photo courtesy of “Marc de Fotograaf” and WTTV
Interesting oddities and retiring talents
The weekend had a fair few big names. And Suuns, Django Django and King Khan lived up to their billing and knocked out good sets. But it was mainly the smaller, slightly more offbeat events that caught my imagination. We had inventor-instrumentalist and guitar maker to the stars Yuri Landman leading a workshop in a very sweaty yurt. It seemed that, every time we popped our heads round the tent flap, Yuri would be surrounded by serious chaps making guitars out of ironing boards and the like. His band Bismuth later knocked out a great gig, accompanied by Manchester poet Matt Boswell. We also witnessed a it of a lovely Hiphop workshop led by Danny Fahey and the MC’s from the Leeuwarder Collectief. And JR Green – two brothers from the west coast of Scotland – played a short but captivating set at the Baaiduinen tent. Their music, while very much in the Scotch independent tradition of Aztec Camera, James Yorkston and The Proclaimers is heartfelt and beautiful and certainly strong enough to reveal its own character. No gauche copyists, they. On an overcast Saturday morning the brothers played a brisk but powerful set, knocking out one sad lament after another. An act to really look out for.
Danny Fahey: photo courtesy of Hans Jellema and WTTV
Wind dried fish, male flesh, and other curios
Oh look a section in a rock review about food. Like it or lump it, food is now a main attraction for being at a rock festival. As people increasingly want every leisure experience to resemble their stay in some posh hotel, with everything on hand all the time, it would be stupid for events (themselves trying to cover huge costs) to ignore one of the main manifestations of this 360 degree consumerism; gourmet food. Still; there’s nothing wrong with wanting nice grub, is there?
The lack of chips and cheese sandwiches* (and inevitable absence of a Febo outlet in a public park) meant I plumped for some other comestibles. The nosh was good at all places, it has to be said. This despite the ridiculous – and sadly inevitable – number of chalk boards next to the “funky” food vans. These chalk boards, man. Someone needs to do something about them. For one, they are covered in far too many “upbeat-yet-sincere” stories, chronicling how Saskia and Loes “cultivated” and “locally sourced” their bean wrap. And why you have to pay 7 euros’ worth of tokens for it. I have to say that the longest queues were in front of a van whose sign proclaimed “Hotdogs and Hamburgers.” Simple and direct, that’s the ticket. But some clever projects at WTTV both bucked the trend and gave food for thought [sic]. The festival booklet mentioned the fact that many male livestock animals are worthless, and often not eaten either. Just there to be turned into soap or similar. Hence the Mannenvlees (“male meat”) initiative; something that hadn’t previously registered with me. If eating meat is your thing, then it’s something to bear in mind.I also tried a wind dried (flat) fish, a local delicacy. It was very salty, and predictably chewy, but a surefire winner after the odd light ale.
*(My greatest wish is to see the appearance of the humble cheese sandwich on a plate at festivals, unencumbered by any flummery other than Branston pickle or a sliced tomato. Just a pile of bloody cheese sandwiches, piled up unceremoniously on a plate, if you please, at 1 euro a pop. It’s not much, but it’s something; and we all need something in this uneasy times. Furthermore, said sandwiches on a plate will not be sold out of a funky customised Citroën 2CV or VW Camper Van with some weedy nonsense like “The Artisan Cheese Sandwich Company” scrawled on the side, nor will they be served by someone with stylish hair, or someone with those awful tight preppy shorts. No, none of those things. Rather, they will be served by a nameless local employee whose one wish is to see the pile of sandwiches diminished so they can go off and do something else. An honest approach often lacking in the gourmet festival world , I find.)