After watching an excruciatingly awkward cabaret singer on the twelve hour ferry trip to St Malo, I was ready for a change in tone; and as the sun set on the picturesque La Route du Rock festival site, I got just that. Supporting the powerhouse rock legend Nick Cave and his extremely bad looking seeds were LA based Local Natives who have recently made quite a name for themselves with the release of their new album ‘Hummingbird’. I saw Local Natives play last October at an intimate bar in London and was keen to see how they would fare before a larger crowd. Firstly, I have to note how enthusiastic this band are on getting their levels just right, calmly carrying out their soundcheck themselves in front of a growing crowd. Kicking the set off with a few upbeat crowd pleasers the Natives soon delved into their slower more intricate numbers. Kelcey Ayer’s extraordinarily high voice pitching above the rich afro-pop drum rhythms made for quite a jaw-dropping sound. I have rarely seen a band perform with such passion and they instantly became a festival highlight.
As the sun descended behind us, the crowd grew larger and more expectant. On cue, The Bad Seeds entered on stage looking like a motley crew of shipwrecked pirates followed by a suited and booted Nick Cave. At the age of 55 Nick Cave worked the stage as if he were hosting his own 21st birthday party. Within minutes he had grasped the crowd by the scruff of the neck and didn’t let us go for an hour and a half. Cave’s music is always poetical and you can’t help but be sucked into his long stories about death and religion, reminiscent of old New Orleans’ blues ballads. He kept every set of eyes attentive, particularly during the lengthy ‘Stagger Lee’, in which every onlooker gasped and cheered after each verse. Grasping star-struck audience members’ hands like they were his long lost friends, Mr Cave, unlike many rock and pop stars of his time, still relates to crowds of any age and background. After a set with that much enthusiasm and musical virtuosity it was clear that the only way for the night was up.
After a much needed sit down and goblet of beer I was ready to experience the funk/punk/house band chk chk chk (!!!). When New York born and bred singer Nic Offer waltzed on stage wearing a pair of brightly coloured boxer shorts I knew this set was going to be bizarre. Clearly drawing on funk and punk influences chk chk chk are a band designed to dance to. The crowd seemed to lose all inhibitions and threw their limbs around wildly. If you get the chance to see these guys live I wouldn’t hesitate to grab a ticket and boogie through the night. The opening night of the festival over, I went back to the campsite with tired legs and Local Natives’ ‘Colombia’ still resounding in my head.
Friday perhaps should have been the festivals most mismatched day. On paper the marriage of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and TNGHT seemed incongruous at best. To be fair, my skepticism was pretty far off the mark. The evening started solidly with Woods who were pitched perfectly for their slot, welcoming the first revelers on to the site for the middle day. Their tunes required a bit of attention for their full personality to carry across the crowd, but once we had bustled closer they proved to be an intimate and rewarding live experience.
Efterklang carried this torch nicely, really making the most of a substantial and eager crowd. Their music could easily fall into the trap of losing a larger festival crowd in its nuances and softer moments. Efterklang managed to wholly avoid this, provoking nothing but enthusiasm from the hordes. This was largely due to how much they were enjoying it. Lead vocalist Casper Clausen sauntered onto stage, looking somewhat like a cocktail waiter, he oozed that sort of charm that can only really come from genuine joy for the performance. They have a hefty belly of work to pull from, yet by opening with Piramida’s ‘Hollow Mountain’ set a clear precedence for looking forward. The newer material engaged perfectly, both with established fans and newer ears who were welcomed in by their ethereal embrace. They also had a cardboard box full of gifts for the St Malo audience, from their last audience in Paris. That was thoughtful.
The sun set and the crowd built. My slight concerns about Godspeed headlining an otherwise conventionally rock/pop line up, crept up on me again. Gradually, distorted visuals began to flicker on the screens and the band assembled themselves on screen. La Route Du Rock, in my opinion, took a risk - given the nature of the rest of the line up. It was a risk worth taking. Godspeed You! Black Emperor utilised their sweeping soundscapes to thrilling effect, as dusk settled over Fort St Pere. To the uninitiated ear, there is no denying that Godspeed can be hard work to get excited about at first. There was definitely a sense that some of the crowd didn’t quite know how to process this decidedly more involved live experience. But they are a band you invest in to enjoy. The builds showcased their inimitable talent for structuring tension with texture and the pay offs in crescendos were heart-poundingly rewarding. The post rock landscape is far more scattered as it stands, with newer generations of bands beginning to redefine the trends set by the likes of Mogwai and Godspeed. Yet their performance translated very clearly that in actual fact, the landscapes created in this genre withstand time and cultural shifts exceptionally well. They can still hypnotise a crowd and they did in St Malo.
Many Godspeed fans were visibly exhausted by their show, leaving seemingly in droves to lie back in their tents and wax lyrical about the outer body experience they had just had. So it was up to Bass Drum of Death to thunder on to the stage and rip through a rattling set of garage rock. It was a strange juxtaposition from Godspeed’s challenging sprawls, yet the shift in tone offered a light transition between Godspeed and TNGHT. Lead singer John Barrett addressed the crowd sincerely towards the end of the set - ‘this is the shit I’ve been dreaming about since I was a kid’, and it was a genuine pleasure to be a part of his fantasy.
Finally we pushed our way to the front and slung the dregs of our goblets down our throats. TNGHT. Lunice instantly captured the mood on pregnant energy and released it. He bounded spritely from side to side as he and Hudson Mohawke dropped an electric jumble of their own material and crowd pleasing Waka Flocka, 2 Chainz tracks. There was also a moment to reflect on TNGHT’s growing sway in Hip Hop as they dropped ‘Blood on the Leaves’ from ‘Yeezus’. There is still debate to be had about ‘Blood on the Leaves’ - is it entirely appropriate for a crowd of largely white europeans to trap dance whilst Nina Simone sings ‘Strange Fruit’? Yet this aside, Kanye’s end result carries serious filler credentials and this is largely down to TNGHT’s sample. They seemed proud, and deservedly so. Having taken in their full performance it is clear they are pioneering, not necessarily in texture or genre, but certainly in presence. It was impressive and spirited but crucially, really fucking fun. We headed back to our tents full of puffed up, ready to spend the rest of the night trying to speak French and drinking warm beers.
Following two days of music which (arguably) showcased some of the most pioneering artists on our planet, the final day continued upon a similar theme and did not fail to disappoint. Up first was indie veteran José Gonzalez and the rest of his pals from Junip who soothed the fatigued festival crowd with luscious acoustic jams, silky smooth harmonies and whirling organ tones. No doubt this was a well needed rejuvenation for the crowd at La Route Du Rock to arouse them for the Brooklyn punk quartet Parquet Courts. A drastic change of pace admittedly but the crowd ditched the mellow swaying as the scrappy slackers whipped them up in to a wild frenzy. Whilst the band don’t shroud themselves in any thrills, their ability to create carnage can be accredited to insanely well crafted guitar riffs that glue to the brain and a batch of short but sweet songs like ‘Borrowed Time’ that rarely dip under the 160BPM mark. This enticing combo of speed and melodic talent (which transposed superbly live) left the sea of sweaty fans to muttering each other after the set that they had perhaps just witnessed the best act of the weekend, leaving Tame Impala with a big pair of shoes to fill.
Nevertheless, expectations were exceeded from the moment Australia’s finest manes floated on to the main stage by opening with the archetypal Tame Impala number: ‘Why Won’t You Make Up Your Mind?’. Expansive chords swirled over the drumming skills of Jay Watson to then integrate with the distinctive voice of Kevin Parker (who for the record, sounds less like John Lennon in person). However, whilst Tame Impala do hold a reputation to drift people in to a deep hypnotic zone, their bigger tracks such as ‘Elephant’ and ‘Solitude is Bliss’ were received with open arms that the crowd were more than ready to dance along to. Equally, the crowd responded joyfully to the moments in the set that featured funky instrumental jams that were performed in front of swirling kaleidoscopic imagery. Whilst they were unfamiliar to the trained ears of the Tame Impala fans they spiced up the set and ensured that they didn’t become a simple jukebox live act.
The evening took more of an electronic turn when Hot Chip and Disclosure were recruited to keep the party vibes going at the Fort de Saint Pere and bring La Route du Rock to a close. Among a set of certified bangers, Hot Chip didn’t shy away from dropping a few deeper cuts and their latest effort ‘Dark and Stormy’, providing a plethora of synth-infused grooves. Considering how established they are as a band it was clear that their music has aged superbly. The heavy percussive influence laid down by Sarah Jones (who’s also provided live beats for Bloc Party, Bat For Lashes and New Young Pony Club) ensured that their music had that extra body live, really driving the crowd to dance. The fact that a massive wheelie bin was wending its way through the audience as a transportable dancing platform is testament to the levels of enthusiasm.
Then drawing La Route Du Rock to a complete close were Disclosure, who unfortunately come with a prepackaged rhetoric of being ‘not real house’ - which really and truly is an inaccurate and completely redundant observation. They did take some time to win the crowd over. Hot Chip had managed to completely blow most people away, leaving Disclosure with some catching up to do. However by the time they had reached ‘When A Fire Starts to Burn’, the struggle was over. In fact the only thing that occassionally held them up was a sometimes clumsy on stage presence that often broke the trance that their hooks and softly crashing beats provide. It sounds incongruous to a good performance but they might have benefitted from saying less rather than more - calling the festival ‘Rock du Route’ repeatedly didn’t add to the sleek power of their set. That aside the musical attraction was so there. Along with Aluna George and Jessie Ware, Disclosure make this feel like a time to be very proud of underground British pop and dance music. They gave La Route Du Rock a fittingly communal send off, leading the audience to react collectively to a fantastic performance.
It is getting harder and harder to call La Route du Rock the ‘secret’ of the European festival circuit. This year we heard more and more English accents and every other band seemed to comment on how they had ‘heard so much about this festival’. It is hard to begrudge such a good festival the burgeoning popularity it deserves and our fondness for it is testament to how special it is. We left another year with the sun on our backs and some absolutely fantastic music ringing in our ears, a truly excellent crescendo to any summer.