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Things Learned At: Haldern Pop
Richard Foster , August 20th, 2014 15:33

Richard Foster heads to Haldern in Germany for a weekend of pop, panels and Patti. Photos by Damian Leslie.

Haldern is a small village in the lower Rhine basin, situated just inside the German border to the Netherlands. Surrounded by farmland, Haldern's a quiet enough place throughout the year. Here, public entertainment follows the rhythms of country life, and usually takes the form of the traditional religious and agrarian festivals, such as Schützenfest der Sankt Josef Bruderschaft. But Haldern's stolid calm also has to deal with a different kind of fun; Haldern Pop Festival. Now, Haldern Pop is a remarkable event; and one that deserves further explanation. Here, then, are seven things this writer learned there.

Haldern Pop Festival is full of cool German head cases  

The festival was set up over thirty years ago by a bunch of lads and lasses who had a connection with the church choir. And it is the remnants of this committee that still runs the festival. Consequently there is the feel of a village fête that's got slightly out of hand. Everyone mucks in and ideas of what constitutes musical taste and decorum go out of the window. Anika of avant garde recording artiste fame used to help out here. The place is teeming with farmers and their kids who are, seemingly, happy to take in Iceage, Ought, My Brightest Diamond and the Divine Comedy. And a fair few of them are out for having fun. Septuagenarians demand that you hold their legs whilst they prove they can still do a quick fifty sit ups. There's a photographer who is obsessed by shoes and nudity who, over the last decade, has gone out of his way to indulge his passion for both. At previous festivals we've been offered gooseberries, by someone who clearly had a one way ticket to Mars.* This selfsame punter later advised us to put a towel on our heads, in order to avoid the risks of incontinence. An acquaintance told us this chap was high up in the Austrian civil service. Worrying times for Austria.

*It's the smile that gives it away, Brian.

Haldern is first and foremost a "pop" festival

Deconstructing and explaining what 'pop' or 'popular music' actually is, is a thing best left to the likes of Simon Frith, Irene Morra or Tia DeNora. But Haldern Pop Festival is indisputably a pop festival and many come here to indulge in that soft, saccharine "everyman" sound that will (if applied in the right places) lead us all to reinvigorate the bee populations and bring peace and understanding to the Middle East. You will get choirs. You will get strings. There will be harmonies, and 18 year olds will flit about wearing The Kooks t-shirts. You have been warned. However, Haldern's idea of what pop actually "means" is catholic, and not constrained by any dictate of fashion. There's a deliberate lack of pre-judgement in the off-the-cuff programming, which is at times truly magical. So you'll experience sets from "pop acts" like  SoCalled (Canadian bar mitzvah rap with a dash of Parliament in their Dr Funkenstein period), Handmade (urban soul from the Tirol with, yes, you guessed it, handmade instruments), Gravenhurst, Charles Bradley and Bohren Und Der Club Of Gore; alongside the likes of Sam Smith, Loney Dear or Jamie T.  

It's a small and beautiful festival

At a rough guess, Haldern Pop Festival has a capacity of five thousand visitors. And there are no plans to expand that. At the festival site proper,* there are two places to see the bands; the Spiegel Tent (a mirrored wooden dance tent from the 1920s) and a bloody big main stage plonked in an adjacent field. The Thursday evening also has a stage in the field next to the Spiegel Tent; where this year Big Ups and Fat White Family cause hoe downs of righteous, gonzoid proportion. (Fat White Family even manage to blow out the PA, the band laughing and punching the air as they walked off, visually celebrating the randomness of experiencing white, molten sound, then no sound.) In fact there's only one downer in this set up, and that is the queues for gigs in the Spiegel Tent; but you can still watch all of them courtesy of a big screen that's in the field outside. Having two stages to choose from also concentrates the mind; almost to pre-internet age levels of empathy and tolerance. Less can be more. You might not be in the frame of mind to see Lykke Li, Conor Oberst or Fink, but you might as well, seeing you paid your hard-earned; and guess what, you end up really enjoying these gigs despite yourself. If you can't face being tolerant to that degree, you can go and burn "shit" or join in the weirdo games on the campsite with all the mad campers.

*See "The village is involved" below for other stages.

You can do things on the cheap

There are enough outlets to buy your provisions, and this being Germany you can feed yourself and attend to your toilet relatively cheaply. A trip to the supermarkets is obligatory, in fact. The stuff they sell in Norma, for instance, is consistently bizarre. Chainsaw parts or axes vie with Hippopotamus-themed garden lighting. You can also buy zero calorie water. Pray enlighten me as to what that is.

The village is involved

There are some lovely people at Haldern. Now, your correspondent is not implying that the whole place is full of secret nudist colonies whacked out on maize-based hallucinogens indulging in Otto Mühl-style antics. For sure you'll get Blue Meanies everywhere. But the village is very welcoming. For its part, the festival itself actively promotes its own message through a rural prism. This year, panels (boasting such luminaries as Bad Bonn's Daniel Fontana and Glastonbury's Martin Elbourne) are set up to talk about how the "soft power" of music can help in a village's regeneration. There are gigs at the church too; gigs that somehow manage to sidestep that feeling of ersatz religiosity, the "conscience-consumerism" that lots of similar events in churches conjure up. You see, Haldern church is a "proper working church" that still draws the crowds on match days; so here the uneasy truce between Upstairs and the Unwashed is still tangible. This year, the My Brightest Diamond and Alexi Murdoch shows are things of wonder and fizzing high magicke.

There is a further treat for those who like their musical experience to have a touch of masochism about it. The lovely but extremely sweaty Ton Studio, set on the perimeter of the campsite is difficult to find, get into (due to the queue), stay in for any long period of time (due to the heat), and then get out of (due to the human press). Poppy Ackroyd, Douglas Dare and Nils Frahm perform in conditions that can only be described as a group sauna. Phobics need not apply. Elsewhere, Haldern pop bar (situated bang in the middle of the village) usually kicks each day's proceedings off. And on the Friday morning of this year's festival, crouching under the bar's "signature" picture of an old dame milking a cow, Jeffrey Lewis plays a wildly mild/mildly wild gig; his poppy, "simple steps" philosophies backed up by some raucous playing. How good is Jeffrey Lewis?

How righteous is Patti Smith?  

Everyone knows Radio Ethiopia and Horses, and yes, a Patti Smith gig doesn't look to uncover new musical horizons, but hearing classic songs like 'Dancing Barefoot', 'Redondo Beach' and 'Because The Night' play on Haldern's main stage is wonderful. It was wonderful too, to believe in Patti Smith, and revel in the unshakable confidence that drives her gigs. In this light you could view the fighting mother/"this guitar is a weapon for peace"/howl at the moon schlock as a restatement of the bleeding obvious; a sort of aural and social resuscitation kit wheeled out for jaded 21st century audiences. But her work still hits home on a number of levels; for one her lyrics have an emotional truth that can't be denied.

In addition, no notes are wasted; there is no "headliner" indulgence. Oh, and Lenny Kaye still plays licks and riffs like no other. The band's version of 'The Southern Cross' (here dedicated to the late Johnny Winter) is utterly mind-blowing at Haldern; hard, passionate, drawn out and eventually crashing out like a wave of noise over the gawping crowd. And the whole 'Horses'/'Land Of A Thousand Dances'/'Elegie'/'Gloria' run is, well, you fill in the blanks. Even her take on 'Perfect Day' is magic; and your correspondent hates that song, or maybe what that song's become.

Moreover, Patti gobs a few times, and it felt right on. Yeah, you heard me, Patti Smith gobbed off in front of about five thousand Germans in a field. And it feels good, totally right to see. Moreover, Patti's gobbing is in total contrast to the prick guitarist from Black Lips; whose party trick is to catch his own phlegm, spout 'tough' homeboy bullshit about wet pussies and whose first act at Haldern is to gob off onto a camera man's lens. But then he's just out for a quick hand job for his ego. Patti Smith wants us Heads to take control of the world, there lies the rub.

Haldern is a Sacred Place

When heat of the day subsides and the mists rise in the lower Rhine Valley, things start to take on a stranger aspect. The tectonic plates that separate past and present warp and shift, leaving cracks you can slip through. And the maize and the sunflower plants - head-high and stock-still - take on the mantel of sentinels; silent witnesses to a host of strange, ritualistic shenanigans. Weird shit happens in the camping site. This weirdness is beautiful too; mainly because it's driven by a sort of abandoned innocence. No miserable, self-conscious 'larging it up at a festy' kack here, oh no. Things are burnt. Odd devotionals take place using smashed up keyboards and bizarre inflatables; often on the top of the camper vans. Weekend long parties that have nothing at all to do with the festival proper seem to gather pace and energy as the hours pass.

I'd bet there are many people who come to Haldern Pop Festival and never see a band; and there's no need as their Teutonic atavism is sated by burning random "shit" in a field; all the while listening to Pat Benatar or Cradle Of Filth at full volume. The atmosphere rubs off on the bands. Back in 2005, British Sea Power started a tulip bulb riot (replete with a plush toy horse head and hussar's kucsma) in the Spiegel Tent. This year, Grant Hart spends a full week communing with himself in the corn fields. And Connan Mockasin's faerie entourage laps the vibes up. Strange of garb and patter and acting like Bright Young Things from an Evelyn Waugh novel, they flit around the place, squeaking and gasping to anyone who will listen that they are "simply dying of fun". Haldern does seem to promote a different, maybe more innocent, or old fashioned kind of fun.