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Things Learned At: Haldern Pop
Richard Foster , August 18th, 2015 09:59

Richard Foster reports on his experiences at the German festival, from the "musical alloy" of Savages, to the Lord Byron fronted Iceage.

Photo by Mac

Haldern is unhip, unplanned, and unremarkable, and all the better for it

If I was one of those terrible linear buggers only concerned with digitising my underpants and being spoon-fed the right now through periscopes, meerkats or Snapchats, I wouldn't come to Haldern. Who wants to plant their high heels in front of sets by The Slow Show or Liam O Maonlai and Peter O'Toole? 5Live "geezer" music, surely. Nils Frahm and Dan Deacon? Already done. Courtney Barnett? Nah, this year's ice cream. Savages? Saw them in a club in front of 20 people, beat that. Bach and Deerhoof covered by a bunch of German teenagers in a church? A well-meaning yawnathon, surely. And the prospect of sets from dEUS and War On Drugs sound about as enticing as a day out with your gran in Bognor Regis. How can you tick this off the "life events" list, or (worse) tell your pals? But Haldern's genius is that it never pays heed to fashion. It muddles through, somehow, and stays resolutely on the other side of the wormhole.

Haldern Pop festival can conjure up the most improbable moments of synergy. A case in point is the moment when I twig that the benches the Stargaze and Cantus Domus choir are standing on in Haldern Church's high altar are the benches from the Haldern Pop bar. Ones I usually park my arse on whilst supping altbier. Now they were serving a much more noble purpose; helping the choir drive Bach's great, affirmative 'Nach Dir, Herr, Verlanget Mich' (BWV 150) onward and upward. Bach, no stranger to a pint himself, would have approved. In the church his glorious music snakes round the pillars, hitting the high roof and cascading down onto the audience in the nave like some three-wise silver flamed fire dragon. Cantus Domus and Stargaze remind you why generations of heads, from Axelrod to Froese to Ulrich Schnauss, have called on Bach to help shape their own elemental vibe.

Other strange and beautiful meetings are found during Stargaze's takes on Deerhoof Chamber Variations by Greg Saunier and the wistful beauty of Soak's two sets, which put her records to shame. I should register my surprise at the transcendental, "Van The Man" style Gaelic workouts from Liam O Maonlai and Peter O'Toole; before they indulge in their (frankly) hateful hits. Courtney Barnett is as affirmative, zippy, and fizzing as you could wish for; her clever lines are maybe the apotheosis of guitar pop sieved through a Twitter/WhatsApp filter. I expected none of this.

Iceage are a force of nature

There are five acts to go before I see out Haldern Pop 2015 with an inordinate amount of vodka and goonish dancing in front of the huge campfire backstage. I have a pretty good idea how the sets by War On Drugs, dEUS, and Courtney Barnett will play out. Of these three, I only want to see Miss B. Another. Magnus, will be missed. I know that because they are on last, and I am going to the vodka tent and nothing gets in the way of the vodka tent. The other act, however, is Iceage. I'm not missing Iceage.

Harbingers of "something else", Iceage playing Haldern is akin to Theodore Hickman coming into Harry Hope's. They mull about quietly backstage, avoiding contact, quietly puffing on their fags. They saunter on stage looking as if they're lost in their thoughts. Elias Bender Rønnenfelt wants the lights down; the TV cameramen can lump his film. Within seconds, Iceage have challenged Haldern's DNA. Now I really hope this doesn't come across like Uncle Monty prancing after Marwood, but Rønnenfelt could have walked out of Paradise Lost. His movements - loose, abandoned, "heavy-lidded-but-studied" - are the ones Lord Byron used to throw whilst preening himself in front of a mirror round 1816. Their set - made up from the rolling and rocking thoughtforms of Plowing Into The Field Of Love - is by turns, aggressive, mournful and delicate. The hard bits are dug out of the permafrost, the softer bits as transient as a candle flame about to be snuffed. At times it's very difficult to map where they are going, but the brilliant way in which they all seem to be playing different track in tune and in time is brilliant.

I am very, very glad that Iceage are still rolling on, doing their own thing irrespective of what anyone may think of them. They still confound people. They have evaded the clutches of the trendies and no marks and laddish sycophants. Their music still surprises, regardless of how it sounds. As I hinted earlier, Iceage should be the act that forms Haldern's antidote, a band most unsuited to this temporary Arcady in the NiederRhein. On second thoughts, they embody Haldern like no other band. They are quixotic; a dormant or silent force without age or direction that seems to erupt out of nowhere and offer new perspectives and new energies, only to disappear again into the mists. I couldn't imagine following them on a tour.

Savages define the dark

There is an apocryphal story told by Michael Palin of Peter Cook. Apparently the Python made some joke about the speed of light to which PC replied: "We may know the speed of light, but what is the speed of darkness?" A moot point and one applicable to Haldern Pop 2015. The festival embraces light in its physical and mental and spiritual forms; through sets from Courtney Barnett, Dan Deacon, Nils Frahm, Soak, Douglas Dare and Cantus Domus. And through a blistering sun, talks in teepees and deranged nights in the vodka tent. But what about the the darkness? How could we measure the dark?

By Friday night, and after another infeasibly hot day, where the sun bakes this small part of the Rhine basin into a state of languid torpor, Haldern needs an antidote. Kate Tempest's passionate and giving show goes someway to the drowsy crowd; but a sharp drop of temperature, and an electrifying set from Savages gives Haldern its first true collective memory.

Dusk envelops the trees, and mist slowly rises over the lake. The corn fields guard the festival space, silent witness to many a private, vodka-soaked, hash-burned naughtiness. There is a feeling that we festival goers are due something. Luckily for us, Savages also feel that they should give all of these elements a voice; and paid due libation to this atmosphere with a blinding rock show of the highest order. It's one of those sets where every moment, essential and informative as it is, melts into the next; and in the blink of an eye at that. It's impossible to describe every track, even though they all deserve a mention. 'Evil'? Totally wicked and equally ace. 'Adore'? Top. 'I Am Here'? A banshee wail. 'Fuckers' and 'Husbands'? Soundtracks to a brilliant stand off with a baying crowd.

Savages are so good to watch. On this night, the balancing act between singer Jehnny Beth and Gemma Thompson is captivating; the guitarist expertly guiding the mood, acting like the dominant partner in an open role Tango. For her part, Beth prowls round the stage in the way Jim Kerr used to indulge in when Simple Minds were in their early 80s pomp. In fact with her hair slicked back and eyes framed by thick streaks of eyeliner, she looks a bit like Kerr did way back when. But Beth does the act far, far better; her moves are rapier-like and delicate, reserves of guile and aggression quashing any hint of bombast. Less static and less confrontational than I've seen her in the past, it's very clear that she is patiently waiting for the right moment to strike.

But there's more. You see, we were fortunate to be watching the gig at the side of the stage. From here, during the glorious ending salvo of 'She Will', 'Husbands', and 'Fuckers', you begin to realise that Savages' rhythm section could take off from a standing start if it wanted to. The power they generate is immense; Ayse Hassan's bass lines are nabbed from the underworld, stolen from Eurydice's back pocket whilst Orpheus was fucking about on his lyre. And no-one hits the drums like Fay Milton. Holding onto the cymbals for dear life at times, head down and eyes screwed shut in concentration, she looks like she's been chained to a runaway tractor.

Savages like winding up crowds, it's clear. From here, the audience looked like a peasant army, waiting for some half-cooked bit of the bible to be babbled at them before they indulge in some crop burning. Full of bratwurst and beer, they are getting restless. Still Savages toy with them some more, before Beth finally kicks off her heels and saunters towards the crowd barrier during 'Husbands'. The crowd bay for confrontation, they want to be goaded. The howling anger of 'Husbands', and the drawn out and grisly tease of 'Fuckers' melts the crowd into something from an Arthur Machen story, and Beth, caught between the bouncers and the loons of the front rows, directs this antediluvian mass with a few curt gestures. Suddenly, and after a whole cartload of false endings, 'Fuckers' growls to a close. It's all over. Savages have somehow smuggled all that was best and most essential from the post-punk era into the here and now; remoulding the clinkers and scoria into a new and relevant form of musical alloy. The message has been updated, rebooted. They are a classic band, and shows like this will be treasured.

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