Things Learned At: Rock En Seine

Just because it’s Sunday doesn’t mean you have to throw piss or burn the place down

Rock en Seine takes place the same weekend as the Reading and Leeds Festival, though aside from some inevitable artist crossover over the years, that’s where any similarities end. Notably the French event saw off Oasis in 2009, which has surely stored up karma points for decades to come. The differences are probably best exemplified by crowd behaviour on the final day. Traditionally Sunday at Reading is a day of carnage, where diabolical black-eyed enfants throw bottles of urine at each other, soundtracked by gnarly metal angst; this folie à plusieurs is difficult to understand, though it seems anthropologically sound compared with, say, the ALS ice bucket challenge. Even more sensibly, counterparts in the north often burn the site down before they leave.

Across la Manche things are done very differently. Firstly, Rock en Seine is held at the illustrious Domaine National de Saint-Cloud which showcases a panoramic view of Paris known as the Lantern of Demosthenes. These are the beautiful gardens seen in Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ and the site is also famous as the chosen target of the Prussians when they shelled Paris during the Franco-Prussian War (the Parisiennes destroyed the Château de Saint-Cloud shelling them back).

Secondly, and more pertinently, there’s no bank holiday. The supposedly godless French still find time to celebrate the Assumption of Mary with a day off earlier in August – which may go some way to explaining why Sundays at Rock en Seine are so civilised. There’s still some heavyweight action from the likes of Queens of the Stone Age headlining, and the totemic punk attitude of Fat White Family lower down the running order (more on the latter in a bit), but the bill on Sunday is deliberately more sophisticated and family friendly, and thank the assumpting Mary for that.

La Roux’s pop renaissance continues apace to render everything that came before as mere amdram, and Warpaint still astound in the live arena as much as they confound on record. Lana Del Rey is also here and surely pulls the mightiest crowd of the weekend (it could possibly be the mightiest crowd in the festival’s 12-year existence given that they let in a record 120,000 punters this year). A leviathan of flesh seeps out into the forest and as far as the eye can see, and people are even climbing trees to catch a glimpse of Lana. "There’s no place on earth we’d rather be," she says, deadpan, and while you know this to be true, it’s delivered with anything but conviction. She glides around the stage, that wonderfully world-weary voice gliding over the park, speaking to every goth, queen, alcoholic and tragedy merchant in the arrondissement and beyond. What’s more, new song ‘West Coast’ sounds impossibly dreamy before the tempo kicks back and becomes, well, even more impossibly dreamy.

Titillated, teen screams accompany Lizzy Grant everywhere she goes these days, and especially when she walks right up to the barrier in order to fleetingly get up close and personal with her devotees (she kisses one female fan on the lips). It’s not difficult to see why she commands such devotion. It’s a mixture of the Morrissey-esque persecution complex and the suicidal thoughts that attract the ghouls, but there’s also a whiff of Hollywood glamour that comes with it. What she conveys is pathos, and also mystery, making her an old school star in a modern galaxy of celebrity, and she also somehow conveys a paradoxical Garlandian fragility and fortitude, or maybe that’s just projection on my part. Perhaps we can make of her what we will, like an enthralling noir thriller that doesn’t spoon feed you all the information. LDR is an excellent pop star and in years to come we’ll look back and realise how lucky we were to have her.

Elsewhere, Janelle Monáe, the diminutive all-singing, all-dancing superstar-in-waiting does almost everything right, but you still have to ask why an artist who brought out a double album not so long ago needs to be covering James Brown’s ‘I Feel Good’ during a relatively short set. Dressed like a stormtrooper with Princess Leah’s hair on the wrong way round, Monáe spreads euphoria wherever she goes, tapping and pirouetting and hollering and giving it the jazz hands. At the risk of repeating myself again, where showbiz is concerned, Monáe is the real deal and the rest are but pretenders. She just needs some decent tunes and there’ll be nothing stopping her. If a reanimated Disney character doing the theme from Rocky in a Motown style somewhere in space isn’t exactly your thing, at least it beats a pint of piss smashing you in the face.    

Rock & roll isn’t as detectable as it once was

The last time I tried to see Fat White Family in Paris, singer Lias Saudi had to be taken to hospital because he was coughing up blood, and the show was cancelled. As excuses go it certainly beats an addiction to Pimms, though the kids were starved of something that night that some of them probably didn’t even realise they were missing. Indeed watching Fat White Family at the Scène Pression is like finally locating a knitting needle and thrusting it down the plaster cast around your broken arm in order to get to a hard to reach itch that’s been troublesome for months. If that simile is a bit too clunky for you then put simply, they provide succour – if only temporarily – and when they’re gone again you realise you can’t get easy relief from anywhere else.

What do they have that other bands don’t? François & The Atlas Mountains playing here on Friday night look like they’ve been blown through a Uniqlo window display after having their brains lobotomised. These young men who should be having it large have tragically been reprogrammed so that now they’re incapable of singing anything that isn’t purgative and naggingly revolting. Imagine buying a guitar with the intention of being Johnny Thunders only to be brainwashed and made to play fluffy nonsense with your mouth agape while trapped in a snowglobe for the rest of your days in dayglo skinny jeans.

The Fat Whites don’t wear many clothes, but not in a posey wanker way like Sting or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They’ve just clearly taken their shirts off so it’ll save them a few trips to the launderette. They’re all skinny white bones and nasty lager, sonic malevolence and mutton chops as sharp as kitchen knives. They hammer through gritty barroom chronicles and mumble old spirituals that turn into drunken Irish lullabies. The atmosphere crackles with danger when they’re on stage, and you wonder to yourself whether or not you could have any of them in a fight. Ask yourself the same question when watching any band, and if you can answer "yes" then immediately walk away. François & the Atlas Mountains for instance? I’d shit them.

Elsewhere the rock & roll is strong in Joey Bada$$, who flips his flow from torpid to well aimed torpedoes whenever he feels like it, but Brody Dalle – a Netto Courtney Love from where I’m standing – spends so much time singing about how rock & roll she thinks she is that methinks the lady doth protest too much.

You can be really famous and still hide in plain sight

The expression "hiding in plain sight" has been tainted with ickiness of late thanks to Operation Yewtree, but if you were looking at ways to decontaminate the idiom then Sean Lennon might be a worthy – though admittedly illusive – ambassador. Sean is 38 now, though its nigh on impossible for most to imagine him as anything other than a little boy. This is one of the reasons his hurdy gurdy beardy disguise is so impressive, and hiding behind The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger moniker must also throw festival crowds off the scent. What’s more there are clues – his guitarist looks like a comedy Ringo and his drummer a comedy George – and yet this playful surreal trompe l’oeil seems almost deliberate in order to hoodwink further a confused audience. I swear the majority here don’t actually know who he is, despite the fact he’s very famous indeed, and what’s more he and Charlotte Kemp Muhl must get a perverse kick out of that fact. His posh school education enables him to converse with the crowd in very passable French, and it’s only at the very last that he says the words "je m’appelle Sean Lennon" to audible gasps. What larks!

The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger have become stealthily quite good over the last few years, and it’s interesting to note that Lennon himself makes a guitar squeal with more than just proficiency. Interesting also is the fact Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys is probably a better guitarist these days than he’s given credit for, though it’s the one song where he takes the guitar off and puts in some Tom Jones-style hip action that the band actually explode into life. It’s something they can think have a think about now they’re off on an enforced break to their second homes in Monaco or the Cayman Islands.

Assimilate all you like, but there are some things you will never understand, even if you live in a place for 100 years

At every foreign festival there will always be a WTF instance where you feel as though you’ve wandered into a nation’s living room and shouldn’t be there. At Rock en Seine, Montpelier’s Émilie Simon provides that prime time, meal time, family time, "fuck, I really shouldn’t be here in your living room" moment. As productions go it’s massive. It’s Doctor Zhivago. Émilie is flanked by a band and a 22-piece orchestra and in front of her is a sea of unadulterated adoration. Fans from three generations gaze upon the amber-eyed ingénue with unconditional reverence.

Then the mediocre songs pour forth and you fail to see what it is these natives are enjoying, and you ponder on whether or not there’s a cultural narrative you’ve missed and will never be able to catch up on, and if you are wondering that then you’re almost certainly correct. On face value the orchestra seems more a status symbol than anything else, a big bucks display of power by her record company that shits on every other humble act over the weekend from a great height, but in practice the arrangements lack thought and the strings are mostly used to fill space. The whole thing is visually arresting and yet the sound is fifth-rate Kylie on a bad day, and that’s being kind. The fêted historian André Maurois once said that there’s a "deep-rooted certainty that a Frenchman can only be a Frenchman," and at times like this – where the sense of disconnect is palpable and something is lost entirely in translation – it’s easy to see what he means.

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