Fort Knocks: Things Learned At La Route Du Rock

Altın Gün provided plenty of Turkish delight, Stereolab’s entente cordiale is holding magnificently and Pond provided life while their Antipodean brethren brought tears of boredom to the eyes. This year’s LRDR reviewed by Jeremy Allen

Stereolab by Nicolas Joubard

The “Rock” In La Route du Rock Isn’t An Anachronism

The first La Route du Rock happened in the summer of 1991 when it was probably assumed the titular genre would last forever. Guitar music just about weathered the brief dominance of disruptive electronic upstarts during the turbulent 80s, and came out the other side with Bryan Adams at no.1 for 16 consecutive weeks with ‘Everything I Do (I Do It For You)’ just to prove it. Nobody expected hip hop to supersede rock as the most popular music on earth within ten years.

Guitar music is on the cusp of irrelevance these days after plenty of doomy forecasts predicted the day would come – it’s not obsolescent exactly, but predominantly dear to people of a certain age. We stand at a similar point in musical history to that time Jimi Hendrix played the Monterey Pop Festival – as opposed to the Monterey Jazz Festival – a move designed to elevate the status of rock and pop to artforms that deserved to be taken seriously. A baton is being passed now but it’s not, as Jeremy Deller pointed out in his wonderful Everybody In The Place documentary on the BBC recently, from one form of music to another; music shapes only a small part of young people’s lives and doesn’t attract the obsessives like it used to. Social media is king now.

The opening night at La Nouvelle Vague, a venue on the edge of Saint Malo, provides clues to the problems rock faces presently. Tonight is unofficially rock and folk night (a pairing so popular in these parts that they named a magazine after it). L.A. troubadour Anna Saint Louis can barely be heard over the distractible crowd and struggles to hold their attention with just a guitar and voice – and, like most acts of a similar ilk I’ve seen in the last five years, looks like an endangered species. Watching something this stripped back takes commitment, and in the age of short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that kind of patience is in short supply.

Sharon Van Etten treads a precarious line between her ballsy Patti Smith-influenced torch songs you suspect she secretly prefers, and the more electronic-oriented recent material that looks like a bid to stay relevant but has a slightly bewildered quality, like Neil Young’s Trans album. Van Etten is a likeable presence, she just appears caught between a rock and a hard place right now. Artists who make authenticity their USP often struggle to reinvent themselves, and so with that in mind, the best moment in her set occurs when a roadie enters stage left, and Van Etten breaks from the high drama of the song to say, “Thanks Brian” as he scurries away from the spotlight. It’s not just authentic, it’s beautifully mundane and strangely touching. Otherwise it’s a performance that is big and powerful and surprisingly unmoving.

Best of all are Big Thief, a band ploughing their own furrow and developing an intriguing dialogue between the tonal and atonal. They’re a band who make Alt-J look stylish, with a drummer who resembles an invertebrate mid-70s Phil Collins and a bass player with a Les Claypool on holiday vibe. They’re the living embodiment of the “authentic artist”, imbued by worthiness, but there’s something interesting going on too; a disjointed clash of directions that criss-cross and repel each other at points and come together harmonically at others. Very pretty, very immediate songs are juxtaposed with wig outs that veer towards the demented at times.

For the assembled in their Sonic Youth and Melvins T-shirts, everything is present and correct. The world may have moved on but in St Malo there exists a bubble where the guitar is still the cynosure, Belle & Sebastian are still cool and rap is an urban annoyance held at arm’s length. There’ll be plenty of competent plodders to keep the faithful happy; Tim Presley on Friday, a sort of Super Hans in lipstick playing meat and potatoes rock, or the dreadfully named The Growlers on Saturday. There’s nothing wrong with guitars, but bands that do something interesting with them, like Black Midi or Metronomy, are shorter in supply than ever.

Altın Gün Are The Best Thing Since Sliced Bazlama

Altın Gün by Nicolas Joubard

That said, there’s usually an act who seem to come from nowhere and steal the show at La Route du Rock, and this year it’s Altın Gün, a psychedelic Turkish folk six-piece based in Amsterdam. It’s a glorious fusion of a traditional wedding band with added retrofuturist electronics, an apocalyptic melange where Aphrodite’s Child meets electro chaabi. Byzantine scales make way for synthesised swooping strings, lutes meet percussive darbukas and Korgs.

Altın Gün is a concoction of sorts – meaning ‘golden age’ in Turkish, the band was put together by bassist Jasper Verhulst and Dutch psyche luminary Jacco Gardiner, who stumbled upon the scene and lost their minds. Recruits were gathered via Facebook, including vocalist Merve Dasdemir whose voice contours through the music with such verve – her rich, powerful vocals evoke the visceral lustiness and tristesse of flamenco.

There’s no sadness when they play though. The rain comes hammering down but nobody seems to care. I look around and see people dancing and swaying with eyes closed, lost in the music, joyous in the moment. Near the conclusion 6,000 happy cagoules of various colours leap into the air in unison as the weather shits it down.

Other Festivals Could Learn Much From The Two Stage Setup

It’s not exactly an innovation, but the way the two stages are set up at La Route du Rock now makes for an interesting dialogue between the two. These days the scène des Remparts is almost as big as La Fort stage, and they face each other some 100m apart. When one act finishes on the main stage, the crowd can then turn around and watch the following act on the other stage. This almost entirely eradicates time spent watching roadies and technicians tuning up.

It’s a living mixtape where one band gives way to another, throwing up some interesting contrasts. None are more stark than the changeover between Idles and Stereolab. Lumpen, well-meaning but slightly fatuous posturing makes way for sophisticated and erudite sonic adventure. Idles are for people who think Joe Strummer was deep, and in such company, Stereolab could almost come across as haughty. Instead it’s a warm and voluptuous experience full of magnetic songs with labyrinthine corridors to enjoy getting lost in.

The reunification of Laetitia Sadier and Tim Gane is a welcome entente cordiale in these benighted times, and Stereolab are a band for the present moment, thanks in part to the fact that they were so avant-garde in their first phase. They’re a band made for the vinyl revival, a gateway to more motorik sounds who deserve awards for services to Krautrock, a Derridean spectre of late night BBC2 programming where the mise-en-scene was always black and the presenters’ loquacious conviviality and beige polo necks were like a warm bath. The oscillations and jazz odysseys are flourishes to be savoured amongst all the competent ploddery. If there’s one grumble then its the fact they play ‘French Disko’ way too fast.

There’s also one more stage down on the beach, so anyone can enjoy a showcase concert in the afternoon should they be strolling along la plage around 4pm or so. Le Superhomard have to fight it out with some recalcitrant bagpipers who are determined to draw attention to themselves through the turrets of the sea wall. The battle goes on for 20 minutes or so but the Avignon four-piece named after an heroic lobster (in homage to a scene from Georges Lautner’s Let’s Not Get Angry apparently) are triumphant in the end. The sound is reminiscent of The Cardigans before they got their act together, and the same world-beating potential may be within them.

Pond by Nicolas Joubard

Buddy Bands Are A Barometer Of Taste

It’s an intriguing dynamic when there are two bands at either end of the bill who grew up together. Tame Impala have headlined La Route du Rock before and can do no wrong in these parts. Pond, who open proceedings, are their Perth-born brothers from another mother, who together created a scene and erected “great walls of noise and hair and mouldy dishes around our Daglish share house commune citadel on Troy Terrace where we incubated, practised, recorded, talked and grew,” according to Pond singer Nick Allbrook in an article in Spook magazine in 2015. Tame Impala are an award-winning, platinum-selling, international phenomenon who’ve been covered by Rihanna and Pond aren’t. They’re a big fish and a small Pond.

So obviously Pond are infinitely more enjoyable than their headlining counterparts. They have none of the fluorescent pink geometric backdrop and light show that one assumes you’d find at an Australian Pink Floyd show, there’s none of the exploding confetti, and they aren’t boring either. The sister act are a revelation in the early evening sunshine on Thursday, frenetic and experimental, then funky and elemental, and funny too, at times. It’s a life-affirming display to Tame Impala’s Prozac sheen, substance to basic sustenance. As is often the case with bands from the same scene, the disparate levels of success are an indictment on the tastes of the general public.

An Iron Curtain Has Descended Across The Continent’s Catering Tents

And speaking of sustenance, there was none at this year’s La Route du Rock. Having been to five previous events and enjoyed the generous hospitality as well as the music over the years, at this edition, many of the amenities were scrapped in a cost-cutting exercise under new management. It would have been nice to know this year’s theme was “hostile environment” before arriving though. It was hardly like turning up at the Fyre Festival, but expectations could have been managed better before we boarded the Fly Be at London Southend.

Journalists were stranded at their hotels without transfers and were forced to call the local cab firms in order to leave the hotel situated in the middle of nowhere; we were informed at the site that we wouldn’t be fed this year while the catering tent threw plenty more waste food away from the buffet than the four British journalists could have possibly eaten. On Friday night, the shuttle buses from St Malo to the Fort de Saint Père went on strike, stranding hundreds of pissed off gig goers in the rain.

Whether some of this is the Brexit malaise starting to kick in, or whether it’s an industry-wide, expense-curtailing trend, remains to be seen. “The same thing is happening at a lot of Euro-fests,” a source close to the festival told me, “but it looks like they’re trying to get the finances together and are trimming back on everything. It’s a shame because La Route du Rock always had a convivial family feeling about it. The days of journalists from the UK being treated as ‘honoured guests’ appear to be well and truly over.”

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