Here Comes The Rennes Again: Trans Musicales Festival Reviewed

The Quietus heads to the boozy streets of Rennes for the annual Trans Musicales music festival. Colin Stetson live pic by Dave Kerr

Trans Musicales begins in a timber-framed bar with enormous fireplaces, the kind you can walk into and take a look up the chimney. It’s so old that the ceiling bulges downwards alarmingly. They serve a drink that mixes lager with a thin red wine. It isn’t very nice, but people are lobbing pints of the stuff down their throats. Downstairs, a band called La Femme – 17, bleached blond hair – are playing a naughtily tight set of synths and new wave. It being France, the smoking ban is an out of sight, out of mind sort of thing, and the stench of hot cig air, sweat and clothes soaked in Rennes rain blasts upstairs. La Femme are the kind of new group that the English hype hunters who mistakenly always discover Brother ought to be finding – if we’re going to have this sort of music, better it made like this. La Femmes have les femmes falling down the stairs in desperation to get to see them. Afterwards, the audience surge outside to stand around hurriedly repairing their makeup and hair. A group of young French boys half hide from them behind a van, lurching and wide-eyed with sexual tension as they boast rapidly about their sweat marks. Its the sort of scene that makes you feel very old.

Walking through the city of an evening, it’s clear that the French even do ‘le binge drinking’ well. Rennes has a street nicknamed ‘Rue de La Soif’, which translates as ‘the street of thirst’. It’s actually called La Rue Saint-Michel, a cobbled thoroughfare lined with the city’s characteristic timber-framed houses, and along it the French get thoroughly clattered. Bars, some silent, some blasting Eurohits, proudly announce shots and pints of foaming piss lager at half the price of Rennes’ more genteel establishments. At the main Festival venue, situated on an airbase outside the town, a common sight is of French teenagers,lined up against a hangar, puking. Later, a man maddened by booze accosts me after hearing an English accent. At home, one might expect a beating, but not from this thirsty cove. He enthuses at length about his time in the UK studying global politics, an education which he says he intends to put to use working for the DGSE, the French MI5 and sinkers of Greenpeace ship The Rainbow Warrior. Where did he study? "Coventry! Two years! I LOVE COVENTRY!"

One of the refreshing aspects to the French music fan is this enthusiasm without frippery and pretense. When tribal dressing provided an identity to live every breath and sinew of your life by, the British arguably led. Now, though, this has been reduced into bellendery in fancy postcodes. Which is a roundabout way of saying there’s a very refreshing take-us-as-we come attitude to both audience and bands here. Take Crane Angels, who come out of a Bordeaux-based art collective called Iceberg. In England, harmonies from four singers over a full band would end up trite and spawn of Mumford, or wear scarves and get called Blessing Force. In America or Canada it’d end up rootsy and earnest Fleet Foxes or Aracade Fire canonical rock.

En France? Mais non! There’s a bloke playing lurid Sonic Youth guitar. One of the singers is so tall he keeps nearly bashing his head on the ceiling, another resembles a Fenland nutter working in a sugar beet factory, and there’s a girl who bobs and weaves and leads it all between sips of a half of lager. Their singing veers from harmonious to church group on pissed-up rural bar bellow after they’ve chucked the non-stipendery cleric in the millpond. Crane Angels have songs carried as much by enthusiasm as proximity to tune, and it all shows up exactly why indie in the UK is currently so moribund. So many of our groups make the mistake of using ramshackle as a starting point, a pose, an artifice, whereas Crane Angels throw everything and the kitchen sink – or the kitchen sinks that belonged to rock & roll, post punk, Afrobeat, harmony groups, hippies if they had kitchen sinks – at their songs. Their inventiveness means they’re the best French group at Trans Musicales by a long straw.

Since its founding in 1979, Trans Musicales has been run and curated by Jean-Luis Brossard, a man who now has bright white hair and seemingly boundless enthusiasm. He books what he fancies and while this in 2011 includes a busker from Brick Lane and the worst musical turn I have seen all year (more of which later), it’s clear that over the years this dictatorial approach has worked well. Asked at a lunchtime meeting (25 free oysters and the prediction "you’ll be shitting as if through the eye of a needle" that doesn’t come to pass) what he’s most looking forward to, he replies "Colin Stetson at midnight".

He’s a canny lad. Half past midnight at Reading, The Great Escape or Bumden Crawl, you’d find pissed and puking crowds desperate to see indifferent rubbish of the Bombay Cinema Club vein. At Trans Musicales, on the other hand, 1000 people stand watching Colin Stetson and his saxophones. Stetson’s a buff bugger in a tight t-shirt, hairy chops on his cheeks stretch as he blows. With no effects and using intricate breathing methods, Stetson delivers a free jazz fantasia, a rave rendered in brass. Oddly enough, the happy memory he’s unlocking for me is hearing Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending though the blur of hedgerows, sometime in the 80s.

Alexander Tucker has, over the past year, been something of a loose cannon when playing Dorwytch live. Always brilliant, but sometimes you were left wondering whether the red-eye over pressure electronics were a little too far from the rolling beauty of that album. What comes very much to the fore at Trans Musicales is how he’s actually one of England’s foremost folk musicians, not in lyrics of struggle, certainly not instrumentation, but entirely in the spirit of the sound. The sparkle of melody – sunlight off a weir pool – is guitar strings multiplied, his voice the sort that you might be silent for, should you hear it lament. Made by modern means, there’s a fantastical, non-precious element to what he does that tweaks the mind into considering when the peoples of Brittany and the South West of England were not so far apart.

It should have been all set for Factory Floor, in a 7000 capacity hanger with a huge PA, to win over a horde of new adherents. Unfortunately, there’s a problem. They’re not on until 4.30 AM, and before them comes Silverio. Now, the description of Silverio in the Festival schedule mentions all sorts of delights – Suicide, DAF – but this diminutive, potbellied shit, performing in his pants, is the Mexican Har Mar Superstar, but without that man’s charm (which says much) and ten years too late. He sticks his finger up at the crowd, shouts over flimsy beats, and exposes his buttocks. He’s the worst of irony party electro for idiots poleaxed by booze. He sends people sprinting for the exits, leaving a rum crowd of drunks who have just three functioning brain cells between them for Factory Floor, who themselves are sabotaged by the fact that you can’t hear the drums. Nevertheless, they are music made of struggle, and what remains of the room is converted.

It’s interesting that Stetson, Tucker and Factory Floor, all international artists who use the voice as texture if at all, work so well here. In truth, they’re a lot more interesting than most of the European bands encountered – I’d love to have seen the French equivalents of these three more leftfield artists booked to play. Time after time when attending festivals abroad I’m left frustrated that many European groups (some bad enough to turn you into a musical Nigel Farage) insist on aping English or American acts who were in NME five years ago, and singing in English rather than their native tongue. It’s to be hoped that the cultural and linguistic dominance of American and English rock & roll is soon to be a thing of the past. Hopefully Trans Musicales, and more groups like Crane Angels, might be instrumental in bringing that about.

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