I lost interest in music festivals standing in rain watching icons-turned-trout-fishermen The Who languidly going through the motions at Glastonbury in 2007. My passion for big-scale rock events had already started to wane a couple of years earlier when people started calling it ‘Glasto’, and it started to attract a crowd that seemed hired en bloc from Wimbledon or Twickenham. Later that year I was lucky enough to be involved with the much-missed Dream Machine festival, a handful of friendly like-minded sorts putting on their own event in a remote village hall, which I thought had proved the final nail in the coffin. Add to that an instinctive gag reflex when the names ‘Reading’, ‘Leeds’ or ‘V’ are mentioned and a curmudgeonly nature, together with a dislike of Bestival’s forced-fun ‘vibe’ and you get the general idea.
La Route du Rock, a smaller, cooler and far more intelligent French festival has proved me wrong, the music festival need not be dead or restricted to stag dos and battered six-formers. Now in its 22nd year, La Route du Rock, is run, not by a global corporation, but by a network of music fans from the Brittany region, where the event takes place. There is no big-scale sponsorship and the bands they select are selected, not for their flavour-of-the-month status, but for their musical credibility. The organisers have a musical sensibility that veers towards the Anglophone and is tinged with 1980s and 1990s revivalism.
The festival is massively smaller that British enormo-fests, this year’s attendance was recorded at 13,000 which, according to reports was an official disappointment. From the perspective of a miserable festival-goer like myself it meant impressive elbow, camping and cat-swinging room. I’m certainly getting older, but the success of La Route du Rock is also brought about by slightly different cultural attitudes towards boozing. You’d be wrong to suggest that the French don’t enthusiastically enjoy a massive piss-up, but the festival doesn’t boast the intimidating international-day-in-Cardiff-city centre atmosphere of the V festival. The fact that the security staff won’t let you take your own booze into the arena and the bars bewilderingly don’t take cash and you have to spend an eternity queuing to exchange cash for literal ‘beer tokens’ also contributes to the general atmosphere of sobriety around the place. People, on the whole, are there for the music. The staff are as well, many of them are volunteers who have exchanged their time for a free ticket to the event. This crowd takes things seriously.
The location also contributes. Le Fort du Saint-Père is about five kilometres south of Saint-Malo itself. The countryside setting presumably means that noise level restrictions and complaints from local residents are less of an issue, meaning that bands can take to the stage later; things kick off at around 6pm per day and go on until past 3am. During the day, festival-goers are bussed into the anciently-pretty coastal town of Saint-Malo where they are invited to lounge on one of the town’s beaches, requisitioned for the duration by the Route du Rock team. The brave souls can take a tip in the Channel whilst the suave, debonair types a cut above the proles can coolly sip rosé in the shade and nod post-ironically to the bands and DJs. [NB: This is Brittany. It often rains a lot. A beach is only fun in the sunshine. 2012’s festival was the first in a long while to be mud-free, I was lucky. When you go you’ll probably get trench foot].
And, of course, there were bands as well, all of them playing sets between 45 minutes and an hour on the one main event stage. No long Skynyrd-style wig-outs here. Friday’s highlights included Dominique A, something of an unknown quantity for many in the crowd, a purveyor of French traditional chanson in the land of Rock was the first highpoint of the weekend. Playing is recent album Vers les lueurs in its entirety he was unconventional, frequently Gainsbourgian in his orchestrations and phrasing. The mighty Spritualized were the main draw of the evening, their mixture of deconstructed rock and drone rock catching many of the crowd off-guard with the former before bludgeoning them into submission with the former, set closer Take Me To The Other Side particularly brutal. The much-anticipated set from The Soft Moon was, however, a damp squib; for all of their dark-wave-metal sound and sexy-synth noises backed up by a light show to match the haircuts, they seemed lacking in anything approaching a memorable song. No surprise, then that the crowds seem to thin-out long before the end. You need more than an aesthetic to make good music, chaps.
Saturday’s bill was more hit and miss. The dour XX were the biggest anti-climax of the weekend. The world has been raving about their new album of pretty if downbeat music and this was the first opportunity to hear some of the tracks; something a lot of people were getting steamed up about. The band took to the stage beneath a giant, clear, Perspex X – transparent, lightweight and hollow, the perfect metaphor. Mark Lanegan, who followed the XX on stage didn’t quite do enough to rescue the evening; as static on stage as his predecessors, he gruffly ran through a few tracks we’ve heard on his albums.
Thankfully, there were some things happening earlier in the afternoon for us to get excited about. London-based Veronica Falls got things going in the blazing sunlight with their bright 1990s- indie-pop. Think Kenicke, think theaudience, think The Bluetones. The excellently energetic Savages too looked back too to music’s bygone past, slightly further back to Siouxsie and the Banshees, whilst Jana Hunter’s atmospheric Lower Dens brought a gentler shoegaze drone to the proceedings. Right before the XX bored everyone senseless.
Sunday evening saw the definite-article slaughtered by Chromatics who were, frankly, everything the XX should have been: contemporary, dance-infused and, for the most part, up-for-it-and-fun-to-watch, although their perplexing decision to finish their set with two downbeat cover versions (Neil Young’s Into the Black and Kate Bush’s Running up that Hill) lost their set a little momentum towards the end. The night was ruled by the magisterial Mazzy Star who played in the near-darkness, killing the video screens and the static David Roback and Hope Sandoval inducing intimacy throughout the field. I may or may not have told the people behind me to be quiet at one point in their set. Next up were The Walkmen who captured the right blend of big stage grandeur and avant-garde sing-alongs (even if I can’t get the fact that they sound disturbingly like The Killers out of my head); they genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves as well. Much more more than Hope, at least.
In fact it was The Walkmen’s comments after the gig (after slagging off the ‘crappy’ festival’s they’d been playing recently) that pretty well sum up La Route du Rock’s difference as a festival: “It isn’t a festival like Reading where everyone just drinks and doesn’t pay any attention to the music”. Whilst I may be a miserable sod, it would be a shame if the ever creeping sponsorship bandwagon reaches Saint Malo. Musical credibility, cheap champagne and oysters or a corporate deal with Carling? Aux armes!`
Selected live performances from the 2012 edition of La Route du Rock are being streamed live online for a limited time here. Go see.
All photography rights reserved by Russell Williams.