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The summer is over. It’s been a good one and, as is seasonal, there were so many festivals to choose from. However, this year the only one I made it to apart from Field Day (check our podcast) was a quick-ish hop, jump and a skip over the channel to Brittany. Previous to this trip, my overriding memory of France had been a one-time penpal giving me a swiped tester bottle of Anais Anais on a student exchange when I was 12. It was a sweet and deliciously subversive gesture so I wore it even though it made me smell like an old lady. This visit would thankfully put that to rest.
Vieilles Charrues is one of the biggest festivals in France. Set in the heart of the beautiful Brittany countryside – in Carhaix, which is an hour or so from Roscoff port – it’s been going since 1992. Over the years it’s played host to everyone from The Cure to Bruce Springsteen, while also providing a platform for homegrown superstars and upcoming artists alike. One of the biggest things that struck about the festival was the inclusiveness of it – it attracted and catered for every age. The atmosphere was friendly, open and spirited, and the sheer breadth of the music was incredible: from hip hop to rock, pop to indie, reggae to metal, and unsurprisingly a whole lot of electro/techno including Vitalic, Mr Oizo, Etienne De Crecy, Boys Noise and local DJ collective Switch On’s [sic]. There was also much to discover on the underground electronic side of things – notably Chapelier Fou and dÉbruit. Here are my highlights from the four nights:
Thursday: Jacques Dutronc singing in the rain
There were only a handful of acts playing on the opening night, which was a bit of a blessing because it was tipping it down. Enigmatic 60s rock legend Jacques Dutronc, cohort of Serge Gainsbourg back in the day, defied the weather to put on a rousing show for the gathered masses dressed in an array of wax jackets, rain macs and plastic ponchos. (My umbrella felt very out of place. It later got pointed out to me that they’d been banned, Rihanna-style. Oops.) The whole audience, young and old, joined in for Et Moi, Et Moi, Et Moi in-between their swigs of Breton cidre. It all felt very Gallic. The old chanteur was still rock et roll. I, on the other hand, was not. I wimped out on Mr Oizo, opting for a hot shower and bed. Oh dear.
Friday: Chapelier Fou messing with time
Fast forward six decades and at least 10 degrees centigrade, the next day was all about Chapelier Fou. We’d arrived later on site than expected and raced through the sudden Mediterranean heat to the makeshift sandy beach he was playing at. The urgency was rewarded. A young man with a violin, keyboards and various pads and electronic boxes was making castles out of sound. He’d play his violin then send loops of what he’d just played sprawling into the air, then play again. Round in circles, building up layers, stirring up a hypnotic storm. It was the kind of music that your bones soak up; that both soothes and excites. I was reminded of Nightmares On Wax. Someone else mentioned Boards Of Canada. But he is very much making his own thing – blending both classical and modern influences. It was exciting, as much to the eyes as to the ears. We chatted a little on this later. “What I really like about making loops on stage with instruments is dealing with time, like freezing the time and freezing the image of the time,” he said. “What I want to achieve when I do a loop, I want people to listen to my loop but also remember when they saw me playing the loop and they didn’t know at the time that I was doing the loop….aaaaa that’s what I like.” Chapelier Fou’s debut album ‘613’ is out now on independent French label Ici, d’ailleurs. He’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Saturday: Phoenix winning everyone over
I was really curious to see how the fairly family-centric audience would react to Phoenix. They’d never played in Brittany before, let alone at Vieirres Charrues. I chatted briefly to Laurent from Phoenix backstage before their set and he shared the sentiment: “It’s a bit different, it’s a very mainstream festival – it’s a new adventure. We don’t know exactly what to expect.” I told him I’d seen Jacques Dutronc on the Thursday and he laughed: “He is aristocracy.” By the time midnight hit, it felt like the French fab four had taken up that position themselves – the sea of people stretched way beyond my less-then-20/20 vision. I’m talking tens of thousands, very possibly a hundred or so (apparently attendance topped 300,000 this year so you never know). And we were right in the middle of it, near the front, all squashed in, everyone leaning forward, waiting, waiting, waiting. Then the lights went up and Lisztomania snaked its way into the crowd. From that moment, it was pretty much madness. Phoenix could do no wrong, each song was greeted with a roar and it just built and built. It was electric; the crowd rolled in time and adrenaline ran high for 1901, Too Young and Fences. The beautiful Love Like A Sunset Part 1 and a melancholic acoustic version of Everything Is Everything provided a couple of moments to catch our breaths. By the time they finally played If I Ever Feel Better, Vieilles Charrues should have been sated: Phoenix had given their all, their everything. But the audience had other ideas, exploding into chants of PHAY–NEX/clap, clap, clap/PHAY-NEX/clap, clap, clap. The band were clearly pretty shaken. With emotion tangible in his voice, Thomas told the crowd he never expected this kind of response. (Someone translated for me.) Caught up in the moment, he ran back for the encore with a giant Breton black and white flag that he waved vigorously. It felt like a moment of pure acceptance and love from both sides, almost like a homecoming of sorts despite Versailles being far, far away. It was a magical end to a really lovely day.
Sunday: dÉbruit getting his Breton groove on
After the emotion of the night before, Sunday was deliciously relaxed. After our final festival lunch of scallops, wine, cheeses and fresh fruit (how did I not mention this before – the catering was unreal and, mais out, quintessentially French), we headed back over to the Beachbox stage to catch dÉbruit. His set was like a fly-by-night trip round the world, taking in funk, dubstep, cumbia, hip hop, heady synths and a whole mesh of samples from North and West African instrumentation to Arabic sounds to snippets of Busta Rhymes and Erykah Badu. With the sun pounding down, he made a vain attempt to shade himself with a towel over his head. Giving into the heat, most of the crowd were sprawled on the sand, soaking it up, heads nodding, except for one rather enthusiastic man who hugged the speakers throughout. dÉbruit’s textures reminded me of the Glasgow set and, when I caught up with him backstage after his set, it turned out that he lived there about seven years ago, just before LuckyMe and Numbers had made the city their own. It was a nice surprise to learn he was actually born and raised in Brittany, not far from Carhaix. Having spent five years in Paris, which he admits was quite frustrating musically (“The sound of Paris is still the old French electro…”), he moved to London a year ago after getting radio support from folks including Benji B and Mary Anne Hobbs: “It’s something that can’t really happen for me in France, apart from student radio or really underground radio. Seeing that you can be played on really big shows in the UK, that’s cool.” Like Hudson Mohawke, he explained he’s not keen on the way his sound is sometimes described: “If my music was wonky, I would fix it,” he jokes. “It’s a weird term to define music. Maybe there’s a word that people don’t use because it’s not cool anymore – groovy. I sometimes say my music is fun and groovy and people are like, what?! It doesn’t sound really cool.” What would he call it? “UK groovy! Or Breton groovy…” That sounds about right to me.