DiS’s journey to La Route Du Rock 2011 begins aboard a ferry out of Portsmouth, where it’s roughly 2am, and I’m trying my absolute best to grab a precious ounce of sleep. Unfortunately, what with the fellow sat opposite me working overtime to see if he can successfully self-inflict a brain hemorrhage by way of snoring alone, and my own brain working overtime to try and discover what sort of karmic retribution had been dealt unto me in my having to witness an hour of seizure inducing ferry cabaret, I’m dragging my feet across St. Malo port the following morning having had next to no shut-eye.
It’s not all bad though - the economy in La Route Du Rock’s scheduling means that there is, essentially, just one main stage. One main stage that runs on Continental Party Time (typically 7pm-4am), which is a wonderful change from that British Summertime “well, make sure the rap artists are off the stage by midnight, you might wake the neighbour’s cat” nonsense that we deal with all too often over here. Crucially, it gives me the day to go and recharge, if only a little.
The first performance of the weekend comes from political journalist turned singer Anika, who along with her band are something of a joyless black hole. Her apathetic stage presence (during one instrumental interlude, she seems to be playing with the wire threaded around her microphone stand like a bored toddler) inspires nothing but the same in me, and while this demeanour seems to be working for others elsewhere, I leave feeling a little more drained than I had before. Never mind - Sebadoh are here within a brief half-hour to give us all a good kick up the arse. It’s sloppy, and sloppy in the best possible way, grizzly bits flying about in a fashion that only a band like Sebadoh can pull off.
Catching the end of Electrelane (Mia Clarke, pictured below), it feels a shame I didn’t manage to be there for the whole thing. Returning to La Route Du Rock fresh from their hiatus (their last showing here was back in ‘07), the band put in a rousing and vigorous performance that’s met with a huge reception. Once the sun has fully set, Mogwai (pictured, below) arrive onstage and soon blossom into their uniquely refined explosiveness with the very first notes of Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will opener ‘White Noise’. Something in there reminds me of the demolition of a tower block – it’s full of theatre, but you know it’s all built upon a fine precision and balance that makes it happen just so. The whole experience leaves me in a bit of a glorious Mogwai coma, and when I later find myself to know very little about Suuns (my sleeplessness is at this point rendering me to know very little about anything), I am (for shame) not doing so well when it comes to paying attention. I do however, have one particularly vivid memory of front man Ben Shemie’s rabid dog gnarl, which seems to be a pretty decent symbolic representation of the music - there’s an undercurrent of simmering intensity there that’s never allowed to erupt, and it’s this tension which makes the set feel like the lit fuse rather than the fireworks themselves.
Tonight of course, those fireworks are pointillist LED flickers as opposed to any bona fide pyrotechnics. By the time Richard D. James turns up for his 02.10 slot at Le Fort de Saint-Père, I’m not sure how long my own legs are going to stay on the clock, and this Aphex Twin show is (for a long while at least) a very fierce, all-involving thing. It begins with somewhat of a false start – after some faffing about from a techie wearing a headset that looks as if it could have been found on eBay after the demise of NSYNC, I pretty much mistake the entrance of the headliner (which there is absolutely nothing of a fanfare about) for another crewmember mincing about onstage. Once well underway though, the full audio-visual force of the performance begins to reveal itself. The three-panel projection screens behind the headliner show live manipulations of footage of the crowd that twists and distorts their IDM-adoring smiles into the demonic images that we’ve all come to associate with Aphex Twin. Add to this an incredibly intense light show that propels itself onto the clouds all the way at the back of the site, and you’ve got a totally immersive experience.
(A note about the La Route du Rock setup: there may well only be one stage in this relatively small site, but that stage big enough and well equipped enough to put on James’s full show, and I hear no qualms relating to sound matters all weekend. In fact, it sounds pretty great throughout.)
En route to the festival site on Saturday afternoon, there’s a heavyset grey ceiling covering the French countryside. The word ‘apocalyptic’ is being bandied about, but if this is fitting, then it looks like we’re all going out with a whimper rather than a bang, as the sort of bland, unrelenting dribble we’re subjected to lasts the best part of seven hours.
First order of business then, is a lonely trudge through the slowly propagating mud bath to find something that’s going to keep me from appearing as underprepared and sodden as I feel. Sadly, I’m soon lost in an uncharted part of the festival site that turns out to be reserved for this year’s volunteers. An area that apparently, I am not supposed to be in. After a broken and confusing conversation that consists largely of an ignorant British attempt at the French language (two parts English words spoken in an alarmingly xenophobic sounding French drawl, one part whatever my rapidly pruning self can remember of childhood lessons with one Mme. Grinan), a kindly young security man agrees to release his iron grip on my wrist and sends me on my way with an oversized, bright yellow poncho that has me flapping about like some loose skinned post-liposuction Sunny Delight mascot.
For slowcore proponent Alan Sparhawk though, the sight of a sea of poncho-adorned fans is “beautiful” (“we can only see your faces up here – it’s like you’re all naked” – yes, I loved this too). For Low (pictured above) this afternoon, the rain seems only to magnify the sentiments of their music, with their performance turning into something of a pathetic fallacy. By time they play DiS’s recently named Song of the Year (So Far), ‘Try To Sleep’, I’m completely engrossed in a show that with little in the way of thrills and ornament (there is hardly any equipment used, and (as far as I remember) zero instrument changes), turns out to rank as highly as any other throughout the weekend.
One of the most pertinent things I learn over the course of the weekend is that transatlantic duo The Kills (pictured, above) boast an audience in France that far outweighs that on their home soil(s). To their favour, the rain finally lets up midway through their headline set, and the energy of their performance that relies heavily on triggering pre-recorded samples and drum machines to fill the sound out seems to be translating to a crowd who by this point have begun shuffling themselves dry. But if The Kills are electric, then Battles are their own nuclear power plant. They’re a band who are so seemingly comfortable in what they do that they can essentially go on autopilot as far as concentrating on any technicalities goes (case in point: Ian Williams is able, with a drum stick in his right hand, to snipe notes by jabbing the stick at a keyboard he’s not even looking at, all the while revelling in his own onstage lunacy). It’s a triumphant and joyous set that features an appearance from Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino to recreate Gloss Drop standout ‘Sweetie & Shag’, and leads the audience to demand an encore that later manifests itself as an extended version of album closer ‘Sundome’.
Sunday’s line-up can be read in two ways, I think. Either, it’s a beautifully scheduled plateau designed to help festival-goers whose own shadows are beginning to fade, or, it’s the dying embers of a festival who’s best moments are already behind it. Either way, it’s definitely a calmer day for ticketholders, both in programming and in being at the mercy of the elements.
The notable addition to Sunday’s proceedings is a three-band bill put on off-site, back in the picturesque seaside town of St. Malo, inside Le Palais Du Grande Large. Beginning playing from behind drawn stage curtains, Josh T Pearson (pictured, above) is soon revealed with a set comprised of songs lifted from his recent devastating, woe-is-me, heartbreak record Last Of The Country Gentlemen, and a Boney M cover (no, for real). Most will be prepared to expect the gravitas and despair of the song writing, but this leaves the door open to be totally struck by Pearson’s idiosyncratic guitar technique: one that works on a spectrum between highly intimate finger-picking and a brazen flamenco pulse. The whole thing’s followed by a pearl of an encore, during which Pearson wins me over good and proper by discussing the ins and outs of facial hair care, but just as soon loses some love when a room full of locals begin gleefully cheering his instruction for British attendees to “go home”. Oh, fickle me.
Following this shedding of skin, we’re back at the ruined fort for Okkervil River (pictured, below), who sadly come across as arrogant, over the top circus showmen, and there’s a smelly air of smug about the whole thing. Cat’s Eyes, being one half comprised of a classically trained soprano, and having what appears to be a marimba wheeled to the front of the stage, tease at something pretty imaginative. Unfortunately a lot of the time, it translates largely as ‘The Farris Show’, with the art school pipe cleaner oh-so gracefully offering the only the occasional look-in to Rachel Zeffira. What’s worse is that it’s these sporadic, often subtler moments that stick out in retrospect.
A bit later on, Fleet Foxes shuffle on stage and Robin Pecknold greets the flooding adoration of the crowd with an already genuinely humble “wow, this is, err, really unexpected - we’ll get right to it then”. They do, and the band tear through a pretty flawless set comprised largely of their Bella Union-released sophomore effort Helplessness Blues. The one really great, jagged surprise was the completely nonsensical and gestural saxophone solo during ‘The Shrine/An Argument’. Great, I suppose, because Fleet Foxes are perhaps the ‘safest’ band on the bill, and an ugly obtuse freak-out is a big old flipping off to any Aphex Twin fans who’ve written them off as such. For the most part though, they are a very pretty close to the weekend. Pretty enough to be deserving of the dusty, pastel full moon that’s set up camp just above the right hand side of the stage.
Trudging my way through an entirely silhouetted woods on my way home after a further sleepless 36 hours and a frankly terrifying run in with this Mötley Crew, I hopelessly trip over bits of twig and rock and a fox and whatever no less than three times. Oh mon dieu, zut alors, etc., etc. I’m off to rest up in time for next year.
All photos © Nicolas Joubard.