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Gig Review

Haldern Festival 2009: Saturday 15th August
Grizzly Bear/ Health/ Bon Iver/ Andrew Bird/ BLK JKS and much more Haldern, Germany

Article written by Richard F - Aug 26, 2009

The Saturday dawned bright and clear. Weather reports promised a scorching day. And SoundsXP pitied the bands playing in the midday sun. First of these was Belfast’s The Vals, whose perky, sparkly pop was a great beginning for the day, despite the sound being a bit damp at times. Lots of people apparently hear Beatles influences, but for the life of me I didn’t hear any of that. Rather, (and rather predictably) the buzzing vibe of the Undertones or, at times, the cockiness of the early Small Faces. Following that a sight to behold: iLiKETRAiNS in the blistering sun. Would they shrivel up? Dressed as undertakers, the band, whose name has been made on the art-club circuit (films, concepts, noise, songs about explorers, that sort of thing), proceeded to blow an increasingly hypnotised crowd away with what can only be described as a full-on rock gig. Yes, the slightly post-rock concepts were out in force, as ever. But the band, especially when they played the forthcoming new single, (sorry, no name, no pack-drill) had a space and venom about them that we’ve never witnessed at one of their shows before. Maybe they were pissed off or nervous, but they could really use that edge to good effect. We suddenly felt as if we were watching a band, not an idea. And despite the heat, and the light they emerged as men, Sir, as men…

Dear Reader could be described as the complete opposite of the Trains. Bitter-sweet beguiling, ever so slightly florid girl pop, heavy on harmonies and empathic, reflective lyrical twists, it’s not music that immediately grabs the listener as anything out of the ordinary these days. But, (as John Shuttleworth says), don’t be fooled. After what seemed like an age filled with technical difficulties, the band laid down an increasingly impressive set. The (mostly mid-tempo, chanteuse-style) songs are bloody strong and don’t really seem to rely on anything but themselves to get by. Near the end the harmonies that were inherent in each composition really started to kick in; Cherilyn McNeil’s voice has something very warm and special about it, something that gets you listening, almost against your will. Pleasantly surprised, I have to say. Now, what about some eccentric pop with the Maccabees? Why not? We liked their last LP, despite ourselves… However, even in a live setting, their music still seems a bit academic (I personally still can’t stand boys playing guitars around their chest area), and a bit too “wacky” for comfort, but they have a lot of energy and their tunes are undeniably catchy. Fair to say, a pleasantly sunny divertissement.

Grizzly Bear
It’s hot beyond belief waiting for Grizzly Bear… The crowd either cheerfully basked, lizard-like in the sun, or traipsed limpidly off to find cover. Those lucky enough to be under the trees lounged around like aristocrats. The band came on almost apologetically, wearing shorts and looking for all the world like a bunch of academics dressed up as beach bums for a tropical fancy dress party. Then stunned silence as the soft onslaught began; the quiet dénouement, the moment the festival found its metaphor.

Grizzly Bear brought Haldern to its knees with their pristine, winsome and strange pop. This was music from the top drawer, blessed with character, feeling and wit. Their trick, it seems, is to confound expectations by eschewing any normal way of starting a song. Tracks that seem to be (say) a repetition of a bridge (blessed with the best vocal arrangements outside of Pet Sounds) suddenly blossomed out into widescreen laments, or mini sound-storms (don’t underestimate this band’s muscle). And like all great bands, their control of light and shade and texture was magnificent. Their sound fizzed and swooped round the field, dallying with the crowd, only to disappear, and then reappear in a different, equally haunting guise.

Bon Iver
Up to this point in the proceedings, we’d seen some pretty impressive performances. Final Fantasy, Broken Records, Gravenhurst, iLiKETRAiNS, Patrick Watson, Dear Reader… But these faded into the background with the gig from Grizzly Bear. See them while they are in this form. As if being temporarily transported back to 1966 wasn’t enough, Bon Iver followed with a set that delivered the knockout blow to all and sundry. If Grizzly Bear played around with the Wilson/Van Dyck Parks vibe, Bon Iver looked towards Crosby and Young, even going as far as to look like sedated, acidhead backwoodsmen of yore. The guitar freak outs were definitely nodding towards Neil Y, but the love songs were so ethereal, so pretty, that the crowd, wooed by Grizzly Bear, were emotionally felled by Bon Iver.

The Thermals then shattered any notions of starting up a mini California in a German field with a raucous set. The young (dare I say fresh-faced?) trio played a thumping set of dumbass, no frills garage rock, albeit poppy. Less Bob Pollard, more Jam. After about five or so numbers, their muse ran a bit out of steam, though the shenanigans onstage certainly lifted the crowd out of its dreamy daze. Andrew Bird followed this blast of euphoria. Certainly we were thinking how’s he going to manage to bring the audience round… at the time it felt like one of Haldern’s legendary billing contrasts. However, the man is a true talent; his thoughtful, elegant music has a touch of the John Cales about it, in the sense that however pretty he gets, there’s always something less wholesome fidgeting to get attention. (Maybe it’s that whistling he does). Still, his live act is now nearing its peak, balanced on great songs, a greater assurance (it was the least gawky I’d seen him), and an understanding on how he can manipulate his sound.

Sadly we missed Mumford & Sons and Blitzen Trapper, as, almost sated into torpor by the run of laid back and highly emotional gigs, we’d slumped in an Arcadian corner, sipping beer, watching the Naiads and Dryads that populate Haldern at festival time gander about - leaving sparkle-dust in their wakes. In addition, the news that Haldern next year was to have a dedicated pub had psychically floored a number of the team. Haldern with its own boozer? Could this goodness and beauty last?

We did rouse ourselves for the final three acts, starting with Little Boots, whose mix of analog synths and pop sass had the Spiegel Tent bouncing like loons. There’s something incredibly moving about seeing the simple power of pop music in action. Little Boots mixes Human League-isms (must be all those Korg synths) with a dreamy, girly bedsit vibe to great effect. Tracks like ‘Remedy’ and ‘New in Town’ are classic, durable songs, strong on chorus, easily repeatable, and eminently danceable. What gives them the edge is the wistfulness, the character, the feeling that they are written by someone who actually exists. ‘Stuck on Repeat’ was a great ending too; with Miss Boots and crowd joined together in a “wave your hands in the air” type moment… Following up was something completely different. Your correspondent has long been a fan of BLK JKS’s EP, and we were salivating at the prospect of seeing them live. The jazzy, AR Kane-isms were well to the fore, the incredibly laid back attitude was tempered by some magnificently spaced-out rock and moments that bordered on Sun Ra. Somehow they ticked on like a clock, forever informing the mood of the tent, without ever needing to be in anyone’s way. Magnificent.

And then… Health. I admit not the easiest proposition for those not used to it, but, in retrospect, what a magnificent way to end a festival. Their abrasive cut-ups, ridiculously over the top use of smoke and slabs of white noise predictably split the audience down the middle. They flounced dramatically on stage, almost invisible to the crowd, at one point seemingly re-enacting some Isadora Duncan piece. After this, the band was lost in a thick pall of smoke, partially silhouetted by the fierce lighting. As for the music, well, if I am to be prosaic and give you a reference or two, imagine the Faust Tapes played at 45 with the thumping opening beat of Frankie’s ‘Relax’ popping up now and then. There were no breaks. This could have been down to a couple of things, fear of irate Germans, a genuine spur of the moment decision to play for 30 minutes non-stop, or a simple desire to get off and crash. Whatever the reason, and whatever the audience thought, it was an event.

What to say further, apart from see you next year?

Words: Richard Foster
Notes and Revision: Ma


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