Festival Diary: La Route du Rock – Saint Malo, France 2011

Festivals have come in for a bit of a bashing this year. Apparent over-saturation, date clashes and too much choice regarding events are some of the factors which have been blamed for poor ticket sales, and sadly, in some cases, the cancellation of events. As such, we’re venturing to Saint Malo in Brittany, to La Route du Rock festival where the organisers have stripped the festival formula back to its bare bones, and left it to the music to do the talking. No gimmicks, no comedy or cabaret, no shopping area serving up the best of local fodder, just one very large stage and a pretty special line-up.

Friday

It’s Anika that welcomes us to the gloriously sunny festival ground, which is set in the Fort de Saint-Père, an 18th century fort built by Louis XVI to guard against attacks from the English. Not very effective, as there are plenty of rowdy Brits that have made their way to the festival this year – a fairly easy trip, as Brittany ferries offer a deal on travel and tickets. But back to the music, and Anika greets us with a demure set, dead pan, new-wave, static – but captivating, none the less as she and her band make their way through tracks from last year’s Anika. As her set draws to a close, it’s the moment to wander off to check out the rest of the cosy festival site, as the next of the bands prepare for their turn on the massive, imposing stage.

After a well-received, set from Sebadoh, it’s the turn of Electrelane. This is a band with an enormous following in France, and the anticipation for their show has been apparent ever since our arrival on site. The audience space is filled to bursting in the moments before their show begins, and when it does, the sense of adoration in the air is so strong, it’s almost visible. From the first note struck to the closing resonances, Electrelane entrance and woo their audience, proving beyond any doubt that their comeback has been a resounding success.

The ever mighty Mogwai are next up, delivering a precise and perfect set and sound, which has been extremely well rehearsed during the solid 8 months that the band have spent on the road since the release of Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. This stage was made for this band, with a rendition of ‘Rano Pano’ proving exactly why this group are so worthy of such a high billing on such an expansive stage. They’re powerful, completely entrancing and put on a show that’s so technically masterful, that we can’t help but wonder where they could possibly go next.

Suuns from Montreal are a little disappointing. The band seem a little immature to be playing such a high ranking spot, and although musically, the show is good, it’s a long way from perfect. Their singer, Ben Shemie is so uncannily similar in both vocal style and movement to The Servant’s Dan Black (incidentally, another act which has enjoyed much more success in France than in his native UK) that more time is spent concentrating on this comparison than on listening to the music.

The first night is rounded off by a highly anticipated set from Aphex Twin. It’s a visually spectacular performance, with lasers, intricate graphic projections and colours shooting from the screens in all directions. But as for the music, there’s something about the show that doesn’t quite gel. There’s no question about the fact that Richard James is the master of his craft, but with the visual decoration adorning the show and the driving, battering relentlessness of his synth constructions, we could easily be standing in some derelict warehouse of the early noughties. It feels a little dated, and the attention required of an Aphex Twin show doesn’t feel as though it’s rewarded.

Saturday

There’s no way of pussy-footing around this, there’s no nicer way of phrasing it – on Saturday, it’s pissing it down. All day long. And it’s not ‘that fine rain that soaks you through’, it’s huge drops that penetrate any layer of protection you might have donned and soak every single by-stander to the bone. It’s in these conditions that Still Corners take to the stage. Although well known to The Line of Best Fit, the band are fairly fresh faces on French territory, and despite the torrential conditions, are very well received. There are mutterings of “Broadcast…” to be heard throughout the crowd, as French spectators attempt to figure out where to place the band’s hazy brand of dark dream-pop.

Low are also faced with the battle of keeping a soddened crowd entertained. Not an easy feat when your band is called Low and all of your songs are slow, building tales of tragedy and heartache. That said, if the rain did anything, it was to separate the wheat from the chaff, with the respectable sized crowd embracing and adoring every second of the smooth, haunting and unfathomably beautiful music emanating from the stage.

After a fairly tepid performance from Cults, it’s time for Blonde Redhead. Still battling against the beating rain, Kazu Makino, alongside band mates Simone and Amedeo Pace manage to entrance, and incite breathy sighs of contentment from pretty much everyone gathered to watch them. Visually, the stage looks beautiful – illuminated by sparking, glowing light bulbs as the group offer up tracks from 2010′s Penny Sparkle, amongst other gems plucked from the bands 15-year-spanning back catalogue.

The Kills are the next to take the stage, and it’s unclear whether this is something that the duo have engineered or if the festival Gods have a particular penchant for Alison Mosshart, but The Kills stop the rain. Incredible. From the size and reaction of the crowd gathered, it’s pretty evident that this is the band that most of the festival goers have come to see, and to be fair, they put on a decent show. Their set is frenetic, moody. It’s just so ‘rock n roll’. But it’s also quite transparent, with Mosshart’s ‘edginess’ feeling a little contrived at moments. All in all, it’s an enjoyable show, and we’ll be forever grateful to them for making the weather turn.

Dirty Beaches have been invited to fill the spot in between the last two bands on the main stage, and as much as we try to concentrate on their set, the cold has forced a move towards buying anything edible and hot, before firmly taking up position to see the band that we’ve endured rain, mud, the threat of hypothermia and the potential downfall of a seriously old fort for, Battles. From the moment that Battles take to the stage, the atmosphere lifts. Older tracks are slowly but surely appearing in the set, and the apparition of ‘Tonto’ and ‘Atlas’ alongside newer tracks ‘Ice Cream’ and ‘My Machine’ are a complete treat. As is the predicted, but very welcome on stage collaboration between Battles and Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino for a mesmerising rendition of ‘Sweetie & Shag’. We may end up in hospital with trench foot, we may never recover to feel the comfort of warmth again, but Battles, as always, have played a mind-blowing show and are completely worth the torrential conditions endured earlier in the evening.

Sunday

While activity at the festival site doesn’t kick off until the early evening, the pretty, coastal town of Saint-Malo is overtaken for the weekend to provide day time entertainment for the hoards of  ‘festivaliers’ that have descended upon the region. A stage is erected on the beach, and Le Palais Du Grand Large is taken over to host the likes of Josh T. Pearson, who made a name for himself at the festival following an impromptu performance from the Fort’s walls at last year’s event.

Returning to the main festival after a pleasant stroll along the beach, and rest in the comfort of the theatre, we prepare for the days music. After the heady musical heights that have been hit over the last two days at La Route du Rock, Sunday’s line up provides a welcome slowing of the pace. Here We Go Magic and Okkervil River both provide pleasing sets, on a day which is, weather-wise, treating us much more kindly than yesterday. Okkervil River in particular, having suffered the rainy traumas of Saturday themselves, put a huge amount of effort into making their set as enjoyable as possible and they succeed, with ‘Wake And Be Fine’ taken from their latest album, I Am Very Far being a particular highlight.

A feature that has been unfailingly good throughout La Route du Rock so far is the quality of the sound from the stage – one of the benefits of the organisers having only one stage to coordinate. This, however, isn’t the case for Cat’s Eyes, who suffer from a trebly sound which wipes a lot of the more mysterious, haunting tones that fans were hoping to hear from the mix completely. It’s a disappointing set, and not necessarily any fault of their own, but Cat’s Eyes don’t inspire as had been anticipated, and make way for Fleet Foxes.

Due to the fairly late nature of the schedule at La Route du Rock, Fleet Foxes would transpire to be the final band of the weekend for many of the festival goers. The top notch sound quality has certainly returned for the Seattle troupe, who enthral with renditions of ‘Mykanos’, ‘Lorelai’ and ‘White Winter Hymnal’. Having had the good fortune to have seen Fleet Foxes on numerous occasions this summer, the most remarkable feature of their set is always the power that they transmit from stage. The incredible richness of the vocal harmonies and vast musical talent on display turn the show into a memorable, impressive set, and for those who had to leave after their performance, is a staggering close to the festival.

For those with the stamina, it’s Dan Deacon, followed by Mondkopf who tie up the festival – a festival that had proved to be quite the test of character. It’s a shame when atmospheric conditions detract from the musical experience, but La Route du Rock took it all in their stride. The line-up was spectacular, and the simplicity of just having one stage made a the festival feel laid back and comfortable, removing all of the ‘rushing around fuss’ that tars so many events. With a proven track record of outstanding line-ups and good atmospheres, we’ll certainly be checking La Route du Rock out again next year.