Whilst London mourns, I’m traversing the Dutch countryside, counting cyclists, to leapfrog someone else’s World Cup euphoria. After a flight-time that would cause a seasoned commuter to ruffle his Telegraph in jealousy and an attempt to quaff the bafflement of an Amsterdam taxi driver that there’s a young Brit who hasn’t time for a local ‘coffee’ (“I will wait for you! You must always make time!”) – we’re whisked south, towards the entices of the Tilburg forest, and the hidden treasures of Best Kept Secret.
We arrive to a party in full swing – but thankfully, the Dutch crowd is a welcoming one, even for the speccy, beard British bloke who brought a suitcase out with him. Within half an hour, I’ve picked up a copy of Souvlaki and Two Dancers from a pop-up record store on the beach, been invited skinny dipping, checked out a tomato greenhouse adorned with impressively relevant quotes from Alice Cooper about the moral benefits of gardening, utilised the festival’s Pee Tree facilities (use your imagination) and caught the tail end of Caribou, returned to us, with live band in hand, after a turn in the darker throes of techno. Whilst my three hundred mile cross country sprint didn’t quite pack the personal best required to shed any light on the sound of Snaith’s forthcoming record, it’s hard to complain when treated with the final triple brace of “Odessa”, brooding single “Can’t Do Without You” and “Sun”. It’s one of the band’s very first sets on this tour, and after their time away serves as a wonderful reminder that there are few live acts that tread the line between organic and electronic quite so thrillingly – as songs explode from their tautly rhythmic cores into the full-blown, richly saturated Technicolor of their conclusions. With the crowds spilling out of the second stage, the Dutch DJ St. Paul perfectly times his drop of the song everyone’s just heard, but didn’t want to finish – and promptly packs out the circular, Despacio style dance transept with another round of “Sun! Sun! Sun!”.
With the cover of darkness lifted, Saturday morning dissolves the festival’s shadowy intrigue with a shot of pretty spectacular scenery. Turns out last night’s swimming invitation wasn’t just the ramblings of someone who had made time to sample one of the country’s leading cultural exports – the festival’s centerpiece is the vast beauty of a giant lake, an idyll plonked in the back garden of the Beekse Bergen safari park. Not only does this give the festival a backdrop to rival any, but it’s probably the only one where if someone were to shout, “Is that Slowdive looking at a corps of giraffes in the distance?” then the answer could legitimately be yes.
The festival packs a daily capacity of around 15,000, and conjures up the magical atmosphere of havens such as Best Fit favourite End of the Road – blending quality, varied billing with a boutique, off-beat feel, where you can gobble down gourmet grub somewhere you’d actually like to go on holiday, rather than surrounded by thousands of shirtless, lobster-pink Brits necking Carling and socking each other to the Libertines. The festival’s founder describes his vision to me as aiming to create “something that we’d like to go to ourselves” – and after a year of soil searching, they’ve called this home since September 2012. Despite the festival still being only a relative toddler, its richly rendered identity makes it appear well beyond its years. They worry about the little things – mixing a dash of homespun tradition (such as the kapsalon, named after the carb-o-licious fantasy of a Rotterdam hairdresser) with a healthy wodge of forward thinking (cashless wristbands that keeps crime on a short leash, and queues even shorter) and a proper budget to make all five stages look and sound spectacular. And with its environmentally sound cup exchange system, the festival doesn’t just look green, but commits right through to its roots. Although, arguably, the biggest benefit of this is the amusement caused when the Dutch hipster next to you at the bar pulls out a hefty tower of hard-won pint glasses (this weekend’s record: 23) to exchange for his virtual top-up. With some very canny programming, there is very little clashing between acts, so you’re not left playing schedule Tetris all weekend. Another interesting result of this is the way that the crowd feels for the festival – rather than five discrete sets of people, it feels like one fluid wave rolling through the festival. Small bands that might get lost in a tiny stage on another festival’s outskirts here have a chance to earn their crowd – whilst some do fare better than others, it makes attendance a much more valid alternative measure of a set’s success than usual. Teaming with the overwhelmingly more positive attitude of the Dutch audience in comparison to a gloomy UK one, the music-heavy priorities of the general festival-goer here are pretty refreshing. The sum of the above hints at the appeal of the small but perfectly formed boutique affair – and keeping it secret much longer will be a challenge.
Early Saturday comes packed with a dash of local produce. After sampling I Am Oak – the Utrecht-hailing band based around frontman Thijs Kuijken, who edge the sweeping, pastoral folk of (excellent) records such as their 2008 Ols Songd with a heavier, post-rock indebted whirl live, we head to watch Moss impress on the main stage. Pitched as a local talent on the brink of breaking – their brand of chiming indie rock is urgent and emotive, and with much to be recognised in their sound from other international successes, it seems like a pretty plausible claim.
The first real home run however comes in understated fashion, with Nils Frahm, and his truly unique take on what a live show should be. Watching Frahm is like watching shoots sprout in a cold, industrial wildnerness – tiny glimmers of colour sparking in a beautiful vastness, be they hammering motifs or brief glimpses of his twinkling speed, and virtuosic piano ability. Only turning to face the audience for a humbled bow of appreciation between songs, the empty black curtain that we face feels scrawled on, so visual are the sonic landscapes that he whips up.
Scotland’s Honeyblood are up next (although props to whoever was behind the Weezer megamix that preceded them). Ranking high on the bill’s air miles leaderboard, their subtly infectious guitar-led, razor-sharp pop-racket proves a huge hit. If Best Coast hadn’t been afforded the luxury of their sun-dappled West Coast surroundings, they might come close to the Glaswegian grit of Steena Tweeddale’s vocals. The same stage later sees up-beat British guitar music continue its strong showing, in the shape of Best Fit favourites Thumpers. Thump truly is the only word to get close to summing up John Hamson Jr. approach to the skins, beefing up the polyrhythmic melodies of their riotous take on high-octane pop. It’s, as ever, an unbelievable amount of fun. Marcus wrote for us recently about having to write songs quickly, to escape the inescapable qualities that haunt the shape of your craft and avoid falling into the traps of previous projects. This emphasis on capturing the spirit of a moment over refinement fares no better than in the live arena – and the communal boogie they inspired would likely agree.
Saturday evening sees two bands in the prime of their careers meet with one giving a pretty good stab at recreating theirs. Wild Beasts show that everything that was so impressive on this tour’s early gigs stands present and correct – with the synthesised bottom-end of tracks like “Daughters” still standing out as bone-quaking highlights, and the natural showmanship of Hayden Thorpe as assured and confident as ever.
If you needed any further proof of the extent to which The War On Drugs’ star has risen in 2014 – one of the biggest crowds of the weekends might prove it. The shorter running time of a festival sets means there’s no time for the real guitar wig-outs characteristic of their own headline shows, and today is more of a glorified run through of Lost In The Dream’s glorious wanderings. Though when you’ve got the best record of the year to play from, you might as well play it. It’s the lighter side of Adam Granduciel’s personality that comes across most strongly in the live show – from his dedication to eking out every last inch of rich beauty from the niches of his most widescreen creations, to his comic greeting of the ever-expanding crowds that now greet him, to his goofy jokes about someone nicking off with his boat.
Overheard: a casual passer-by standing next to me as Slowdive walk on stage trying to convince his companion that this is their second crack at the limelight. You’d just about forgive him though – the level to which the band occupy everyone’s lips in 2014 seems to equate to the level at which they were spat out twenty years ago. Whether the mooted new record surfaces or not, the band currently sound immense – moving from soft, silken melodies to eardrum-quaking crescendos that, like all the best bands even partially concerned with “noise”, seem to never stop gaining volume or texture. Their secret weapon comes in the unassuming shape of guitarist Christian Savill – for all the vocal interplay between Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell, he comes off as the real man behind the maelstrom.
Franz Ferdinand’s street cred might have faded slightly in some circles since their indie heyday, but their Saturday night headline set proves them to be an irresistible headline proposition. Despite his penchant for wearing Dad fleeces in grotty East London pubs, Alex Kapranos can still split-kick with the best of them, and although their infectious, danceable hits tread one fairly straight line, it’s an incredibly effective route to a wholly satisfied crowd. There’s no time for faffing around – as their career spanning set shows off the quantity of radio earworms they’ve delivered with characteristic gusto and flair over the past decade.
Sunday afternoon keeps up the showing of the new blood of British guitar music – most excitingly in the shape of Childhood – but it’s Fucked Up that provide the most potent wake up of the day, as Damian Abraham slings his hefty shape over the front barrier within about two minutes, barreling through the delicate photographer contingent. Via the sun-kissed, seaside hip-hop of Maydien, we head to the darker quarters inhabited by The Horrors. Thankfully – their set comprises with their best record, Primary Colours, where their taste for driving post-punk and hypnotic Kraut best blended. Watching Joshua Hayward coax sounds out his guitar that felt like moments of sonic serendipity on record shows off his incredible control, feedback wheeling and screaming to complement, rather than constrict. For all their recent forays into more colourful landscapes, the band are at their best when their music matches their dress code – black.
After checking out the recently re-united Angus & Julia Stone siblings sway through their soft, panoramic folk (new track “Crash & Burn” stands out in particular), we head to the weird and wonderful world of Connan Mockasin. It’s sadly too “far out” to digest in a short visit, but once you manage to get a foothold on his dreamy wanderings, his wonky psych-pop ceases to feel like a meander, and the soul behind his songwriting comes to the fore. His voice is surprisingly strong live, which helps keep tracks that stick pretty heavily on one singe hook engaging.
Belle & Sebastian on the main stage are equally pleasant, even if in a slightly different context. If you’ve an allergy to sentimentalism, than the lilting “Another Sunny Day” dedicated to the glorious evening will probably just prove too lovely. But the magic of the band lies in making sad songs as sunny as they can be – music to eke the spark in the mundane, and the beautiful in the bleak.
“I’d like to dedicate this one to all the heartbroken people in here”, opens Lykke Li, as she launches into “Never Gonna Love Again”. There’s a bloke in Sweden who’s got a lot to answer for. For this writer – the immense heartbreak that fuels the power ballads of Li’s latest record, I Never Learn, is unlocked in the cathartic sense of euphoria of the live show. The emotional weight behind the sadness of these tracks feel incredibly communal, and their life-affirming quality are realised. Lifted by the weighty pop arsenal at her disposal, she now has the complete live show at her disposal, ranging from slow sorrow to light-footed anthems.
Are there any languages that Guy Garvey can’t say thank you in? It’s as if the man was born to be on a stage in front of thousands – such is the ease at which he guides us through the elegant, stately canon that Elbow have amassed. Backed with a large string section, their set is quite fairly made up of their records since A Seldom Seen Kid, with a worthy mention for the intensity of the nostalgia and camaraderie that songs like “Lippy Kids” and “My Sad Captains” inspire. The central refrain of “One Day Like This” would sound corny in anyone else’s hands but their – but such is the humility of Garvey’s genuine, warm delivery, it feels like a mantra to live by.
For more information about the festival - head to their website here, their Facebook page here or their Twitter page here. The festival will return in 2015 on the 19th - 21st June - mark your attendance here. In-piece photography by Chris Stessens, Nick Helderman & Sam Briggs.