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Pictures thanks to Death Is Overrated

Last Tuesday I kicked off my concert season 2010 with a little visit to the London based boys of Fanfarlo in Paradiso. Thankfully this time they did show up with the full band, as opposed to their gig at Lowlands last summer. As they started playing I remembered what it is I find so endearing about this band: they write great songs and take their time to build them up, have several band members doing second vocals, aren’t afraid to whip out a mandolin or a melodica and most of all: they’re just so damn charming.

In fact, they’re so charming that by the end of the gig I was left with the feeling that all of it was delightful, but none of it was overwhelming, ballgrabbing or socksoffknocking. Singer Simon Balthazar has this gorgeous understated Brit-drawl going on, but it never veers out of control for even one moment. Their songs are similar, they’re perfectly constructed pop songs gently building up to a climax that never explodes.

I’m hoping that for their next album they’ll take note from their examples Beirut and in particular Arcade Fire and rev it up a bit every now and again, explore the darker side of Fanfarlo. Nobody is charming all the time, right?

[scroll to the end for some beautiful pictures of The Decemberists’ performance]

If you dislike raving reviews you might want to avert your eyes dear reader, for I feel a few coming on. The second night of Crossing Border was sublime in my modest opinion. Where to start…

I started the evening with Londonders Mumford and Sons, up in the unbearably hot room suggestively named Paradise. Although I like their debut album Sigh No More, I didn’t know what to expect live. As it turns out these four fetching young folkers managed to get everyone dancing in no time, what an infectious bunch! Yes they use the simple but effective method of building up layers of instruments and gradually picking up speed in most songs and yes the lyrics can be a bit twee, but who cares when it sounds like this? Plus, they can say appelbollen.

There was no avoiding my dear beloved Patrick Watson, I gave in to my slight obsession yet again. What a venue for Watson and his Wooden Arms, perfect for their favourite party trick: the acoustic song (this time Man Like Me) on the edge of the stage. It wasn’t their best show I’ve seen, a bit too short too, but they still make my Crossing Border top three.

I love the way the band plays the songs differently each time I’ve seen them. The only one that has lost its sparkle in a new rendition is The Storm, too rushed an none of the wonderful backing woooo’s. Luscious Life and Beijing still the golden nuggets for me.

No time to waste, off to the venue next door to get in for The Decemberists nice and early. The great thing about Crossing Border is that there is always something going on, and so we managed to catch three poets/ authors in between bands (Flemmish rock ‘n roll poets Andy Fierens and Stijn Vranken and Dutch columnist and language buff Paulien Cornelisse). I would recommend reading all three of them; funny and ripe with sharp observations.

The atmosphere in front of the stage before The Decemberists was one of giddy anticipation. Right in front of me stood a gorgeous little 4 year old girl dressed up like a fairy and her mom, who turned out to be Becky Stark‘s sister. They had flown out especially to see the band perform The Hazards of Love in its entirity for the very last time.

The band came on without being announced, I guess to keep the atmosphere of a performance piece rather than a Decemberists gig, and did as promised: they played the Hazards of Love from start to finish. There was the blossoming love between faun and white fairy (Colin Meloy and Becky Stark), there was the jealous mother come forest queen (the absolutely amazing Shara Worden) and the tragic trade off so the lovers can once more be together. Drama! Passion! Tragedy! Guitars! Drums! (one drum even broke from sheer force of pounding) What’s not to like?

The band were obviously really enjoying this last performance together, smiles all round. The girls were an absolutely amazing addition and were clearly sad to be ending their collaboration with the band, Colin Meloy gave them a warm thank you at the end. We were lucky enough to get a six song encore after The Hazards of Love, what a great perfomance. 

After all that excitement there was one more must see on the list: Monsters of Folk. When we walked in the room there was a really cool juxtaposition of the poshness of the room with the excitedly hollering and dancing crowd to be seen. We caught the last 40 minutes of their near 2,5 hour set (!), and I’m glad we did.

As a band I think their material is a bit all over the place and not all of it is particularly good, but what a joy to see Conor Oberst and Jim James on stage together! They were clearly having a great time playing, Conor in particular bouncing all over stage and jumping up onto the drum kit, their energy spreading to the crowd. I was glad to hear a few Bright Eyes songs in the set and sad not to have seen the whole show. 

In fact, how dare those Bordercrossing organisers, having Decemberists and Monsters of Folk play the samen timeslot! Though to be honest, that would be my only complaint about this great little festival. Next year a little less folk perhaps?

Thanks to Guus Krol here are some beautiful pictures of The Decemberists with Becky Stark and Shara Worden:

 

Last night saw the start of 2009’s Crossing Border festival in the Royal Theatre of The Hague, so much to see so much to choose!

We started off where most people seemed to: Yo La Tengo in the majestic main room of the theatre. Yo La Tengo is one of those bands I always read a lot of good things about,  but I never got into them. As we stood there in this suffocatingly quiet almost funerial atmosphere with people ssshhhh-ing you for even saying something to your friend, and the band playing these extremely low fi songs with shrill vocals, it just wasn’t clicking. Unconvinced and uncomfortable, we ran after three songs.

We were planning to go and see Montreal based indie hiphop twosome Beast, but due to a change in schedual we walked in on the raucous finale of Dead Confederate, headbanging allowed. Then we wandered into another band we’d never heard of: Madensuyu. A Belgian outfit who’s music friend MvS accurately described as “two frustrated teenage boys who didn’t get what they want and are taking it out on their instruments”. They delivered an industrial wall of drums & guitar noise peppered with the occasional grunt & shouted lyrics, as if on speed. A lot more entertaining than I would have thought from that description.

Next up the band I was most looking forward to: The Low Anthem. Again in the posh grand room of the theater, but this time the atmosphere was much more relaxed. We got nice and close, the perfect spot to be bowled over by the folk styled Low Anthem magic. The first half of their set was very easy going, beautifully arranged songs packed with meloncholy and that dusty old folk feel. Ben Knox Miller has the perfect voice to pull this off, and it was nice to hear Jocie Adams switch from backing vocals to howling gal during Cigarettes and whiskey and wild wild women. Great show!

We finished off the evening with the psychedelic harmonies of the Grizzly Bear boys, who were much more at ease than at Melkweg just ten days earlier. I prefered this show, so I was happy I went for a third visit this year. They closed their set with a goosebump inducing acoustic performance of All We Ask because “this is such a beautiful place”, thanks Royal Theatre after all!

Bell X1
Photo thanks to Diana Broeders

As we walked into Het Paard last night it was practically empty. Are these the only 12 people that got tickets for the concert we wondered? By the time support act The Postmarks started playing we might have made it to 20. They played a suitably sullen few songs until for some reason the lead singer cheered up and the band made us all come closer to fill in the big awkward gap. Much better.

By the time Bell X1 took the stage the room had just about enough people in it to not be embarassing. Thankfully, what we lacked in numbers we made up for in enthusiasm. There was a warm reception for all the songs, particularly from a small but noticeable Irish delegation of ladies. The band played a diverse setlist, making sure to play their better known material such as Flame, Bad Skin Day, Rocky Took a Lover and of course their modest Talking Heads soundalike hit The Great Defector. Even the song that first brought the band to my attention: Eve the Apple of my Eye.

I went to this show because friend and Bell X1 advocate CoR invited me. I know and like a few of their songs, but was never properly grabbed by the Bell X-bug. I would have to say that this remains the same after the concert. In a way that’s odd, because I can’t fault the band. Paul Noonan has a good voice and puts his soul into his performance, the band is solid and their songs are decent. Maybe it’s a classic case of “It’s not you, it’s me” for me and these Dublin boys.

I really enjoyed the show all the same. The intimate setting was a nice change from some of the overcrowded sardine tin concerts I’ve recently been to. Highligts for me were the frenzied performance of Tongue, and Noonan’s very impressive attempts to speak Dutch! Hoofd, schouders, knie en teen!

grizzlybear2

Thoughts whilst on my own waiting for a gig to start:

  • Must find a good spot. Now that socialising is not a factor I should at least see the band properly.
  • Must check my email. And Twitter. And Facebook.
  • Ok, try not to look self conscious.
  • God these two girls in front of me never shut up!
  • Why does the woman in the pink mumu keep looking at me?
  • People must think I’m some sort of social outcast! No no, there are many completely normal reasons I could be here alone. Maybe the person I was going with suddenly died. Hmm that’s a bit dramatic. Swine flu perhaps.
  • Wow that Dave Grohl of a guy over there is cute!
  • Have I checked my mail yet?
  • Right, I am now embracing my new found coolness as lone gig attendee. I am an independent cultured young woman about town.
  • Is mumu lady trying to cruise me!?
  • Maybe I should write all of this down.
  • Oo now I might look like some hip music journalist type who goes to gigs alone all the time, professionally. Excellent!
  • I should check my mail.

And what was the actual gig you might wonder? It was Grizzly Bear at the Melkweg and it was wonderful! Opener Southern Point was stunning and towards the end Foreground was breathtaking, not a noise in the room.

But I have realised that when it comes to this Brooklyn foursome there is only so much of their dream sequence soundscapesque harmonious ooh- ing and ahh-ing I can take before I crave one of Daniel Rossen’s lead vocal songs that at least resembles the concept of a song and has vaguely intelligible lyrics.

Other than that: fantastic!

Florence by Fotografieke
Photo by Fotografieke

The Machine started playing, the Melkweg crowd waited in anticipation, and suddenly on walked two metres worth of legs in killer heels, attached to the rest of Florence. As she stood behind her flower covered mic stand, spotlight bouncing off her intense red hair, she had already won half the match.

Since seeing Florence + The Machine at Lowlands in August they seem to have gone for a more down tempo approach in quite a few songs in the set. Particularly early on, songs like My Boy Builds Coffins and Kiss With A Fist were performed slower and more drawn out. Halfway through, the energy picked up when Florence instructed the audience to start jumping during Dog Days Are Over.

Florence2 by Fotografieke
Photo by Fotografieke

I really enjoyed the next few songs, highlights would have to be HowlCosmic Love and Fever Ray’s If I Had A Heart introduction to a beautiful performance of Blinding. There was a two song encore with You Got The Love and, of course, Rabbit Heart.  It was quite a short set, I was left wanting more. Shame, because I’m sure some of her demo material, Hardest Of Hearts for instance, would stand up fine.

All in all a wonderful evening with the beautiful spellbinding songstress Florence and her Machine. Although, dare I say I did miss a bit of oomph in songs like Drumming Song and Hurricane Drunk, and a bit of sparkle compared to the magic of Lowlands?

SETLIST

01 Bird song
02 My boy builds coffins
03 Kiss with a fist
04 Are you hurting the one you love
05 I’m not calling you a liar
06 Hurricane drunk
07 Two lungs
08 Dog days are over
09 Howl
10 Druming Song
11 Cosmic Love
12 Blinding (intro: Fever Ray’s If I had a heart)
— encore —
13 You got the love
14 Rabbit heart (raise it up)

Sunday, the last day of the festival, absolutely crammed with must sees. Still sunshine galore and sweltering heat, but there’s no time to work on my tan, the race begins!

Fanfarlo

First stop of the day is the charming Fanfarlo: “We’re missing half our band because they missed the plane, we fucked up!” said frontman Simon Balthazar with an apologetic grin, “will you help us with clapping and singing?”. Not a problem!
With no drums or strings they had to adjust their set a bit, but it made the gig ll the more spontaneous and the crowd loved it. In fact, they wouldn’t stop cheering until they came back for an encore, at the Charlie stage! Unusual and justified. I enjoyed their Bonnie Prince Billy cover of A Minor Place too.

Vampire_Weekend
photo: 3voor12

After that there was some more Brooklyn based indie on the menu: Vampire Weekend. I’d been looking forward to their show as I missed them last year, but have to say I was a bit underwhelmed. They play their songs adequately, all the hits are in there and some new stuff too (bit more electropoppy it seemed), but therejust wasn’t any magic. Was it the heat? Or their lack of stage presence? They could do with a bit more livening up as far as I’m concerned.

Snoop_Dogg
photo: 3voor12

Next stop: the dogg pound in the Alpha tent. As there wasn’t really anything else decent on at that time, absolutely everyone was headed to see Snoop Dogg. I decided to admire from a far, but was still entertained by the greatest hits machine on stage. It would be nice to see Snoop’s darker side a bit more, but in this case it was a well oiled crowd pleasing festival set.

Little_Boots
photo: 3voor12

After heated internal debate I decided to go and see Little Boots in stead of Patrick Watson, who were programmed in the same slot. Reason being I’d seen Patrick  four times before, but never miss Boots.
As I stood listening to her in the half empty India tent though, I got cold feet. Sure Little Boots gave a solid performance, but there wasn’t much excitement there. You can see the potential in songs like New In Town and Remedy, the rest is a bit bland and needs polishing. So after about 4 songs I couldn’t resist any longer, Patrick wait for me!

Patrick_Watson
photo: 3voor12

I rushed into the front of the Grolsch tent which luckily had enough room for me to wriggle in and felt immediately at home. Truth is I could go and see Patrick Watson & is guys ten times a year and it still wouldn’t bore me. They had no problem mesmerising that big old circus tent right to the back with the clever build up of their songs.
For the encore Patrick asked the crowd if they wanted to hear The Great Escape or To Build A Home. What!? “TO BUILD A HOME!!” I yelled at the top of my lungs, but alas.. He let some girl at the front decide and the dimwitted child went for the familiar Great Escape instead. Grrr. Maybe I’ll get my chance at Crossing Border in November.

Florence and the Machine2

And now, for the most anticipated act on my Lowlands logistical schedule, Florence and The Machine. I went to the Charlie stage over half an hour beforehand thinking I could get right in front, think again! Obviously the Florence buzz has spread, there were already quite a lot of people sitting on the floorboards to mark their territory.
I find it hard to describe what happened the 45 minutes after she took to the stage. This is going to sound horribly cheesy, but it was as if everybody there was temporarily transported to planet Florence, where there is love, drama, fairytales, hate, moon and stars and twilight. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone, particularly at the age of 22 (!!!), be so vulnerable, real and compelling at the same time.

Florence and the Machine4

She stood there, red locks blowing in the wind, black dress floating up just enough to show gold sequined shorts, belting out one after another amazing song. The hopeful Dog Days Are Over, the tongue in cheek Kiss With A Fist, the hypnotising Cosmic Love, a more sultry version of My Boy Builds Coffins, each one a gem.
At the end of Drumming Song she spun around so vigorously she fell to the ground laughing. In between the songs she’s this slightly mad & chatty young girl, all giggles and funny stories. But then within seconds she has the ability to move you in a song. During her powerful version of You Got The Love a girl in front of me teared up and turned to her boyfriend for a big hug, I almost had a lump in my throat myself.
Florence seduced, mesmerised, shook, twirled, sparkled and sang her way right into my Lowlands 2009 no. 1 spot. My two “Florence virgin” friends who tagged along were also completely bowled over and gobsmacked. Can’t wait to see her full concert later this year!

The Maccabees

Still on a high, we stuck around Charlie stage to see The Maccabees. The first few rows are filled with jumping indie teenagers, by the look of them all Brits. They sure know how to get a party going and Maccabees guitarist Hugo White plays on this to great effect. They perform a crackling set that thrives on their specialty of suppressed tension building up and the cool vocals of Orlando Weeks.
Although the Brit brigade love the more jumpy early work, the songs off their last album get a great crowd reception too. It seems their turning the corner towards bigger and better, I’m interested to see where it takes them.

P1000318

As Lowlands draws to a close and pretty much everyone is on their way to see the Arctic Monkeys, I decide to take the road less travelled with a bit of Grace Jones (hula hooping her way through Slave To The Rhythm) and some festive Mongolian throat singing courtesy of Hanggai. Only at Lowlands.

After running around the terrain like a blue arsed fly on Friday I was very happy to see the Saturday lineup afforded me a bit more down time. I soaked up some sun for a while, listening to a floating opera singer dressed in umbrellas, how refreshing!

P1000287

DeVotchKa gave the musical kick start to my day, and what a great way to get in the festival swing of things again. Sunshine, the newly opened up Lima stage and a sousaphone, what more could you want? Frontman Nick Urata’s vocals were hard to hear, but maybe that was because I was right in front of the stage. As expected, they closed with the beautiful How It Ends, much to the crowd’s delight.

Devotchka2

When I looked back at the end of DeVotchKa’s show there was a strange sight to be seen, the entire field surrounding the Grolsch stage had become one congealed mass of immobile people all facing one way. Sure enough it was time for Lowlands’ worst kept secret suprise act, Them Crooked Vultures.
How strange to have such a massive turnout for a band nobody even knows yet. The only glimpses I got of the band were over a hairy nude back on the outside screen, but the sound had no problem reaching far and wide. QOTSA II anybody? It had that pleasing sharp and sturdy Homme sound and the animalistic Grohl drums, but I missed some catchy hooks to lure you into the songs. Memorable Homme quote: “It’s hotter than a klootzak in here!”.

Them_Crooked_Vultures
photo: 3voor12

I decided to follow a few friends to Maximo Park afterwards, who were optimistically booked in the Alpha tent to say the least: it was barely half full. I finally figured out why the Maximo Park bug never got a hold of me, the songs just aren’t that great. Which is kind of sad, as it’s a decent band and singer Paul Smith is a natural born entertainer. The tragedy of being a great frontman in a mediocre band.

Maximo_Park
photo: 3voor12

If there were any doubts about Dutch sensation Kyteman and his Hiphop Orchestra justifying an Alpha slot, they were smashed to smithereens by thousands and thousands of festival goers pooring in and spreading out all around the tent. Kyteman has arrived, and so has his massive on stage posse, including a huge choir for the occasion.
I watched the whole spectacle from the top of the hill, and even from there it was impressive. Even though musically it’s a bit all over the place, the sheer enthusiasm and collective talent of the people involved pulls you right through. They pulled it off with gusto, well done.

kyteman
photo: 3voor12

As Kyteman wraps up the sun sets on Lowlands and it’s time to shake some limbs, who better to shake them up for you than Basement Jaxx? Is their music a tad hysterical? Yes. Should producers Buxton and Ratcliffe refrain from singing temselves? Probably. Did anybody care on Saturday night? God no. They blew the roof off the Grolsch with their sample insanity and I jumped right the way through their set. They left the crowd begging for more, that’s how it’s done.

Here we go with part one of the brokenbranches Lowlands walk through: Friday 21st of August. Luckily enough the thunder and hail storm the weather reports had been warning us about for days only amounted to half an hour’s worth of heavy rain and a few flashes, we were happily unimpressed and managed to get our little tent camp up no problem.

Amanda Blank

Feeling a bit groggy from Thursday night’s celebratory drinks we stumbled onto the sundrenched terrain on Friday around two, and were immediately welcomed by the sassy rhymes of Amanda Blank (my get um girls!), dressed in what is probably best described as a black swim suit and sneakers. Even though the festival was just getting started she gave a really lively performace and got the curious onlookers dancing. Good start of the day!

la_roux
photo: 3voor12

Next we headed to the girl with the funkiest hairdo of the festival: La Roux. Her uncompromising brand of squealing is a bit of an acquired taste, but the songs are very well put together with rediculously catchy eithies synth and singalong lyrics. Enjoyable, but I wouldn’t have been able for more than a relatively short festival set. She wrapped it up with crowd pleaser Bulletproof.

bon_iver
photo: 3voor12

I was a bit afraid what to expect of Bon Iver playing in the big Grolsch tent as this is the kind of band you should really see as close up as possible. To compensate I snuck in the front and was not disappointed. The band managed to play a warm and intimate gig despite the setting, and with additional drums on stage they packed some more power into the songs which was definitely a good idea.
They played some interesting new material too (Beach Babies and Blood Bank among others), and got the crowd to sing “What might have been lost” during The Wolves, always a smart move during a festival.

Beirut
photo: 3voor12

Holding onto our laid back mood we stayed in the Grolsch to watch wonderboy Zach Condon and band, otherwise known as Beirut. I was suprprised by how receptive the crowd was to their Yann Tiersen meets mariachi style music, and equally by how shy Condon is!
They didn’t blow me away (even with all their horns and trumpets), but they played well and had the crowd lovingly swaying side to side. Perfect soundtrack for a sunny mellow afternoon.

Lily_Allen

Right then, time to wake up and follow the masses to the stage among stages: Alpha. As we walk in Lily Allen is already in full swing, trotting around the stage in her high heels, flirting with the cameras filming her. She knows exactly what she’s doing and she does it well. Whether it’s the tongue in cheekiness of It’s Not Fair, the order to all flip the finger during Fuck You or a clubby cover of Brit’s Womanizer, we’re lapping it up. And she hit every note, credit where credit’s due.

From a cheeky girl to a cheeky chappy, next stop: Dizzee Rascal. He had the Bravo tent filled up without it being jam packed, everyone there seemed very up for some dizziness despite the temperature inside approaching boiling point. He mixed the old with the new, threw in some samples and a lot of “make some fuckin noise!”.
Even though the sound of tracks like Bonkers, Dirty Cash and Dance Wiv Me is commercial miles removed from his early stuff, the two work well together and the audience doesn’t seem to mind one bit.

Grizzly Bear6

At the end of the day I left all my friends (and most of Lowlands) who headed to the Alpha to see The Prodigy and I joined the minority splinter group in the India tent to see my most anticipated act of the day: Grizzly Bear. I was stood right at the front and got a good look at the harmonious Brooklyn foursome.
Southern Point made for an amazing set opener building up and quieting down again ending in a big climax. Their set was a mixture of soundscapes, beautifully layered vocals and even noiserock, with the Veckamtimest material as standout tracks. However, it soon became clear that the audience didn’t have the necessary patience for a Grzizzly Bear gig at this time of the evening (or maybe it was the niggling knowledge Prodigy was a 5 minute walk away?) and the tent gradually lost more and more people.
It didn’t bother me though, Grizzly Bear was my Friday highlight and I can’t wait to see them again in November!

Alpha LL09

Almost forgot my traditional little post-Lowlands roundup! Well, traditional might be pushing it a bit, but I did one in 2007 and 2008. So here is a review of Lowlands 2009 in blurbs:

Best overall Lowlands performance (seen by me)
Florence + The Machine!!! Mesmerising. Overwhelming. Beautiful. Incredible.

Favourite glad-I-happened-to-pass-by-act
Hanggai. Who’d have thought inner Mongolian roots music would be so catchy! It was like Chinese polka with throat singing, quite the finale for the Lima tent.

Sad I missed…
Passion Pit, The Tenper Trap, Jack Penate, Metric, Peaches and most of all Fever Ray. So much to see and so little time!

Disappointing
Maximo Park. I now see why I never really got into this band, the songs just aren’t that great. Shame, cause frontman Paul Smith is obviously a born entertainer.

Most euphoric Lowlands 2009 moment
Saturday Night in the Bravo: Basement Jaxx blow the roof off with a frenetic performance of Where’s Your Head At.

Best crowd response
The Maccabees created an actual pit in front of the modest Charlie Stage, first I’ve seen there. And Fanfarlo charmed the socks of the audience who wouldn’t stop cheering until there was an encore, the only encore for a non-headlining act I witnessed.

Most fun had whilst dancing with friends
Lily Allen’s It’s Not Fair & Dizzee Rascal’s Bonkers.

Worst gig ending
Basement Jaxx. Everyone seemed to be stupefied it was already over. They could have kept it going for at least another hour I’d say.

Funniest on stage moment
Grace Jones’ amazing 61 year old hips keeping a hula hoop going for the entire duration of Slave To The Rhythm. Or Patrick Watson’s guitarist Simon Angell using an inflatable guitar thrown up from the audience. Or Florence spinning around so vigorously during Cosmic Love she fell down.

Most exciting outfit
There were quite a few! In passing I saw Patrick Wolf’s extravagant gold ensemble with blond whig to boot, there was Amanda Blank’s uncompromising bathing suit-esque getup and of course, Grace Jones takes it that bit further working it in a G-string and corset.

Best and worst covers
Best: Florence did a nicely customised intro using Fever Ray’s If I Had A Heart. I also really enjoyed Fanfarlo’s cover of A Minor Place by Bonnie Prince Billie’s. Worst: as much as I loved the Bon Iver set, I wasn’t that much into the drawn out cover of Talk Talk’s I Believe In You.
There was some nice sampling going on as well, Dizzee used MIA’s Paper Planes to great effect and Basement Jaxx even managed to work Somewhere Over The Rainbow into their set.

Funniest camping moment
That would have to be friend MBR stumbling into a stranger’s tent (slightly intoxicated) about ten metres from his own, crawling into their sleeping bag and konking out blissfully unaware, only to be woken up a few hours later by the rightful owners returning home! “What are you doing? This isn’t your tent is it?”

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