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If there are still any regular visitors of this neglected bit of interweb left (hi and thank you!), they will have noticed a severe lack of content over the last months. Rather than apologising I shall point the finger of blame shamelessly at the blog Lowlove.nl, where I have been contributing my two cents on everything and anything to do with the Lowlands festival. Which has been rather wonderful.

But seen as Lowlands took place last weekend (I have just barely been able to scrape the mud and dust off my aching body), it is high time to inject brokenbranches with some reviews! Here’s a day by day roundup.

FRIDAY

To kick off Lowlands 2011 I went to see the wonderfully sultry Anna Calvi, who delivered her seductive roars while cradling her guitar close to her chest. It was all a bit too spacious and spun out to really captivate me musically (more suited to a Tarantino soundtrack as a friend of mine noted), but miss Calvi is a sight to be seen all the same and a few songs really did hit the mark.

In the new festival lay out I walked the longest stretch of terrain all the way from India to Charlie stage to catch the indie pop creations of Wolf Gang. Although the set definitely leant heavily on the few singles, the supremely catchy Lions In Cages in particular, it was an enjoyable show overall with plenty of light-hearted pop goodness. The gold earring sporting guitarist seemed to be having the time of his life at least, singer McElligott was a bit harder to gage.

Next up were the prodigal sons of Dutch hiphop, De Jeugd Van Tegenwoordig, who were finally allowed to take seat in the throne of Lowlands: the Alpha stage. They pimped up their act with ballerinas and a horn section, but in all honesty those weren’t necessary to have the entire tent jumping up and down and singing along to every word for an entire hour. Each member was allowed their moment to shine in the second half of the set, but it never dragged on too long before Bas Bron threw on the next beat to keep the crowd entertained. It was a seemingly effortless homerun of a show. The next two days the line ‘Waar is het feestje? Hier is het feestje!’ (Where is the party? Here is the party!) was heard throughout the festival.

Not as cheeky but definitely as danceable were the synth dripping songs that Friendly Fires served up in the newly positioned Bravo tent. These boys definitely know how to pull the stops out in a live show and the new songs fitted right in. Although I was standing at the back all around me were happy faced girls shaking their hips, their male companions awkwardly attempting some form of appropriate movement. The Pala visuals on the screens were beautiful too, but I would say Friendly Fires are best enjoyed in a small sweaty venue.

Speaking of sweaty venues, my Lowlands theory is that you should see at least one act in the boiling X-Ray cauldron a day, as it is usually filled with pleasant surprises. I wanted to see Japanese act Trippple Nippples from an arthouse freakshow perspective, wondering if it really was as bizarre as I thought. The answer is yes, it was as bizarre and then some, with the singers prancing around in diapers, white duct tape boobcoverage and glowing wings, but combined with the thrashing electro screamfest they produced it actually worked really well.

I wandered over to Noah and the Whale for a little while but I couldn’t really get into the music. A guy behind me said “there’s a lot of suppressed tension but it’s not coming out” which seems a good analysis. The understated Lou Reed style singing of Charlie Fink became monotonous after a while and failed to hold my attention. Many young girls wearing jeans hotpants and Ray Bans were having the time of their lives though. I decided to try The Naked And Famous in stead, but the tent was so packed I couldn’t get in, same story for Beardyman. Seems you really have to get to the smaller tents like India and X-Ray well on time these days.

Luckily there was still loads of space in the Grolsch at the start of Fleet Foxes, but they managed to fill it up in no time with their warm folky glow of goodness. I was worried if their sometimes delicate sound would hold up in the big tent, but the band were on a roll and played a great festival set. Sometimes they would churn out a few songs back to back, one flowing into the other, really keeping the energy high. Pecknold was giving it his all, with his eyes closed and tilted head almost hanging from the microphone stand. This was definitely the highlight of festival Friday for me.

Time to close the festival day with all my friends gathered round, no better place to be than at the laid back Lima stage with Edward Sharpe and his Magnetic Zeros. It was chaotic on stage with 10 people joining in, making for a bit of a messy performance that dragged on somewhat here and there, not helped by Sharpe’s vocals being hardly audible for most of the gig. There were a few songs that stood out but it was plain to see that everyone was there for the flower power finale Home. Everyone joined in from opening line Alabama, Arkansas and made the most of it, but it could have been so much more.

SATURDAY

First band of the day for me was Young The Giant, with a performance like the one they gave a few months ago at the Walk The Line festival in The Hague: solid, energetic, polished and ready for the rock arenas of Europe. Nothing wrong with that, sometimes you don’t want wholesome leafy greens for dinner, you just fancy a juicy fast food burger and chips that will hit the spot. And what better festival anthem than My Body?

My expectations were high for Bombay Bicycle Club, but I left the India stage feeling distinctly underwhelmed. The performance lacked energy and drive, was a bit all over the place and the indie magic I was hoping for was nowhere to be found. I would definitely give them another chance in a club show though, there’s plenty of gems on those records.

After I was lucky enough to get a back stage tour of the festival (Guy Garvey waved at me! *swoon*), I felt a craving for some Syrian house beats and so I headed over to the X-Ray sauna for Omar Souleyman. Strange how an act with zero stage presence (a bored looking synth player and Souleyman himself, aloof with his mirrored sunglasses and the occasional hand gesture) and lyrics hardly anyone can make out can cause such a frenzy in its onlookers. There were quite a few people who donned tea towel head dresses for the occasion and there was a lot of yelping and shaking going on, the nervy thumping Arabian sounds worked like a dance virus and infected all present. Jalla jalla!

After the disappointment of BBC earlier in the day I was a bit hesitant what Cloud Control would deliver on the same spot, but the complete opposite happened. Here’s a band that I only know two songs of, but captivated me the entire set. None of this quietly cool indie jingle jangle, this band is came in for the win, guitars amped up and ready to go. The perfect soundtrack to the end of a sunny Saturday afternoon. Also quite funny to hear loads of people singing they want to buy a gold canary.

We stayed at the India stage lounging around in the grass outside during Cage The Elephant. Obviously not the best way to enjoy their music, which you should probably consume while moshing fiercely or crowdsurfing, but I enjoyed it all the same. You could feel the manic energy well outside the tent, with a roaring crowd to boot. I was attempting to save some energy for the next stop, must be getting old…

Making sure to get to the majestic Alpha stage in plenty of time to get in the front section, it was time to get ready for the last band of the day: Elbow. I had been hyping up this show to my friends for ages, promising a lovefest of epic proportions, a joining together of hands and voices of all present. Big promises to make, but somehow I was completely sure it would turn out this way, and I am glad to report that it did.

Guy Garvey has the magic ability to have a multitude of thousands eating out of his hand from the moment he sets foot on stage. Guys want to join him in the pub for a pint, girls want to crawl into his arms and be safe and loved by this smooth voiced teddy bear. I myself have only been converted to the church of Elbow recently and stood in awe at the ease and confidence with which the band slowly builds a set that ends in a euphoric climax of togetherness. I see how a non believer (as I was until last year) might vomit in their face a bit reading all this luvvy duvvy goo goo talk, but it is the best way I can describe it.

When Garvey asks if everyone is alright, when he gets the people inside and outside of the tent to great each other, when he says that we’re going to do festival things together and gets everyone to raise their hands and wiggle their fingers, he is walking the thin line of cheesiness. But he gets away with it easily because he, and the entire band, are so goddamn down to earth and likable. When the obvious closing song One Day Like This sets in and we all sing ‘One day like this a year would see me right‘, I look around to see little pools of water brimming in the eyes of most of the people standing there. Elbow understands the need for uplifting pop songs in times of chainsaw dubstep noise and I welcome it.

SUNDAY

Sunday was a horribly humid, sticky day and I think it did De Staat no favours. They were the second band on the bill in the massive Alpha tent, which had a fair amount of people in but very spaced out. There were loads of people hanging around on the grass outside like zombies, probably exhausted from 2 previous days partying and the heat. However, you wouldn’t be able to tell from the performance of the band who rocked it regardless, frontman Torre strutting his rock moves and belting out their hits. The set took a bit of a nosedive towards the end, but the short cover of Snoop’s Drop It Like It’s Hot going into the majestic Sweat Shop was a high light for me.

I decided to skip the frenetic stylings of Crystal Fighters to check out Other Lives at the Charlie stage and was not disappointed. Wonderfully mellow dreamy pop songs drifted across the stretch of water to the bridge where I sat listening, completely contented. This is a band I would love to see in a small venue, hopefully they will head this way again soon. Across the way The Roots started up, their soulful funky hiphop sound a welcome change from most of the Lowlands lineup. Sadly I had to leave early and missed my old-time favourite You Got Me, but they tore up the stage from the opening minutes so I’m guessing it was a stomper of a set.

Still in a hiphop mood I headed over to Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All a bit later, anxious to see if they would bring down the Bravo tent, get taken off stage for indecent behaviour or encouraging kids to crowdsurf or anything else remotely dangerous. None of that happened, it was a surprisingly polite affair with Tyler The Creator even thanking the Dutch audience for being so great and hugging every single security guy at the end of the show.  This is not to say the gig was boring, the energy on stage was incredible. Tyler himself hardly held back by the fact his leg was in a cast, jumping and cycling (!) all over the place ignoring his specially placed bar stool most of the time. Not everyone in the extensive OFWGKTA crew managed to wow the crowd and the gig was a bit messy at times, but nobody in the front seemed to care. One guy whose face was bleeding after a mosh pit encounter came right back after being patched up to mosh on some more, that’s dedication.

After the manic mayhem of the Odd Future gang I was in need of some soothing sounds, and who better to dish them up than the ethereal ladies of Warpaint? Stretched out in the grass, the waves of dark psychedelic harmonies and spaced out guitars made for a pleasant drug free trip in the late afternoon. So much so I almost drifted off to sleep, though festival fatigue was probably to blame for that.

Right, back on my feet for some dancing moves I was off to see Lykke Li, whose second album I have played many a time over the last few months. I was all set to go, but found the first twenty minutes very bland and stand offish. Lykke seemed a million miles away in her own artistic black bubble, mumbling through her songs. I was almost about to leave when all of a sudden there was a major turnaround in energy. Two big drums featured centre stage and woke everyone up with some thundering percussion and from then on Lykke got her groove and so did the audience. We were treated to crowd pleaser I Follow Rivers, a version of Youth Knows No Pain with a sample from Kanye Wests’s Power, a bit of The Knife’s Silent Shout, and of course Get Some to top it all of.

There was some more drama to be enjoyed over at the Charlie stage with Wild Beasts, where singer Hayden Thorpe expressed his gratitude to the people there for choosing them over the likes of Aphex Twin (“we’ll show those electro people how it’s done!”). Wild Beasts seem out of place at the Charlie stage with a few albums already under their belt, so it’s a nice privilege to see them up close and personal. Their music can come off a bit cool and posh sometimes, but their set remained interesting in large part thanks to the variation in vocals between Thorpe’s lofty voice and guitarist Tom Fleming’s unexpected husky warm sound. Definitely another band I would be interested to see more of.

The final bands of the final festival night jostled for position, but I wasn’t in any mood for the dated punk pop greatest hits of The Offspring or the dark and uncomfortable beats of legendary Aphex Twin. In stead we opted for an plain and simple party to end this wonderful weekend, and that’s exactly what CQMD (Ceux Qui Marchent Debout) were dishing out at the Lima stage. This happy bunch from Paris brought lots of horn, lots of funk and plenty oom-pah-pah that had everybody shaking their groove thang (or dancing like your embarrassing uncle). They even took the entire band off stage to play a few songs in the middle of the audience. Lima is the place to be at the end of the festival as far as I’m concerned!

ROUNDUP

This was the seventh Lowlands festival I attended and it won’t go down in the books as most memorable or most impressive edition by a long shot. Aside from Elbow and perhaps Fleet Foxes there were no extreme highlights, astounding surprises or overwhelming discoveries to be made. Overall it was a mellow, relaxed weekend for me. Not to say it was a bad edition at all, I wasn’t bored for a moment and there was plenty of great music to be enjoyed. Hopefully next year the organisation will have a few more gems touring Europe at the end of August to choose from, to add that extra bit of sheen to an already wonderful festival.

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There sure was a cold wind blowing though Dusseldorf last night, and with it came buckets of snow, and massive anticipation for the Arcade Fire concert in the Philipshalle. The initial disappointment their tour didn’t stop in Holland made way for a nice little city trip to the Christmas markets of Dusseldorf, where I stood drinking glühwein in the snow, playing Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) in my mind on repeat: “And if the snow buries my, my neighborhood..”

When the time came and the small community that is Arcade Fire took to the stage to loud cheers, they opened with the Suburbs tune that was made for the part: Ready To Start. The simple drum beat and driving guitar were the perfect match to the crowd’s excitement, the mood was set for the night. They held on to the electric vibe with a solid 4-piece opening combo, threading together Keep The Car Running, Neighborhood #2 (Laika) and No Cars Go. “Women and children, let’s go!!”.

Then some time to calm down a bit with the ever charming Regine taking central stage for Haiti and Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains). She seemed in very good spirits, doing her characteristic little rhythmic moves and even picking up some colourful ribbons for her dance routine. It’s during these songs, when I’m not bouncing around as much, that I notice how incredibly talented and multi-instrumental all the band members are.

Next up, the one song from The Suburbs I was most anxious to see: the ambitious Rococo. This song is the ideal setting for Win’s dark doomsday approach, “they build it up just to burn it back down”, perfectly accompanied by the eerie violin sounds and hushed “rococo-rococo-rococo” background vocals of the band members. What a pleasure to hear it played live! Win has really come into his own as a lead singer, carrying it off with great confidence. Here is a little youtube snippet.

Then a complete surprise, as mentioned in the opening sentence of this post: Cold Wind. This song won me over when I first heard it on the soundtrack of arguably the best tv series ever made, Six Feet Under, but I never heard it live before. Win mentioned they hadn’t played it for quite some time. Sadly I have to say it didn’t really live up to its haunting potential with a few hiccups during the song, but still a welcome surprise.

After a sizeable Suburbs middle section with Deep Blue, the uplifting romp along of The Suburbs with The Suburbs (continued) as outro and the frenetic rock out of Month Of May they carefully crafted another 4-part section to leave every single audience member begging for more.

Personal favourite and Funeral classic Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) kicked it off, moving on to We Used To Wait which had Win jumping up on the monitors belting out “Hear my voice screaming sing the chorus again!”. Next up was Neighborhood #3 (Power Out), where Win left out a complete section of the song to thank a guy who stood up way in the back seats. He must have been delighted with himself. Power Out finally merged directly into to crowd favourite Rebellion (Lies), “Everytime you close your eyes, lies lies!”, a great set closer.

I was really hoping that some of the gems of Neon Bible would feature in the encore, but only Intervention was played, followed by the ultimate Arcade Fire live anthem Wake Up. O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied? Where was Black Wave/ Bad Vibrations? Where was (Antichrist Television Blues)? Where was Black Mirror? Oh well, I guess it would take playing all three albums entirely for me to be fully satisfied.

I think it’s fair to say Arcade Fire  is a band that has grown and matured over the last few years. The show might be less explosive than it used to be with band members constantly running around the stage banging drums, but that has made space for beautifully crafted songs, a confident band with mesmerising stage presence and a catalogue of songs that would each do well on stage. Their shows are an absolute treat, and if you haven’t seen them live yet I would urge you to do so!

SETLIST

01 Ready to Start
02 Keep the Car Running
03 Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
04 No Cars Go
05 Haiti
06 Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
07 Rococo
08 Cold Wind
09 Deep Blue
10 The Suburbs
11 The Suburbs (continued)
12 Month of May
13 Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
14 We Used to Wait
15 Neighborhood #3 (Power out) [extended version merging into 16]
16 Rebellion (Lies)

ENCORE
17 Intervention
18 Wake Up

[scroll down for complete setlist]

Finally the wait was over, Flight of the Conchords made it to Amsterdam!! Positively giddy with excitement myself and my motherflippin FotC partner in crime entered Melkweg only to find a room ful of chairs!! Oh no! We had wanted to be within sweat-spray distance of New Zealand’s finest gangsta folk duo, but we made do with seats on row ten in stead.

Jemaine and Bret opened the show with The Most Beautiful Girl (In The Room) and the crowd gave a huge warm welcome. They make up a ludicrous story about the origins of the venue name ‘Melkweg’, claiming it pays tribute to the olden days when the people of Amsterdam used to don wigs made of old milk. “It was a bit smelly though. Yeah.. those were the days”. Milkwig laps it up.

The set continues with gems like Robots, Jenny and Think About It. After a while the boys admitted they hadn’t really played for a year and were a bit rusty, this then became the running gag of the evening. Before playing a new song about wooing ladies in the thirteenhundreds, they explicitly asked the crowd not to record and YouTube this delicate moment. They threatened to out Holland for being a filthy country due to the recent binman strike if we broke our promise, which went down with a big laugh.

Later on you could see they were struggling with the in between song banter, “this is the longest gig ever”, “we have now officially run out of things to say if you hadn’t noticed”, citing jetlag as the culprit. However, the moments when the boys address their mistakes or mux up the words and burst into laughs are actually the funniest. They play Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymnoceros at practically twice the normal speed, after Jemaine finally gets the hang of the guitar tabs, but it works out alright.

They play a few more songs than planned because “we’re staying until we get one right!” and end the main set with hilarious version of Mutha’uckas with Bret on a mini drumkit swallowing all the supposed swear words until there are hardly any lyrics left.

The encore, with Bret & Jemaine coming back on stage wearing flashing robo-boxes on their heads, is ironically plagued too when a piece of their equipment won’t work: “This is awkward. It was supposed to be our grand finale”. But it is soon fixed and Too Many Dicks (On The Dancefloor) is a worthy gig closer.

A wonderful evening with the New Zealand (“much funkier and more modern than your old Zeeland”) twosome. But where were the season 2 classics like Hurt Feelings and Sugalumps? Just as wel I’m going to see them again in London in two weeks!

SETLIST

01 The Most Beautiful Girl (In The Room)

02 Robots

03 Jenny

04 Think About It

05 [New song about wooing a lady]

06 Bus Driver’s Song

07 Foux du Fafa

08 Boom

09 I’m Not Crying

10 Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymnoceros

11 Bowie’s in space

12 I Told You I Was Freaky

13 Business Time

14 Ladies Of The World

15 Song For Epileptic Dogs

16 Mutha’uckas

[encore]

17 Too Many Dicks (On The Dance Floor)

Saturday night Hot Chip played in Paradiso headlining the fourth night of the Five Days Off festival. I’ll keep my review short, because in all honesty I was too busy jumping around the place to pay serious editorial attention to detail.

What I can say is that it was short and sweet: they came saw and conquered Amsterdam in under 90 minutes. They seemed to have some technical glitches at the beginning (can’t be easy fine-tuning 7 synthesizers) and as for stage presence they’re definitely not in the top 10 most charismatic acts out there. But when you manage to get people all the way to the back of the room shaking their behinds, I would say “who cares?”.

They played a good mix of old & new, thankfully leaving out most of the more mellow songs from their latest release One Life Stand. From that album I really enjoyed We Have Love and I Feel Better, but Ready For The Floor, Hold On and of course One Pure Thought from Made In The Dark also got a great reception. The ultimate Hot Chip classic Over And Over caused a minor earthquake, and even included a crowdsurfer.

‘Tis a strange phenomenon, this Hot Chip. A peculiar combination of understated vocals, at times rather soppy lyrics and then these thumping beats that are so incredibly well made and seductive. I suppose it’s exactly this paradox that makes them quite special. Amsterdam loved it and judging by the band’s twitter so did they: “The crowd is always so nice there!”

A few days after LLaunch and we’re back in gig mode, this time headed to good old Paradiso to see The Swell Season and Josh Ritter. Ritter took the stage with a big smile beaming on his face, mentioning several times how glad he was to be “back in this wonderful place”. His songs can be a bit samey, particularly in just the man-and-his-guitar setup, but he makes up for it with such charm. And of course that killer song Kathleen, can’t beat it. It’s easy to see why bands like the Frames and Damien Rice in the past have enjoyed touring with him so much.

Apparently this gang are having a ball on the road together because The Swell Season were also oozing vim and vigor, stating how much they were enjoying the evening time and again. Their set was a well balanced mix of old and new Swell Season songs with Glen and Marketa alternating lead vocals and piano/ guitar playing. Marketa’s voice seems to have become a bit more mature and melancholy, almost hypnotic on songs like If You Want Me.

We also got the odd Frames song thrown in such as the beautiful Lay Me Down, though sadly not the one I was telepathically beaming at the stage all night (Fitzcarraldo). Later in the gig Glen did an amazing solo performance of the Van Morrison song Astral Weeks followed by a seemingly spontaneous decision to play Gold with the band, which is something out of the ordinary. Really nice to see how the boys all gathered close together on stage for this one, to keep an eye on each other and get it just right.

They closed the main set with When Your Mind’s Made Up and had everyone out of their seats clapping and yelling for more, a rather overwhelming response from the entire room. The encore delivered oscar winning Falling Slowly and a nice version of Ritter’s Come And Find Me performed together with Glen & Marketa.

Throughout the evening Glen had been all banter and in form as a choir teacher of sorts, supposedly getting us to sing at every opportunity because he was so impressed by the singing talent of the Paradiso crowd on a Luka Bloom live album. In style we finished the evening all singing and laughing along to Daniel Johnston’s Devil Town: “And all my friends were vampires, I didn’t know they were vampires, turns out I was a vampire myself, in this devil town”. What a heartwarming gig in this dismal and dreary February month.

What a fantastic idea: a midwinter kick off mini festival to get the Lowlands juices flowing! That’s exactly what LLaunch was all about last night at Paard, a prelude to Lowlands 2010. Kudos to the organisation for creating that Lowlands feel, from the banner and greeting committee outside to the artwork and props inside. Oh and my ultimate geek moment: we got a llaunch bracelet! True to the usual Lowlands routine I’d lost half my friends after 15 minutes, who all spread out to check different things and texted me all night for directions. Some things never change.

The evening started off with the delightful Selah Sue, a young Belgian girl with candyfloss blond hair who manages to belt out some impressive heartfelt Jamaican jams on her acoustic guitar. Just a shame the newly arrived llaunchers were so excited they chatted straight through her set. If you’ve never heard of her be sure to, a sight (sound) to behold. Fyah Fyah!

Then we peeked in at Holland’s latest rising star in the singer songwriter department, the boy you could have sat next to in maths for years without noticing, Tim Knol. I couldn’t find anything to fault him or his solid band, and if Dutch grown rootsy Americana is your cup of tea you’ll be more than satisfied by what he delivers. I guess I was just getting too excited for Blood Red Shoes to really take it in myself.

Apparently Blood Red Shoes called the organisers beforehand to check if thy realised their music was rather loud and if that would be ok, what a charming notion. Although there were definitely some who might have been unpleasantly surprised by the sheer blast force of the band, namely the first 4 lines of small young girly girls already firmly positioned for Florence + The Machine, next on the line up, as Laura-Mary herself also comically remarked.

Their set was a mix of new material from the upcoming album Fire Like This and the tried and tested songs from their first album. Most of their new material seems to depend on the same successful formula of kinetic drums and guitar, alternating vocals and short punctuated verses well fit suited for anthem like yell-alongs. This is what attracted me to the band in the first place, but I’ll be interested to hear if there is some more variation on the new album. There was definitely one track taking a different, more subtle and mood building approach with Laura-Mary on vocals,  sadly I didn’t get the title.

After everyone wiped the blood red sweat from their brow and enjoyed a beer or two it was time for the band that completely bowled me over at Lowlands last year: Florence + The Machine. When Florence herself came on stage, sadly dressed a bit less vampy than usual, hordes of little florences in front of me squeezed each other’s hands and giggled with excitement, “there she is!!”. She had them at hello.

Having seen her two times before I would say it took her and the band a bit more time to get into the swing of things, but later she explained that it was only the first date of this tour. She played quite a similar set to Melkweg a few months ago, but you can tell they have really worked out the preferred way to play the songs. My Boy Builds Coffins is the best example and now easily outdoes the album version as far as I’m concerned. Towards the end the band seemed to be feeding off the energy and warm response from the room and the encore was the the icing on a great gig and a wonderful evening.

Our lowlands-posse spent the rest of the night dancing their butts off to the great tunes courtesy of the Lowlands dj’s, with every track they put on I wished it was August already! Just waiting for that paycheck to come in and that Lowlands 2010 ticket is mine.


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!

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