Britain’s unpredictable weather is usually a fleeting consideration for those booking tickets to one of our many legendary music festivals. Most people expect at least a bit of rain at some point during the proceedings, even making cursory preparations for the odd downpour by taking a festival poncho and digging out their obligatory festival wellies, and maybe taking a blow up dinghy just in case.
But last summer was different. No one could really have predicted how wet the entire festival season was going to be. It is one that will go down in Britain’s music festival history as decidedly soggy.
At the Isle of Wight Festival many were stranded in gridlocked traffic, unable to reach the festival site. Those who did manage to get onto the site were met with a deep quagmire and the prospect of spending the entire weekend sleeping and dancing within a deep sea of mud. It was much the same picture at T In The Park and Download, and Creamfields even closed a day early, cancelling performances by the likes of Tiesto, Deadmau5, Richie Hawtin and Paul van Dyk.
With last summer’s water logged escapades still fresh in my head, I decided to book tickets further afield in a bid to go to at least one rain-free music festival this year. So off I went to Mainsquare Festival in Arras, France, the little sister of Belgium’s Rock Werchter Festival.
The site, as the name suggests, is set around Arras’s main square, with the Main Stage in the square itself, and the Greenroom (or second stage) in the adjacent park. Both stages were open and very close together, leading to the first two issues: lack of any suitable shade, and terrible sound clashes. The only real shade was cast by a line of trees and a church in between the two stages, but standing there meant you could hear both stages at the same time (something which had a devastating effect on some of the bands). So to have any chance of only hearing the stage you were watching you had to stand in the blistering sun on the far side of each of the stages.
I know, I know, I wanted sun, so it was my own fault….
For me, Day 1 of the festival had the most promising line up with many bands who are considered “major” in the UK (Green Day, The Prodigy and Biffy Clyro among them). Each act’s slot was around an hour, with a 20 minute to half an hour overlap where both stages would be live. The day threw up some revelations, with some of the bands completely disappointing me, and others totally surprising me.
Early performances came from Candide, Twin Forks, Balthazar and Rival Sons, the latter of which did the best job in shaking awake the subdued audience. By the time Haim stepped onto the Greenroom stage much of the audience had collapsed onto the grass. It was clear that Haim are not well known to the French but they still received a good response, particularly when they had an impromptu jamming session to a Led Zeppelin number, with ‘Falling’, ‘Don’t Wait’ and ‘Forever’ receiving the best response, as expected.
Over on the Main Stage Biffy Clyro, again apparently not well known in France, put everything they had into their set, pulling off a fantastic performance despite the fact that much of the audience stood motionless, moving only to enthusiastically clap between tracks. As they powered through ‘Sounds Like Balloons’, ‘That Golden Rule’, ‘Bubbles’ and ‘The Joke’s On Us’ it was abundantly clear which sections of the audience were British, because they were all busy partying and moshing for all they were worth. A comedy moment and the first hint of the sound issues came as Modestep, who had struck up on the Greenroom stage, drowned out the end of one of Biffy’s quieter tracks. Before launching into the next track Biffy’s lead singer, Simon Neil, declared, “We’re gonna play this next one really loud to drown out that feckin’ shite!” And so the first sound battle between Biffy and Modestep commenced, confusing the ears of those standing directly between the two stages.
Crossing over to Modestep, the dubstep fans in the audience were not disappointed, and the band was well received as they spat out track after track of bone shaking dance fodder. It was clear throughout the weekend that the sound on the Greenroom stage was much better than that on the Main Stage, although some of the Main Stage’s issues were caused by the sound bouncing around the buildings in the square. Obviously the sound of the Greenroom stage really suited Modestep and every opportunity was taken to drill sub bass through the bodies of the dancing audience.
Back on the Main Stage, the start of Thirty Seconds To Mars’ set was kicked off by four people in suits and coloured balaclavas beating large drums. The band started off well with ‘Hunter’ and ‘Search and Destroy’ among others, and there was a great audience response. A few songs in lead singer, Jared Leto, asked, “Where are my dreamers?” He then proceeded to ask the audience (in both French and English) to chant the name of the band’s new album, ‘Love Lust Faith + Dreams’ before completely overdosing on saccharine, wrapping himself in a flag, declaring his undying love to the audience and France, and sweeping from a Rock God to a sycophant in a matter of moments. There seemed to be a mixed response from the audience, with some lapping up everything the frontman was saying, and others wandering away shaking their heads.
Bloc Party were next up on the Greenroom stage, starting with a rowdy version of ‘Banquet’. Drummer Matt Tong was notably absent from the line up but replacement Sarah Jones (New Young Pony Club/Hot Chip) did an absolutely blinding job of filling in in Tong’s absence. Bloc Party are due to go on another hiatus, so rumours that Tong has already left the band are rife. Nevertheless the band crashed through some of their best known hits, including ‘Flux’ and ‘One More Chance’, breaking them up with more subdued tracks such as ‘Truth’ and ‘Waiting for the 7.18’, before bowing out with a blistering rendition of ‘Helicopter’. I felt a bit sad that this might be the last time I would see Bloc Party if they do not return from their hiatus.
Over on the Main Stage Green Day received the best response of the day of any band, violently wading through their back catalogue to the obvious glee of the packed arena. They threw in an intro to AC/DC’s ‘Highway To Hell’ and a mad sax rendition of ‘The Theme From The Benny Hill Show’ amongst hits such as ‘Basket Case’ and ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’. It was a truly mental, but utterly brilliant set, which was topped off by a stunt they have employed before where they pull an audience member up onto the stage and have him sing and play the guitar before giving him the guitar.
Enter Shikari’s assignment was a mammoth one. They were tasked with following up Green Day’s performance over on the opposite stage and were also on immediately before dance titans The Prodigy. Despite the pressure, the band’s brand of dubstep fused rock measured up to the task fairly well. Now that darkness had set in the audience seemed more willing to mosh, although they were not quite fired up enough to do the usual epic crowd surfing fest that normally occurs during ‘Juggernauts’. Still, the band did a great performance in what must have been a daunting slot.
To the opening bars of ‘Voodoo People’, The Prodigy began their quest to bring the Main Stage to a close. The set started well, with the band throwing in ‘Poison’, ‘Breathe’, ‘Omen’ and classic ‘Firestarter’ amid MC Maxim’s usual chants about warriors (although he did come unstuck a bit when he tried to change his chant up to “Where are my French people?” Erm…what?). But it was at the start of ‘Spitfire’ that things started to sadly unravel. Netsky had started his closing set on the Greenroom stage, and he was absolutely drowning out The Prodigy.
The audience started to leave the Main Stage in droves because they simply could not hear properly, and Netsky’s more contemporary sound seemed to become irresistible draw. I guess Hospital Records (to whom both acts are signed) will not be troubled by that, but it must have been galling for The Prodigy to see their audience drifting away and being powerless to stop it. It was the first time I had ever left a set by The Prodigy disappointed.
Meanwhile, The Prodigy’s loss was Netsky’s gain, and he and his entourage received a fantastic reception to the great set he was playing, which was enhanced further by a live drummer. Most of the remaining audience was dancing, and he seemed to manage to lift the disappointment left by the previous set, closing the night on a high.
Day 2 started a bit later for me due to a bit of sunstroke, so regrettably I missed the likes of Local Natives, Kodaline, Of Monsters and Men, and 80s supergroup, Mike and the Mechanics. I entered the arena to the strains of French indie rocker, Asaf Avidan. He has a very unexpected but strangely hypnotising singing voice which carried me over to the Main Stage to where I had gingerly rocked up ready to see Swedish band, the Hives. From start to finish they whipped through their set like a runaway train, expertly turning the crowd into a partying frenzy and throwing out a string of recognisable hits including ‘Hate To Say I Told You So’ and ‘Die, All Right!’ Their frontman, “Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist” is was a rather endearing loon, strutting and hurling himself around the stage and into the crowd like a young Mick Jagger. The crowd lapped it up.
Back on the Greenroom stage Alt-J had begun their set to a sizeable, but slightly distracted, crowd. However, by the time they got to ‘Breezeblocks’ the crowd was listening intently, and they ended with a good reception despite the fact that much of the crowd had vacated over to the Main Stage for the start of Sting’s set.
Sting swept onto the Main Stage to a massive crowd, striking into ‘Englishman In New York’, and it seemed that everyone in the crowd was singing along with him. He interspersed his own hits with those of the Police, with the crowd eagerly singing along to the likes of ‘Roxanne’ and ‘Message In A Bottle’. However some of his set was rather subdued, ‘Wrapped Around Your Finger’ seemed to be too slow, and the heady atmosphere began to dip before it waned completely due to more sound issues. In places it was difficult to hear what was going on and then dEUS struck up on the Greenroom stage, completely drowning out what little sound could be heard. The final blow was dealt by Sting himself when he introduced his band, with the long self-indulgent instrument noodling and drum solo that followed causing the crowd to lose interest and wander away. Even ending the set on ‘Every Breath You Take’ failed to recapture the unified awe of the crowd from the start of his set, and so another great performer had fallen victim to the sound gremlins of Mainsquare Festival.
Meanwhile Belgian rockers, dEUS, were capitalising on Sting’s loss by drawing in his departing crowd. Their brand of rock lifted the sombre mood and they received a great response as they steered their way through the penultimate set of the Greenroom stage, warming up the festival goers in preparation of the final Main Stage act of the day, French turntablists, C2C. As expected, C2C’s set to their home crowd drew in the masses, recreating the party atmosphere as they danced their way through C2C’s fantastic set.
But the day’s prize for the most engaged crowd goes to the Greenroom’s final act of the night, French house producer, Madeon. He blended his own tracks with some ingeniously mixed up crowd pleasers including ‘Song 2’ by Blur, ‘Around The World’ and ‘Aerodynamic’ from his fellow French dance producers, Daft Punk, and tracks by The Prodigy and Pendulum, and the atmosphere was stratospheric. At one point I looked around me and could not see a single person in the entire arena who wasn’t dancing. At only 20 years of age I think the best of this brilliant dance producer is still to come. He has certainly started on the right foot.
The final day of the festival started over on the Greenroom stage with a short set from French rappers, Feini X Crew, followed by soul and funk singer, Charles Bradley, on the Main Stage. Bradley’s set was perfect for the start of a hot, lazy Sunday afternoon, with his soulful, dulcet tones washing over the drowsy audience and easing them into the last day’s proceedings. However this was not to last long. In a startling rush of sub bass, Austrian rapper, Left Boy, struck up on the Greenroom stage, drowning out the end of Bradley’s softer set. However Left Boy insistently awakened the audience with his mash-ups, including one harnessing the powerful draw of Gwen McCrae’s ‘All This Love That I’m Giving’, paving the way for a less restrained affair into Sunday evening, which started with Danish metal band, Volbeat.
From the very start Volbeat presided over a fantastically tight ship, mixing up their own tracks with snippets of tracks from Rammstein, Twisted Sister and Johnny Cash. Playing a tribute to Jeff Hanneman, the late guitarist of fellow metalists, Slayer, was also a nice touch that the audience seemed to appreciate. Overall their set was extremely tight and heralded a great response from the watching crowd.
Back on the Greenroom stage La Femme had begun their set. The band seemed to consist of a cast of thousands, scything their way through an electronic punk set, with singer and keyboard player, Clémence Quélennec, bouncing her way through every track like a lively puppy. Their sound was akin to Toyah, Devo and the 80s new wave era. They got a great response from the crowd, and whilst some of that would be due to them playing for a home crowd it certainly didn’t take away from the fact that they played a set of catchy tunes with some great synth hooks.
Crossing back to the Main Stage Belgian band, Puggy, began to play a set that was a kind of mix of Mika, Scouting For Girls and the Scissor Sisters. Having previously opened for bands such as Deep Purple and Smashing Pumpkins it was clear they were popular in France, and they commanded a very large crowd who all danced and sang along as the band sang in both French and English. Their vocal harmonies were very impressive and the response they got was fantastic. They were followed by French singer (model and actress), Lou Doillon, who impressed the crowd in front of the Greenroom stage with a selection of tracks including a cover of Ray Davies’ ‘I Go To Sleep’ (later covered by The Pretenders). However, being on immediately before the Stereophonics meant that the crowd dwindled towards the end of her set as they flocked to the Main Stage, but the remaining festival goers gave her an enthusiastic response.
From the start, the Stereophonics had drawn in a large, attentive crowd. They played many of their most popular tracks including ‘Local Boy In The Photograph’, ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ and ‘Dakota’ as well as their latest track, ‘We Share The Same Sun’, but while their set was expertly executed and perfectly constructed the band appeared to be going through the motions, with long gaps between songs and hardly any attempt made to interact with the crowd. Other non-French bands throughout the weekend had at least made some effort to communicate in some way in French (Thirty Seconds To Mars, The Hives and Biffy Clyro being the ones who made the most effort) but the Stereophonics made no attempts at all, and actually didn’t communicate much in English either. Consequently the set felt slightly awkward and lacklustre, but despite this, and the fact that the sound from Kendrick Lamar’s set over on the Greenroom stage drowned out a good portion of the final ten minutes of the Stereophonic’s set, they still received a warm response.
Meanwhile Kendrick Lamar was whipping his small, but extremely dedicated, crowd into a frenzy with his rap infused hip hop. But it was his rendition of his recent hit, ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’ that got the biggest response with the crowd consistently throwing their right hands towards him as the rapper prowled back and forth across the stage.
What followed on the Main Stage was, for me, the best performance of the day. Trip hop outfit, Archive, completely outshone everything else on Sunday. The vocals (particularly Holly Martin’s) were spine tingling, and their set was well balanced with slower and faster tracks and interchanging vocals. The performance was the most captivating of the day, mixing soul-drilling bass with ethereal swirly vocals and guitar and synth licks. The crowd seemed to be as spellbound as I was, standing in awe at what unfurled onstage.
Over on the Greenroom stage, Wax Tailor and The Dusty Rainbow Experience, another trip hop artist, started promisingly with a funky set. I had high hopes following the fantastic set from Archive, but sadly Wax Tailor’s set quickly deteriorated, going a bit “Jungle Book”. The crowd seemed a bit restless and distracted, with many ignoring the stage to chat amongst themselves, and finally leaving the arena to see the final act of the festival over on the Main Stage, Indochine.
Indochine are clearly well loved in France, and the crowd they drew was the largest I’d seen at the festival except for Green Day on the first night. Playing a kind of mix of new wave and rock, like a very junior version of Muse and Queen in places, they received an overwhelming response from the crowd, who were clearly enthralled by the show which included the standard show gimmicks such as a ticker tape shower. For the French crowd, having Indochine to close the festival was obviously a stroke of genius, and they went down very well leaving the departing festival goers on the required high note as they left the arena.
Overall Festival Verdict
Having only two stages was a bonus at Mainsquare Festival because it meant that you could catch at least some of every act that was playing. However its downfall was the close proximity between the two stages, and while this meant that running between stages took a matter of seconds, the dire consequence was that the bands often clashed, resulting in either one band being completely drowned out (usually the one on the Main Stage) or a complete wall of mashed up noise as the sound of the two stages fought against each other. It had a devastating effect on many bands’ sets, and coupled with the fact that the only shade from the blistering heat was the patch of trees between the two stages, it did not make for ideal viewing conditions.
On the plus side though, there was absolutely no liquid throwing (dubious or otherwise) by the crowd and the volume of litter discarded on the floor as opposed to in the bins was small. It made a very welcome change not to have to wade through a foot of noodles and pizza boxes to get anywhere, and I loved the fact that I was not spending a small fortune on anti-bacterial wipes in a futile attempt to remove dubious substances from my person. That said, it did make the atmosphere much more subdued than that of a British festival. The number of people wasted and the number of moshpits were very low. The most offensive thing at Mainsquare was the clashing sound, but what Mainsquare lacked in being hardcore they more than made up for in being impeccably civilised.