St. Malo, France
13 - 16 August
Noticed how UK festival production levels keep getting more extravagant? These days it can be hard to get stuck into a decent Joy Orbison set or a Pussy Riot Q&A without being distracted by a Wild West-themed saloon, a reptile petting zoo or a giant robotic arachnid armed with flame-throwers and a live jump up drum ‘n’ bass band.
France’s La Route Du Rock, on the other hand, is a festival that creates a sense of awe despite operating with almost austere logistics and zero frills due to the sheer beauty of the site – an 18th century fort situated in the stunning walled city of St. Malo.
The main festival site has just two stages, which face opposite each other. While one act is performing, the other is setting up. The crowd is often rowdy (the French love crowdsurfing) but respectful, and the set-up means that there’s almost as many people gathered for the relatively underground noise band Spectres as there are for Foals – Saturday night’s replacement headliners.
With Björk cancelling the festival just a week before her scheduled set, Foals seem to embrace the role of the festival’s heroes – a status that’s heightened by the fact that their roadie has stepped in to cover for their hospitalised bassist last minute. They rise to the occasion, but Foals’ stadium math-rock does little to soothe the ache left by Björk’s absence. Having said that, a lot of the French people we speak to seem be happier to have Foals headline than Björk – and it looks like that roadie is too.
But while Björk proved to be irreplaceable, the weekend reaches some stellar high points. Icelandic ambient techno duo Kiasmos hypnotise the crowd into a state of bliss during an early evening sun set, Dan Deacon unleashes his repressed aggression through sugary but harsh synth glitches and heavily distorted vocals, and Savages’ singer Jenny Beth causes pandemonium by addressing the crowd in French, tiptoeing across the crowd barrier and then throwing herself over it.
With the opportunity to eat oysters and sip champagne for a decent price and hang out the low-key La Plage Bon-Secours beach stage, day trips to St. Malo are a big part of La Route Du Rock’s appeal. But there’s admittedly little else to do at the main site other than watch one act, which for the less obsessive or open-minded music fan can present challenges. For example, it means that there’s almost no respite from Ride, who’ve reformed to bizarrely large fanfare, as they churn through a fairly bland set, and it means Daniel Avery – who was presumably booked off the back of the indie/dance crossover appeal of his records – alienates a portion of La Route Du Rock’s crowd by DJing a 90 minute set of heads-down techno.
So if your idea of a proper festival involves smearing your face in glitter and getting so wrecked that you find yourself talking to your own hand, then La Route Du Rock probably isn’t the one for you. But if next year’s line-up looks tempting – and history proves that the festival’s organisers have got a habit of nailing it – then there are fewer prettier places to watch your favourite bands than inside that stony old fortress.