REVIEW: La Route du Rock festival

A report from a renowned rock fest in Saint-Malo, France, feat. Thurston Moore, Savages, Ride, Ratatat and many more.

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The crowd at Flavien Berger’s afternoon set. Photos by Toby Andris


For 25 years now, Saint-Malo, a gorgeous medieval walled city on the northern coast of Brittany, has been playing host to the La Route du Rock music festival, attracting the hipper rock fan contingent from all over France (Paris mostly), and quite a slew of Brits as well, ferried straight across the Channel from Portsmouth, in all likelihood because the English are the only other crowd as used to the mudslinging wellie-and-slicker infested bad weather festivals as the Bretons. It is not as massive as some of the other European festivals, receiving on average 25,000 paid attendees over three days, but it has become famous for its quality and uncompromising programming, a haven for those in the know (and those who want to be). Having recently relocated to City of Light myself for the foreseeable future, I jumped on the opportunity to attend (Aug. 13-16) and hopped on the TGV (literally super fast train).




I was picked up at the train station by my local contact Claire, an old friend born and raised in the area, who had worked at the festival for 10 years, and now worked for Mute Records over in London, who was to be my guide and logistical expert for the weekend, along with Mel, a London PR agent whose flamboyant dress acted as a beacon more than once over the course of the weekend (her endless parade of horrid jackets will be sorely missed).

The main site of the festival is located within the walls of the Fort de Saint-Père, built in the 18th century to ward off attacks by the English, with a constituency of local audiophile goats proudly lining the ramparts overlooking the grounds. Since the surrounding townships aren’t equipped to handle an influx of this many people, most have pitched their temporary abodes in tent city, just outside the gate, and technically still on fort territory. Standard festival food fare is on offer (burgers and fries), but so are regional staples such as galette-saucisse, a delicious Breton buckwheat crepe wrapped around a grilled pork sausage (not a hot dog – this is France after all), and baguette sandwiches filled with roast shoulder of lamb. This is also the festival you want to hike up to if you’ve got a hankering for a champagne hangover, since you’d be hard-pressed to find another whipping them out at 6 euros a glass.


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Thurston Moore: The experimental guitar god played a formidable early set to a shivering crowd who were all too happy that the rain had abated, freeing them to bask in the half-improvised set (a mere five or six songs over the span of more than an hour) drawn exclusively from 2014’s The Best Day. By the time the photographers had exited the pit to ready themselves for the next act, the band ripped into an epic noise jam in the middle of “Grace Lake” that rivals any of those I’ve seen doled out by Sonic Youth, with a playful Moore using any object on stage as a means to coax impossible textures and shrieks out of his open-tuning guitar, including the stage microphones used by ARTE to capture the performance. It was great to see him so very obviously enjoying himself, after all the negative media attention that followed his divorce from former Sonic Youth bass player and Girl in a Band author Kim Gordon.

Algiers: After watching Ty Segall kick ass behind the drum kit in his new heavy riffing stoner rock project Fuzz, Algiers graced the second stage with their rather unusual combination of gospel, deep South civil rights activism and pulsating cold-wave sounds. After inspired and energetic renditions of standouts “Blood” and “Black Eunuch” (they were the first band to really give us a show that night), they quite nearly managed to raise a ghost or two that night.

Timber Timbre: A festival may not be the ideal setting to experience Timber Timbre, since so much of their music happens in the silences and spaces between the notes. They nevertheless delivered a set with far more teeth than I’d grown accustomed to, hypnotizing the late-night crowd, drawing them in and holding them hostage inside Taylor Kirk’s lurid tales, without any means of escaping the deepest recesses of our broken souls. I too gave in to the reeling and swaying of the band’s slow, haunting bluesy folk, bathed in their signature back-lit smoky swathes of deep reds.

Ratatat: After impatiently waiting for Girl Band to be done being notable for no more than their singer looking like he was trying to imitate Macaulay Culkin trying to imitate Kurt Cobain, Friday night’s headlining duo appeared. Hot off the release of their fifth record, Magnifique — their first in five years — Ratatat sound, well, the same as they always have, and never quite as good as on their now classic and ad-industry abused Classics from 2006. That being said, it was by far the day’s most visually engrossing show (the only band with their own projections/lasers). They are also the perfect festival band, deftly slotted as a danceable end to a heavily rock-inflected day, and finally giving festival-goers a reason to move their (cold and wet) feet at an hour when the crowd was three sheets to the drizzly Brittany wind. Seeing Ratatat live for the first time, with their telltale harmonized guitar licks sounding a little less digital, I could hear echoes of Brian May, and sometimes (on tracks like “Abrasive”) an awful lot like an instrumental Strokes (if you squared all the attention on Nick Valensi).


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The second day began in Saint-Malo proper, a city with an important link to our country’s origins, being the birthplace of our national progenitor, Jacques Cartier, who sailed off on that oh so fateful trip to the new world back in 1534. The stage was set up against the city walls, looking down onto the beach (la Plage de Bon Secours), where a massive concrete seawater pool was built in 1937, to allow people to swim 24h/7, regardless of the tides. It’s a stunning location for a festival, and since the sun decided to come out and warm the sand, the beach was packed with festival-goers soaking up the rays for the afternoon, while listening to the nonchalant chansons électroniques of Flavien Berger, whose singspiel and easy-going beats got a solid crowd bobbing and weaving in the sunlight. His sometimes more orchestral, sometimes more danceable brand of electro was the perfect soundtrack for lazing about on the sand.

Kiasmos: Icelandic brainchild of composer Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, Kiasmos were the first act I caught on the main site. The minimal electro duo got the crowd’s feet moving to their own brand of very melodic techno, which sounded so much bigger when pushing hundreds of thousands of watts than on their rather delicate-sounding LP, while the low sun mirrored off their synths and midi controllers.

The Soft Moon: After scarfing down what looked suspiciously like poutine (and ultimately didn’t come even close – good fries though), while attempting to ignore the highly disappointing Hinds (four-piece all-girl poppy garage rock surfing on the success of much better acts like Best Coast and Alvvays), the Soft Moon took the main stage, delivering a very intense set of gloomy post-punk. With three solid-to-great albums under their belt, the Oakland band, performing as a three-piece, had more than enough material to draw the crowd down its frenzied gothic spiral. And by the time they were done, I had the sudden urge to hit up a nearby graveyard and dig up a few corsairs.

Foals: The second day headliner was called in at the last minute to sub for the European-tour-cancelling Björk, and with a new album just around the corner (Aug. 28), it was an opportunity to gloss over their new material before the album drops. I hadn’t seen them perform since their appearance at Cabaret Juste Pour Rire in 2010, and while they had done justice to their indie-math-rock axe-slinging complexity, I was curious to see if they’d grown into shoes big enough to headline a festival (and pacify legions of bitter Björk fans). And despite the extra added worry that their bass player was out due to food poisoning, they filled those shoes with panache. And the replacement bass player killed it. Standing right next to local Breton superstar Yann Tiersen (remember the Amélie sountrack?) in the pit left of the stage, I actually had to leave and move further back for fear of getting trampled. The crowd loved it. It was the definite highlight of the day, which kept going until past 3 a.m. with the help of techno acts Daniel Avery and Lindstrom, who led the thinning (and highly intoxicated) crowd to pound dirt to the beat late into the night.


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The crowd watching Kiasmos




Father John Misty: I wish I knew what special cornflakes people like J Tillman ate as a child to give them the kind of confidence and swagger that make them such bewitching performers. These artists (Nick Cave is another) leave you completely transfixed, unable to look away, and for the length of a set, it stops mattering that I don’t even really like ’70s-inspired honky tonk Americana all that much. Watching the padre twist and swivel all over the stage while belting out his cleverly incisive lyrics, turning the textual tropes of his forebears on their heads, is worth getting out of bed for an early show, despite the pounding headache from all that wine you funnelled into your gullet last night. Just watch out for that swinging microphone.

Viet Cong: I’m really rooting for these fellow Canucks, and during their second stage set, I wasn’t the only one. Despite the challenges inherent in adequately reproducing the dense and intricate odd-time-signature based kick in the face of a debut that they released early this year, the boys rocked it and rocked it hard. A bit of finessing, especially from vocalist Matt Flegel, and I can see them rise above the level of second-stage curiosities. Nonetheless, when the opening of “Continental Shelf” chimed across the still-muddy hay-covered field, the crowd was ready, and far more of those French lips were energetically mouthing the words than I would have expected.

Savages: Here’s another one with access to special cornflakes. On stage, Camille Berthomier is a force to behold, all of this fury and energy turning her into one of the most impressive performers I have ever seen. For the length of their set, the foursome, looking like they just walked straight out of a Robert Palmer video (after eating the girls from Hinds for breakfast), made us all forget they weren’t actually that night’s headliners. When the all-female post-punk outfit finally releases a sophomore opus, I know where my money’s going.


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Spectres on stage


Ride: One of the handful of British shoegaze bands unearthed from oblivion by that scene’s current revival, just like MBV, Slowdive and Swervedriver before them, but without any new material to support. Ride were a band with a couple of fantastic early records and EPs, and bar none the best album and set opener of any of their brethren, so when the first staccato organ notes announced “Leave It All Behind” (the leading track from 1992’s Going Blank Again), I felt like a teenager again, dancing in Montreal’s (thankfully) short-lived Vampire Lounge on Britpop night. The rest of the crowd, however, was rather bemused, eyebrows raised questioningly towards the night’s headliner. They didn’t budge, however, and with fresh ears, discovered some early 90s gems like “Vapor Trails” and “Chrome Waves” (but no “Twisterella,” to my dismay).

Dan Deacon: Following the final rock act of the night, it was time to get the party started, and who better to do that than the hyperactive electro-party master himself, Dan Deacon. For anyone who has dismissed Deacon’s Technicolor arpeggiating bleeps on record, let me assure you that the live setting is where it all makes sense. Though his attempts at leading the French-speaking crowd into a dance choreography based on the two audience members he’d singled out were a complete failure, the Dan Deacon hour zipped right on by, and suddenly, everyone forgot they were freezing only minutes ago.

Jungle: After the Madonna filtered through LCD Soundsystem sounds of the Juan Maclean came the final act of the festival, a funk act heavily leaning on Prince (and even Jamiroquai). And this is where the cultural differences must factor in, because I was frankly completely mystified by this choice of programming, in a festival line-up that was for the most part pretty uncompromising. Apparently this Jungle band is pretty famous out here (then again, I only heard about Imagine Dragons for the first time a few weeks ago), and considering the mass party going on around me, it was clearly time for me to just shut the fuck up and dance.