Flanders is a Festival: PUKKELPOP in Pictures – DAY 1 (feat. alt-J, DJANGO DJANGO, HIGH CONTRAST, HOT CHIP, BJORK and more)

Anyone fancy a European music festival – one of hundreds in Flanders, Belgium – where the 183,000+ folks are pretty friendly, hardly anyone gets totally hammered or aggressive drunk, the bands are well looked after, the food is all deep-fried, there’s a special Belgian beer tent, you get free stuff if you recycle bottles, AND has  three-day lineup of TOTAL AWESOME?

Yeah, me too. Welcome at Pukkelpop, as they say.

After several days of travelling around Flanders, Belgium (the Flemmish, not French part of this rad little European country), enjoying amazing food, fashionable and historical towns like Bruges, Gent, Hasselt and Antwerp, I reach my ultimate rocktacular destination near a small town called Kiewit:

Founded in 1985, Pukkelpop moved into its current home in a giant field on the side of a small motorway in Kiewit, just a few kilometres from nearby Hasselt, in 1992, and over the years it has grown to become the country’s second-largest music festival. Hasselt, I feel you should also know, is a groovy little town with shops, cobblestone streets and patio restaurants. It’s a great base for travellers who don’t want to camp (but get in early as the place books up.)

But Pukkelpop history hasn’t been without its own pain. Last year, a freak thunderstorm moved in and collapsed a tent – called Chateau, this year moved to a different area, and renamed Castello – killing four people.  The band I work with, Sebadoh, were slated to play PP the next day, but after the tragedy, the festival was rightly cancelled. When Sebadoh were approached and asked to stay and play a tribute in nearby Gent, I helped organize the troops. So Pukkelpop is special to me, and I was honoured to be able to experience it for myself.  This year, the festival has a new lease on life, and I’m thankful for that.

So, here I am, and the sign apparently says it’s good to see me. It IS good to see me. It’s Day 1 of Pukkelpop, let’s go! GENTLEFOLK, START YOUR SCROLLING FINGERS.

So into Castello I go, where it’s a sauna. LITERALLY. The tent walls are flooding with humidity – it’s one of a few stages that are enclosed – and Manchester’s No Ceremony are doing their dark New Order (not Joy Division, alas) guitar-synth-fuzz thing. It’s not compelling but it will serve as a mellow introduction to the festival. Now if I can just stop dripping.

So I seek respite in the hot lunchtime sun and wander past the cool-breeze-sounding Boiler Room where what looks to be a 14-year-old (he’s actually 19) DJ from Munich, called SCNTST, is holding down the temporary fort. So I stay for a bit, have a boogie, then bounce to check out Queens, NY rap outfit, Children of the Night. It’s pretty straightforward stuff, and they’ve got the crowd bumping. But time to push on, it’s not my thing. Because what is my thing is the UK band (alt-J) that’s put out the most exciting album of the last few years (An Awesome Wave).

The Castello tent is rammed. People have signs, and are singing all the songs. alt-J have reached Europe, it seems. The sound coming from the tent is pristine and wide, expanding far beyond the wet walls. Singer/guitarist Joe and the band look overwhelmed and full of pride at how far they’ve come. Even better, they sound GREAT.

alt-J drummer Thom Sonny has become a bit of an online friend following our interview few months back. I’d hoped to have met up with him at PP, and we exchange text messages. But backstage is locked up, err, tighter than a drum, and he’s whisked off to do promo and then watch Hot Chip sidestage.

It’s two hours into PP, and alt-j have already achieved “highlight” status. The band’s been on a never-ending tour to assure its fast ascent, and are sounding note-perfect. As in, able to recreate the complexities of the album on a live stage. Which is remarkable, considering the album’s layers. “I think this is the biggest crowd we’ve played to,” says Joe. It’s Day 1 and as far as I’m concerned, I’ve seen who I’ve come to Pukkelpop for.

Okay, so it’s hella muddy when the drums and bass kick in, but here’s alt-J doing “Taro.” Seriously, if you’re late to the party on them, catch up quick. They’re going to be monumental.

But now it’s time to dance. HARD.

Which is convenient, because in the Dance Hall, another set of epic awesome is happening with France’s four-pack, the mighty drum n’ bass guys Dirtyphonics. Seen ’em before in a small club in Vancouver. They melted my face with their four-deck chaos then, and they’re melting my face now. This is drum n’ bass, mind you, not dubstep, thank gods. This is four guys jumping and swaying in tandem. It’s synchronized chaos and it’s beautiful…

..particularly when they managed to get a whole tent to crouch down and jump on command. This guy jumped the gun.

And speaking of genius drum n’ bassheads, this head of crazy curls is Lincoln Barrett, aka, High Contrast, aka the guy who helped put the music together for the London 2012 Olympics with Underworld. Like Dirtyphonics, I’ve seen and met Linc before in Vancouver and he’s possibly the sweetest keeper of the beats. He and singer Jessy Allen and Dynamite MC had the Boiler Room raging. Oh and he’ll be back, later.

Wandered past the Marquee tent, one of the bigger PP tents, to check out the lads in The Horrors. I love their last album, Skying, and met them last year in Portland at MFNW, but there’s something about them that never connects. There’s warmth missing, and they’re aloof. And gods I got sick of aloof living in London for seven years.

…but the warmth is all outside and thousands of music fans chomping frites and drinking Jupiler beer are basking in the ultra-violet get-down of Santigold and her two dancers. When Santi spies some fans wearing her kinda glasses in the audience, she gets all charitable and yunno, invites them all onstage. Nothing like dancing in front of oh, 50,000+ people, I’d reckon.

“We have a new album coming out in a few days, you know?” asks Kele Okereke of Bloc Party, also on the main stage. And we did know. And we think it’s kind of weird, considering that not too long ago Bloc Party were holding auditions for a new singer, without telling their old one. Oh the fickleness of British rockbands. For now, it’s the old stuff that’s best and “Banquet” is big enough for the whole field. Yay Kele!

But soon! Soon! Another highlight in the making! My friends Django Django, a Scots-English hybrid making some of the best guitar pop over the Atlantic. They’ll also be coming soon to North America, and I’m imploring you to go and love them. Sucky bottom end sound tonight – the tent is full of fuzz and not doing the Djangos any favours – but “Waveforms” and “Hail Bop” sound ace, and “Default”? Pure pop perfection, and we all lap it. Then I go for a wander…

Recuritment by Randstad in Europe rocks considerably harder than it does over here.

But sooth! It’s Joe! In a crinkled baggy suit! It’s Alexis! Workin’ the white boy soul! It’s HOT CHIP, being awesome per usual. “One Night Stand” has the yoof bouncing.

And then, when Taylor loses his sweater and gets his stalk-the-stage groove on, it’s all just so good. Hot Chip remain at the top of the live game. Full band, full percussion, synths, the works. They were the best show I saw in 2008 and I’m looking forward to their return to town in a few weeks.

In the meantime, enjoy this totally thickened version of “Over and Over.” Because, really the line “Like a monkey with a miniature cymbal/the joy of repetition really is in you” is a tremendous line. Or just check out the lighting. And is that alt-J and future tourmates Django Django watching in the wings. Oh yes.

This is what a Hot Chip looks like from the outside. Everywhere you go, there’s music here. It’s a joy.

And the ubiquitous Pukkelpop/Rimpelrock flags, too. These become friends, after a day, there’s white ones over by the dance village. I walk past them to get to the main stage, which is about to host a bonkers Icelandic lady who is wearing some knitting on her head, a dress made of sequined intestines and who is flanked by a choir that I have now dubbed the Polyphonic Valkyrie. It is, in fact, Björk.

Once, in Iceland many years ago, I bought a cassette by Björk when she was 12, singing local folk songs. Was pretty cool. And I was there the first time ’round for the Sugarcubes, even been at a bar in Reykjavik with one of them, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen THE BIG HER live. So I’m quite digging the fact that she has a massive tube “thundercage” which lowers down from the top of the stage and shoots out colourful volts within it. I’m digging how she chirps “Mare-see BOWcooo!” after almost every song. I’m digging the red fireworks during a song she dedicates to that volcano nobody can pronounce. I’m digging how she stops to talk about Pussy Riot and Julian Assange before launching into “Declare Independence.”

I’m also digging how many bands are out in force to watch her. The Horrors walk into the pit, and Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip pushes a pram with his daughter in it, past the main stage. And then I run into this guy…

It’s lovely and gracious Tommy from Django Django! We chat about the band’s upcoming tour to Canada and America. “So it’s really happening, huh?”  “Yeah,” he says jovially, “People keep asking us if it feels like things are happening for us, and they weren’t, but now they really are. It’s amazing.” Tommy becomes my Björk-watching buddy for a bit  until I go for a wander, and then run into THIS  guy…

It’s Linc High Contrast! And he’s with singer Jessy Allen, and between the two of them, they out-nice Tommy Django. We chat, I mentioned we’d last met in Vancouver, that I was here covering the festival alone, I think I had a friend or two somewhere out there in the mass, so Jessy asks, “why don’t you come hang with us?” So I do. And then THEY become my Björk-watching buddies. “I absolutely LOVE her choir” says Linc, as he tries to snap pics with his little camera from a few rows back. And he’s right…the choir aren’t just sequinned be-robed props, they’re mental dancers too.

Plus, there’s amazing graphics and visuals. I start to trip out watching volanic landscapes, strands of DNA and slightly pinch myself that I’m in a field in Flanders.

After we bid our goodbyes, I totter off – shins burning, salt-sweat stains down my back, not enough water or Calippo popsicles in me, and I can’t remember if I ate – to check out UK band The Big Pink. Harmless enough indie-ish Britpop, but the energy’s grand. The songs are crowd pleasers. I’m too cynical for crowd pleasers, though, so it’s a good thing MERRILL GARBUS IS HERE…

…because really, tUnE-yArDs (did I get all the caps right?) weird and wonky looping, chirping, singburping and squonk is actually just the thing to wrap up this evening. Amazingly. “Gangsta” sounds groovy, and soon Garbus’ multitudinous layers send me off into the night to get my taxi back to Genk, a village a fair drive away that I can only explain as the “Milton Keynes” of Belgium. It’s filled with roundabouts and my hotel is very nice. Which is a good thing because after 14 hours of truly rad music, and a whole day of Pukkelpop under my sweaty belt, I’m ready for a shower and, err, what was it, 4 hours sleep?

Stay tuned for Day 2, it’s hotter and wilder and involves having dinner with Grandaddy. \m/

With many thanks to Tourism Flanders for flying me to Belgium to experience their region’s great food, festivals and people. It’s an amazing place, I suggest you visit. For more info, check out VisitFlanders.com

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