Grizzly Bear, Telepathe, Andrew Bird and Bill Callahan (live at la Route du Rock, St Malo, France)
Review Snapshot: Telepathe's cracking NY electro gets lost in a large theatre; all hail Bill Callahan; neither Andrew Bird nor Grizzly Bear have a good game.
The Cluas Verdict? 7 out of 10
So far we've focused on the main festival venue at the old fort a few miles outside St Malo. But there's also a second site - a hall on the seafront back in town. We decide, then, to start day three of La Route du Rock by checking it out. This isn't just a whim or for the sake of variety; we want to see Telepathe.
For the festival, the Palais du Grand Large has been rather crassly renamed after a well-known mobile phone manufacturer. It's a large, plush, modern theatre that has headphone sockets and volume knobs in the armrests. Telepathe's gear is set up compactly in the middle of the vast stage, like a small car parked on the Wembley pitch. The usher brings everyone to a seat - there'll be no dancing or young people's antics today.
Despite the slightly incongruous venue this New York pair, Busy and Melissa, are just as exciting live as on record. Telepathe exude spiky personality and robotic sang froid at the same time - for instance, they sing in unison rather than harmony and on 'Sinister Militia' Busy drums live in accompaniment to the machine beats. And in contrast to rigid Euro electro, their music has the same eclectic looseness and openness as other North American dance acts like Dan Deacon and Tiga. In a proper music venue with a dancefloor and no seats, Telepathe must be fantastic live.
Now for the classic festival dilemma: if we stay here to see Gang Gang Dance we probably won't make it back out to the old fort in time to see Bill Callahan. Though we've never followed the erstwhile Smog/(Smog) closely, we've been persuaded to see him. Gang Gang Dance get the elbow, then, and we hop on the shuttle to the main stage.
And we did good: Callahan is a revelation to us. Once you get over the usual perception of Callahan as dour and monotonous, you find that his songs are tuneful and poetic and really beautiful. His dark, soft croon is quite melodic, charged with feeling and even sexy on 'Diamond Dancer', which he starts with a bluesy solo and keeps up a slinky Stones riff throughout. His songs aren't necessarily sad but have a bruised romanticism that can't fail to move you: in particular, 'Too Many Birds' and 'Eid Ma Clack Shaw' have a gruff, world-weary tenderness to them.
Callahan's band features a violinist and cellist who supply succinct and graceful accompaniment. And the drummer is a funny guy: he keeps the setlist on a piece of paper folded in his shirt pocket and must take it out to check that 'The Wind And The Dove' is next. He calmly gives Callahan the nod; we're good to go. Lengthy retuning between several songs is the only black mark against Callahan today - he wastes at least five minutes in total and has to chop a song off his intended playlist so as to finish on time. This was the saddest thing for us, in fact.
After Callahan, our two other chosen acts seem to pale a little. Andrew Bird, for example, feels whimsical and forced. There's a stuffed toy and kitsch two-horned gramophone on a speaker stack at the back, like some indie equivalent of the old farm contraptions and roadsigns to Dingle that are meant to give character to plastic Irish bars abroad. But this is essential gear: at various points during Bird's set, the two-horned beast spins.
Dressed in denim and sporting stubble, Bird belies the foppishness usually attributed to him. He switches energetically between violin and guitar, sings forcefully and even his whistling seems functional rather than faddish. Unfortunately, he doesn't play 'Plasticities', perhaps his best-known song, but newer songs like 'Fitz And The Dizzy Spells' are still greeted warmly.
However, Bird has little charisma or stage presence. And because of this his songs, with their elaborate melodies and thesaurus-chewing wordplay, feel more like intellectual exercise than heartfelt expression. Tonight his material gives the fleeting pleasure of a witty quip rather than the enduring insight of Callahan's poeticism. (Bird offers a sprightly version of 'Cold Blooded Old Times' tonight.) Andrew Bird is likeable and his songs are entertaining, but live he reveals his limitations.
On to tonight's big name, Grizzly Bear (above right). And we must report that we find them disappointing too - more drizzly than grizzly. This isn't just the Bill Callahan after-effect again - the band don't attempt to replicate the dense, multi-layered swirl of 'Veckatimest' but merely omit the more abstract parts to leave a sparse, disjointed sound that never catches fire. 'Two Weeks', for instance, is tonight carried mainly by Daniel Rossen's electric piano and loses most of the vocal harmonies. Ed Droste's soaring voice is also a notable highlight but for much of the set Grizzly Bear come across as a muso Beach Boys. 'Southern Point', with Rossen's sun-drenched folk-pop guitar picking, is an exception and one of the rare times tonight when this band are engaging or evocative.
It doesn't help the band, of course, that this festival crowd is subdued and slightly underwhelmed, perhaps disappointed that they can't dance to Grizzly Bear. A more attentive audience of dedicated fans would surely help create a better atmosphere. Still, we suspect that their upcoming Dublin show will be stolen by their support act, Saturday's star turn here in St Malo. Those of you who prefer Department Of Eagles may have a point.