My Bloody Valentine, Deerhunter and Tortoise (live at La Route du Rock, St Malo, France)
Review Snapshot: Three cult acts share an impressive bill on the Breton coast. The excellent Deerhunter continue the fine tradition of VU and Sonic Youth alt-rock. Tortoise get loud and funky but once or twice go over the head of the more party-minded festival-goers. And MBV leave mixed feelings; while impressive in many respects the whole thing feels a little stale and there's so much more to their music than bludgeoning noise.
The Cluas Verdict? 8 out of 10
The first day of La Route du Rock, and everyone is preoccupied by noise. The nearby village of Chateauneuf-de-Ille-et-Vilaine has been warned about the aural assault they can expect around midnight, and residents there are scowling slightly at any blow-ins collaborating with the forces of sonic blitzkrieg. On the festival site, there's a scramble for earplugs.
And in the media zone all talk is of today being dedicated to 'noisy pop', the name that French rock fans give to the genre of shoegazing. One French journalist has even been gazing at Bradford Cox's shoes and socks, and during the pre-show press conference he criticises the sartorial tastes of Deerhunter's leader. "Only in France", Cox sighs.
Despite their singer suffering from jetlag and lack of sleep, this evening Deerhunter are enthralling. For all the talk of MBV's influence on them, they're closer to good ol' U.S garage rock with a touch of Sonic Youth, though this could be because Cox in shades and pudding-bowl haircut looks like a ganglier Thurston Moore. The Velvet Underground are another obvious reference point - Deerhunter's rhythm section is tight and minimal, sometimes funky but more times steady and driving, especially in 'Nothing Ever Happened' where Cox adorns Josh Fauver's driving bassline with squally, angular riffs.
But like tonight's headliners, Deerhunter's charm is in their subtle sense of melody, especially in tracks from 'Microcastle'. Their upcoming Dublin show on 23 August is the current CLUAS Gig of the Fortnight: you should be there.
On first listen, the cerebral sounds of Tortoise appear to be out of place in this squall-fest. But while those Beach Boys-style xylophone parts sound sedate and tasteful, otherwise Tortoise (post-)rock. And they can be loud and sexy too: those funky basslines and breakbeat drums satisfy those punters who didn't come here to reflect on jazzy progressions. But perhaps the band misjudge the crowd slightly: at one point they expect us to clap along to a fairly complex time signature, 13/12 or something like that. One or two people try it but only last a bar or two. While Tortoise are impressive, by now everyone just seems to be hanging around for the main act.
Earplugs in, then, for My Bloody Valentine. Kick-off is delayed by about ten minutes due to sound problems, and when Kevin Shields comes on he first does a quick "one-two" mic check - a rather redundant gesture, seeing as we won't be hearing much of his singing tonight. The problems continue: Shields and Colm Ó Cíosóig seem to screw up the intro to 'When You Sleep' between them and must start again.
Onstage, MBV feel like two different bands stitched together. You have a drummer and bassist who put in enormous virtuosity and energy: Ó Cíosóig grimaces and flails while Debbie Googe stands side on with feet apart and bass on hip. The pair of them are sensational.
Meanwhile, the two up front are anti-rockstars. Shields comes across as a Graham Coxon-esque shy guitar-obsessed teen but Bilinda Butcher is the stereotypical shoegazer, even if she stares straight out over the crowd all night and seems constantly on the verge of tears. Shields exudes an awkward charm but Butcher is a charisma-free black hole. Also, both guitarists seem to work less than their colleagues: the two just jangle chords while the more ambient synths and effects are on playback.
Let's face it: My Bloody Valentine in 2009 are a heritage act. The festival programme features an old photo of them, and fortysomething guys in the crowd try to revisit their youth by moshing as much as their bellies and ailing backs allow. But even they realise that they're trying too hard - many people in the crowd are visibly bored and slightly disillusioned. For one thing, MBV records are fantastic for their subtle melodies and dreamy romanticism, so by reducing everything to brute noise the band are deliberately downgrading what many people love about them. (Of course, having to wear earplugs doesn't help in appreciating the music.) Also, without new material the show feels slightly cynical, especially since many people here tonight have surely already seen the band elsewhere on their reunion tour.
Yes, the 'holocaust' section of 'You Made Me Realise' is impressive but, given all the hype about it, when it finally arrives it feels as perfunctionary as when a one-hit wonder finally plays the one hit. Again, the emphasis on being the loudest feels like a hollow victory when so many of MBV's qualities are being subordinated to the decibel counter. You should see My Bloody Valentine live, but it's best to think of them as a separate entity from My Bloody Valentine on record. A corporate entity, if one were to be cynical.