By day three of Solidays your correspondent was conscious of not spending enough time on French performers. In the two previous days we had just seen The Dø – and they’re only half-French. So we resolved to make up for lost time and fit in as many native acts as time and good taste would allow. Fired by renewed vigour and a sense of mission, your blogger rolled out of bed at the crack of noon and shuffled over to Longchamps.
At the time when most folk are sitting down to Sunday dinner, the final day of the festival weekend was kicked off by John & Jehn. We’ve already raved about this London-based French couple and their mishmash of rock, folk and electronica. Today they were a revelation.
Since that eponymous first record came out they’ve darkened their image and their sound to something closer to the Velvet Underground. Jehn has cut her girlish tresses into a sharp black bob à la Karen O, while John now sports the type of weedy moustache worn by the louche and the seedy. Today they glam up and rock out; John’s guitar sound tears around VU/Bowie territory, while Jehn’s retro keyboarding has a Roxy Music vibe. Songs like ‘1,2,3’ and ‘20L07’, ostensibly about love, now sound like they’re about sex. Their first album was charming; on stage they’re swaggering.
Next up happened to be another French act to whom we’ve given favourable notices: Syd Matters. The acoustic folk-pop of Jonathan Morali is quite lovely and definitely worth your attention – in particular, ‘Everything Else’ sounded blissful. That said, on a hot and humid afternoon the sound had a soporific effect; many people were lying on the grass and dozing off. We hope Morali took it as a compliment.
We must confess that we lapsed in our drive for all-out Frenchness and didn’t check out chanteuse Izia. Instead we went to hear some puppets rapping, and it was uproarious fun. Puppetmastaz had a whole marquee bouncing around to chassis-shaking beats despite the heat; you’d be surprised just how much fun it is to hear a bunny swearing in a thick Bronx accent. One criticism: quite reasonably, the French crowd got restless during lengthy between-song dialogues in breakneck American accents. Just make the bunny rap and say ‘motherfucker’, okay? That’s all we want.
More in our occasional series, ‘What The French Like’ – last week it was musette punks Java and today Mouss & Hakim. The pair are former members of a band called Zebda that had some success with a sound that mixed traditional French and ethnic sounds with a rock attitude and vigorous politics. The English-speaking world, politically centrist, usually finds ‘engaged’ music naïve or even self-important. But we often forget that in the 2002 French presidential election millions of people voted for the extreme-right Jean-Marie le Pen– and even while Mouss & Hakim were on stage, 39% of voters in a northern town called Hénin-Beaumont were giving their democratic preference to his daughter Marine in local elections there. In France, music is culture and culture is politics; we’re only just now slowly beginning to understand this country. (We should add that, even without listening to the words, Mouss & Hakim make a fine sound.)
But our thirst for French music has its limits. We weren’t prepared to see middle-aged cartoon punks Les Wampas when across the site there was the superior dancefloor indie of Metronomy, now a foursome and without Gabriel Stebbing. And they were fantastic, rocking a lot harder than they do on record or than they did as a three-piece when CLUAS reviewed their Dublin show in June 2008.
The new rhythm section (Gbenga Adelekan on bass and former Lightspeed Champion drummer Anna Prior, perched on a lofty riser) are forceful yet supple, while core duo Oscar Cash and Joseph Mount are agreeably eccentric - their uniform of grey shirt and over-the-shoulder light-bulb was at once strict and idiosyncratic, like their material. Older songs like ‘Trick or Treatz’ were a pleasant surprise to those only familiar with their second long-player, ‘Nights Out’ – and that album’s standout track, ‘Heartbreaker’, was ferocious and energetic. It was our personal highlight of Solidays.
Which is not to say that the festival’s big-name act was an anti-climax for us. Not only was it a Frenchman, in line with our policy of the day, but he was born and raised just beside the festival site in the comfortable suburb of Boulogne Billancourt. With this in mind it became slightly surreal to hear Manu Chao – for it was he – sing and speak in Spanish, never mind play the third-world revolutionary.
But there’s no doubt of his ideological sincerity or the immense pleasure of his live shows. So Chao’s recent material is a bit samey (enough with the police siren effects - how about an ice-cream van jingle next time?) and perhaps at moments even a bland ethno-tourist version of Caribbean/South American music. It’s still fresh and evocative and great fun – for such a politically vocal performer, Chao (above right) is good-humoured and never resorts to Bono-esque craw-thumping speeches. (Since three paragraphs ago, we’ve become more appreciative of the fact that Everything Is Political In France.) And it all sounds fantastic on a summer night in a park by the Seine.
Then afterwards all 50,000 people got out of the site and set off straightaway for home in metros and cars, and the next day no one phoned any radio shows to complain. Life is good.
[Part one (with Hockey, Magistrates and The Dø ) is there and part two (Friendly Fires, Alela Diane, The Virgins, Amadou & Mariam) is here.]More ...