Lowlands 2016: Festival Review

Live Review by Claire Francis | 30 Aug 2016

Situated about an hour’s drive east of Amsterdam, Lowlands Festival takes its name from its location near The Netherlands' low-lying coastline. Though the site may be at sea-level, hopes are high for this three-day festival of pop, indie rock, electronic music and everything in between. Occurring annually for some 20-odd years, Lowlands’ wealth of experience shows in every aspect of this expertly laid-out festival.

The numerous stages (named phonetically except for ‘H’, which has cheekily been rebranded by Heineken for the occasion) are well-spaced out and easily accessible, and the paved footpaths keep the mud to a minimum. A token system operates for all food and beverages, and there’s an enticing array of global cuisine options to choose from. In addition to three days crammed with local and international music, there’s an exhausting schedule of art, performances, films and activities on offer, plus a collection of boutique shops and stalls catering to your every whim. Fancy a massage, a tongue piercing, a yoga class, a sauna, a custom-stitched t-shirt, a beard trim, or a haircut? At Lowlands, nothing is too difficult, and everything seems possible. And perhaps most important of all, the sun stays out for the majority of our European sojourn.

Rising Talent

British singer-songwriter NAO marks herself as an early one to watch with a smooth show of bass-driven r'n'b. The East Londoner sings in a distinctive high register, giving some of her compositions a slightly cutesy feel, but there’s no doubt that NAO– aka Neo Joshua – possess an impressive vocal range, as she demonstrates with the soulful rendition of recent single Girlfriend. Barefoot and carefree, Joshua is a natural when it comes to crowd interaction and she leads an invigorating, feel-good Friday show.

Since forming in Melbourne in 2010, seven-headed psych juggernaut King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard have churned out album after album of jazz-inflected prog, mellow acoustic pop and fuzz-soaked cosmic rock. The septet pack the Charlie tent to within an inch of its life and proceed to decimate eardrums with a non-stop flurry of unique lyrical meanderings and riff-heavy, full-throttle jams.

Also on the Charlie stage, three-piece Dutch indie rockers Bombay put on an assertive display of home-grown talent, with clever basslines and pleasant harmonies delivered with just enough raw edge to keep them on the right side of saccharine. On the Sunday, the slightly misleading moniker BØRNS conjures up images of a Scandinavian folk artist, but is instead the alias of California prodigy Garrett Borns. BØRNS' heavenly vocals could feasibly be compared to those of the late, great Jeff Buckley, and his winsome compositions (and bold, well-executed cover of David Bowie's Heroes) could well herald the beginning of a glam rock resurgence.

Of all the nascent talent Lowlands has to offer, it’s Pumarosa who take the prize for best newcomer. Certifiable anthem Priestess is a psyche-rattling set highlight, but the London art-rockers are certainly no one-trick pony. Possessing a Kate Bush-esque eccentricity, Isabel Munoz-Newsome’s bewitching vocals and flailing dance moves are the perfect foil to the group’s gripping, visceral performance.

Familiar Faces

If you’re surprised to see Aussie rock outfit Wolfmother on the bill, you’re not the only one. Those familiar with Andrew Stockdale’s stoner-blues trio most likely remember their mid-00s output of retro rock hits such as Woman, White Unicorn, Dimension and the like, before creative differences and personal issues between band members began to plague the group. Can they still rock after enduring the upsets of a constantly rotating lineup? Hell yes. They absolutely tear apart Saturday’s afternoon slot on the Alpha stage, with Marshall amps stacked high and a drumstick, ceremonially lit on fire, that smoulders for the duration of the set. The group blister through the aforementioned back catalogue, as well as the excellent psychedelic boogie Gypsy Caravan (from this year's Victorious), hinting that there’s still plenty of life in the old dog (wolf?) yet.

At this late stage in the summer festival calendar, the same big name touring acts are bound to crop up repeatedly. In Lowlands’ case it’s The Last Shadow Puppets and LCD Soundsystem who are this year’s European circuit fixtures. Say what you will about the slightly salacious personas Messrs Turner and Kane have adopted – with their talented backing orchestra illuminating much of Everything You’ve Come To Expect, the duo still know how to put on an engaging show. Turner’s mock-anguished rolling about on the camera tracks during The Dream Synopsis, one of their more lovelorn ballads, is a particular high point, and (almost) makes up for Kane’s now-obligatory rendition of Bad Habits.

Much less divisive are LCD Soundsystem, who embody every inch of the top form they exhibited throughout their recent T in The Park headline show. Leading off with the insouciant Us vs Them before the irresistibly vivacious Daft Punk Is Playing At My House and James Murphy’s heartfelt croon through I Can Change, the set list holds few surprises, but with the band sounding this revitalised, it’s a set you could hear ten times over without tiring.

Here Comes the Drop

Fittingly for a festival located so close to the clubbing hotspot that is Amsterdam, Lowlands draws together a formidable line-up of international dance music acts over its three days. With none of our pesky Scottish curfews in sight, we’re free to party well into the early hours.

On the Friday, Netherlands-native Makam does his country proud, with a frenetic set of feverish drum rolls and frantic BPMs that carry us past the midnight hour and into techno powerhouse Rødhåd’s hugely energetic performance. The Berlin-based DJ, producer and Dystopian label-head demonstrates a perfect balance of timeless techno, lifting the dancefloor higher and higher with an onslaught of percussion heavy, rugged 4/4 beats.

Saturday’s sunny skies foster the perfect vibe for Cassius’ mid-afternoon appearance, and the Bravo tent quickly fills with an array of happy punters drawn to the French duo’s synthpop-inflected house music. It’s by no means the most sophisticated of the weekend’s sets – even their stage set sees the duo, aka Philippe Cerboneschi and Hubert Blanc-Francard, perched atop a comical, giant faux-volcano, flanked by palm trees – but with a handful of their own productions, including this year’s Action (featuring Cat Power and Beastie Boy’s Mike D) peppering the mix, it’s a show full of fun, easy grooves.

Canadian music maker Tiga looks the part for his live set, though tour fatigue is clearly setting in – ‘Hello Pukkelpop!’ he greets the crowd, before laughing and trying again – ‘Hello Lowlands!' The prolific Canadian kicks off with 2008’s lascivious Bugatti, and Let’s Go Dancing does what it suggests on the tin, but over the course of this lengthy live set, the faux-posturing, faux-serious 80s pop schtick, for all its intended irony, grows slightly wearisome. Elsewhere, festival kings Disclosure put in a reliably mammoth Saturday evening show that sees practically the entire Lowlands audience flock to the Alpha stage.

The hero’s performance comes, unsurprisingly, from Italian duo Carmine Conte & Matteo Milleri, aka Tale Of Us. Their show is preceded by a gorgeously moody set from introspective techno artist Recondite, who takes revellers on a journey through deep, dark techno, dimly lit by slim snare and ominous waves of descending synth notes.

By the time the German cedes the decks to Conte and Milleri, the clock has ticked over to 3am and the crowd is palpably yearning for a spike in tempo. The Berlin-based duo rise to the occasion, working in unhurried fashion through their ambient intro before launching a full blown danceathon of ceaseless, throbbing beats. The huge drop that accompanies Sven Sossong’s Generator is just one highlight in the duo’s rousing arsenal that carries a tent full of happy campers into the first rays of the next day.