It’s just gone 6pm and the crowd at La Salle de la Cite in Rennes is bearing witness to an unusual testimony. On stage, a lanky young Scot called Derek Meins is spitting out rockabilly poetry over a sparse drumbeat while whipping himself into an unholy frenzy not entirely suited to this tender hour. As he immerses himself in the guise of his alter-ego The Agitator, running on the spot and throwing out lines like a stage-school amalgam of Little Richard and Allen Ginsberg, the audience appears to be divided. Some are clearly enraptured by Meins’ singular shtick, others are less enamoured and drift out into the courtyard for a fag and a pint of local Breton cider.
No such doubts plague the white-haired gentleman looking on from the side of the stage. As Meins lurches enthusiastically from doo-wop to soul, the veteran sups a half-pint glass filled with red wine, looks on approvingly and greets the end of each polemic with a grin of epic proportions. This is Jean-Louis Brossard and he does not do apathy.
The adage goes that old punk rockers mellow with age, the fire of their youth subsumed by adult responsibilities or opportunities to endorse dairy products. If that is the case, clearly nobody has told Brossard. A son of Rennes himself, Brossard founded Transmusicales back in 1979 as a means of, as he puts it, “defending and promoting a new vision of music that differs from what the public is being force-fed”. Since then Brossard has stuck gamely to the task, providing a platform for cutting-edge French bands and notable international guests such as The Stooges, Beastie Boys and Kraftwerk.
This year's installment was perhaps not as studded with banner names as in the past – although with monikers such as The Wankin' Noodles and Slow Joe and the Ginger Accident popping up there was plenty of entertainment to be had from investigating the bill – but the freewheeling sense of anarchic bonhomie championed by the festival's founder was obvious for everyone to see during four days of left field music and general good-natured mayhem.
Somewhat predictably for an event held in northern Europe at the start of December, things took a little while to warm up. Trans really gets going on the Friday when the action shifts from the city centre to a collection of giant aircraft hangers outside town where hordes of young Gallic revelers are given carte blanche to go completely mental until the wee small hours. Wednesday and Thursday are somewhat tamer affairs with the temptation to cut loose tempered by the fact that, for many, it is still a school night.
Certainly Erlend Oye looked as though he would rather be sat at home in the warmth poring over his books than churning out anemic musical wallpaper with his aptly-named side project The Whitest Boy Alive. Oye's main focus, Kings of Convenience, are reliably divisive with critics split on whether they are a blast of folk-tinged melancholic genius or piss-weak, bed-wetting nonsense. This writer would tend to err towards the former view, but I will have to revise my opinion after watching Oye stumble gratingly through a half-baked set of white-bread funk.
Admittedly, the cavernous Liberte hall where the bigger names were performing was not the easiest venue to energize and the party only really got started when the roly-poly figure of Fred Wesley loped onto stage with his current project Abraham Inc. Nobody who has played lieutenant to James Brown and George Clinton can fail to have the funk and Wesley and klezmer virtuoso David Krakauer combined to produce an interesting amalgam of styles. If you've ever wanted to hear how The JB's might have sounded if they had spent some time on a kibbutz, you should check it out.
The next day began with a reception for the international press hosted by Brossard himself. Cornering him, I ask why he decided to hold his festival in December. “Because this is the best time for oysters,” he laughs and hoists one such mollusc towards his mouth.
While eating was one way to divert attention from the pervading dampness another was to head for La Salle de la Cite where Brightback Morning Light were doing a fine job of transporting the audience to a stoned midnight campfire under a canopy of stars in the Mojave Desert. Coming on like a benevolent version of Charles Manson, Nathan Shineywater played the cosmic shaman as his all-female supporting cast built a hypnotic platform from Rhodes piano and tom-toms for their leader's plaintive voice and muffled blues guitar licks. It took a while to kick in, but when it did the acid-fried groove was irresistible.
After filling up on some gallettes from a creperie in the city centre, we hopped on a shuttle bus for the half-hour journey to the Park Expo just in time to catch The Phantom Band. In a year short on epochal musical thrills, the success of Checkmate Savage has been a glimmer of eccentric light in the general darkness and the crunch of Folk Song Oblivion and the motorik click of The Howling and The Whole Is On My Side sounded suitably celebratory here.
Less cerebral, but equally uplifting was Major Lazer. With sheets of icy rain pummeling the corrugated roof of the hangar, an injection of brainless levity was required and was duly delivered by DJ's Diplo and Switch courtesy of a set that involved scantily-clad Jamaican rump-shakers, a man in a white suit chanting unintelligable patois, and plenty of bone crushing digital beats.
Conversely Fever Ray's icy synth landscapes were a bit of a downer. Attention soon veered from the music to the natty lampshades Karen Dreijer Andersson and her cohorts appeared to be sporting on their heads. 'Habitat crossed with Star Wars,' ventured someone, referring to the light show. 'Sort of like Jabbitat'.
A blast of the aforementioned Wankin' Noodles – a Gallic version of The Hives – in the Beer Tent lifted the mood again and the night was seen out in the company of a range of electro Djs from the continent and a horde of heroically pissed French kids.
After two days of constant music and a copious intake of food and alcohol that took care of two of the more obvious stereotypes of the Auld Alliance countries, Saturday was a more subdued affair. The torpor was interjected with some top-class tunes however. Anglo Scots Django Django took the stage at a packed Salle de la Cite sporting some of the cheesiest grins of the festival, but their gauche boyish glee was tempered by a visceral and edgy set that threw around influences as diverse as Canned Heat, Wire and the 13th Floor Elevators. 'We don't have any more songs', shouted frontman Vincent Neff as they were called back on-stage for an encore. The one they played before went down just fine.
Slicker by far was Naomi Shelton who worked the hall with the consummate ease you would expect from someone who started out singing gospel then graduated to the R&B circuit of 1960s New York. Unsurprisingly her voice was amazing, but her soul revue felt ever so slightly too studied in the endearingly shambolic overall context of the festival.
Another long evening awaited at the Park Expo, but we chickened out in favor of some local pubs. The scene was pretty rowdy in town anyway. The bars on the main nightlife artery Rue St Michel were engorged with pie-eyed punters while broken bottles of booze gave added crunchy texture to the cobblestoned street itself. After a few abortive attempts to get settled we ventured around the corner to a quieter venue where potent local beer was flowing for around three Euros a pint. We found a seat, chilled out for the first time in three days and let the barman call the shots on the tunes. A loud blast of Chuck Berry filled the room. From purgatory to pleasure in the blinking of an eye. A familiar experience at this most singular of music festivals.
Transmusicales takes place annually in Rennes, Brittany, France.http://www.lestrans.com