Let It Rennes: Trans Musicales 2013

Feature by Colm McAuliffe | 11 Dec 2013
  • London Grammar

Who knows whether the thousands of French music lovers who descend each year on the beautiful town of Rennes realise how incredible it truly is to attend a music festival without standing for three days in a damp field pondering the potentially catastrophic implications of a visit to the Portaloos.

The Trans Musicales festival – now in its thirty-fifth year – is a wonderfully intoxicating, incredibly idiosyncratic mélange of locally sourced and imported musical concoctions. Intoxicating primarily due to the spellbinding range on show; idiosyncratic due to baffling programming selections – witness improv poet and sculptor Lonnie Holley playing his one-chord wonders to a few flummoxed stragglers in an enormous hall at 1am on the Saturday evening (more of which later).

But there is an exhilarating lack of insincerity at this festival. The modus operandi appears to proffer a ‘take-everything-as-it-comes’ which pervades the three day experience: everything has its place precisely because everything seems out of place. It could conceivably claim to be daring, educational and with no preponderant bias to any one particular style of music. Of course, a converted airport hangar somewhere around the purlieus of Rennes may not be the most inspiring of venues but who cares when it’s 5am on Sunday morning, you can barely see out of one eye but Acid Arab are about to unleash an onslaught of demented Oriental techno mania?

Before all that, back in the more sedate era of Thursday night, Moodoïd signalled themselves as early contenders for most impressive facial make-up. Resplendent in shimmering, silver glitter, Jean-Marc Padovani’s legion of psychedelic new wave experimentalists are lucky in that their tunes match their aesthetic verve. Initially sounding like some warped child of the Comsat Angels or The Sound, the band drastically veered off into free jazz weirdness and incalculable time signatures, joyous in its sheer lack of predictability or direction. While the band is a side project for Padovani, moonlighting from his ‘other’ work as guitarist to Melody’s Echo Chamber, Moodoïd’s skill hinged upon elevating a moribund sound into something altogether more spectacular.

Meanwhile, Luke Jenner, on-off frontman for cowbell-enthusiasts The Rapture, managed to do the complete opposite. Stripped of his former band’s post-punk brio, his solo set struggled and eventually drowned in a sea of MOR bland; my notes from the set say ‘imagine U2 covering Bowie,’ a thought I did not wish to revisit.

Jenner’s set almost overlapped with that of London Grammar – festival headliners and perhaps drawing one of the largest crowds of the three days – whom also offer a certain amount of MOR, albeit slicker and more seductive than the former. You get the feeling with London Grammar that no matter where they have played – be it at a festival or in a tiny Nottingham bar – the band have always sounded stadium-sized, it’s simply been a case of waiting for the venues, and the world, to catch up. Luckily for the dub-lite trio, this appears to be happening fast. They’re actually not bad, their genteel electronica is too cordial to be offensive albeit too anodyne to be anyway affecting.

There’s no real linear nature to the order of bands at Trans Musicales; turn your back for a second and the lush sounds of London Grammar’s Radio 2 ready pop have been bundled off stage by an Argentinian folk ensemble, led by Mariana Yegros who performs like an Evangelist leading her flock to salvation through samba, hot-footing through the streets of Buenos Aires. Alternatively, in the next hall lies Bosco Delrey, supplementing his lo-fi aesthetic with vintage synths, skewed pop and a nifty leather jacket, warming up the great unwashed for the appearance of Har Mar Superstar, a man still struggling to shake off the novelty act albatross some ten years on from his debut.

Trans Musicales’ trump card this year is undoubtedly Stromae, the Belgian Europop dandy whose appearance draws a staggering seven thousand people to one stage alone. But more interesting prospects lie further afield. The Bar En Trans festival - the fringe event which runs simultaneously to Trans Musicales and is held in the more familiar surroundings of the local pubs and clubs of Rennes – boasts a near-exclusive French line-up within which lie some remarkable pop gems. Orval Carlos Sibelius has the wide-eyed innocence of a naïf making his first faltering steps on the festival carousel yet these jejune impressions belie a skilled and muscular craftsman at play. Sibelius’ spider-fingered guitar exploits are bolstered by brass and the buoyant, roving intensity of his set calls to mind XTC at their most spirited, the somewhat unusual arrangements coated in a poppy fuzz. Perhaps the only gripe with his set is his overtly mannered vocals which make Stuart Murdoch resemble a drunken brickie in comparison.

Following Sibelius’ set are the hotly-tipped Sudden Death of Stars, Rennes native and relatively recent signatories to Tjinder Singh’s Ample Play label. The band highlight the Brian Jonestown Massacre as their primary influence and, lo and behold, the band sound very like the Brian Jonestown Massacre. But there’s a whole lot more going on here; shades of Comus through the dark folk and impeccable English accents and a general sense of unease and beguile rifling through the psych revivalism, aided through a-not-too-intrusive sitar and striking arrangements of hair and beard. In keeping with the folk theme, The Enchanted Wood offer a near-theatrical re-imagining of Bad Seeds-style gloom, with suitably portentous vocals amid loose but important talk of death and runes and murder and all things nefarious. Unquestionably the most derivative of the neo-folk bands at the festival, The Enchanted Wood are also probably the most accomplished, their dual percussive attack scratches and stabs across the Cave palette so rigidly adhered to. A little more invention and The Enchanted Wood become quite a proposition.

As the final day of the festival dawns, we find ourselves transported back to 1988 with Dead’s approximation of the Young Gods and Front 242. Or was it Suicide fronted by Ian Curtis? Either way, Dead are very good at what they do, perhaps too good – the harsh industrial sounds occasionally veered into the realm of reverence – too much so – for their gloomy antecedents. But over at the festival main venue, Saturday night is in full, decadent swing and the place has been overrun with an influx of bingeing youngsters, eager to feast on pretty much anything with a beat. This ensures the likes of Kid Karate – Therapy? lite – have them howling and screaming for more while poor Lonnie Holley seemingly plays entirely for his own benefit. In fairness, it’s probably safe to say Holley always looks as if he is one man band and audience but his songs of love and fury fall not so much on deaf but on dead ears.

It’s a pity; Holley is a true maverick and most in keeping with the Trans Musicales spirit of bloody-mindedness but his thunder is entirely and overwhelmingly stolen by Superets. This is understandable: Superets are local heroes and play exquisitely crafted pop that is permanently festival ready. The band sound as if they are permanently on the verge of a party, their bubbling synthesisers bustling for attention with handclaps, sing-alongs, chants and the appearance on stage of Jean-Luis Brossard, festival founder and harbinger of endless enthusiasm. Superets are hell of a lot of fun and entirely dispense with the notion that musicians need to be serious on stage. Their success is doubly impressive when you realise they followed Daughn Gibson on stage. Gibson oozes persecution with intent, his baritone initially sounding like a poor man’s impression of Greg Dulli before you realise this one-time trucker is totally serious and all of a sudden you’ve been seduced by the gospel samples and the country twang and the tall tales which are almost certainly all about small-town misadventure and woe. 

Trans Musicales occupies its own niche within the festival circuit which is probably the heart of its success. There is nowhere else you can see this calibration of acts which is both a strength and weakness; the unpredictability is exciting and invigorating by default but you do have to sift through the dross to find the gems. Ultimately, Trans Musicales rewards the diligent and patient festival goer. There’s a surfeit of ten-a-penny festivals across Europe, peddling broadly similar wares; Trans Musicales deserves to be applauded for offering a defiant two fingers to this and organising an event teeming with initiative and a genuine ardour for musical invention.