Ah, festivals. The source of a million rock myths, thousands of random acts of violence, an infinite number of unbelievable hangovers, a collection of strange and undiagnosable infectious diseases and even the occasional happy memory, we do love them so.

This year, I and a motley crew of intrepid explorers set out to find out how our continental cousins go about festivals. It certainly seemed like a good idea at the time. Having internally said "never again" after leaving the Reading festival every time I went, the craziness that attacks music fans in about March of each year bit me once more. Before I could think, "I hate camping, I hate hippies and I like showers", a promoter had helped himself to a considerable sum from my bank account, and my ticket had been dispatched.

We sat on a Eurostar train, we hung around in Brussels, then got another train, we waited for a bus, we got on a bus, we walked for what seemed like an interminably long way. Finally in Dour, a village near the border with France (I think that is where it is, I never looked at a map) we then waited with much less patience, and walked in a manner that suggested all patience had long been dealt away in a desperate (and by desperate, I mean the driven mad with anxiety kind) frenzy of potentially friendship ending tension, to find a tent.

With a plum spot adorned with only a few giant cow pats, we set up our home for the next four nights. Afflicted with that curious madness that affects all Britons as soon as they set foot on foreign soil, we soon eased into several large glasses of delightfully cheap boxed red wine. The first evening of the festival passes by in a blur. The Ska-tellites were certainly fun, and I enjoyed an intense, slow burning set from Bonobo. But Wu-Tang Clan were far from what I wanted to see. They were in fact, unequivocally, shit.

So, on to day two, and some bands I actually wanted to see. Lots, in fact. Sounds Like Violence have long been a favourite of mine, and though they played to quite a small crowd, they rocked the block. They are a rare band that can appeal to the demanding indie anoraks and rock nutters, and the less demanding punk pop teenagers. Moshing, of a sort, was witnessed for the only time all weekend. Luckily, I opted not to take part.

Next came a pleasant song at the end of Sean Lennon’s set (Alan McGee recently described him as one of the three best songwriters of the past twenty five years. It was a pretty good song, with a long guitar solo. Sean is also very short. That is about all I have to tell you about him. Oh, his dad is famous too, so I hear).

The National were neither disappointing, nor exceptional. The songs were great, but they looked as if playing in the sunshine was something they would want to avoid in the future. Herman Dune sung us some pretty and strange songs, though they’ve become more conventional that I remember them having been back in my sixth form days when they were a regular feature on John Peel.

I hate Hot Chip. Most people seem to like them. So I went and had a sit down. From the back, they sounded pretty boring. The Rapture, whose set followed a nourishing meal from one of the stands, were ace.

Later on, Bright Eyes were the spectacle of the festival, decking the stage in flowers and mounting it dressed in immaculate white suits, this one man vanity project looked at last like a real band. They sounded like one too, (I didn’t know the unbelievable drummer from Sleater Kinney now plays with Mr Oberst, but I can tell you that she does, and it sounds great). Perhaps a few more songs from the older albums would have made it a better show, as impressive as it was.

I had a shower the next morning, a festival first for me. And boy was that the right decision. I watched quite a few bands the next day, but two stood out. The Notwist may not have released an album in five years, but they played a surprisingly loud, passionate set. ‘Tracking Days’, a catchy song from their underrated album 'Neon Golden' was the standout of an excellent set.

The Frames were the best band at the festival. Glen Hansard took a break from promoting the sleeper hit film he stars in, (‘Once’ - it has just been picked out as one to look forward to by Observer Film Monthly) on the US chat show circuit, and lead his band of 17 years through a greatest hits show.

The Frames are not a household name in the UK, which is a loss to all those households. But the Irish contingent was out in force, and this was a singalong show. Although the band weren’t afraid to play a few of their intense, post rock influenced dirges, the set focussed on the expansive moments in their catalogue, with a mix of rockers and huge ballads. Most remarkable was the amount of great songs they didn’t have time to play (not a single track from their classic, Steve Albini produced folk-rock album 'For The Birds, for example).

Hansard (who quit school aged 13 to busk in Dublin and insists that he is not an actor but who you may recognise as the guitar player from The Commitments) is a natural showman. He insisted that it would look very cool if the whole crowd lay down for the band’s final song, the dreamy ‘Star Star’. He was right. It looked awesome.

After that, the rest of the weekend was never going to seem as good. But the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club reminded me how they good they were and the Thermals ripped through a dazzling set. Camping Sauvach sung and spoke in French, but I understood the effortless hooks and the exuberant energy perfectly. The CD I bought ain’t too bad at all, and they are well worth a Google search.

The final band were Wilco. And what a way to finish! Seeing the songs from 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' sung in the flesh was a rare treat, but I was struck by outstanding musicianship and the effortless quality of the songs from their excellent new album 'Sky Blue Sky', too. Just behind the Frames, this was an outstanding moment of the weekend.


So, after all that, I learned that Belgium festivals are pretty much the same as British ones. They stink, of urine and god knows what else. You will either be too hot or to wet (at different times we were both) and you will hate camping. You will also have forgotten some vital piece of equipment like, say, your tent. But, if the bands are good, you will have an awesome time. I did.

Perhaps it was a good idea to go after all.













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