Les Francofolies de La Rochelle Pt 2: Seaside Rock

In a second report from the Francofolies festival, Rockfort assesses some of the live acts, from rising stars to ageing icons.

Sometimes, certain songs appear to follow you around at festivals – at Les Transmusicales de Rennes a couple of years back, three different bands covered The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. This time I was fearing Michael Jackson (and, sure enough, Renan Luce’s band did break off into the riff from ‘Beat It’ mid-song), but watching Anaïs do Generation X/Billy Idol’s ‘Dancing with Myself’, it occurred to me that I might be seeing Nouvelle Vague do the same song the very next day, and that it would be a weird leitmotif for the festival.


First, though, to Anaïs. Her debut album, ‘The Cheap Show’, was a word-of-mouth success, built on the reputation of live shows where, as well as performing her own material, she would pastiche all manner of international and French variété performers, imitate musical instruments and engage in spirited banter with the audience. The follow-up, ‘The Love Album’ is produced by Dan the Automator, and at times strikes some nice retro-exotica, pseudo-lounge poses.
Not long after she hit the stage, the rest of the UK party (including Ludo) had made up their minds – the world ‘vulgar’ was even bandied about. There’s no denying she’s excessive; her voice is actually too flexible, she can bend it too easily to her every whim, and she’s nothing if not highly whimsical – pelting around the stage one minute belting out her collaboration with The Blood Arm, ‘Do I Have Your Attention’, and the next pretending to have a sulking fit. She gives the impression of being too clever for this pop lark; on stage at least it all comes across as pastiche, and every song is basically a skit (she made an MJ joke too by way of an intro to a song called ‘Elle Sort Qu’Avec Des Blacks’ – ‘she only goes out with black guys’). The low point was a blues song where the joke is that she plays the blues really badly. And yet I couldn’t help putting up some kind of case for her in the face of the others’ hostility, particularly as that ‘vulgarity’ (the fact that she appeared to have come on stage in whatever she was wearing when she left the house?) they detected is, for me, her saving grace. In the manicured context of variété, she’s refreshing because she seems genuinely unrestrained, unafraid of embarrassment, and absolutely not demure. And she likes a sick joke.
Before going to the festival, I had somehow got it into my head that a tribute to the songs of Boris Vian in La Coursive, La Rochelle’s major theatre, was going to feature Yuksek and the excellent Sporto Kantès. It seemed like a good idea, asking contemporary, and unlikely, artists to transpose the spirit of Vian’s lyrics into a modern context. I was wrong, as it turned out, both Yuksek and SK were off performing on another stage. After Jean-Louis Trintignant opened with a superb reading of 'Je mourrai d’un cancer de la colonne vertébrale', it became apparent that this was going to be a parade of Tôt ou Tard-y artists taking turns to deliver respectful interpretations, with the tasteful arrangements not straying too far from what you can catch on the available recordings. For heaven’s sake, the man himself sang like a foghorn and wrote mordant songs like ‘Je Bois’ (‘I drink, as a matter of course, to forget my wife’s friends’), they shouldn’t just be dipped in formaldehyde and put in a display case. That said, I don’t recall ‘Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited’, featuring Tricky, Franz Ferdinand and Portishead amongst others, being an artistic triumph either, so maybe people should just leave well enough alone. I made my move as soon as possible and caught the tail end of what seemed like a good set from Sporto Kantès, before settling in for Yuksek.
About half-way through his set, I started to think that French Touch 2.0 is like Big Beat in a lot of ways, if it had channelled the 80s (and the proto-80s) rather than mod and psychedelia. Ed Banger and its acolytes are derided for producing trashy populist anthems and unsophisticated, “mid-range blare”, for having a limited sonic palette, for the music's rock-y, blokey aggression. But, as with Big Beat, when all the tics and tricks come together the results are irresistible and physically compulsive. I’m thinking particularly of things like the tightly wound, spasmodic robot funk of SebastiAn’s ‘Ross Ross Ross’, the souped-up John Carpenter/Moroder hybrid of Kavinsky’s ‘Wayfarer’, but also Yuksek’s ‘Tonight’. Its refrain is as beautifully simplistic an exhortation as they come, and those ecstatically ascending arpeggios hardly ever fail to provide the intended rush. There could be some truth in the ‘mid-range’ criticism – at least on that sound system the bass didn’t seem to do an awful lot, but that could also have been explained by the man standing just a couple of metres away from me brandishing a sound level meter – the French are pretty strict when it comes to noise limits.

I was back in La Coursive the following day for Nouvelle Vague, who didn’t do ‘Dancing with Myself’ after all. There were familiar re-workings like ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and ‘Ever Fallen In Love’, but the purpose of Marc Collin and co’s Francofolies appearance was to do covers of French New-Wave songs, which they dubbed ‘Nouvelle Vague en VO’ (version originale). The stage is their natural habitat now, a rolling revue with chanteuses including Mélanie Pain and the impressively loose-limbed Nadeah Miranda. You get the feeling the only reason they’re still doing the albums is to have more material to choose from, and to promote the tours. In English or French, the problem with NV remains the same, though – there’s the pleasure of initial recognition (the show was like a pub quiz for the two Ouest-France journalists sitting next to me. Etienne Daho? Taxi Girl? Too easy!), and then there’s the follow-up reaction – “what style have they done this one in?” – but after that, what you’re left with is the fact that anything genuinely futuristic or challenging about the originals has been lost, flattened out by this “it’s all just music at the end of the day” approach, turned into cabaret. If you can cope with that, though, it’s good as cabaret goes, and their version of Jacno’s ‘Anne Cherchait L’Amour’ was actually brilliant, a slow, cold creep up the spine. 

They were followed by Christophe, a Scott Walker-like figure in French music; he hit the big time as a Yé-Yé star in the 60s, but is cult-worshipped for his lush, epic 70s work – he crops up twice on the recent Dirty French Psychedelics compilation. His pallor, hawk-like features and unusual habits (he sleeps in the daytime and works at night) have added to the myth, and he’s still considered something of a sonic adventurer. Unfortunately, in spite of his fascinating, vampiric presence and strikingly feminine voice, the first half of the show, entirely devoted to material from his most recent album, just didn’t cut it. It’s not that it was too out there; if anything it wasn’t out there enough. We’re not talking anything approaching ‘The Drift’ here, but rather a torpid prog-lite, still resting on the pop song format but weighed down by atmospheric keyboards and a sense of its own seriousness. That his young foil was a Cristiano Ronaldo of the electric guitar (a Reeves Gabrels-type) didn’t help. The second half was apparently dedicated to older material, and when I bumped into the Ouest-France journos the next day they were happy to inform me that I missed the decent part of the show. Still I had to move on, there was more music to cram in.
The last act we caught was The Fitzcarraldo Sessions. We’d been out with them on a catamaran for an ill-conceived press conference earlier in the day, and we’re going to feature that interview on the site shortly so I won’t pre-empt it too much. In short, though, FS usually go by the name Jack the Ripper when their lead singer Arnaud Mazurel is on board, but while on a break and with Mazurel working on a solo project, the other members decided to get a number different singers they admire taking over vocal and lyrical duties for an album. Stuart Staples gets on board for a number called ‘Les Méfiants’, which gives you some idea of the nocturnal territory that Jack the Ripper/Fitzcarraldo sessions are operating in – that place where Tindersticks, the Bad Seeds, Cowboy Junkies, Tom Waits and Lee Hazlewood also reside. On stage, it wasn't quite the whole gang, but Syd Matters, Phoebe Killdeer, Craig Walker from Archive (inexplicably revered in France) and even Dominique A made it to the party. Perhaps inevitably, the results were mixed, with a couple of leaden, sub-U2 songs featuring Craig Walker on lead being the worst of the bunch. Dominique A's appearance, on the other hand, was an unqualified success, which was a surprise – at least to me.
Now, I understand that Mr A is an important figure for lots of French artists, that he’s seen as someone who gave chanson a new kind of credibility to a generation reared on Anglo-Saxon rock, but when it comes down to actually listening to his stuff, I always end up thinking: really, guys? Is this what the fuss is all about? But here, at least for one song, he was terrific. (“Did he throw shapes?” asked our own Kieron Tyler? Why, yes Kieron, he did!) A metaphysical tale about meeting a stranger on a dark night and being taken to see… (What? We don’t find out) is set to a noirish tune that, at the point of ‘knowing’, instead takes you spiralling, Vertigo-style, into the abyss. Frustratingly, it doesn’t seem to be on the Fitzcarraldo album ‘We Hear Voices’ – I can only assume it’s either a cover or something from Dominique A’s back catalogue. A good moment, anyway.
We saw Le Prince Miiaou a couple of times. We like her – somewhat close in spirit to Mansfield TYA, she claims PJ Harvey and Mogwai among her influences. We particularly enjoyed her sombre, spoken-word songs, and I’m partial to the drum parts – played by a very capable drummer for the live shows, but all written by Maud-Élisa (le prince herself) and very un-drummerly. We managed to grab her for an interview, so that will also be up soon-ish.
There were also a couple of things Ludo caught that I missed: Sliimy – I don’t see that the world really needs a French Mika/Kate Nash hybrid, but plenty of people feel otherwise (including Ludo) so we might publish a chat with him at some stage. Emily Loizeau was there too – we’d found her performance in London a little forced, mannered perhaps, but apparently this time she came over like a proper star. And Dominique A popped up for her show too.
One final thought: it’s a big world out there and there are many and varied experiences to be had. Take Les Francofolies; we came to La Rochelle for the music but my abiding memory of La Rochelle will be… oysters. I’d never fancied them much before, but I figured that if you’re going to take the plunge, then La Rochelle is the place to do it. The locals reckon that round there they are amongst the best in the world – they would say that. They also say that winter is a better time to sample them than July – they may be right; it matters not a jot, for I have quickly come to realise that oysters are like drugs. Many people have discovered this before me, I’m sure, but a half-dozen oysters easily beats a cup of coffee for getting you going in the morning. Coupled with a Bloody Mary, I think they could constitute that holiest of grails: the perfect hangover cure. As with any drugs, though, just don’t over-indulge or you could find yourself doing odd things like buying a stripy sailor top just because you’re a tourist in a seaside town. I’m not saying that’s what I did, this is just a friendly word of warning… it’s the kind of thing that could happen.
David McKenna