Les Vieilles Charrues Pt 1: Way Out West

At Brittany's biggest festival, which was given a wild west theme this year, Rockfort drank deep of the cider and the local pride and a took in a mix of French oldies and newcomers.
Materialising every summer in the countryside just outside the town of Carhaix Plouguer in the Finistère ‘département’ of Brittany, Les Vieilles Charrues (‘the old ploughs’) has reached its 19th, distinctively wild west-themed, edition. Already the talk is of the big names that could be booked for the 20th anniversary next year – AC/DC? The Rolling Stones? U2? Jesus? Not out of the question (ok, maybe U2 would be a big ask…) for an event that’s one of the biggest in a region with its fair share of decent festivals like Les Transmusicales, the electronic/techno-fest Astropolis, La Route du Rock and Bout du Monde, and this year’s non-French acts included Muse, Jamiroquai and Mika.
Unlike Les Trans and Astropolis, it has several stages on a single site, along the lines of Glastonbury though quite a lot smaller and you can’t buy cigarettes (it’s the law, apparently). Musically, it’s as far from a niche festival as you can get – those popular and populist international acts mentioned above slot in alongside French oldies like Alain Souchon and Jacques Dutronc, the revellers get a decent helping of dance acts (Étienne de Crécy, Mr Oizo), Sunday sees a lot of reggae action with Raggasonic and Toots and the Maytals, and there are indie-ish names like Midlake and Fanfarlo. One of the most distinctive feature is the Cabaret Breton tent which showcases traditional Breton folk-derived music and local artists – oh, and an air bagpipe contest, more of which in the second report.
On that theme, another feature you can’t help but notice is the number of Breton flags on display, usually carried by members of the public. One thing that many of the artists playing Les Vieilles Charrues are keen to emphasise is how happy they are to be in Brittany, tapping into the reservoir of local pride (the local Breizh-Cola, for example, has been popular enough to force Coca Cola into a specially tailored marketing drive), maybe even waving the Breton banner themselves (Phoenix), or just screeching “Merciiiiiiiiii Brittaneeeeeeee. La resistaaaaaance!” into the night air (Airbourne).
I came for the French acts, of course, so thankfully I’m spared having to go into gruesome detail about Jamiroquai (there wouldn’t be much detail anyway, we gave it approx 1.5 songs before moving on) or Mika – although it did occur to me that one of the reasons for Mika’s popularity in France might be that he sometimes sounds quite a lot like Patrick Jouvet. Muse get a special mention, not because I particularly like their music, but for braving the lashing rain on the first night when apparently they were offered the option of backing out. Fortunately, the weather improved greatly over the following three days.
Several hours before Muse and the storm hit, Revolver opened up the first day of the festival with their Beatles-inspired, orch-pop. It’s heavily derivative but they’re solid enough live. It’s not really accurate to say that I was disappointed by Jacques Dutronc since my hopes weren’t too high for a guy who’s in the lap-of-honour phase of his career. And as it happened, even with the best will in the world I couldn’t quite reconcile the razor-sharp, zero-fat original recordings of ‘Cactus’ and ‘On Nous Cache Tout, On Nous Dit Rien’ playing in my head with the very accomplished but overly fulsome versions delivered by the band.
Still, Mr Françoise Hardy did provide one of the odder moments of the festival by having a line of people sweep the stage with brooms during one song. Some people might also want to know that his bass player was Jannick Top, one of France’s most esteemed bassists and one-time member of Magma. Either that, or there’s another bass player in France with that name, but I doubt it. Later on, when it was ‘raining ropes’ as the French say, we cut our losses and opted for bed over Mr Oizo. I don’t wish to keep you completely in the dark regarding the activities of Quentin Dupieux (for it is he), though, so I will tell you that his latest film Rubber, about a car tyre that’s alive – and maybe murderous – looks to be a rather strange cinematic artefact.
The first stop on the second day was the Beachbox stage – essentially a trailer or caravan of some sort that was open from the side, with a little sand and a few plastic seats deposited in front of it. It was rather charming, and so was Chapelier Fou (pictured above), a one-man orchestra who weaves mingles live violin, keyboard and guitar around breaks and pre-recorded samples. The results are a bit like a more electronic take on Yann Tiersen’s shtick, but he mostly keeps to the right side of whimsical. A little later it was time for Joey Starr and Kool Shen aka Parisian rap legends Suprême NTM. Starr has a taste for slightly surreal acts of violence – he did six months in prison last year for, among other things, using an axe to demolish a car, and was once caught on film doing terrible things to a monkey –which somehow fits with that extravagantly guttural and comically menacing voice of his. His partner didn’t come through quite as clearly in this setting but they’re both master showmen, the energy levels are high and the boom-bap backing is solid throughout. Another big name in French rap, Diam’s, follows a little later. The little I caught suggests that the Ouest France newspaper’s assessment of the performance as preachy and laboured probably hit the mark.
The rest of the night was spent in the Cabaret Breton tent, first for OoTiSkulf, whose spooky, intimate demos translate into something more strident and rocky on stage, and then the enormously enjoyable Izphenn 12, an orchestra of musicians from the local Kreiz Breizh Akademi who, under the tutelage of the genial Erik Marchand, twist ideas from Breton folk and oriental music(s) into some interesting new shapes. It was pretty trance-y and, while joining in a conga round the tent, I succumbed to the (slightly suspect) sensation of being drawn into Brittany’s misty past – I suppose the delicious local cider might have played its part too. Later, when we slipped backstage and I grabbed (read: accosted) Erik for a chat, he was quick to dismiss the idea that there’s any kind of unbroken link to the old music – no-one really knows exactly how people played centuries ago; there is no 'authentic' approach. Finally, more dancing was inspired by a blinding son et lumière show from Vitalic.
A report on days three and four to follow.
David McKenna
With thanks to www.brittanytourism.com