Les Vieilles Charrues Pt 2: Phoenix Rising

In a second report from the Vieilles Charrues festival, held in Brittany from 15-18 July, Rockfort reports on a triumphant show from Phoenix, as well as performances from dEbruit, Sexy Sushi and 69.


Phoenix were the big draw on day three of the festival, but earlier in the day there were opportunities to reflect on how they, and particularly ‘If I Ever Feel Better’ – which funnily enough has been given roughly the same treatment by Julian Perretta as Tahiti 80 gave to ‘A Love From Outer Space’ – and ‘Everything Is Everything’ have quietly influenced a new generation of indie pop-minded musicians in France, while all the while they appeared to be prophets without honour in their own country. The children of Phoenix were out in full force at Les Vieilles Charrues: Fortune, The Guests Only and Pony Pony Run Run (playing on the last day), who have all moved into the white soul/funk space vacated by the Versailles boys on their last two records and adding a French Touch 2.0 punch. PPRR’s ‘Hey You’ is exemplary in this respect, and the group won a newcomer’s award at Les Victories de la Musique last year. Unfortunately, the output of these groups largely lacks the sheer eccentricity of ‘United’ or the poise of ‘Alphabetical’ and what largely comes across is an un-sexy over-eagerness – just check the lead vocals for either The Guests Only or Fortune. Phoenix played games with the nostalgic impulse; some time before the chillwave set they were dreaming of an American FM radio Eldorado, conjuring a mirage where (false) memories of teen years spent drifting and listening to Alice Cooper, The Eagles, Hall & Oates and Michael Jackson melted into each other (the difference with the chillwavers and Ariel Pink is that they actually make their music sound like an aural mirage). All PPRR, The Guests Only and Fortune make me nostalgic for is early Phoenix.
The day wasn’t all about them, though. The Beachbox stage line-up kicked off unpromisingly with Poor Boy (above). One of them had participated in OoTiSkulf’s show the night before but there were few sparks here, just adequate lo-fi folk and scruffy drum-machine beats. 69 (below) were doing three gigs over three days here and found a good reception for their trashy aesthetic, with Armand nearly swallowing his robot-voice mic, abusing his guitar with a metal bar and just about managing to start a new dance craze on ‘Rock‘N’Latex’, and Virginie keeping her cool in the heat despite a Moog malfunction on their nearly abortive cover of PJ Harvey’s ‘Down By the Water’.
The next stop was the Cabaret Breton tent again for the much anticipated Air Binou contest – air guitar, but with the imagined six-string replaced by the Breton bagpipe (the binou) and bombarde, a kind of oboe. It didn’t disappoint, as successive waves of performers ramped up the level of absurdity. A couple delivering a rather perfunctory opening performance gave way to big men in kilts, then some well-choreographed action from some folks who seemed to have toilet rolls strapped to their heads, and finally a line-dancing extravaganza to the sound of an insidiously catchy binou 2-step track.
Sexy Sushi were the pre-Phoenix highlight of the day, though. As expected, their queerer-than-Scooter hard trance is absolutely perfect for festivals (even though they apparently blew the PA up twice at Glastonbury). In time-honoured electro-duo fashion, David Grellier/Mitch Silver played the straight man to Julia Lanoë/Rebeka Warrior’s theatrical front-person. Oddly, she spent some of the set abusing a series of small, potted trees before launching them into the audience, and during ‘Petit PD’ (“let me kiss you little gay boy/I can suck you off too”) magically ‘grew’ a couple of buff types by watering flowers – the clip below demonstrates the results. Top marks to Francesca over at Bearded for seeking this out.
There was also a high quotient of angst as well – Rebeka is not averse to letting rip with spleenful invectives from the darker corners of the Sushi’s oeuvre.
Watching Sexy Sushi meant missing out on pretty much the whole set by French new wave heroes-turned-goth rock-beasts Indochine, but l was lucky enough to catch a rendition of one of the songs I was waiting for anyway, ‘L’Adventurier’ (memories of French exchanges…). The other one was the original version of this gorgeous cover.
And so, back to Phoenix themselves. My feeling these days about Phoenix MkII (or MkIII – somewhere round there anyway) is that something has been gained, and something lost. The souped-up power-pop on ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’ is highly melodic and yet somehow the melodies are as slippery as water; they all blend into one, like déjà vus (or that should be déjà entendus) of each other. I actually think of it more like a metal album now – minimal difference in the actual ‘tunes’, all the action in the dynamics. But they’ve hit on something. Watching them live, it wasn’t difficult to understand how they’ve opened up the US, selling the country’s myths back to it (“Do you remember when 21 years was old?”). Fleetwood Mac drifted into my thoughts several times during the show. And they’re a hugely assured unit, sometimes doubling on drummers to deliver those bouncing rhythms. Now they’ve cracked it abroad, they’re being welcomed back in France like conquering heroes. When the crowd chanted “Fennicks! Fennicks! Fennicks!”, Thomas Mars and co seem genuinely moved. A screen beside the stage showed the face of a girl in the crowd merging into that of touring drummer Thomas Hedlund. France and Phoenix are reconciled.
The coup de coeur of the final day was undoubtedly London-dwelling but locally born dEbruit. Though he was squinting in the sunshine and forced to hide his kit from the heat under a towel, his succulent post-dubstep (that’s what I’m calling it anyway, and the man doesn’t like the term wonky) still managed to provide the best soundtrack yet for the Beachbox stage, and appeared to inspire some graffiti artists who had been given free rein to work on purposely erected boards nearby.
Snatches of other artists were caught on the day: Alain Souchon had a couple of pleasant moments – I’m quite fond of the reggae-lite ‘Le Baiser’ – and M’s pop-funk was overheard from a safe distance. In the Cabaret Breton tent local DJs Switch Ons, who all appear to be about 12 years old, got a decent party going while their manager handed out glowsticks to the crowd. The novelty factor wasn’t there with Étienne de Crécy’s ‘Beats ‘N’ Cubes’ show (de Crécy and his machines slotted into the middle of a giant cube which ‘interprets’ the music as an evolving light show), which was also present at Les Transmusicales a couple of years back but it was a good idea to have it coincide with the sunset (assuming that was a deliberate choice), and it still did the job of enhancing the geometric appeal of the largely acid-derived music.

To end on a non-French tip, Toots and the Maytals were a welcome balm for the final hour, especially given the alternative was the human irritant Jay Kay. Les Vieilles Charrues offered plenty – more in fact than I was able to take in, with the cabaret/circus-based Jardin de Curiosité perhaps not give the closer inspection it deserved – on a compact site. The two main stages undoubtedly had their share of attractions, but it was the fringes, like the Beachbox stage and the Cabaret Breton tent, that were central to the festival’s charm. 

Keep an eye on Rockfort for interviews from the festival, incuding dEbruit, OoTiSkulf and Chapelier Fou.

David McKenna

With thanks to www.brittanytourism.com