Rock En Seine Reviewed: Talking To The French In English

With an enviable setting just outside Paris and line-up boasting some of the best rock and roll bands on the planet, could this festival justify its status as a calender mainstay?
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With an enviable setting just outside Paris and line-up boasting some of the best rock and roll bands on the planet, could this festival justify its status as a calender mainstay?


A recently-departed writer once said: “never open a story with weather”, or words to that effect. But keen to escape the British malaise and the gradual summer comedown I headed again to Paris as my summer festival of choice. One year on from Rock on Seine 2012, I was expecting either more of the same, or something radically different from last year; in truth, I got neither.

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Day one, was brilliantly sunny, day two an overcast drag and on day three, it rained all day, like, literally. Why mention this before even the music? Well, for me, it’s always been the little differences that separate the festivals and changing weather, and how people deal with it, can make or break a festival. The heavy rain caught many people unawares: unlike us Brits, the French seemed determined to trompe le monde in their own fashion, so having experienced a brilliant first day, with everyone wearing YELLOW sunglasses handed out by ice-tea merchants akin to the FUCKING RED TROUSERS phenomenon, on day three these former sun-lovers were reduced to shivering, mud-splattered wrecks, slipping and sliding as bark chippings (?!) were dispensed in a patchy manner to soak up puddles.  Quelle surprise – it didn’t fucking work.

Rock on Seine 2013 was adrift in a line-up of bands popular since the late-90s and a few excellent newcomers, along with a series of very good French bands that are less well-known than they should be (Fauve) simply because they sing in their mother tongue. There is a distinct absence of middle-weight music and because French festivals are somewhat laissez-faire in their approach, the afternoon often descends into one-long chill-out session, or extended lunch, depending on how you look at it. As a case in point, j’accuse: Alt-J, good music, but very samey and loaded with classic British restraint.

Speaking of throwbacks, Johnny Marr is not one of them. Ripping through his solo tracks and brilliantly executed Smiths songs, Marr’s renditions were so pitch perfect, compared to Morrissey’s self-loving warbling, they almost made leave the nearby beer queue. He also played 'How Soon Is Now' – fantastic!

I spent some time trying to explain where Belle and Sebastian are from (Ecosse) to an elegantly drunk girl who wielded a plastic flute of wine as a determined counterpoint to her vomit-spattered wellingtons. When pressed she denied she was a) drunk b) had been sick, though the unnaturally sour highlights in her hair said otherwise. Our exchange became heated (in a bad way) and I received a slap for all of my journalistic rigour: clearly some things do not translate.

Kendrick Lamar, more hype than man, succeeds in classical hip-hop bombast with a real band backing. Now a figure of some minor infamy for all of his name-dropping character assassination, all of which has been done before, Kendrick’s talk is loud but overblown, his words are big but not clever and his performance consistently fails to reach a climax so slink away to get drunk under an inflatable palm tree and consider swimming in the antique Louis XIII fountain.

People are afraid to cross the street at Parisian boulevards. The green man goes and a line of pedestrians shuffle on the spot, looking from their feet to the white lines on the tarmac, while the cars glide on towards the crossing, putting everyone ill at ease to put the first foot forward. It highlights the strange awkwardness at the heart of the festival, tress chic but so reserved with it, as shown by the slightly sagging line-up, perhaps more style than substance.

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Laura Mmvula (pronounced “mmmm-vula”) is graceful and Marvin Gaye-like in a parka and platforms, leading the crowd in a roaring shout of “one love”, she’s like a Winehouse with depth. And a harp.

Nine Inch Nails arrived on stage with a flurry of computer screens that generated digitised silhouettes from the band, made all the brighter with the passing haze and frantic conga of teenagers dressed in black snaking their way to the front.

Reznor came back to perform 'Hurt', which was amazing, reclaiming the song from Johnny Cash’s good but not great cover, complete with the final ker-chang at the end. This was only slightly spoiled by the raft of people holding lighters above their head, a dying cliché to a long-gone period of rock and roll.

I had really high hopes of seeing my old favorites, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, having been a fan since sixth-form, I wanted to see if they had changed their sound (scuzzed-up old rock and roll) and their clothes (all-black, shades and leather) – no on both accounts, they played away a series of near hits but with all their best songs coming from their first album, it’s doubtful whether anyone is really listening anymore. I have rainwater running down my back and a shuddering premonition of a burnt-out Elvis.

The retro-shoegaze vibe was soon lifted with the furious onslaught of Franz Ferdinand banging-out their clashing dancehall myths and I was surprised to see the damp crowd loving it. It bodes well for their next album which will hopefully see a return to form. Giant lobsters, the symbol of the festival, drift overhead and inexorably I think of Lancaster bombers.

System of a Down created several circles of wild kids moshing, each had their own pull that sucked more and more people in. Even as the final headliner of the festival, I never expected to see so many people packed in to the grand stage area, a particular highlight was seeing a few hundred thousand French people singing-along to: “my penis is bigger than yours”. The gonzoid, pogo-ing metal of SOAD was great way to end a consistently erratic festival.

In a memoir of the same name, Hemingway called Paris “a moveable feast”, and as we checked into our last post-festival bar before the Eurostar home, I asked my table mates what they thought he was getting at. Is Paris an indelible memory of long summers, wine or over-priced and overrated; a city deemed so beautiful that after checking out the Eiffel Tower, Hitler decided to occupy Paris instead of shelling it into the ground? Yes and no, but Rock on Seine remains a great festival with a keen eye for mixing genres beyond rock, indie and dance and making an eclectic festival that (normally) doesn’t leave you in a mediocre dirge of shit and faded hippy vibes, a la Glastonbury. Now, if only I could find that puke wellingtons girl again.