It would be all too easy to judge a French festival by presupposition, and the image of culture vulture hoi polloi adorned with cravats peering through a thick haze of Gauloises and garlic gratin at three stages of poetry, fine art and mime perhaps springs to mind. Fortunately, at Parisian weekender Rock en Seine, such Gallic typecasting ends with the mass proliferation of crèpes and the gourmet cheese stand.
The three days of music, set in the historically leafy Parc de Saint-Cloud on the banks of the Seine attract a surprisingly large number of Channel-hoppers, giving the 9th edition of Rock en Seine a reassuringly familiar Anglo-vibe (a feeling embellished by the late-autumn English weather, making an unwelcome trip south).
Blessed with a stonking bill, topped by the Foo Fighters and Arctic Monkeys, the attendees are drawn across a wide spectrum of festival-goers, the merrily mingling crowd consists of English scenesters, their French imitators (the Champs-Élysées Topshop/man doing a roaring trade), rock dads tempted by the Foos and Deftones, families drawn in by the parallel kids festival, tween boppers out to play mischief and more than a smattering of the older cliental nodding along merrily to whatever catches their ear.
It may sound trite, but the melting pot of some 100,000 fans across the three days of this intimately sized venue simmers with an alluringly laid back ambience, rendering Rock en Seine as cheerful, friendly and relaxed a festival site as you could ever wish to lay your senses on.
Musically, the festival blends international big hitters with up and coming rookies and a smattering of local talent.
Highlights include: Biffy Clyro (7/10). They may look like extras from Braveheart plunged into a dystopian future of skinny-jeaned ubiquitousness, but boy do Biffy pack a live punch. They delight the heavy rockers among the audience with a meaty, although mostly mono-dynamic, afternoon hors d’oeuvres before the Foo Fighters.
The Kills (7.5/10). Now featuring marriage, Jamie Hince’s deftly inventive way with a 12 bar blues riff is accompanied as reliably as ever by Alison Mosshart’s menacing husk to a crowd demonstrating a keen thirst for dirty rock and roll. Foo Fighters (10/10). What is there left to say about the Foos as a festival act? From duelling guitar solos while riding the crowd to declaring “we don’t do encores because it wastes time we could be playing songs for you guys”, Dave Grohl’s rock collective turn in a level of performance and enthusiastic showmanship that shames most bands across the globe, let along at Rock en Seine.
Interpol (5/10). Perhaps it’s bad sound, perhaps it’s good light. Whatever the reason, Interpol give the impression of a band going through the motions. With a shambolically sloppy ‘The Heinrich Maneuver’ as a low point, it seems that Carlos D and a time machine set to 2004 are needed on the Interpol intercom pronto, before the slide becomes overly arresting.
Arctic Monkeys (8.5/10). Sheffield’s finest tear into their headline set with purposeful gusto. Emboldened by Alex Turner’s new 50s haircut and evolution into a stage presence befitting the Monkeys’ billing, they pound the crowd into loving submission with the classics, with some song about dancefloors still sounding as urgently irresistable as it did way back in 2005.
The Naked And Famous (6.5/10). A pretty polished effort from these Kiwi electropop whippersnappers, although they do suffer from ‘Razorlight-is’ (having one song that is vastly superior to the rest of a solid set), with ‘Young Blood’ standing out a mile as a catchy singalong classic.
The Vaccines (7/10). What does playing Reading, Leeds and Paris in one weekend look like? Hard work, if the bags under the eyes of Justin Young are anything to go by. The indie-rock radio staples make light work of their main-stage opening slot though, whizzing through the likes of ‘If You Wanna’ and ‘Norgaard’ with confidence, precision and style.
The La’s (2/10). Some ideas, like half-reforming a one hit wonder group 20 years later and playing a two man show with only guitar and bass, are really best left in the pub.
This charmingly idyllic corner of greater Paris then makes a strong fist of offering value for the discerning festival-goer. Packing a three day ticket at under £100 (making the short trip a viable financial alternative, even with the ferry and petrol thrown in), and guaranteeing stellar headline acts every year (Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Kings of Leon and QOTSA are all headline alumni), it’s hard to fault Rock en Seine for anything except perhaps lacking a bit of spark or action beyond the ordinary. There’s no particular after-hours scene, and the festival is overwhelmingly centered on the music, giving off a slight whiff of chasteness as an undercurrent to all the good wholesome friendly vibes.
It’s not an especially unique offering, or for that matter a complex one, but Rock en Seine sure does a lot of simple things well, and there’s something compelling to be said for that.