From April 23rd to April 28th, festival goers and the industry descended in droves to the French department capital of Bourges for Printemps de Bourges. Since 1977, the town of about 100,000 has hosted the festival and industry conference that has become an “incontournable” step in the French and European music. Booking agents, managers, label reps, PR agents and more all swarm to discover the latest talent in a predominately French line-up. Though the artists are not all from the Hexagon. This year’s edition saw Patti Smith, Jamie Cullum, Public Enemy, Mika, Thomas Azier and Electric Guest join France’s heavy hitters including -M-, C2C, 1995, Sexion d’Assaut, Lou Doillon, Benjamin Biolay and Woodkid across 11 stages. Like many Americans, this festival is unknown territory. So read on to get a glimpse of Thursday and Friday’s events.
The festival takes place predominately along on the banks of the Auron, which cuts down through central Bourges. The largest, Le W, houses the headliners in a massive outdoor tent just across from le Palais d’Auron, the largest indoor venue. Le 22 Ouest and Est ended up closing most of the nights with new, emerging talent; a combined dual indoor setting with two bars inside and one out. French telephone company SFR hosts their annual SFR Jeunes Talents stage right in the middle of one of the markets, giving young artists a chance and superb visibility to be seen. Throughout this area, food vendors sell everything from Mexican to Savoyard (think fondu and raclette). Up a hill alongside Rue de Séraucourt included the Région Centre stage, open to the public, gives a glimpse at newer artists such as The Aerial, Lyre Le Temps and Scratch Bandits Crew the opportunity to showcase their talents while strolling amid clothing and food stands. Oh, and there’s a giant inflatable igloo too. All this in addition to nearly two hundred bands performing in 22 bars throughout Printemps in the City. Plus, 20 restaurants are partner restaurants for festival goers, helping add to the unique atmosphere with special privileges.
Outside of the Thursday and Friday I was in attendance, 2013 saw numerous big and emerging artists that may not be known outside of Europe. Tuesday brought on the rising French rock stars with Bella Union’s own Concrete Knives. Their album Be Your Own King is a superb indie rock blast rooted in recent British indie rock with enough rough edges to grab onto as Nicolas Delahaye’s pop hooks take root through Morgane Colas’ matter-of-fact, no frills vocals. -M- has been around for ages in France with six albums under his belt, refining his pop rock riffs while perfecting an undeniable, widely acclaimed live show. Meanwhile, La Femme has been destroying eyeballs and eardrums with their 1960s inspired surf pop and a Nouvelle Vague visual inspiration that descended the Pan Piper music venue in Paris into a Godard-esque debauchery rarely experienced in a concert. Psycho Tropical Berlin is currently tearing up French charts thanks to “Sur la planche”‘s hypnotic swirls.
Wednesday saw two of the most talked about groups; 1995 and C2C. 1995 is a hip-hop collective that used YouTube as leverage in negotiating and landing a major record label deal. They adopted the strategy and brashness of American rap collectives quickly to sell out major Parisian venues, increasing their voice to the point no one could ignore them anymore. Paris Sud Minute dropped on New Year’s Eve. The DJ quartet of C2C, who just performed early times at Coachella, are adored and regaled in France. Lists are closed months in advance, concert tickets as scarce as water in the Sahara, and their performances leaving lips talking about them for weeks on end. Jil Bensénior, aka Jil is Lucky, unveiled his second album, In the Tiger’s Bed, last year, leaving people dancing to a mix between pop and near Justice-esque electro beats.
But before touching on Thursday and Friday, Saturday took off all of the rain soaked gloves with !!!, Team Ghost, Breakbot, Vitalic, Boys Noize, and Heymoonshaker among others. Team Ghost, or Nicolas Fromageau formerly of M83, is a bombastic wall of sound rooted in coldgaze. Breakbot is the shining beacon on Ed Banger’s roster dipping back into late 1970s disco. The two piece of Dave Crowe and Andrew Balcon take swagger and blues, blended with beatboxing, in Heymoonshaker. Notably, the beatboxer David previously took to stages as part of Britain’s Got Talent.
If you do go, here are a couple practical tips. Thanks to the help of a French coworker, finding housing was pretty simple with local high schools set up to welcome visiting festival goers. Bourges is small enough of a city that you can walk around downtown and nearby within 30 minutes. From Paris, it’s only two hours from Gare d’Austerlitz, passing the countryside, to get into the central train station. Taxis are readily available, and if you happen to stay at one of the high schools, it’s only a 30-40 minute walk from the high schools to the station and about 15 minutes to the festival by foot.
With professional conferences in auditoriums occurring after noon each day, the concerts really start to kick off in the late afternoon going until nearly 2 AM. First on tap, the Canadian born Mélissa Laveaux. The shining star off the small independent label Nø Format, the soulful pop vocalist took to Le W in front of her largest audience to date-4,000 eager festival goers. Having hit the road recently, she was comfortable despite the giant size and swinging television camera capturing the evening, moving quickly into her latest single “Pretty Girls.” Dying is a Wild Night is notably more poppy than her debut album, and is wonderfully suited for such a large setting, alongside “Sweet Wood.” Her slower tempo tracks, notably “Dew Breaker,” held up as well, serving as a mellow moment surprisingly lighter in tone-though maybe because of the gentle breezes sweeping in from either side of Le W.
It didn’t take too long for Electric Guest to unveil a brand new song in the works, even with Mondo still fresh in the eardrums. In le Palais d’Auron, the Los Angeles four piece revealed “Back on Me.” Panned to the funk end of their sonic spectrum, the new song is heavy on the low end, emphasizing kick and bass without being weighted; think Modest Mouse. Right after, “Troubleman” was a pleasant trip along the Californian coast though it was The Bait” and its jaunty gait proving to be foretelling of where Electric Guest is more well suited. Singer Asa Taccone was at ease on stage, a mix between crooner (far less exaggerated than Mika) and that karaoke friend of yours you call up for surefire fun. The more amusing moment was the cheers that greeted “American Daydream.” Asa explained, “We’re gonna slow it down a bit. This song is about growing up in America-which sometimes suuuuucks!” Though the seriousness gave in as soon as the keys betrayed “This Head I Hold,” their single, and soon enchanted feet to dancing.
Rushing back to Le W, the Brit Jamie Cullum was warming up the crowd prior to Mika taking the baton. The pop and jazz pop artist, recognized with numerous jazz awards, has been serving as a bridge to draw people towards jazz in the United Kingdom. At Bourges, his talent was irrefutable. Behind the piano, he melded pop music personality with conducting his band with the energy you see only in jazz clubs. Excitedly pounding the piano, “Everything You Didn’t Do” highlighted his vocal chops, captivating the notably younger and more family-orientated public. The heat was turned up, coils turning orange with a jazzy, clever rendition of “Suit & Tie” from Justin Timberlake beatboxing into “Love For Sale.” He didn’t hesitate to tone things down, soon dipping to “All At Sea.” Had the night ended there, Jamie Cullum would’ve left Thursday night at Bourges on a satisfying, heartwarming note-though there was still one big performer on deck.
But before that, the SFR Jeunes Talents stage gave a taste of ripening French music. Future Dust are another group to emerge from the Angers scene, an area of France that has been producing artists left and right due to increased music support across the entire community. The four-piece was a mix between The Bravery and 1980s cold wave. Leo called quickly to mind Bloc Party’s vocalist, a bit too close of a comparison in my opinion, yet the rest of the band members helped to push the group away from being immediately labeled a derivative of those groups. Promising, for sure, they had more raw, fun energy on stage than most performing Bourges.
With the choice between Lilly Wood & The Prick and Mika, a last minute call went for Mika mostly due to this writer’s lack of pure pop concert experience. When I say pure pop, I mean so sugary, the only comparison is the post-Halloween binge pop pop. And did I regret the decision as I would have in mixing concoctions as a kid? Not one bit. Headlining le W, Mika was a bionic pop machine fueled by Red Bull and an unequaled interaction with his crowd, especially as he tore into 2007’s single “Lollipop.” The evening drew everyone back six years in the past when “Relax, Take It Easy” and “Grace Kelly” dominated Europe radio play. Mike dipped into “Billy Brown” off Life in Cartoon Motion alongside “Rain” off The Boy Who Knew Too Much. Mic in hand, he had the public following bound and “I hate days like this.”
We managed to unglue ourselves from the sugary stickiness for a taste of psychedelia, slipping into le 22 Ouest for Melody’s Echo Chamber. Although you’d expect to be too distracted by her guitarist’s poofy dress shirt, the music rapidly overwhelmed the senses and laid all ears in the the packed venue into a haze over Melody Prochet. With dream pop in the same vein as Love Inks or Tennis, Melody was not frozen on stage as many often can be but truly in the moment as she would often pause to play synths before unleashing herself to the melodies. Prochet made indie psychedelia fun, pulling away from the comatose and tugging towards flowered valleys and freedom. No wonder that amid those 70s interludes and reverb, Prochet was that pan piper that is able to seduce anyone into her multicolored, fantastical vision. Simply the best concert of Thursday at Printemps de Bourges.
The only regret of Friday was not buying an umbrella sooner. Granted, mine was purchased four hours after arriving on site, but still not soon enough to be definitively damp for the day. Drizzle gave into a constant, relentless rainfall that did not abate all Friday. Le W was off my agenda Friday as it switched towards reggae (Alpha Blondy) and rap (Keny Arkana and Public Enemy). Unexpectedly invited to a house show, the first one hosted by Lapin et Panda, I finally experienced the more ‘off’ side of the festival. Unfortunately there aren’t as many of these little moments as I would’ve liked. You can’t replicate walking into a space made for maybe 20 people, offered free coffee, wine and chips with the “stage” just being the floor before your eyes. While frequent in the Midwest, it’s rare to run across them in France. Catfish, the duo of Amandine Guinchard and Damien Félix, gave the lucky few who received the text messages an intimate performance of their unique blend of backwoods blues and ruckus folk. Amandine has a strong, powerful voice while Damien was a multi-instrumentalist force behind drums, guitar and harmonica. Distinctly impressive, people back here in America should check them out to realize how far reaching our music history can go.
The rain truly dragged the day on, forcing professionals into the pro area, and attendees seeking shelter helter-skelter. My choice for the night was to return to Le Palais d’Auron for Villagers, Lou Doillon and Woodkid. Villagers opened up first, and while not nearly as acquainted with their music as I was Lou or Yoann Lemoine’s, it was pleasant along the same lines as Manchester Orchestra and Kevin Devine. Conor O’Brien’s singing is more songwriter inspired, eyes closed and confessing into the microphone flanked by harmonies. Lovely, slightly dark.
The daughter of Jane Birkin, Lou Doillon, has such a carefully collected stage presence that it’s undeniable that performing was predestined for her even before being able to speak her first words. At ease, under the hanging spotlights, “Defiant” and its piano punctuated melodies, Lou’s voice is one in a million in uniqueness. While it can hold a slight rough, sandpaper tone, it betrays a grace and beauty you’d hear in the classic female country singers and songwriters that constructed the foundations of today’s pop singers. “Devil or Angel,” as when I last caught Lou at le Trianon in Paris was just as flowing and tranquille to the ears. “Make a Sound” and its gently bounding country gave into her celebrated single, “ICU.” It’s tough to retain a seriousness that is intricately laced and interwoven in the lyrics in a festival, yet Lou succeeded to the audience’s delight; a befitting treat to the dreary rainy day.
I jokingly explained who the next artist was to international guests. Given the level of hype and buzz surrounding this man, the closest comparison would be the Justin Bieber of France. Yoann Lemoine, in 18 months, has consumed the country he previously called home as Woodkid. The now Brooklynite has France in the palm of his hand. 2011’s Iron EP and the accompanying monumental music videos of “Run Boy Run,” “Iron,” and now “I Love You” stirred the nation into a frenzy to see this person in concert. His concert at Le Grand Rex was quickly sold out-a large progression from a previous private concert in the Eiffel Tower a year prior. He’s such an experience that even Aurélie Filippetti, the Cultural Minister of France, was in attendance with her entourage. What came next was the first concert in France since the release of the critically acclaimed debut, The Golden Age.
The mini orchestra was not phased as titanic fog horns bore down on the audience with lights descending. The instrumental introduction gave a prelude to what was to come with strings and brass preparing their arms. Yoann stepped on stage to quite possibly the loudest applause heard at Bourges, dressed in his trademark baseball hat and shorts. Rather unassuming for a fellow who’s created such a flurry, or even with someone with such a profound voice. Piano gently, urgently rolled in on “Baltimore’s Fireflies” as urgently as one of those sweeping shots from Place Beyond the Pines. Elegantly foreboding, the brass section beautifully emphasized his verses. Each time, he turned his back to the audience-perhaps to deflect the attention to the musicians. Jacket and bearded, the crooner became one of the more unexpected conductors of a concert you could see today. Arms swaying with the body, Lemoine conducted with his entire body. “Where I Live” stole the hushed silence from enraptured faces glued to the projected visuals. Not nearly as distracting, and often baroque in tone, the visuals played a balance between accentuating and alluring. “The Golden Age” soon thereafter, with its percussive military charge, brought forth the more aggressive moments of his set, reinforced by “Ghost Lights.”
“I Love You” instantly gave the public finally a reprieve from the anticipation of hearing some of his singles. It was here that you noticed the two drummers mimicking each other’s behaviors. The crescendo fell into “The Shore,” an intermission of sorts that soon gave into Woodkid’s ode to his new home, “Brooklyn.” Just following “Boat Song,” Yoann stepped off stage to give the black-clad orchestral crew a chance to highlight their own talents, particularly the string section. Massive and dramatic, overwhelmed the senses with lights synchronized and pulsing, the concert soon gave into “Conquest of the Spaces.” It was the only piece that didn’t seem to cohesively fit, a stretch that would’ve been better suited earlier in the set. Yet “Iron” soon thereafter reorientated le Palais d’Auron just prior to “The Great Escape” and its light, urgent charge into festive clapping. It took a brief moment of stage silence after the set before Woodkid returned valiantly, launching into “Run Boy Run.”
Although people may have preferred to let the set continue, Le 22 Ouest and Est had an unbeatable night schedule lined up. Although I missed Thomas Azier, I managed to get in just as Lou Hayter and JB Dunckel took to the stage as Tomorrow’s World. The new side project brings David Lynch to mind instantly with its otherworldly minimalistic electro laid over with cumulous clouds of Lou’s alluring vocals. Glittering in her dress, the on stage trio transported Bourges far from the less than ideal meteorology. Lou even remarked, “I’m afraid I’ve brought the English weather today.” “Think Of Me” attempted to divert attention from the pitter pattering of rain drops, yet “Metropolis” and “You Taste Sweeter” were more effective. The latter firmly rooted in this writer’s mind, though not as much as the night’s closer “So Long My Love.” The swirling single was that spiraling, hypnotic wheel that tugged people into motion before JB, on having people hooked, reeled into a roiling, distorted synth wall.
Lescop stepped up. The man behind much of the new cold wave revival was simply one of the most intriguing concerts of Bourges. Heavily talked about, Lescop on stage is a lesson in control. Imagine intensity, controlled within and betrayed only in the stare of piercing eyes and grip of the microphone, coupled with music that urges the body to submit itself to movement through addictive electro. Sirens wailing, “Paris s’endort” and its uptempo throb accelerated progressively until unleashing itself into overwhelming cheers and applause. Encapsulating the 80s, “Ljubljana” got feet shuffling much as he did a month earlier at Pop In.
Yet the hardest choice to make of Bourges was either to stay, or to attempt to pierce into Savages just mere steps away. The four girls proved to be the hardest concert to get into, leaving many, many people observing from the separate bar area. I only caught “Husbands” live, but the intensity, the passion and bite of Jehnny Beth and the three other female members tattooed their music in everyone’s memories. Whispered, charging, and haunting, they snarled and tore like coyotes on fresh prey. Their debut album will be released shortly, and will be as much a tidal wave as they were at the inundated Printemps de Bourges Friday night.
If you ever wanted a music festival with a line-up of fresh, new talent that is not diluted with the same names different dates, Printemps de Bourges is worth the trek by train. You won’t find the same American or British line-ups shuffled around to accommodate exclusivity agreements, but a distinct platform showcasing France’s and Europe’s top tier talent alongside rising newcomers. Even if it lasts for a week, the city itself is picturesque down to its cobblestone streets that wind around thanks to pedestrian business streets and a gorgeous cathedral. Much less crowded than other options, and conveniently placed at the end of April before the world’s skies become full of swarms of tourists crisscrossing continents, Printemps de Bourges might just be one of the better kept secrets in the music circuit to those not from Europe.