Belgium’s Les Ardentes Festival is now over ten years old, so this year it added an extra day, making it a five-day extravaganza. I’ve been to every one, and my role for most of them as onstage announcer has given me fly-on-the-wall access to it and how it operates. Unlike in the U.K., where the arrival of a band onstage is heralded by a growing murmur and the twitch of a stage curtain, in Belgium (and possibly at other Continental festivals), they like to have a host or five, garishly dressed, to alert the crowd to the band’s imminent performance.
Not everyone appreciates this; most frequently the bands themselves, who’ve had their egos relentlessly stroked since being shown to their dressing room, but I think it adds an element of fun to what is supposed to be a joyous event.
Day one was a slow builder with only the outdoor stage in operation, giving young homegrown talent some exposure on the big stage early on (‘Soul’art’, ‘White’ and the crowd-pleasing ‘Hyphen Hyphen’), then French-Lebanese trumpeter ‘Ibrahim Maalhouf’ treated us to some virtuoso jazz-fusion with a world music tinge; a perfect soundtrack to the sun-tinged early evening.
Les Ardentes attracts a young audience, which means they’re enthusiastic and out for a good time, but not always receptive to more “vintage” acts, such as ‘Suede’, whose arty angst was just too British and alien to capture the crowd, though I enjoyed the pop genius of ‘Trash’ and ‘She’s in Fashion’.
Wednesday ended with Belgian legends ‘Indochine’, who pulled a massive crowd, as National Treasures do, but then again, who can resist the twangy synth-pop of ‘L’Aventurier’?
Day two saw all three stages in action, and as tradition and the crowd demographic dictates, it was heavy on Rap – French, English, American. Being invited to raise a finger to the world and to shout fuck and shit has a wicked frisson of thrill for a sixteen year-old. Less so for a fifty-two-year-old who has to interact with these charmers, but it got the audience fired up. Things got hairier when ‘Action Bronson’ sparked up a spliff the size of a chair-leg and shouted repeatedly “Smoke that shit!”, unaware that he’d been trumped earlier by Parisian bad boys ‘PNL’ who’d gone one better and thrown a dozen ready-rolled reefers into the audience.
The mainstage culminated with a DJ set from ‘Mark Ronson’, who pummelled the throng with ‘Uptown Funk’ (of course) and other hits from his vast producing canon, but meanwhile inside, other stuff was happening, including how about that, ‘Stuff ’. Hailing from the Flemish side of Belgium, these young guys rolled out an avant-garde jazz prog workout that referenced everything from Can to Coltrane, and was promptly followed by the squidgy psychedelic soup of ‘Flying Lotus’, accompanied by brain-melting visuals. Realising I had another three days of this and a cat to feed, I bowed out.
Day three and the top of the steps leading onto each stage now featured a sign explaining in English and French, the law concerning the consumption and incitement of illicit substances, and the ensuing consequences. Well placed, as Friday still had its fair share of rappers (‘Guizmo’, ‘Sniper’, ‘Ty Dollar Sign’) all with little patience for a guy in a Mexican wrestler’s mask or a morphsuit, and Gangsta fatigue was setting in. We were almost considering drawing lots on who had to present them.
However, when me and Laurent rolled up to present ‘Jurassic 5’, all fears of being capped evaporated when we encountered a bunch of lovely guys, who took to the stage and delivered a masterclass in hip-hop and entertainment.
Choreographed dance moves, a giant vertical turntable, and a guitar that could scratch were mere accessories compared to the sheer class of tracks like ‘Concrete Schoolyard’ and ‘Quality Control’. The sun shone, the crowd felt the love, and things on the mainstage continued to deliver that euphoric festival vibe with the arrival of ‘Charles Bradley & his Extraordinaires’. Backed by a crackshot team of young musicians tighter than a photo finish, Mr Bradley mesmerised the audience, wringing every ounce of emotion out of songs like ‘Victim of Love’ and ‘Changes’, his soulful voice conveying pain, love, loss, regret, hope and optimism. By the end of his set, everyone wanted a piece of him and he must’ve hugged a hundred people, before departing like a visiting pontiff of Soul.
Inside, Belgian pop heroes ‘Hollywood Porn Stars’ delivered a polished performance, followed by the dark grooves of ‘DJ Shadow’, and the outdoor stage bounced into the night to the infectious and smart mixes of the mighty ‘2ManyDJs’.
Saturday threw forth more surprises and hidden gems, with skewed electro pop from ‘Naïve New Beaters’ and ‘Son Lux’, alt-folk from ‘Dan San’ and ‘Kurt Vile & the Violators’ and some fine Swedish psyche-trance weirdness from ‘Goat’. Most young festival-goers though were beside themselves for the imminent arrival of diminutive Pop-titan ‘Pharrell Williams’. Lured back to Les Ardentes as a solo star, having played a few years back as ‘N.E.R.D’, he fired through the hits and collaborations, possibly singing, possibly miming – at times Pharrell himself didn’t even seem sure if he should sing a line or leave it to auto-play Robin Thicke. The kids didn’t care though, digging the glitzy spectacle and singing along with the big-booty backing girls. Things culminated with ‘Get Lucky’ and ‘Happy’, then he brought some little kids on stage, and ended by saying “Remember, no-one can ever take your freedom away from you!”, which, we all sadly know is blatantly untrue, but hey, this is a guy who feels like a room without a roof, so anything’s possible in Pharrell world.
Sunday, and the glorious weather continued, but often the intriguing stuff could be found indoors, and credit to the punters they weren’t afraid of venturing out of the sunshine and into the unknown. ‘Marc Ribot & The Philadeplhians’ was such a curiosity. Best known as experimental guitar sidekick to Tom Waits, (and looking like a Harvard prof who was once a Ghostbuster) he rolled up with a string section, a funky bassist and a drummer who seemed intent on demolishing her kit. Fans of his Delta-Brechtian circus-midget twang however, were initially left bemused by a discordant free-jazz meandering first half of the set. Things picked up towards the end though, and his version of ‘The Hustle’ was a delight; like Disco reimagined by Zappa in a cheap jazz gin-joint.
Weirdness prevailed further with ‘Black Mountain’, taking us back to the 70s with Floyd Hammond organs and droning guitars, and very pleasant it was. It seemed that inside was the place to be if you wanted to be really “out there”, a fact compounded by ‘Kamasi Washington’. It was like Sun-Ra jamming with Lalo Schifrin in Afro-Jazz fusion heaven. Truly top-drawer.
Outside, things drew to a hazy close, with ‘Nekfeu’s slick French Rap, and Les Ardentes came to the end of another edition.
So, an always interesting festival, that sometimes suffers from too much of the same genre (in the past, a glut of DJs, and this year wall-to-wall Gangsta Rap), and is at its best when engaging in diversity. Roll on next year. (All photos, courtesy of Goldo)