The Best Kept Secret festival in Hilvarenbeek is an absolute pearler, and believe me I’ve been to a few. From the life-affirming, (Glastonbury in the ’80s) to the life-threatening, (Treworgy Tree Fayre ’89 – two dead, two hundred arrested and a dead sheep in the water supply). Constructed around a lake in a forest, the setting is idyllic, with camping on one side, the festival site on the other and a beach in-between. It’s a cashless festival but everything is on tap with a card reader; great food, coffee vendors wandering around, even a guy who can refill your beer in the crowd mid-gig from his backpack.
Friday we see Blossoms from Stockport in the late afternoon, very accomplished at what they do, but my mate looks my way and mouths “festival band”, and let’s be honest some are. They seem at home on a big stage but they’re not gonna blow anybody’s cap off.
Next it’s off to see John Grant, and in my general cluelessness I’m thinking of John Legend, so I’m imagining a soulful journeyman in the Gregory Porter mould. What I’m not expecting is Brian Blessed in Kiss make-up backed by Soft Cell, but it’s a surprise and a real treat. His voice has a Neil Hannon burr, and the electronics are great, despite being plagued by technical glitches throughout. He does himself proud, and the proximity between stages One and Two mean we can dash to catch Primal Scream, barely missing a track. Bobby Gillespie is clad resplendently in a pink suit and owning the stage – and Rock ‘n Roll in general so no change there. He’s genuinely having a good time, and with killer hits like ‘Higher Than the Sun’, ‘Loaded’ and ‘Rocks’, they deliver massively.
Back on Two it’s Stereolab, who’ve never sounded better. Laetitia Sadier has always known there’s nothing sexier than a woman and a synth (it’s just the way it is guitar guys). They serve up a selection from their vast pantheon of tunes; ‘Miss Modular’, ‘Ping Pong’ and ‘French Disco’ amongst them, and it’s a masterclass in Krautrock-ian hypnotic cool.
Jason Spaceman and Spiritualized bang out a gospel-driven fuzz-fest that reeks of redemption, over on the main stage, but after a while it falls a bit flat and formulaic and a tiny part of me wishes he was still a bit fucked-up. Selfish I know; he’s probably visited parts of the psyche that would shrivel mere mortals, but still…
The old guard seem to be wiping the floor with everyone on this first night, but after some food and many beers we squeeze into a packed marquee to catch Shame, and the balance is redressed in incendiary fashion. Old cynic that I am, I find myself thinking “do we need another Sham 69?”, but these Londoners are young, energised and they mean every note. My cynicism evaporates away as they batter the audience with youthful arrogance, vicious tunes and a caustic joyous/dangerous energy, the likes of which I’ve not seen since the late ’70s. I leave shamed, and secretly thrilled that years of Sheeran have finally sired a searing antidote to all the blandness.
My days of being up to see the first band on are long behind me, especially when camping. But after some hanging out at the beach in blistering sunshine, we catch Phosphorescent on the main stage. It’s the kind of American guitar music that sits nicely with beer and sunshine, even the darker stuff, but it doesn’t prepare one for Fat White Family. Well here we are in uncategorisable. Noisy yet melodic in a twisted way, saxophone and synths, screaming self-flagellating vocals. The bare-torsoed singer makes me think of Fad Gadget at his most self-destructive. It’s festival music with a small “f”, from back when people would set fire to your tent for a laugh (see Tweworgy above) but I like it.
If truth be known, my main incitement for coming here was Kraftwerk, and let’s just clear up that there likely isn’t going to be new material and a new album, so get over it. They’ve paid their dues, created a universe of sonic and visual excellence, and a legacy and live show like no other that will probably outlive us all. I’ve seen it multiple times since 1981 and the thrill never diminishes. So put on your 3D glasses and lap it up. Bloody loud as well, which is always the icing on the cake, as those big sub-bass notes rattle your internal organs. Rant over.
Not much time for other acts after that, between the forays to the bar and a visit to the Casbah, a small punky club/hut thingy, there to offset the various ravey spaces dotted around for late night partying. The zzz’s are calling and tomorrow’s another day.
Kate Tempest has had a hard life. This is my frazzled observation on the Sunday, as I’m in no mood for earnest cockney poets berating the state of the nation, but then she launches into a tirade (minus musical backing) that is so on the money, targeting all the shitbags in existence that I’m won over forever. We need more voices like hers.
Solid performances from Kurt Vile and the Violators and The Raconteurs further enhance the sunshine vibe, until the ghost of Britney blights the main stage in the form of Carly Rae Jepsen. The former Canadian Idol finalist is the kind of saccharine tosh adored by major labels and eleven year olds, but is a scourge on the senses for the rest of us. Things are not helped later by the appearance of Christine and the Queens. Sub-Madonna feather-boa choreography, Glee theatrics and flashing lights do not a superstar make, but we’ve already had our ticket-stub’s worth several times over at this superlative festival, so we stagger back to our tents happy and we’ll surely be back next year.