Live Review: Les Nuits Secretees Festival – Aulnoye-Ameries, France 22.07.2022 – 24.07.2022

Don Blandford

Going to festivals and collecting the press accreditation is like childbirth – it’s best to forget how painful the process can be otherwise you’d never attend another festival again. So here I am in the sun-bleached fields at the back of Aulnoye-Aymeries railway station in Northern France wandering around aimlessly muttering “pardon, je suis Anglais” to everyone I encounter. So far I’ve clocked up nearly twenty kilometres walking around trying to get my pass with my camera bag, suitcase and pop-up tent trailing behind me. Ce n’est pas glamour!

Finally, three hours after arriving in the town I’m making progress. I have my camping and festival wristband and the photo-pit or “crash” pass too. The campsite beckons – where the ground is baked so hard I regret not packing a mallet to force in the tent pegs. Sun dazed and travel-weary I’m struggling to recall the French word for mallet. The air is heavy with heat, dust and far too many persistent wasps. Then my campsite neighbours make some welcome small-talk which happily results in them borrowing a mallet for me and my pop-up tent is finally secured – Les Nuits Secretes festival I’m all yours now!

Je parle too soon! More entry shenanigans greet me as I attempt to enter the festival arena. My wristband QR code is zapped and I’m “interdit” et “inconnu” but after I apologise again for being English, security let me through as I wave my cameras and photo pass in their face. I will remain “forbidden” and “unknown” for the full three days of the festival. The mysterious foreigner.

This is a cashless festival. My QR code is pre-loaded with Euros. Well it ought to have been but being forbidden means I have to queue and wait another half an hour to get the wristband loaded before I can grab my first bise blonde beer. I feel like I’ve had triplets without any pain relief.

I’m incredibly privileged to experience Les Nuits Secretes festival in its twentieth anniversary year. The festival is a similar size and capacity to the Isle of Wight festival. For all my patient queueing I’ve not missed anything. The festival events start later than UK festivals so I take the time to navigate the site. Close to the entrance is the Oasis area featuring a DJ booth along with food stalls and a stand promoting ‘Nuits Douces‘ – advice and support with sex, drugs and harassment issues at the event. Helpful agent secret volunteers are spread throughout the festival arena.

The main stage is impressively large and deep and appropriately called the “Grande Scene”. Further along is the smaller ‘Station Secrete’ stage – a stage which was all set to be blessed by Nova Twins before they had to cancel their appearance due to being held up in traffic in Dover. The most interesting area is the Eden stage. This architecturally impressive train yard is a gorgeous setting for performers with the added benefit of providing shade and respite from the blazing sun. There’s also another venue listed as ‘rue pietonnes‘ which nobody can direct me to and I’m met with a Gallic shrug whenever I ask.

As the tunes from the resident Oasis DJs Johnny and Wallace fade into the mid afternoon haze the first band takes to the Station Secrete stage. Almost Lovers are one of the many interesting bands on Parisian label Howlin Banana and they’re brand of Britpop jangle and cheeky chappy pop perfectly suits the sunshine. Their sound though doesn’t at all reflect the rap and dance music which will dominate much of the festival. Over at the main stage Kampire – the queen of the African club music scene – is warming up the decks for the weekend. This first night becomes more eclectic over at the Eden stage where Mamys & Papys – a choir of over fifty-somethings is given a rapturous welcome from a packed venue. Almost forty members ranging from aged fifty to eighty plus sing to an ecstatic crowd. An aged rock choir with a prime time festival slot – It’s a curious sight!

Ivorian reggae icon Tiken Jah Fakoly on the main stage is an arresting presence too. Clad in a robe with immaculate dreadlocks and a carved staff Tiken strides the stage oozing cool with his politically astute anthems. These undulating reggae rhythms just seem to float on the evening sunshine. Les Nuits Secretes is even busier now but it’s infused with a laidback charm.

So with a Nova Twins no show I’m free to see Shygirl at the Eden stage and I’m comforted that there are now at least two English people at this festival! Shygirl aka Blane Muise grooved and danced Les Nuits Secretes into the party mood.

By now the fields are full and the festival is rammed – time then for Congolese rapper Damso and his engaging headline slot to fuel the frenzied crowd. The platinum selling francophonic star from Kinshasa is the star attraction on Friday. The most dynamic performance though was yet to come. Izia Higelin – or simply Izia as she’s known to her legion of fans. A singer and an actor, Izia is pure dynamite! Exploding on the Eden stage with an enthralling set, Izia is far too good to be left to the French speaking world alone. She’s more than a chanteuse – Izia an absolute rock chick! The best kept secret of the night.

As the DJ set of Charlotte de Witt pounds into the night I head for the campsite, my tent…and peut etre some sleep.

C’est samedi matin and also my birthday! It’s now clear that another of the secrets of the night at this festival is that sleep is for wimps. People partied until long after daylight dawned. Happily this means the fantastic showers are available and I’m a clean Englishman! The arena is open from midday and even then there seems to be no scheduled acts for another four hours after that. Time to search for a caffeine hit and maybe some birthday cakeage. The festival arena has many food outlets and a couple of bars but nowhere sells coffee! They keep you up all night and yet provide no coffee. The chocolate hit of a Belgian waffle will have to do. I’m also kept alert by following around the smokers as they drop their fag butts in the tinderbox dry grass. Warning signs are everywhere yet it seems the fields are just their cendrier (ashtray). Je suis un pompier – and in 2023 I’d like guest-list entry for saving Les Nuits Secretes 2022 from burning down, s’il vous plait!

What to do though? There are hours before the next bands are on. Beer yoga is the answer! No really. Never has yoga been so mesmerising. Just by the Oasis DJ area there massed a group of festival folk armed with their QR code purchased pints ready for some bending, stretching and quaffing. Doing the downward dog with a beer in hand and praising the universe for your pint isn’t something you get at UK festivals…but you should. Then there’s the hula hooping challenge and the keep fit class too. Quite a sight!

The Station Secrete stage also has a way of keeping everyone occupied for a few hours. The Kara-Okay event features the live accompaniment of band Almost Lovers and is compulsive viewing. The battling teams of karaoke singers are so professional and are rightly greeted with boundless enthusiasm by everyone. One solo performer ‘Sophie’ does an amazing cover of Zombie. Others go all Britney and cover Toxic. The summer pop from Brussels band Satchel Hart follows seamlessly and keeps the feel-good mood going. Meanwhile, Requin Chagrin are an interesting proposition by the railway yard stage with their brand of French surf pop and dreamy psyched out songs. All the better for being a surprise late addition to the line-up. Be great to see this band do a UK tour.

The Grand Scene has been adapted for fiery American Celtic punks Dropkick Murphys. The stage has been divided by an elongated platform spreading out deep into the festival crowd and they strut and cavort around in their usual combative manner. A breath-taking roar.

Rodrigo Y Gabriella are much calmer. Sitting in a lounge area on the Eden stage the Mexican duo strum and serenade through sublime classical guitar tunes. Meanwhile just across from the very long queues to the too few toilets Social Dance are up for some fun at the Station Secrete stage. Bouncy and upbeat, their synthpop is so cheery and uplifting they’d comfortably headline London venues like The Shacklewell Arms.

Still no sign of the ‘rue pietonnes‘ band area and nobody at the festival seems to know where it is. No coffee either. The festival merchandise stage seems to have disappeared too. So as a birthday treat to myself I try to liberate a festival poster from the wall of the press area but get caught in the act. In my defence all I can say is…”je suis Anglais…”!

It’s left to Swiss singer, DJ and producer Mara to create the Saturday night rave at the Station Secret stage. I’m surrounded by hundreds of jubilant French people jumping up and down as Mara writhes and strides through some Self Esteem like dance routines and then dabbles with her DJ set. After this the DJ set from Jamie XX is the calm after the storm as he wraps up the night in Aulnoye-Aymeries.

Sunday is a scorcher at Les Nuit Secretes in so many ways. The hula hoop, keep fit and beer yoga participants all work hard for their fun in the glaring sun and even the hay bales around the festival are being soaked with water to avoid them combusting. Not a day to be trekking off the festival site but I have word of where the ‘rue pietonnes‘ stage is located. Apparently, it’s out by the railway station in the pedestrianised high street and Italian band Ada Oda is playing. Their brilliant Wet Leg style song Niente Da Offrire is a joyous slab of post-punk indie fun and they don’t disappoint. They attract everyone, including aged locals into their world, and there’s even a stage invasion too! Desperate to rush back to the main arena I attempt a shortcut to the festival but in spite of my many “je suis Anglais” comments security still make me take the long route back just in time to see the very intriguing Mansfield TYA. This Nantes duo consisting of violinist Carla Pallone and vocalist Julia Lanoë only came to my attention courtesy of a Shazam search in a Paris bookshop a few days before the festival! Their eclectic melancholy and minimalist (yet prog) sound is so enticing. Similarly absorbing is November Ultra – aka French singer Melanie. Her beautiful vocal range is stunning and so unexpected. Her voice is so gorgeous, she possibly stopped the nearby trains in their tracks! Shining brightly at the railway yard stage.

Back at the Station Secrete area rapper and MC Eesah Yasuke is smiling her way through some technical issues with her beats. She takes up a random offer from an audience member – who happens to be an accomplished beatboxer – and continues on with her set before finally normal service is resumed. She’s a star! Over on the main stage Madagascan rapper OBOY is less engaging with the audience but that’s the nature of the so-called ‘mumble rap’ genre! This makes the visit of Ada Oda to the smaller stage even more welcome and they do some monitor leaps and lighten the mood with their breezy indie pop. Note to promoters: They told me they’re looking forward to gigging in London some time!

Les Nuits Secretes is approaching the end but there’s still time for the French chanteuse Juliet Armanet to completely steal the show on the main stage. Piano-playing singer songwriter or full-on rock chick – Juliet does it all, and really earns her celebrity status. It’s then left to the controversial French rapper Orelsan to fill the humid Sunday night air with his social observations during a lengthy set which also – rather bizarrely – features old school rock guitarist Eddie Purple.

It’s been a privilege to be one of the 55000 people at Les Nuits Secretes watching such a diverse array of artists – including French rap, Italian indie, synthpop, Ivorian reggae, an aged rock choir and some enchanting chanteuses. Okay so I never did get that coffee…or steal that festival poster but Les Nuits Secretes is a warm, welcoming European festival just a local train ride away from the Eurostar at Lille. As my camping neighbours ponder over how to get their own pop-up tent packed up they’re envious that mine is already neatly stored away – “je suis Anglais”, you see! Merci beaucoup Les Nuits Secretes.

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