Haldern Pop Festival – live review
As the 2014 edition of the Haldern Pop Festival descended upon the meadows, we sent Chloe Mayne along to find out more about Germany’s best small-and-staying-that-way musical celebration.
Haldern Pop Festival is a musical microcosm; a small marble covered over in the cornfields, watched over by the stillness of the cattle and fertilised by sweet spirit from year to year. Having been capped at a capacity of seven thousand for over a decade now, the lineup continues to blossom as interest in the festival grows; tickets for this year’s instalment sold out more than eight months ago. I was humbled, then, to have been permitted into the fray – this is, after all, the last festival to need additional hype decorating its tail.
It’s easy to see why Haldern Pop retains such a fervent cult following. The setting, for one thing, is picture-perfect. Turning right into Lohstraße, the thin stretch of road was flanked on either side by waving hands of corn, and the satisfying crunch of gravel passed underwheel. Long-legged girls on bicycles floated up the path, leaving trails of blonde hair behind them. Small children in suspenders blew bubbles from the checkered comfort of picnic blankets while their parents clinked afternoon beerbottle necks and malleted shiny tent-pegs. Balloons and coloured flags hung from every available railing, flecks of confetti already adorning the meadows. The birds of the Haldern migration were settling wings into their annual surrounding, preening their campsite feathers in anticipation of the musical roost.
Thursday, a new addition to the former two-day weekend lineup, was an appetiser of generous proportions. Fat White Family were everything I was hoping them to be; loud, visceral and writhing. Opening with psycho-sensual masterpiece ‘Auto Neutron’ and moving into the throes of ‘Touch The Leather’, the set was peppered with deliciously static guitar and wolf-howl vocals from Lias, who actually kept his pants on for the entire duration of the set. These guys have whittled a perfect combination of lo-fi charisma and tight musicianship that makes them a real delight. My request for the track ‘I Wanna Be in Connan Mockasin’s Band’ wasn’t met with much enthusiasm – but alas, I couldn’t help but ask, considering that they were sharing a bill. My only qualm was their stage elevation; they play with the special kind of intensity that makes you want to see them in a dingy, low-ceilinged cellar, their sweat mingling with your own under a hedonistic red glow.
Kurt Vile and the Violators reached out into the cool darkness that evening and filled it with delicate shards of light; a rollicking, rolling set that pulled each pair of shoulders into maritime motion; ‘Hunchback’ was the embodiment of this. Vile’s stage presence is unassuming but powerful, his eyes just visible behind long blinds of hair. The show was loud, really loud; though in my gin-addled, sun-warped state, I didn’t properly notice it until the next day when a series of infinite chords chimed against my eardrums. His set was a delicate balance of tracks from across the albums; his was also the only performance of the weekend to draw tears from my eyes, his lilting rendition of ‘Runners Up’ pulling tiny threads of nostalgia tight in my chest.
As Benjamin Clementine crooned a gentle hush over the mirrored faces in the Spiegeltent, Jonathan Toubin was flagging down the next station of the legendary New York Night Train. I bumped into Kurt Vile on the platform, who was delighted to have just been given a poster-print from his set. It was a great picture, bathed in luminous green, his hair caught forever in that head-just-tossed-back-out-of-water freeze. It was courtesy of the crew over at Rockpalast, who were doing a brilliant job of visually documenting the event. I think Vile and I were sharing harmonious levels of intoxication by this point, and spent what was definitely too long deciding whether the pink balloon creature he’d also been given was a dog or a fox. I dragged him by the hand to the stage-wing to meet Toubin, whose praises I’d been enthusiastically singing for days after catching his six-hour set (yes, six) at OFF Festival in Poland the previous weekend. Toubin’s suave little case of prized seven-inches had been safely stowed, ready to spin, and he was nervously anticipating the set. “I hope it goes alright,” he laughed, looking out across the slightly-straggled 1am crowd. “They look as though they’d rather hear ‘We Will Rock You’”. But he had nought to worry; we were quickly enveloped in a foot-stomping tangle of tango that saw encore after encore demanded, the early hours folding merrily in upon themselves. After navigating myself somewhat long-windedly back to camp, I was bade goodnight in the gentle twilight of morning by a boy who shared the name of an Italian city, the tips of my boots wet with dew as the roosters began to clear their morning throats.
What’s both chuckle-inducing and wonderful about a German camping festival is how prepared all of the patrons are. On Friday morning, card tables were spread with full breakfasts of bread rolls, cured meats and percolated coffee while the newspaper was read over crossed legs; a regular kitchen spread, but with the walls peeled back and everything synthetic. Entertainment included rounds of bowls and a game played with wooden blocks and sticks that I was unable to figure out. An engine rumble marked the passing of the Pop Shower truck, a large water tank on the rear manned by an overseer who’d only direct the life-giving hose at you if you sang to him. Sunburnt bodies lugged blow-up pools and bottles of shampoo after the vehicle as it left muddy toes and glistening backs in its wake.
The mud of the morning truck-shower was a rather unfortunate preview of the evening to come. By lunchtime (if there is such a thing at a three-day festival marathon), the sun had pulled a grey coat about itself and refused to reappear. Raindrops launched themselves from the sleeves, ever-expanding, until each camp was running for cover beneath its respective marquee (I was infinitely glad, at this point, for the preparation of my peers). The rest of the day was spent drinking vodka around a guitar, flicking through books of tabs as though they were tracks on a stereo. I let myself sink back into the singalong in true Haldern Pop style, and I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that a lung-wrenching cover of The Backstreet Boys’ ‘I Want It That Way’ was unleashed on the stormy skies above.
The rainclouds must have enjoyed it enough to grant us mercy – or run away to cover their ears – because they soon eased just enough for us to traipse across the grounds to catch Atlantan garage royalty Black Lips, who were Friday’s indisputable highlight. They were playing inside the Spiegeltent; an extravagant, drenched-in-red-velvet arena reminiscent of a nineteenth-century circus, a mosaic of polished wood and tiny coloured mirrors lining the circular curve of the wall. Sitting with them outside their beat-up caravan before the gig, it felt as though we’d stepped back a century; a curious setting for a rock and roll show, but it was pulled off brilliantly. The band’s on-stage presence was endearingly over the top: Cole Alexander rolled on his back and kicked his legs about before attempting to take the lens of the video camera (which was filming for German television) in his mouth. The saxophonist, a long and lanky thing with a rage of black hair, stared down the horn as thought it were the barrel of a gun, pacing like a filly. Perhaps best of all was the thunderous reaction of the crowd, who flung themselves around the ring with a ferocity not seen at any other point in the festival. The Spiegeltent’s capacity being severely limited, only those who’d lined up in the rain for hours previous were granted entry, and they were wringing the most from it. ‘Hippie, Hippie, Hoorah’ was a standout, drawing itself into moments of tense quiet before thrusting itself back into braying chaos. It soon emerged that it was vocalist/guitarist Jared Swilley’s birthday and he was thrown a plastic medal, which he proudly fastened about his neck.
By the time we emerged from the Spiegeltent, sweaty and breathless, we’d completely forgotten that Lee Fields and the Expressions were already halfway through their set over at the Mainstage. A true apple on the James Brown family tree, his set was a slick stroll down soul lane, laden with plenty of references to ‘the ladies’ and smooth flicks of the hips. By this time the mud had been churned up to an uncomfortably soupy consistency, however, and reappearing blankets of rain left me scrambling for my tent zipper, curling up gladly amid the tempest.
On Saturday the mud was pressed down by tractor wheels like clay in the hands, and the clouds settled themselves to mildness. The Augustines and Fink put on a pair of impressive shows in the afternoon; the former, an unbridled cannon of energy, the latter, a slowed-down deep breath in the sunlight that drew wreaths of ecstasy from the crowd. Conor Oberst was the highly-anticipated act of the day, though it left a rather underwhelming impression. At the same time, I should probably add that a large percentage of the festival’s acts were lost on me due to my impartiality toward folk music; something I felt rather apologetic for throughout the weekend.
Patti Smith‘s set smoothly travelled the curve between twilight and night, following the course of the moon as it pushed up through the trees. It began slowly, quietly, almost mournfully – songs being offered in tribute to Jerry Garcia, the anniversary of whose death it was, and Johnny Winter. The third tribute, a soaring cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’, was met with appreciative arms. If things hadn’t quite kicked off yet, however, the transition from ‘Land’ into ‘Gloria’ twisted the show into gear. As Smith tore off first her beanie, then her jacket, and then her vest, decades fell to the ground and we were approaching 1979, her hair and limbs gaining speed as we headed for the poetic galaxy of Smith’s punk-godmother aesthetic.
Sun Kil Moon were soon to follow, over in the magnificent Spiegeltent. It was there in the wings that I crossed paths with Fink, whom I’d had the fortune of interviewing earlier in the day and who had (thankfully) recommended the band to me. Singer Mark Kozelek’s presence was intense, full of fire despite the relatively gentle nature of his output. Ever-watching his two other musicians, he was quick to point them in desired directions, turning his back on the audience to watch over; with all of the recorded material being written by him, he was clearly protective of it. His attitude was sombre and eccentric, lyrics tinged with a slightly Stephin Merritt-esque cynicism. Immediately after closing his final song he reached for his jacket and beelined for the door, eyes fixed to the floorboards. It was a unique performance that left us vaguely bewildered, but very much in awe.
If my festival experience still needed a little glazing to sweeten it to perfection, Connan Mockasin was the confectioner supreme. Receiving his education in the arts of synaesthetic underwater-wooze and satin pyjamas, Mockasin cuts a truly exquisite figure. Dipping his fingers into the milky hours of Sunday morning, he blew a warbled soap bubble; an enchanted world of sensual delight quickly unravelling inside as the iridescent doors opened. Connan was carried onto the stage upon the back of special guest Kirin J Callinan, a fuzzy whipped-cream cap atop his head, a shaky bottle of red wine in one hand, and eventually set gently to the floor like a daisy.
The set traversed beautiful and mysterious territory, from the delicate sighs of ‘Why Are You Crying?’ and gently enchanted lifts of ‘Faking Jazz Together’ to the delightfully creepy ‘I’m The Man That Will Find You’, which was introduced with a giggle: ‘Because, if there’s anybody out there feeling a little… frisky; I will find you.’ From there our collective canoe was pushed from the riverbank and we embarked on a ten-minute journey through the magical subterranean comet-trail that is ‘Forever Dolphin Love’. He was flanked on stage by a spectrum of beautiful guests that moved about him like currents, the music gathering urgency as it ascended toward the surface, lungs threatening to burst.
Compared to the open arms that had embraced some of the more nondescript acts in previous days, the reception to this spectacle of a festival finale was, to say the least, a little bemused; as though a brilliant joke were being told that the majority of the crowd, unfortunately, didn’t get. An encore was, however, demanded, and this time it was Callinan who stepped into the spotlight. Stripping back to his trousers, he insisted that the show would only continue if a sufficient proportion of the crowd took off their own clothes, the rest of the band (and a few audience members) following his lead. Pacing the stage with colossal amounts of charisma, he launched into ‘The Toddler’, a rolling number about shaking his rattle and drinking his mother’s milk that left the crowd unsure as to what they’d gotten themselves into. To assuage the confusion (or perhaps further it, who can say), the mayhem morphed into an absurdly delectable interpretation of Little Richard’s classic ‘Tutti Frutti’, after which Connan was hoisted onto Callinan’s shoulders and they teetered topless together, first a little precariously toward the precipice of the stage and then into its wings, the field falling to a darkened, slightly melancholic monochrome hush.
I then slipped between the folds of the backstage area, where a vodka-wired pandemonium/closing party was driving itself into the morning hours under the bonnet of a small marquee. At this particular vodka bar, the only drink one could buy was a gigantic bottle, upon purchase of which the music momentarily stopped, a large bronze bell was beaten to raucous applause and everybody in the bar was entitled to help consume the spoils. It was a fantastic experiment in give-and-take that soon had woozy bodies falling into one another, standing on the tables or stumbling toward the bonfire. In the corner of my eye, I spotted an unmistakable blonde bob; Connan Mockasin, saying his farewells. Spurred on by the confidence contained in the little orange bottle I acquired during one such aforementioned bell-ring, I dashed over and tapped him on the shoulder. My tongue quickly turned into a moth, but I managed to sputter a few complimentary words around the floury wings. His response was gentle: “Thank you… thank you, although it was a miss”. Wie schade, Haldern.
As my limbs grew heavier, I turned my back on the coloured lights and wandered slowly to the train station. Walking the streets of the empty town, the reverberations of the festival hung over it like a veil which wouldn’t be lifted until well into the next day. My only company at the dimly lit station was a young muddy-footed blonde thing in his boxer shorts; a bright-eyed, scattered remnant of the celebrations across the hill. Introducing himself as a member of the annual flock, I unearthed a stick of unused tokens from my wallet and pressed them into his palm. As the train slowly pulled me away from the confetti-strewn cornfields, leaving Haldern was like releasing the hand of an old friend.