words & photography by tom johnson
The last decade has seen a swelling of European festivals appealing to UK crowds, a huge number of events grabbing onto the coattails of Primavera, Benicassim, and many more, often curating interesting line-ups in far more interesting spaces than a muddy field in England. At the peak of their powers, La Route Du Rock was often pitched as the pinnacle of such a movement, teaming up with Brittany Ferries to offer affordable travel from the UK’s south coast to Northern France with its sunny beaches and plentiful seafood.
The world is a different place in 2019, and even though this is our first visit to the rocky road something feels somewhat…changed. Insider info tells us that the festival is being run by a new team for 2019 and that cutbacks have had to have been made across-the-board. There are hints of this belt-tightening across the weekend, perhaps most notably in the line-up itself. Where previous events have boasted the likes of Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, The Smashing Pumpkins, Patti Smith, Sonic Youth, Sigur Ros, Portishead, this year’s top billing of Tame Impala, Metronomy, and Hot Chip (who were bumped up after Beirut pulled-out) looked, in advance, very safe and somewhat underwhelming – and so it proved to be.
In this age of the non-headliner, however, there were a number of gems to be found in the undercard – and it’s there that the true spirit of La Route Du Rock was found.
The uncharacteristically dreary weather added a sense of melancholy for both Hand Habits and Andy Shauf’s Foxwarren project, both acts performing beautifully wholesome, early-evening sets amid a swirl of warm drizzle and fading light.
Higher up the bill, Deerhunter are on brilliant form in Sunday’s rain, Bradford Cox playing up to the crowd in a bright yellow raincoat as he and his band deliver a punchy and vibrant run-through of their greatest hits; a reminder of just how special they can be, while Idles conjure up the kind of heart-swelling recklessness that they’ve become so adept at, stirring up an energy that sweeps across the whole site as the sun goes down. Elsewhere, both black midi and Pottery have enough vigour and spirit to justify their flourishing reputations.
The highlight of the whole week, however, wasn’t even a part of the main festival; the Wednesday opening-night club show that grouped together Anna St Louis’ hushed alt-country, best-band-in-the-world-right-now Big Thief, and the mighty Sharon Van Etten proved to be an electrifying reminder of just how crucial curation is when it comes to live music. Quite why none of these three acts were booked for the main event, when there could be legitimate questions asked about representation across the whole weekend, isn’t obviously explained but their presence is certainly missed during the main-stage lulls, of which there are unfortunately a fair few across its three days.
There is a lot to love about La Route Du Rock. The crowd is both friendly and engaged from start-to-finish (nowhere near a given at any festival). The two-stages-facing-each-other setup means there is barely any waiting time between performances, and very little trudging around to do – a trend which should be followed wherever possible. And there’s enough gold in the line-up to still make it a notable date on the calendar. Whether it returns to its mega-act heyday remains to be seen, and that will probably dictate how big a crowd it draws from outside of Northern France. Whether they’re still fussed about such a thing is perhaps another question entirely.