Wow, it’s been three weeks. They just disappeared. But yeah, I did want to make a few points related to this year’s Roskilde Festival, before the subject gets way too old. It was a great time as usual, but rather poignantly for the year in which it celebrated its 40th anniversary, the festival seemed to be straining at the seams, trying to reconfigure itself to cope with globalisation and the digital age.
There’s been a lot of criticism of the new restrictions imposed by the festival, most notably disallowing the carrying of even a single drink (even water) onto the festival grounds, as well as the profusion of new fees they levied on press and other people working there. This was irritating, sure, with the drinks issue seeming especially ungenerous (one wonders whether the money earned through increased drinks sales outweighs the problematic signal thus sent by what remains a non-profit festival, not to mention the antipathy it engendered in the festivalgoers). As for the media restrictions, many of the people who have populated the vanity fair that is the so-called media village over the years have been freeloading on the festival’s dime for long enough that these dispositions were understandable, even if they frustratingly affected people who’ve actually been putting in a lot of work in support of the festival for a long time. Ideally, the festival will be able to fine-tune these restrictions more fairly in the future, but I’m not holding my breath.
More problematic was the elimination of the Astoria and (to a lesser extent) Lounge stages and the resultant cut from the programme of around fifty acts. Besides naturally affecting the festival’s musical diversity, this contributed to unusual and persistent congestion around the stages. Clearly a decision made to compensate for cash flow problems at a time when musical acts charge more for live performances than they used to because of falling revenue from record sales, it is a problem that won’t go away and needs serious thinking on the part of the festival organisers if they want to maintain Roskilde’s image as arguably the highest quality, most diverse and forward-thinking festival on the summer circuit.
As my buddy Peter wrote in this space last year, it has become increasingly evident over the last few years how difficult it is to populate the large Orange Stage with sufficiently popular acts to maintain it at the centre of events throughout the weekend. This year, the festvial proposed a two-part solution: the overall reduction in the programme meant that even the lacklustre programming — a substantial amount of it consisting of veteran Danish acts without much current relevance, several of which were already touring — attracted enough of an audience to stave off embarrassment for most of the weekend. And then there was the inspired but risky idea to spend a third of the musical budget on Prince (he reportedly received around $2 million); he closed the festival with a lavish, virtuoso show Sunday night.
This, however, is hardly a solution that is easily replicated every year, and as regards the audience, the organisers have expressed apprehension that the vast majority of guests coming to the festival is now Danish, and not the inspiring international conglomeration of yesteryear. If they want to solve this problem, it simply won’t do to hire as headliners that many Danish groups, especially of the kind whose moment is a decade or more behind them and don’t have much to offer today. This seems to me an obvious place to start.
Some attempts were made, but mostly failed, if you ask me: performing at the important opening slot on Thursday night, Gorillaz pulled out all the stops (well, sans Lou Reed, Snoop, Del, or De La Soul, but fair enough). They had dozens of musicians and vocalists entering and exiting stage left and right around a hard-working Damon Albarn, but in glaring contrast to Prince, who was also juggling a lot of different performers and instruments, it never came together as a whole. It had the feel more of a circus act, a display of on-stage logistics gone wrong, than a concert. People seemed to be enjoying it OK, so maybe I’m just a sourpuss, but I can’t help but ascribe its partial success to the insane popularity of their catalogue itself rather than their performance of it — it was, for example, telling that people only went really crazy during the encore, which consisted of… you guessed it, “Feel Good Inc.” and “Clint Eastwood.” (Nor did it help that the sound, as is way too often the case, was absolutely abysmal anywhere but in the central corridor in front of the stage; this is a problem that I, having attended enough gigs from the flanks, know can be solved, but it only rarely is).
Muse was another attempt at a showstopper and seemed to work well enough in their Saturday night slot, but their loud showboating betrayed a lack of real connection to the audience in what was a perfectly able performance that at the end of day didn’t really rock all that much. To my relief, I heard that Them Crooked Vultures gave an excellent show on Friday night, but unfortunately I missed it, and Patti Smith reliably played a great, intense concert. Oh, and Prodigy, while bringing nothing new to the table, as predicted tore it up late Saturday night. But that was really it for Orange, which is kind of depressing when you consider what a powerhouse the stage is supposed to be, and was as recently as 2008, when it presented several fantastic shows.
And the programming problems weren’t confined to Orange stage. The reduced selection naturally resulted in some genres that have previously had their natural place at the festival getting short shrift. In my neck of the woods, this would be hip hop, electronic music, soul/funk, and to an extent reggae/dancehall. Where 2008 was a banner year for at least the former two, their impact this year was much reduced. And if you cut your number of acts, it places that much harder the onus to deliver on the ones you do select.
Jamaican music was actually fairly well represented, but none of the acts managed really to ignite. Rootz Underground played a solid if somewhat dull concert on Friday afternoon and Julian Marley did the same on Sunday. The bad boy band T.O.K. did better, delivering an energetic and thoroughly positive performance, showcasing their amazing vocal talents and natural charm on stage. But they were scheduled on Sunday afternoon and failed to draw the party crowd that their music demanded, and which they could presumably have managed in an evening slot.
As for electronic music, the festival was seriously short on the edgier or more innovative acts, and the one inspiring selection, Roska, disappointed somewhat in his too-early slot Thursday evening. It was then left to talented, but sophomoric, partly gimmick-driven local groups such as the rather forced Danish dance theatre project Humanrobot, who collected the dregs Thursday night, the pop-tinged Swedish punk-house act the Teddy Bears, who delivered a lively show on Friday afternoon, and the popular Danish DJ collective Den Sorte Skole, who played a slightly tedious, rather basic mix of 40 years of Roskilde music on Saturday night,
Hip hop, I’m pleased to day, fared better. On paper, it was the least impressive selection in over a decade, but the two American acts, Tech N9ne and Brother Ali, more than made up for any withdrawal symptoms hip hop headz might have been feeling. It may have been a little uninspired to invite Tech, who was at the festival as recently as 2006, but no matter: he is one of the greatest live acts in hip hop right now. While his over-the-top stylings and conceptual kitschiness tend to wear thin on record, he is simply incredible on a live mic. Amongst the greatest virtuosos in the game, his speed-rapping packs plenty of oomph, but it is really the enthusiasm and intensity he puts into his performance that lifts it beyond technical onanism. He was joined on stage by fellow Kansas City resident and afterburner MC Krizz Kaliko, and they just went at it non-stop for over an hour. No bullshit-talking breathers, first-verse-only ejaculations, unconvincing posturing, or other typical hip hop bugbears, just great emceeing to the extent that all the otherwise tired clichés — splitting the audience down the middle, getting a girl on stage, etc. — actually felt earned when they happened. And in the latter instance, Tech smartly invited Danish rap star LOC on stage for a two-on-one, to great applause from the audience. The high point for me, however, was a back-and-forth freestyle session between the two MCs, in which they just kept upping the ante on each other to a point where it just seemed ridiculous. Fantastic.
Ali approached his early evening show differently: it was very much the classic constellation of an MC and a DJ rocking a party, showing off their skills and versatility with a natural, laid-back attitude. Ali has always been an impressive live MC and doesn’t waste time talking shit either. He is charismatic and projects his conservative attitude to hip hop and slightly banal positive message with such grace that one cannot help but cheer him on. In addition to performing many of his best raps, he gave us an great off-the-top freestyle to the accompaniment of DJ Snuggles’ amazingly accomplished beatboxing. Real hip hop was definitely in the house.
The other hip hop and hip hop-derived acts unsurprisingly were less impressive: The third headliner, the South African white trash gimmick band and internet phenomenon Die Antwoord came off as just that: lots of energy, little talent. I unfortunately missed Denmark’s own newly-reminted rap bohemian, Kaspar Spez, but heard it was a good show, and likewise managed to forget the reportedly fine show by his jazzy French counterparts in Hocus Pocus, but thoroughly enjoyed the Columbian fusion band Choc Quib Town’s concert on Friday afternoon. Its two confident vocalists were backed by an impressive set of musicians, and they started a great party at a time of day when most people were otherwise taking it easy. Surprise of the year.
But to return to Tech and Ali; what they delivered, each in their way, is something of a rarity in hip hop: thoroughly professional and thought-through live shows, which showcased their formidable skills in the best possible way. For what I suspect are a variety of reasons originating in the improvisatory roots of the genre, a consolidated tradition for crafting a live show has never emerged in hip hop. True, individual artists have achieved amazing things: Run DMC, KRS-One, Public Enemy, and Big Daddy Kane, for example, are all legendary on stage, but far too many otherwise great acts have tended to underwhelm live because of inadequate preparation, lack of inventiveness, and resort to the kind of trite live clichés mentioned earlier. If nothing else, it was great that Roskilde this year managed to show that things can, and should, be done otherwise.
Although as always a fine experience with some great musical moments, this year’s festival showed strain when seen in the sobering light of late summer. Many of these problems have clearly been brewing for years and will have to be addressed if the festival wants to preserve its status as one of the world’s great musical events. The organisers are trying, and should be cut some slack for everything not working out, but as things stand, it’s hard to feel particularly encouraged for the future.
Here are a couple of rather low-quality videos from the Tech N9ne and Brother Ali shows: