Seanachie's most recent absence can be explained by his presence at Rock en Seine, Paris' 'premium rock festival', as David Brent might describe it. It's been going four years now and has finally branched out into a three-day project. And though not the world's most prestigious rock festival, it has its definite advantages. Located in the St-Cloud national park, it is right beside a major city (hence, along with Budapest's Sziget, probably the only such festival) and, if you don't fancy camping, you can take Metros 9 or 10 all the way home. Apart from the luxury of being able to sleep in one's own bed, an extra attraction for the Parisian resident is the wonderful atmosphere engendered by the festival, which fits almost seamlessly into the publicly-spirited enterprises of the Cinéma en pleine air at La Villette and the live Jazz performances at Parc de Vincennes. For someone who grew up going to Irish rock festivals that always seemed hostage to chancers and scumbags, the camaraderie of Rock en Seine is a novelty. An added bonus is the proliferation of bars so no queuing for half an hour to buy a maximum of two beers, as is the case in Ireland, and neither are there cops wasting taxpayers' money checking on what people are smoking. Needless to say, there are no resultant public order problems. To top things off, after six weeks of miserable rain, the sun mercifully shone.
The festival is organised by the regional government of Île de France, the region that encircles the capital, and they put up about 20% of the €3.5 million budget. According to a report in yesterday's Libération, for the fifth year, the festival has once again made an undisclosed loss, in spite of attracting a record 65,000 people. UMP member of parliament Yves Jégo tried to score political points against the Socialist President of Île de France by claiming that the ticket prices were prohibitively expensive. Even UMP Minister for Culture Christine Albanel (who attended Les Rita Mitsouko's set on Saturday) dismissed Jégo's newly-found compassion for the little man, noting that the prices (ranging from €42 for one day to €99 for three days) are reasonable when compared with one-off concerts in Paris. I remember paying £60 back in 1992 for a two-day ticket at Féile; with inflation accounted for, Rock en Seine presents very good value for money.
The biggest draw on the first night was The Arcade Fire, whom I missed on their pre-world-fame appearance two years ago. Though the band have little discernible stage charisma they nonetheless provided an impressive set, with thirteen members on stage, a great light show, and they also brought along a hurdy-gurdy. It's always good to see a hurdy-gurdy. More explosive and arguably more entertaining were The Hives, who are, as my friend Nick noted, like four milkmen fronted by Mick Jagger. When they first came on the scene six years ago, I thought that they would never last, that their admittedly amusing concept masked musical shortcomings but their subsequent albums have been surprisingly fresh and only the hardest-bitten of cynics could have failed to smile at their hilarious set at Rock en Seine. Because of work I missed MIA, The Shins and Dinosaur Jr, the latter two of whom were reportedly great while I heard mixed views about MIA.
The highlight of the weekend went unnoticed by most on Saturday as it took place on the smallest of the festival's three stages. It was 22-year-old Scot Calvin Harris, who has been remixing Kylie Minogue, CSS and Groove Armada and who now has his own LCD-esque six-piece group that provided the weekend's hardest-working bassist and most of the best dancing. As with James Murphy's combo the lyrics are sharp and funny, particularly in the recent single 'Acceptable in the Eighties'. CSS played also and were a big improvement on the last time I saw them - at the Elysée Montmartre in April, when they seemed jaded and going through the motions. This time they provided the perfect festival atmosphere with their girly rock trappings - balloons onstage, streamers and party poppers and bubble kits distributed to the audience. Their forty-minute set was much too brief even if they did surprise us by going out in an impressive hail of feedback.
Speaking of feedback, later in the evening saw the return of the Jesus and Mary Chain. The band are blessed with the greatest moniker in rock history - a name that fascinated me as a nine-year-old with its outrageous blasphemy - and their sound towers over even their own music. The Mary Chain sound is as much a fabric as anything else, and though their music became repetitive after 'Automatic', their third, 1989 album, there was enough material to fill an excellent set. Jim Reid still looks like a sadistic Liam Brady - you wonder how he ever managed to bed Hope Sandoval - and their music still sounds like the Beach Boys reflected in a Glasgow puddle - perfect in other words. Cold War Kids had the thankless task of replacing Amy Winehouse and did tolerably well, while Israeli techno-popstars Terry Poison and French legends Les Rita Mitsouko provided good cheer at the other end of the festival site. Quite why California dirge rockers Tool were called upon to headline Saturday night is beyond me but their light show at least was worth looking at for about fifteen minutes.
Sunday had less of interest for Seanachie and the first band he bothered watching was Kings of Leon, who, despite not being natural showmen, provided a tight set of tunes that showcased well their masterly musical and lyrical virtuosity. My favourite line of the weekend is that one from 'Milk': 'She'll loan you her toothbrush/She'll bartend your party', which is so good that it's really too dangerous to use around most of the women I know. Just Jack also provide a fine line in wordsmithery, though their production is sometimes a little too polished. Live, however, they were unexpectedly sunny and got a large crowd dancing with something that was in short supply all weekend: real basslines. Due to my relative proximity to the main stage I suffered Faithless' utterly inane public-school techno for a couple of hours and then moved closer to catch a glimpse of Björk.
I think it's fair to say that Björk is the anti-Bono; someone who is just so faultlessly cool and admirable it is impossible to take offence at her sometimes quite difficult music. Which is why it pains me so much to admit that I just don't really like the music. Why, I don't know, as, by the looks of those gathered around me, many others do, and my own tastes can sometimes stretch to the realm of the recondite. Like the last time I saw her - back at Féile 94 - I resolved to enjoy the show at least and it didn't disappoint. Backed by an all-female brass orchestra heavily caparisoned with runic banners - which are surely the result of spending far too much time around Matthew Barney - and with programming by former LFO maestro Mark Bell, the wee Icelander toyed with the crowd for a first half of sombre numbers before upping the tempo. Though the audience seemed to be appreciative, there was no indulging them, which is a measure of how confident and challenging an artist Björk is. Shame I could only tap my feet and nod, really.