A visit to the French town of Rennes to sample the sights and sounds of Transmusicales
The real fringe festival
It is almost six o'clock on a rainy Sunday morning. In a large aircraft hangar somewhere in Brittany, a man in large sunglasses and a miniskirt is doing tumbling handstands on stage. This curious individual has been limbering up for a good 15 minutes now, carrying out extravagant stretches and the occasional more elaborate manoeuvre. He looks not unlike a comedy athlete from an old Monty Python sketch.
And yet, despite the unpromising scenario and the numerous other acts performing on stages nearby, a small crowd is peering warily at this spectacle, unwilling to move on until they get to see what the lengthy warm-up is actually for. It had better be worth the wait or there might be a small riot, following the big one that happened earlier in the day. This is Transmusicales, a hidden gem in the festival calendar that acts as both a round-up of some of the leftfield artists who have bubbled under over the last 12 months, and a useful taster of the talents ready to break through next year. Based in the beautiful city of Rennes in northwestern France, it has been running for 31 years and remains a uniquely quirky affair, thanks to the whole event being programmed by just one man, the effervescent Jean-Louis Brossard.
In fact, there are two festivals running concurrently. While most of the major acts are playing at the out-of-town Parc Expo, in central Rennes, an offshoot called Bars en Trans hosts a full programme of up and coming, mostly French acts. On Thursday night before the festival proper gets going, members of the visiting European media are gently pushed towards several acts tipped as ones to watch. Local popularity doesn't always translate internationally, however.
At the very busy La Place bar, for example, the imminent arrival of the "solofolk" artist Gaspard Royant creates something of a stir, but ultimately disappoints. His heartfelt English anthems are perfectly adequate but all too similar to the many Anglo-American acts already clogging that marketplace. Singing in French would help. More interestingly, at Le 1929 a little later, a promising quartet from Bordeaux called Kid Bombardos plays a fair amount of sub-Strokes material but also conjures an edgy-but-jangly guitar sound reminiscent of the Scottish band Orange Juice. The unwritten rule of indie rock is that it is OK to be derivative, just so long as you copy the right people.
Friday's fuller schedule brings a wide and wonderfully varied array of international talent, some already established, others new to most. Sweden's Fever Ray is the name on many lips, albeit often with a bitter aftertaste as various interviews are arranged, then postponed. But the singer Karin Dreijer Andersson is an uncompromising soul. Having risen to critical acclaim as part of the stark electronica duo The Knife, her solo project has achieved wider interest still, despite its less than commercial sound. The live show is a must-see, but divides opinion. It looks impressive, with an ominously dark set enlivened by large lampshades and interesting headgear, but the moody soundscapes are somewhat challenging compared to the more accessible artists playing elsewhere.
It is a good weekend to be in Rennes, with festive decorations adding colour to the already beautiful, historic architecture. Exit La Cite and you enter the glorious Place Saint-Anne, with its fairground ride, light-strewn trees and the sound of thrusting young indie talent, given a dedicated showcase in La Bonne Nouvelle bar. France is not renowned for producing successful rock bands. According to David McKenna, who co-hosts the French music show Rockfort on the London-based experimental music station Resonance FM, that stigma has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"France has a simultaneous superiority/inferiority complex regarding Anglo-Saxon culture and rock music," he says. "You can still see this obsession in the French press. I've lost count of the number of times I've read a review along the lines of, 'Finally, here's a French group that can mix it with the UK and US competition.' But of course the French can rock. Transmusicales is important. I think people still come here to make new discoveries. Although on a more international scale now."
Indeed, while Fever Ray and the UK/US dancehall-fusion project Major Lazer attract the most attention on Friday evening, choosing to look elsewhere is rewarding. Hall Three stages a particularly memorable double-header, beginning with the dramatic Jessie Evans. Clad in a great gold cape, the Berlin-based Californian is a singer and sax player of distinction. Accompanied only by a drummer, she proffers avant-garde electro-jazz-rock with a 1930s cabaret-style twist. It's quite a spectacle.
Following Evans are The Field, the Swedish techno artist Axel Willner's solo project that has now become a full band. Live interpretations of electronic music often lose their edge along the way, but The Field's set is intoxicating, both sonically and visually, as inspired staccato images cast the four statuesque figures in dramatic shadow. It is rare to stay for a full show at an event like Trans. But this is well worth it.
Friday night morphs seamlessly into Saturday morning, and in the media village Jean Louis Brossard is just emerging from a power nap. Now white of hair but still young at heart, Brossard founded Transmusicales back in 1978 after much exposure to Britain's punk scene. Since then his sharp eye for new talent has seen Trans stage early continental gigs by the likes of Nirvana, The Cure, Beck, Lenny Kravitz and Portishead.
Brossard is omnipresent over the weekend, as likely to be with a band backstage as taking a well-earned doze on one of the media centre's couches. So who does he recommend tonight? "Ah!" he says, with some consternation, and proceeds to pick a couple of early shows at Le Cite before giving a splendidly Gallic hand-sweep across the programme. "See everyone!" he laughs, and you can hardly argue, given that he plans to do just that.
One gig Brossard did mention was the Scottish indie outfit Django Django, but the trip to see them is interrupted by a massive techno carnival snaking through Rennes. Featuring tractors, dogs and men in Nicolas Sarkozy masks, this is an anti-capitalist offshoot of a serious skirmish that took place earlier in the day, as anti-unemployment demonstrators clashed with the elite police squadron, the CRS. In France, street revolution never goes out of fashion.
The next act at La Cite is aptly named. The Agitator is the new project from the Scottish troubadour Derek Meins. Like Jessie Evans, this is another singer-and-drummer duo, although Meins' outfit is rather less glamorous: clad in the classic preacher's outfit of white shirt and braces, he seems to be channelling the spirit of one too. "We've only done 20-minute sets before this," he says, unpromisingly, but he keeps the audience enraptured.
Then comes another shift in emphasis, and another fine example of Brossard's border-free booking policy. The Narcicyst is an Iraq-born, now Canada-based rapper whose message-laden lyrics are generating interest far from his dual homelands. As well as a big-stage show he plays a short, intimate set for a French radio station, which showcases his talents to terrific effect: featuring lush strings under poetic, politicised rhymes, it's a potent combination.
At Parc Expo, it would be pointless to expect anything as deep from the French DJs Mr Oizo and Popof, but both sets get a rapturous response from their respective congregations. Hotly-tipped Danish rap-rock outfit The Politics also get a good response, without doing anything particularly interesting. It just goes to show that sometimes a lot of chanting and shouting is enough. More enjoyable are The Very Best, a mix of Malawian vocals and European production, who many stay late to see. Their culture clash isn't quite as memorable as might have been hoped, however: heavy on the dancehall and afrobeat, but lacking enough quirks to hold the interest for long.
Time for another step into the unknown. One of the unforeseen highlights of Sunday's bill is the Turkish duo Baris K and Mini, who have been DJing between acts in Hall Three. So rich is their mix of Arabic music, dub and western beats that stray wanderers have been staying on to twirl around the virtually empty hall. It's Mini who continues to play when the man in the miniskirt starts doing his exercises.
This, it turns out, is one half of a Barcelona-based duo called Meneo. They too are inspired by Mini's beats, singing along during the soundcheck. A few more stretches later it's finally time for their show. And what a show. If the raison d'être of an event such as Transmusicales is to showcase new sounds and styles, then Meneo are perhaps the epitome: two men prancing around making beats purely from handheld game devices, while a hilarious batch of Eighties arcade game visuals play out behind. This may, in fact, be the future of music.