Pitchfork’s Paris festival, now five years old and extended from two to three nights, mixes up critical darlings championed by Condé Nast’s latest acquisition with some bona fide household names. These it scatters across a festival-to-club setting of two stages at opposing ends of La Grande Halle de la Villette, a huge iron and glass former abbatoir in what is these days an arty enclave of Paris’s 19th arrondisement. Much anticipated headliner Björk had long since departed the bill – she would be replaced by Thom Yorke on the second night – but there was plenty else of note with a line-up that seesawed from indie through hip hop and on into house in the early hours.
With universally excellent sound and lighting, and an upstairs of boutique curiosities – swings, a craft market, food stalls and even an area for fencing – contrasting with an outside food court and photo booth, and a roof protecting against the vagaries of weather that might befall, a sense of occasion was duly constructed. Bands alternated stages throughout the three days; not for Pitchfork would there be sound bleeding problems, as a continuous stream of music played out unimpeached.
We arrive half way through Destroyer‘s set. Dan Bejar’s studied jazz-pop, exemplified on this year’s excellent album Poison Season, is here given the full band treatment, replete with a saxophone to his left and the man himself guarding against the cold in a full length coat. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who follow, make the slowest arrival of any band, appearing one by one, strings first followed by guitars and rhythm section. They sit in the round and, slowly, earnestly begin to coalesce their individual instrumental sounds into what becomes an eventual grandly beautiful cacophony of noise. Deerhunter, who are next up, have a more conventional approach to music, with short songs that hurtle along taking no prisoners. The two contrasting approaches work equally well, and Bradford Cox’s troupe is surely the match of Godspeed in sound alone as they showcase recent album Fading Frontier to a partisan crowd.
Beach House are the opening day’s headliner, and rise to the occasion admirably with a set chock full of fan favourites. With the low lighting – blues and greens contrasting with sparkling star-like bulbs behind Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally – the band members are less of a focus here than other acts, allowing the mind instead to wander into the cinematic dreamscapes they create. The Teen Dream material still chimes the greatest, but the career-spanning set also finds space for newer material.
Fast forward to Friday and, with his mossy beard, Rome Fortune cuts a striking, tall and desperately sexy figure on stage, stalking it like an over-excited panther. The chilly, more cerebral planes of his backing music seem to have less to do with his rapping than they do on record, making his goofy, gurning (and truly magnetic) stage persona seem rather disconnected. He might turn out to be a star, but really all he wants to do is party wit y’all, summed up in the closing Dance.
Health then set the dial immediately to pummel, beginning encouragingly with artfully arranged slabs of monochrome noise, where grainy chords of synth slam against power guitar. Songs at this point are minimal or incidental, but as they progress into more recent material, like the Depeche Mode-esque Stonefist, that aren’t perhaps aren’t the band’s real forte, the whiny Brian Molko style vocals start to grate.
In one of the worst examples of sequencing in the weekend, Rhye then has to bring the crowd back down with their pulsing, spacious R&B. Live, Milosh’s pure genderless vocals are flawless, and are allowed to blossom with much more dynamic shape than on the rather flat recordings. Occasionally, this flourishes into the type of summery, jazzy psychedelia that The Bees used to do so well, and from a cold open, they manage to win the crowd over.
Next up is Kurt Vile & The Violators. The voice a perfect blend of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, the set lazily drifts from West coast to East as it progresses. His distillation of American is a reliable winner for a festival audience, but fails to provide few real moments, only lifting its head from beatific slackerdom near the end for a rousing Freak Train.
Long reduced to a vocal-less three piece after the departure of Tyondai Braxton, Battles, rather than being embattled, have blossomed into a masterclass in why the lack of vocalist can turn out to be a great thing. They are now liberated into making a thrillingly twangy noise onstage, even if the reliance on tapes, loops and technology hampers some of their visual immediacy live. Occasional vocals are spooky, disembodied presences, like the childrens’ choir in a monumental version of the glam-stopming Atlas – the tentpole of the set.
Thom Yorke is still the major draw of the weekend, with anticipation high that the technical problems that marred his Latitude set earlier this year would be banished. Decidedly avoidant of Radiohead material, his set is culled from his three solo/side albums, majoring on his latest, the TOR-released Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. With a bank of slick, minimal visuals behind him and the lap-top podiums of the serious electronic artist, Yorke now stage manages his solo live set effectively and with some style, abetted by long-term collaborative producer Nigel Godrich. This success doesn’t stretch as far as his current hairstyle, however; his locks oscillate bizarrely tonight between lazy man-bun and Thor understudy, with Thom distractedly fussing over it, first loosening it and then tying it up again.
As a vocalist, the sound mixing makes him deliberately blurred and out-of-focus, but he seems to be relaxed with and enjoying the shifting roles his new set-up allows him. Is it working as a live show? Well, for what it is, yes, although the length of the set may be stretching the patience of the non-techno heads in the crowd. Yorke doesn’t exactly possess anything that could be described as a banger, but still gets the crowd sinuously winding during a closing Cymbal Rush, before an encore of Atoms For Peace track Default that sets up a late set from Four Tet which fires the party up again.
On the final night – Hallowe’en, no less – the highlight is a chance to see Father John Misty in full ascendency. Fresh from a pair of nights at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire (review here), he’s got the looks alright: glossy locks, peak-beard facial hair and Southern minister-lite wardrobe, if his vocals are still a little lacking in personality. Live, though, his strength is all about body language, hands testifying all over the place and an oft repeated move best described as slut dropping for Jesus. Heterosexual ladies of the Home Counties might not know it yet, but by the end of 2016, they’ll most likely be throbbing over the Father John Misty desktop wallpaper sets their partners have reluctantly bought them for Christmas. He clearly shouldn’t have ended up two slots behind Spiritualized, but his riveting stage act is one clearly fast ascending to bigger things.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra raise the spectre of Acid Jazz, like a less uncool Jamiroquai. Band leader Ruben Wilson’s heart doesn’t quite feel like it’s in the precisely phrased singing, compared to the electrifying moments where he tears into his guitar. This year’s breakout song Multi-Love is greeted like an old friend, though. While the beautifully fractured story of a three-way relationship gone wrong doesn’t quite come across through the vocals, it’s a fine moment that suggests hit-making potential for the future, should the band want it.
The big hip-hop draw of the weekend, Run The Jewels, are big, energized, and sweating good-naturedly for the crowd. The second act tonight to indulge in some USA-bashing (Father John Misty having a song entitled Bored In The USA), they introduce Lie Cheat Steal which provides a popular(ist?) moment with the European audience. Such earthly concerns are no real concern of the newly re-activated Spiritualized, who opt for a mini greatest hits set, instead of previewing forthcoming material. It’s effective enough, but gives no indication of whether the band are going to attempt to break out of incipient predictability when their next album arrives.
Saturday night then begins to tip over from gig event to full-blown club with an enlivening set from Ratatat, whose music sounds like a sonic punk adventure in experimentation, yet sports hooks aplenty along the way. Outright dancing kicks off with Hudson Mohawke, who perch atop a huge backlit stage construction that looks something like an oil refinery, or maybe a shipwreck, and pull the willing crowd along with them. Later still, John Talabot and Laurent Garnier carry the entertainments into the wee small hours, closing a good natured, varied and immersive Pitchfork Paris 2015.