Just days after the close of 2015’s Pitchfork Paris, horror visited the French capital, with Eagles Of Death Metal’s Bataclan gig turning into a massacre of 89 people, one of several linked attacks. The Bataclan, in resolute and righteous defiance of such terror, reopens this month with gigs from Pete Doherty and Sting. Ahead of this, Pitchfork Paris duly returned too, to its home in la Grande Halle de la Villette, the 19th arrondisement’s iron and glass former slaughterhouse, with a three-night bill supplemented by fringe events leading up to the main programme.
To an easygoing crowd whose numbers made it feel no less busy than 12 months previously, a bill of established acts and a smattering of up-and-coming newbies played out. In a shuffled beginning to the first night’s published programme, Matador-signed Lucy Dacus was first to the stage. The Richmond, Virginia native has been mentioned in sentences also featuring PJ Harvey since the release earlier this year of her debut album No Burden. Her material is not yet at a comparable level of complexity or substance as that of Polly Jean, but she can surely craft songs, build a mood and bring early birds to see her kick off a festival, as her engaging performance here proved. Having played at an out-on-a-limb fringe event the night before, tonight was Dacus’s chance to shine on one of the Grande Halle’s two big stages, and she was far from lost, despite beginning and leaving well before 7pm.
Further up the same night’s bill, Canadian foursome Suuns proved to be a highlight, filling the space with sound and showcasing their current album Hold/Still in front of double-human-sized letter lights spelling out their name.
C Duncan opened the second night (see our review of his London ICA show here), with Explosions In The Sky ramping things up to reflective wall of noise levels (see our review of their London show here) only for things to get sedately spooky with Bat For Lashes (….we covered her in Margate recently). But Friday’s big draw was Todd Terje, who finally got the evening moving at a little after 11, with an expectant in-the-mood crowd already assembled and waiting during Bat For Lashes’ set. Upstairs, ladies swung back and forth to considerable heights on a communal swing, squealing delightedly; it felt like the start of something. And Terje’s troupe then brandished bongos. At last, it seemed, Pitchfork had designated the time of serious beardstrokery at an end, declaring dancing to be permitted. Amid balloons, a couple gamely showcased their ballroom dancing skills nearby.
Moderat brought Berlin to Paris, and the movement of bodies before the onslaught was the only reasonable reaction. An on-screen caption at the start informed the crowd not to use flash photography because their set would be “dark”. Thus it proved, as suddenly Berlin’s enigma was the cuckoo in the Parisian nest.
By Saturday there was the sense that the festival could have developed further with alternate venues, although the focus on alternating main stages in la Grande Halle made its own kind of sense, giving every act its time in the lights. But also surprising was the relative lack of French acts, given the very international coverage. Maybe Paris sees enough of French acts at other times. First up tonight is 20-year-old London-via-Dublin-via-Indiana incarnation Bonzai, a big hope for Sony in 2017. While her backing band’s honking of an obnoxious klaxon sample like they’re at a Major Lazer gig eight years ago and having one of the backing males hollering “Pitchfork!” every few minutes rather dated an otherwise a darkly intriguing set, her finale Take A Bow featured an extraordinary synth riff and suggested a streak of originality that will be worth following further.
In some contrast, Whitney is not a drug-dead diva reincarnate but a bunch of happy go lucky uptempo urchins blown in by the breeze, chief amongst them front man and drummer Julien Ehrlich, who perches on a stool at the front of the stage while tapping the skins, except when he leaves to lie face up on the stage and embrace his bandmate and fellow Smith Westerns veteran Max Kakacek, for reasons not immediately clear. Features two keyboardists – one’s on a harmonium – and a trumpet, the six piece duly pay homage to American songbook styles and icons, going as far as to perform a Bob Dylan cover, amid what otherwise amounts to a run-through of debut album Light Upon The Lake.
Shame, whose noisy soundcheck prompts some questioning from Whitney during their interrupted set, are an angrier affair. Five teenagers releasing their debut single just this week, they are soon to set out on tour with Slaves and demonstrate stagecraft beyond their years. Front man Charlie Steen builds himself up for a foray of crowd visitation, spitting the contents of his pint glass about and eventually dispensing the pesky right sleeve of his suit jacket, revealing an all black ensemble accessorised by yellow braces. By the time they get to a number dedicated “to our current prime minister, Miss May,” Steen is topless. If they’re going for a visceral connection, it’s working.
Supergroup Minor Victories, formed not least of Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite and Editors‘ Justin Lockey and his brother and creative partner James, have no need for such in-your-face antics; their stately self-titled debut album showcases their combined experiences to produce transcendant, moodmaking, cinematic noise rock that wears its makers’ back catalogues lightly.
But it’s M.I.A. who is indisputably the festival’s biggest draw. Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam is on the one hand showcasing her latest album AIM, and on the other possibly heading into retirement, having discussed her new work as her last. It would be a shame if so, because her set contains more bangers for Pitchfork’s bucks than most of the other acts on the bill combined. Paper Planes, arguably her best known hit, is wheeled out in perfect style, alongside Bucky Done Gun, Galang and the more recent Bad Girls. And it’s a show that asserts its political stance, with a stage made up of metal bars, over which her dancers climb. If much of the rest of Pitchfork Paris 2016 was about seriously appreciating music in a well-managed setting, this is the one performance that transcends its surroundings.