Despite the official opening of the 25th anniversary edition of Les Nuits Botanique kicking off two days before with a sold-out show by Zach Cordon’s folk-world music project Beirut at the Cirque Royale, I enter the fray on Friday as the festival opens on its second and main front. As the host venue gears up for its grand opening, Le Botanique is a hive of activity as teams of staff apply the finishing touches to the four stages which will host over eighty acts in the coming eight days. The former royal horticultural complex is buzzing with anticipation and driven by the sound of a ticking clock.
Amid the organized chaos of these final preparations, I grab a few minutes with Eddie Argos and Jasper Future from British art punks Art Brut. Freshly off a darkened tour bus, singer Argos is slightly disorientated but happy to be back in Brussels. “We’ve been really looking forward to this,” he says. “I’d forgotten it was a festival though. I got off the bus and it was like ‘oh it’s this place again – brilliant! Oh, loads of bands are playing here.’” Guitarist Future looks less ruffled but is no less enthusiastic. “It’s not very often that you get to play in a botanical garden so it’s pretty awesome,” he says. Art Brut bring their ironic brand of shouty faux-anarchy to the Orangerie later this evening and Argos expects a lively crowd. “Last time we were here there were loads of old skool punks and a fight broke out,” he reminisces, almost fondly. “I jumped into the crowd and shouted ‘if you wanna fight, fight me’ and then it was all like, ‘what am I saying?’ They were really big punks. But luckily no-one fought me.”
There are no outwardly visible punks in the crowd when Art Brut take to the stage later in the evening; the swelling audience is mainly made up of slightly bemused locals with a few hardcore fans dotted around. It takes a while for the band to get through to the majority of the audience but a few raucously delivered songs in – and after the robust Argos leaps into the crowd to deliver a monologue on crashing a Van Gogh exhibition – Art Brut look on course to record another victory on Belgian soil.
Taking a hint from Argos himself, I leave the manic Brits to enjoy their away win and fight my way to the exit, heading for the outside tent where spiky Canadians Metric are due on stage. Weaving through the milling punters and resisting the allure of the hot-dog stands, I exit the 19th century greenhouse and shuffle into the temporary sweatbox outside to catch the end of The Official Secrets Act’s set. With their voluminous blouses, Adam Ant face paint and Killers-esque theatrical pop, I wonder what strangeness I may have missed while feeling that lady luck has played a small part in bringing me here at the end of it all.
Metric offer something a little more palatable to my taste. The Canadian quartet come across as a mixture of The Cardigans and The Strokes and soon have the crowd bobbing along to their sweetly sung, angular new wave-pop. Unfortunately, due to the fact that Le Botanique’s cup runneth over with exciting acts, Metric are scheduled on stage at the same time as Brakes, a band I’m eager to see. Perversely wanting to end the night with ringing ears and sweat-drenched shirts, I leave Metric to their now adoring crowd and heads for the Rotunde to catch the last half of a high-tempo show by the Brighton rockers.
Knowing Saturday is another day, I eventually call it a night after a couple of draughts of the local throat charmer before catching the Metro home.
Les Nuits is a marathon, not a sprint so with a full week of gigs still to negotiate, I decide to take it down a notch for Saturday. The Cirque Royale is offering a night of melodic folk and experimental alt-rock so I roll up in good time to get a good seat (oh yes, it’s all very civilised) and have a word with headliner Andrew Bird. The Chicago multi-instrumentalist is just one of the many artists fitting Les Nuits into an already bulging list of live dates and is unsurprisingly a little lethargic after months of being on the road. Despite this, as Bird himself admits, he and his band are ready to dig deep to produce a show which will both surprise and entertain. “I’ve played Botanique about six times and I always look forward to coming to Belgium,” he says. “If I have some dates in France I always make sure that we manage to get a couple of shows in over here too. So we’re looking forward to the concert here.” Bird is renowned for his live looping, hyperactive switching between instruments and his darkly ironic yet beautifully delivered songs. He promises that tonight will not disappoint. “You know, the record is only a moment in time but we like to make the live show into something else. We won’t change things so they’re unrecognisable but the songs get a different treatment on stage. We like to challenge the crowd and mix things up. Hopefully, the audience here will appreciate that.”
Later at the bar, I accost Lasse, a travelling Swede, and ask if Andrew Bird is the main reason why he’s here tonight. “I was visiting friends in Brussels and was due to fly home last week,” he says, expertly holding four glasses of beer at one time. “But this festival sounded cool so I stayed on. I’m here for Phosphorescent tonight but I hear Andrew Bird is excellent.”
After a lilting, acoustic solo set from British folk singer Laura Marling and a rousing masterclass in country rock and tight musicianship from Brooklyn hairies Phosphorescent, the slight, diminutive Bird takes to the stage to show Lasse and the rest of the Cirque Royal why this reputation precedes him. And he does not disappoint. Skipping between multiple microphones, treading on effects pedals with the dexterity of a tap dancer and swapping guitar for violin and glockenspiel, Bird whistles, sings and handclaps his way through a mesmerising performance. I head out into the midnight hour in search of frites with the standing ovation still ringing in my ears.
I’m back at Le Botanique come Sunday but before the fun and games can commence once more, I have a date with a couple of babes from Brooklyn. Melissa Livaudais and Busy Gangnes from avant-gardists Telepathe bring their brand of electronica to the Rotunde tonight and are in relaxed mood despite the gruelling tour which has already taken them around much of Europe. “What a beautiful place,” says Busy, reclining in her chair and admiring the venue from the sun-drenched terrace below. “We’ve never been here before.” The girls have enjoyed enthusiastic crowds so far in Europe and Melissa hopes the Belgians won’t be any exception. “We hope they’ll be into it, maybe even dance around a bit,” she says. “The live show is pretty intense, with the two of us mixing live and climbing over each other to get to all the equipment. In the States we’ve started experimenting with dancers on stage but we won’t be able to do that here. It’ll just be us doing our thing.” If tonight’s show hinges solely on the Telepathe sound, fans of the multi-layered richness of their recorded material won’t be disappointed, according to Busy. “If anything, we can do more with the songs live,” she says. “We can drop samples and loops all over the place and really let the songs expand. We love the studio because we’re essentially producers and we love that we can work on a sound to make it perfect, but the live show is just really fun because it’s seat of the pants stuff.”
After I wish Telepathe good luck, I enjoy a brief private show at British folk rocker Hugh Coltman’s soundcheck before looking in on the free samba lessons in the bar (and avoiding enthusiastic attempts to get me on the dance floor) on my way to the Grand Salon for some 1940’s-inspired pop from Clare and the Reasons. Playing in the round to a crowd reclining on low chairs and cushions in Le Botanique’s spectacular exhibition space, the US-French quartet deliver a relaxed and engaging show of effortless lounge tunes and chanson. The atmosphere is so casual there’s even time for an impromptu recorder rendition of the Rocky theme tune and a mid-set Rubik’s Cube challenge. If any show so far underlines Les Nuits’ diversity it’s this one. “This is the second time we’ve been to Le Botanique but this is the first time at the festival,” singer Clare Muldaur tells me after the show. “The Belgian crowds have given us a great reception both times. Maybe we share a certain quirkiness.”
That quirkiness is so enthralling that I have to dash at full-tilt around the fish ponds to get to the Rotunde to catch what’s left of Telepathe’s set. The booming bass almost lifts me off my feet even before I enter and those ear-plugs previously found among the lint and ticket stubs come in mighty handy. Telepathe has the crowd enraptured but there’s very little movement on the dance floor. A few nodding heads will have to suffice. Sorry girls – the Belgians appreciate things in a different way.
Leaving the thudding electronica behind, I duck into the Orangerie just in time to see Vinicio Capossela, Italy’s own version of Tom Waits, leave his piano stool behind and dance like a gibbon in front of the heaving, hugely-appreciative crowd. Failing to get more than just a glimpse, I consult our schedule and head for hobo-folkie Charlie Winston’s headlining set in the Chapiteau. However, the audience in the tent is equally bulging so I make the decision to call it a night. Monday is a day off. Time to take stock – and maybe get some sleep in preparation for the days and nights to come. Stay tuned.