After Monday’s day of rest which saw a depletion in paracetamol stocks and contributions made to the burgeoning sleep deficit, Les Nuits Botanique gets underway once more. Over at Cirque Royale, the capital’s culture vultures are enjoying the smörgåsbord of world talent collectively known, for tonight’s purposes at least, as Babel Live. The second incarnation of this eclectic free-for-all includes, among many others, orchestra maestro Jean-Paul Dessy, UK indie stalwarts Tindersticks and trance-roots experimentalist Hindi Zahra. As the Cirque stage creaks under the weight of a hundred styles and voices, across town Le Botanique is serving up a wholesome feast of noise-mongers.
Despite the shiverings of mid-festival flu, I’m sufficiently medicated and ready to enter the fray once again. I’m particularly drawn to the tent tonight for the arrival of We Are Wolves and Metronomy. But before I get my post-punk and electronica fixes, I slip into the Orangerie for a taste of Quebec. Opening on the stage dedicated to bands from the Francophone province are Karkwa. These alt-rockers begin by cranking out their disconcertingly offbeat tunes to a threadbare crowd as if it was a bulging arena. It soon turns out to be a self-fulfilling approach as the Orangerie starts to fill up as more and more people are drawn in. I buck the trend and leave, not out of making any statement on quality but because fellow Canadians We Are Wolves are expected to draw a big crowd and I want to get in on the front stage action.
The buzz is not wrong. The Chapiteau bulges with eager fans all wanting to confirm their lupine status. Soon rolling bass and screeching electronica sends seismic calls of the wild through the crowd and the place is soon howling. This is where post-modern rock, punk and dub collide; it’s like the Jah Wobble-inspired Public Image Limited jamming with Basement Jaxx. And everyone here seems to love it. They Are Wolves, no doubt about it. Me? I’m not all there yet…which maybe makes me a dingo or perhaps some kind of mongrel. It’ll take a little longer for my canine affiliation to be confirmed.
Metronomy are a weird bunch too but there’s less full moon madness about them which, given the return of my mono hearing and thick head, suits me just fine. Flitting between the more whimsical aspects of Frank Zappa and the pop sensibilities of late 80s Bowie, Joseph Mount and crew deliver a thoroughly professional set of alternative electro pop which distracts me long enough from my ailments to achieve a level of normality. As the steam in the tent rises along with the voices of the crowd, I pop another DayMed and delay the inevitable for another day.
Wednesday sees a banquet of Belgian bands laid out on Le Botanique’s already groaning table of talent as the noisy old greenhouse plays host to musical fledglings, bands on the rise and established and celebrated national treasures. The Nuit Belge line-up throws up a lot of names I’ve never heard of – which is the whole point of the exercise, not just tonight but every night. While the festival can give some international acts their first taste of Belgium, it also prides itself on bringing homegrown musicians to a wider audience. And just as Le Botanique has provided now world famous artists a foothold in Europe, the festival continues to give Belgian bands their first rung on the musical ladder.
Headlining act Sharko are just one of many Belgian bands who credit Les Nuits for giving them their first big break. David Bartholomé, the band’s lead singer and founder, recalls the moment he went from pub singer to big stage act courtesy of the festival’s Nuit Belge policy. “I’d been playing in the small clubs and pubs for about six months when Le Botanique asked me to play Les Nuits for the first time,” he tells me as we stroll through the grounds in the early evening sunshine. “I was supporting Arno in the Chapiteau and this was a big step up. Arno is this big act and then there’s just me with my acoustic guitar. I thought the crowd was going to tear me apart because they didn’t know me. So this was pressure. But there was also no pressure, no expectation. I could just do my thing. So I really wanted to take that chance to impress these people who didn’t know me and make an impact. It gave me a huge boost. I’ve been back about five times now but I’ll always remember that first time and the opportunity it gave me.” Bartholomé believes the festival’s success and its track record of nurturing and promoting local talent comes from getting the basics right. “With something like Les Nuits, the concept has to be good first. And it is,” he tells me. “How it brings people here with its philosophy and its choice of bands. It works. It creates a wider audience who are attracted by the festival’s range. Then you can bring the Belgian bands in and they can connect with a lot more people. But the concept has to be right before you can do that and Le Botanique has it just right.”
Once the gigs get started, the festival soon offers further evidence to that effect. After a week of wondering what it takes to make a Brussels crowd lose its mind, the answer comes in the form of the Experimental Tropic Blues Band. Peddling Luciferian speed blues which would make Jon Spencer look like a Valium-addled couch potato; this high octane trio injects something previously unseen into the Orangerie crowd. It may be the light speed boogie-woogie; it could be the relentless rockabilly rhythms or it may even be the sudden flash of the guitarist’s penis – whatever it is, it turns the front of the stage into a writhing unbridled mass and prompts two separate stage invasions by unknown crash-helmeted space cadets.
“That was totally surprising,” exhibitionist guitarist Dirty Wolf (or Jeremy to his mum) tells me after the show. “We get crazy crowds back home in Liege, the people just go nuts but this is Brussels, you know? Usually they’re too cool in the capital. But these guys were mad. The guys in the crash helmets? Well, the one in the front with the radio tied to his head, he’s a regular. But the other guy? No idea. He’s new. He kinda surprised me. But you know, shit like this happens sometimes.”
The fact that this type of behavior is seen as commonplace in some corners of Belgium suggests this particular reporter is either going to the wrong gigs or needs to do an extensive underground club tour of the country. However, things start to become a bit clearer when Les Vedettes Disque No. 1 hit the stage. Again, the crowd goes wild for the satin-clad, eight piece girl troupe and their glittery male band. Looking and sounding like Belgium’s next Eurovision Song Contest entry, Les Vedettes squeak out trashy 60s pop which seems to hit the spot with the over-excited fans beside me.
As the girls on stage struggle to coordinate their basic choreography while keeping their modesty covered by tiny running shorts, it soon dawns on me that this enthusiasm doesn’t come so much from the music – which, in Les Vedettes case, is patchy to say the least – but from national pride. These audiences are upping their game because these are Belgian bands. The local crowds are out in huge numbers to support the homegrown talent, as I discover as I try and catch Lionel Solveigh in the Grand Salon (no visible view available) and Major Deluxe in the Rotunde (one out-one in policy on the door). Even negotiating my way through Le Botanique to watch Daan in the Chapiteau takes twice as long as on any previous night. After briefly watching The Bony King of Nowhere from the last available space by the speaker and snatching a glimpse of BaliMurphy through the stairs, I take one look at the bulging tent and the massive queue outside and decides to give Sharko’s headline slot a miss. Hailing a cab, I speed home with a new perspective on Belgian music – and Belgian audiences – to consider.
Come Thursday my flu is back with a vengeance and I’m wondering if any of the crowd on one of the nights I was sandwiched between sweaty strangers had recently arrived back from Mexico. Such is the level of wooziness and the paranoid fear that I have the Grippe Porcine – as well as the fact that straying outside into the massive electrical storm and torrential rain could be life-threatening – I decide that I’ll stick with the two bands I particularly want to see and forgo the rest. Luckily, one follows the other so once safely ensconced in the Rotunde with tissues and cough drops, I settle in for Sleepy Sun’s set before indulging in some Pink Mountaintops.
The former, an American octet who are not very Sleepy actually, prove to be one of those revelations that Le Botanique is adept at providing. It’s the sound of decades of San Francisco influences; West Coast harmonies drift below alternative glam while pseudo-religious influences and esoterica combine with psychedelic blues to add a spacey, trippy aspect to the band’s aura. It stops mercifully short of being flaky and provides a dose of aural soothing to my now aching bones.
Friday begins with disappointment as news reaches me that, despite my best efforts and my hard-earned festival press pass, there’s no way that I’ll be able to get in to see Bat for Lashes in the Rotunde tonight. The policy of sold-out shows being only open to VIP passes and those with tickets prevents me from exercising the freedom I’ve enjoyed for the past week. All credit to the security staff, though. I can blag with the best of ’em but there’s no getting past the burly dudes on the door even when I employ the exaggerated English accent ploy ( – this is sometimes perceived as exotic and adds some kind of weird credibility, although I have never quite worked out why).
Never mind, eh? Faint heart never won fair maid and while bat-lashed Natasha Kahn was my main target tonight, I’m more than happy to settle for Anita Blay, otherwise known as Thecocknbullkid. This 22-year old East Londoner peddles electro-trash and grime with a combination of rapid-fire sing-speech and full-on diva swoops and hollers. Her songs are catchy and insightful with more than a little dash of dark humour in them. The way she commands the Orangerie with her attention-grabbing image and powerful voice certainly adds credence to the hype that she’s stardom-bound. It’s not my musical cup of tea but I like to think that preference rarely clouds my judgment. This girl has a good chance of becoming huge – and we, oh leery Orangerie audience, can say we were there.
And so to the last day.
Saturday dawns and my voice finally gives up. The scratchiness of the past few days has been replaced by a thick swelling and while I can now breathe through my nose without the aid of menthol, I can barely make my voice heard – which is a pain in the arse, as well as the throat, as I’m meeting Paul-Henri Wauters, Le Botanique’s artistic director and the brains behind Les Nuits, for a chat this afternoon. Luckily, the ever-affable and accommodating Paul-Henri has a lot to say and needs very little prompting from yours truly to wax lyrical about all things Les Nuits.
I manage to croak out a question on attendances and he runs with it.
“People have been deciding to buy tickets later this year than in other years; we’ve had more people just turning up than we have had buying in advance, but in comparison to other years, the attendance is about the same, maybe a little higher than most years,” Wauters says. “I think the big artists have attracted less people than we thought they would and the lesser known acts have seen more, maybe because of the lower prices for the tickets. The first week was down on our expectations but this week has been better than we expected.”
I’ve seen him scurrying through the complex on a number of occasions over the past week, I tell him. Does he get to see many bands during such a hectic time?
“As the director, I try and see as many bands as possible but there are always people I have to see or there are people I bump into and have to talk to. There are always a lot of questions from the crews, the technicians…we have between 200 and 300 people working on the festival…but even when things are running smoothly, the chance to watch a band and just enjoy it is pretty rare. But I did get to see some bands. A lot of bands have impressed me this year. I loved Sleepy Sun…the Asteroids Galaxy Tour, Battant and Beast were great…Babel Live with about 40 people on stage together was amazing…And The Experimental Tropic Blues Band during Nuit Belge were also fantastic. Last night we had Thecocknbullkid, the first time for her and an artist that no-one knows, which really shows what we’re about. Of course we like to promote new artists but there has to be a mixture of unknowns and big names. If people don’t have confidence in your program, they won’t come. If we have 100 unknowns, we won’t attract anybody. With around 25,000 people coming here, you have to provide known bands to get that amount of people to come.”
The festival has been running for a long time now, I ask Paul-Henri how he manages to keep it fresh.
“Les Nuits has been built up every year by learning from the experience of what we did, what we can do to improve this, what worked, what didn’t work,” he says. “We’ve found out that people want to be closer to the bands, which we’ve tried out with the Grand Salon this year, and maybe we can try other things like that. We have an idea to make some themed rooms, perhaps, or bringing the stage into the middle of the room. We will also be looking into ways of making the festival more environmentally-friendly. But the beginnings of next year’s festival are here now with what we have done with this year’s event. The future of Les Nuits begins with the end of the current festival. We will build it from there.”
His phone rings and after a warm hand-shake, he’s off again, making a promise to meet for a drink later which I know he wants to keep but ultimately won’t be able to. I stand and look out over the botanical gardens under the darkening sky as the sun sets on Les Nuits Botanique 2009. Sunday, the day of rest, beckons over the dimming horizon and I decide to go out in style. My sore throat cries out for constant lubrication and I oblige in the form of beer. These tokens I have in my pocket will be useless tomorrow anyway so I exchange them for as many cold plastic glasses of the local brew as I can carry and head off to catch the much-anticipated (by me anyway) Great Lake Swimmers.
The Canadian folk rockers have been bleeping loudly on my radar ever since their festival appearance was confirmed a couple of moths ago. Tony Dekker’s troupe arrive with more melodic tunes in their arsenal after releasing their fourth album, Lost Channels, just six weeks earlier and from initial listens, the new record has enhanced the band’s already impressive repertoire. Live on stage, the dreaminess of songs like Everything is Moving So Fast and Stealing Tomorrow takes on a more robust hue while faster numbers like Palmistry and She Comes to Me in Dreams become cinematically epic. Dekker and Co. even get a few toes tapping with the Gram Parsons-inspired The Chorus in the Underground. While it may not be the most explosive end to the festival – Autokratz in the Chapiteau would have provided a more up-tempo finale – Great Lake Swimmers bring down the curtain on Les Nuits in the perfect way for me; a show which embodies the class and professionalism of the ten-day soirée.