February 12, 2008

Channeling the France Trance

Print More

In terms of places I’m least excited to go, the airport is up there for me with the proctologist’s office. That is unless it’s the airport in Rennes, France. Admittedly, its not my usual layover stop when I fly back and forth from Cornell to home in San Francisco, but every year in the early days of winter, I should try to make an exception. Annually, in early December, the city shelters a music festival in the hangars of the Rennes Airport. They call it Les Transmusicales, because it spans all genres and all up-and-coming artists from all over the world. Kind of like South by Southwest with crepes.

Rennes itself is one of the most populous cities in the Brittany region of France, which is the closest in heritage and in distance to Great Britain. Perhaps on a related note, the region is well-known to be one of the rowdiest in all of France. Taking many of their cues from their neighbors across the Channel, Bretons love them some rock-and-roll, and taking their cues from the rest of France, Bretons love them some techno. Infuse some hip hop for the transatlantic flavor, and maybe some Mexican guitar theatrics too, and you’ve got yourself the recipe for the 2007 incarnation of Les Trans.

As one of France’s college capitals, Rennes is also host to le Université de Rennes 1, and the Université de Rennes 2. (Admittedly, Rennes is less known for its university-naming creativity.) Come early December, the some 60,000 students in the region weigh the option of studying for exams against four nights of musical mayhem, and enough of them have the good sense to choose the latter that the hangars are packed with belligerent 20-somethings night after night. In fact, it is not unusual for the floors of the hangars to be littered with students passed out by the time the last bands take the stage, and for this reason they’ve nicknamed it “the battleground.”

Some nights, though, that last band doesn’t step onto the stage until way past military time drops back down to single digits. On Friday, Dec. 7, for example, Rafale, a French electronic duo (the French band formation du jour) didn’t take the stage until 4 a.m. Unlike most American festivals that end around midnight as the standard, this indoor indie bonanza lasts right up until 5 a.m., at which point the survivors pack the free buses back into the city only to drink some cafés and get on with their day.

As mentioned before, the festival gathers from all genres — from the Mexican instrumental guitar duo Rodrigo & Gabriela to the jazzed out hip hop of Galactic — but the crowd favorites in France were undoubtedly all the artists even remotely related to electronic music. Etienne de Crecy, a French house music D.J., began his set with a faux fire alarm that sent everyone shuffling out the exits. A few minutes later, when no smoke beyond the scope of cigarettes and swishers appeared outside hangar 9, the crowds piled back in to see the Crecy in the middle of a Hollywood Squares-type, 3-D tic-tac-toe box that lit up just as psychedelically as Daft Punk’s pyramid.

Scot Calvin Harris hit the biggest with the crowd with easily refrained choruses and jumpy electro-riffs off his album I Created Disco. Harris got the crowd going with anthems like “The Girls,” which have deep, meaningful lyrics like, “I like them Black girls, I like them White girls/ I like them Asian girls, I like them mixed raced girls/ I like them Spanish girls, I like them Italian girls/ I like the French girls, and I like Scandinavian girls.” Then the electro-pop riffs would shoot in like aural lasers and Harris would pogo back from the microphone and fan his arms in the air as if he had a Thighmaster holding them together and he was trying to escape. The room of thousands ate it up and imitated him as smoke machines created haze around the lightshow.

Not every band won over the audience, despite its rowdy desire for a good time. Dead Kids, with their lead singer sporting a fuschia leather jacket reminiscent of the Pink Ladies in Grease, harangued his audience through his music, and everyone just stood and stared at him silently before filing out to get some tasty Breton snacks or use the urinoirs (French for urinals — learn something new every day.) Another act attempted to play the guitar and the drums at the same time while wearing an all-too-revealing bathrobe sans anything underneath. His performance art, complete with a sofa across from the drumkit, on-stage carpet and a living-room-esque landscape painting on the backdrop of the stage, also sent the audience back to the bar. But part of the fun is discovering the bad bands along with the good and, especially, booing them if need be — and need was.

Going to a festival in Europe is definitely a distinct experience from going to one in the United States — everything is much less militarily organized and much more free flowing. Brittany is an ideal locale for this with its historically British/Breton raucousness and French flair. If only they sold crepes at Lollapalooza…