Paléo Festival – Nyon – 23-28.07.2013

I have a feeling this won’t go down as one of the better Paléo years. I haven’t been reading reviews in the local press, but if the two nights I was there for are anything to go by, the musical highlights were few and far between.

Of course Paléo is about a whole lot more than music. For a sizable chunk of those attending, the music is just wallpaper for the food, shopping and street theatre. And while it’s probably as pleasant an experience overall for the visiting bands as it is for the festival-goers, it’s clear that Paléo isn’t on the list of essential European summer dates for bands at the top.

This year, as ever, brought a mixed bag of young up-and-coming bands from Europe and elsewhere, some famous francophone acts, and some big international acts that are past their heyday or have re-formed to earn a few big paychecks. In the latter category this year we had the Smashing Pumpkins on Wednesday night – or at least we had Billy Corgan plus the three current touring members of his band. His voice still sounds great (except of course for the five minutes when we lost front-of-house sound entirely) and they made a big, loud sound. But there wasn’t a whole lot of passion or energy to the performance.

Unfortunately, the Arctic Monkeys were even less impressive earlier that same evening. I saw them in 2007 at the Benicassim festival when they gave an incredible performance. It seems the intervening years have, perhaps inevitably, sapped much of that energy and left a jaded, fake American-accented Alex Turner just going through the motions. The last couple of albums have swapped the catchy pop-rock of their earlier days for a more swampy, plodding sound that needed a much more committed performance to work at Paléo. Even when playing songs from the first two albums they oddly chose some of the more downbeat ones.

We caught a bit of Beach House on Wednesday too, but… Well, when I saw them in a Amsterdam in 2010 I wrote that it was “an evening of long monotonous songs that didn’t really go anywhere or do anything”. No change this time I’m afraid. I know they have a couple of songs that work well on the radio, but listening to them gets pretty tedious after a while.

So, was there anything good on Wednesday? We only caught their last three songs but Belgians BRNS were coming to the end of what had clearly been a really hot set that had a packed Club Tent rocking to the rafters. (Do tents have rafters? Hmmm…) I’ll definitely be listening to more of their stuff. (Here’s the song that’s getting some airplay in Switzerland at the moment.)

Saturday night was all about Blur, who were the midnight headline act. We did the tour of the stages throughout the evening, seeing mostly Swiss and French acts but, sadly, not much that was any good. I understand BB Brunes, a French band, are doing quite well and they sounded pretty good on the main stage. A four-piece band from Paris, with three ladies on the guitars, called Théodore, Paul & Gabriel went down well in the Club Tent, but I couldn’t get past the fact that the lead singer was singing out of tune quite regularly. As for Benjamin Biolay, a French singer, well he attracted a big crowd to Les Arches, the new Paléo stage for 2013, but one look at the bored faces left, right and centre told you all you needed to know.

So, to Blur. I had high expectations and was looking forward to seeing them for the first time. Fortunately, and in contrast to the Smashing Pumpkins and Arctic Monkeys, they delivered the kind of show that a summer festival crowd derserves and wants…even the sometimes difficult Paléo audience! They played just about every hit they’ve had – only Charmless Man and Stereotypes were notable by their absence. I know they recorded some new songs last year, but I don’t know whether the few that I didn’t recognise last night were new material or just album tracks I haven’t heard before.

In any case, it was all superb. Damon Albarn threw himself wholeheartedly into what was their second appearance at Paléo, twenty years after their first. Aside from the four band members, they had a horn section and a mini gospel choir to beef up the sound. The highlights were too numerous to mention, but I particularly enjoyed Tender and Beetlebum, and of course the short sharp shock of Song 2 that finished the night off. We cycled home through the fields of Vaud, tired and happy. Blur had saved Paléo for us!

Here’s Tender… at Hyde Park in 2009. (Needless to say, the crowd singalong wasn’t quite as impressive at Paléo, but we did our best.)