The first day at Rock en Seine was replete with taking in the talent and rushing from stage to stage. There are six of them in all, from the small Firestone Stage or Ile-de-France Stage that both shine a spotlight on emerging talent, international and local, to the mid to large size stages including the Main Stage which draws tens of thousands. The weather was cooperative, neither too hot nor too cold, in contrast to last year’s scorching sun under which I thought some of the artists with afternoon sets might literally melt.
Women Who Rock en Seine
This year has been marked by the worldwide #metoo reckoning. With this in mind, I decided to focus on acts that put women front and center stage.
A Set with Noname
The day began with a set on the medium-size Bosquet Stage with Chicago rapper Noname. She does in fact have one—Fatimah Nyeema Warner—and has also been known professionally as Noname Gypsy. My own musical consumption generally gravitates toward the emerging alt-rock universe so Noname was a discovery for me, and a pleasant one at that.
The artist strolled onto the stage with admirable nonchalance and declared “You’re all chill so I’m gonna be chill, too: have a drink, talk shit, and rap a little bit.” And then she did, backed by a female vocalist and a band funkily punctuating her lines with keys, drums and bass. A 4:00pm set on a peripheral stage on Friday when most festivalgoers are still at work is a not an easy win. But Noname reached into her bag of tricks and found ways to involve and engage the crowd. She encouraged everyone to come closer, bargaining that she would do the same and then jumped onto a large subwoofer in front of the stage. It was on un-level ground and turned into quite a rocky ride, but she went with the roll, looking cool in the process with surfer-like aplomb.
When the crowd wasn’t quite as fired up as she’s used to, Noname once again resorted to negotiation, explaining, “Here’s how it works. If you don’t have any energy, then I don’t have any energy. Make some noise!” The crowd responded energetically and Noname went on to instruct us on when it was our turn to say “oup” and “you you you you you you you” throughout the next song.
Noname’s messages are delivered with a great deal of body language and facial expression, and much of the time that expression is an outreached hand and a humble smile that shifts to concern and furrowed brow when subject matter veers from aspirational to trying and tragic. She is at her best when her sing-songy rapping takes on slam poetry qualities in a running social commentary wrapped in personal vulnerability, painting a picture of how things are, underscored with the hope that they can change and that, perhaps, expressions of righteous frustration on stage is part of that process. Seeing as how Noname’s repertoire streams in the tens of millions, it’s fair to say that someone is listening.
First Aid Kit Heals with Heart
First Aid Kit played the Main Stage set against the backdrop of their logo in the shape of a heart, and hearts were indeed won when they greeted the crowd in French with “Hello Paris! We are Swedish sisters! We are happy to be here! We are First Aid Kit.”
The heart, and the winning and the breaking thereof, would be a recurring motif of the set, as it is throughout the country-folk-pop catalogue of the Johanna and Klara Söderberg that now tallies 4 full-length albums in addition to the remarkable and remarked 2008 EP Drunken Trees that set them on a successful international career path.
Stockholm’s celebrated sisters began the set with two songs from their most recent album, Ruins: “Rebel Heart” and “It’s a Shame”. First Aid Kit would also step back in time with songs like “King of the World,” “Wolf,” and “A Lion’s Roar,” from their 2012 album of the same name. The duo is known for their beautiful harmonies and voices that ring out alternately angelic or angsty and blend in ways that perhaps only sisters can achieve. The final lyric of “A Lion’s Roar”, the word “roar” drawn out in length was in itself a moment of harmonic anthology.
Harmonic sweetness would yield to fierceness as the acoustic guitar was swapped for electric and the women of First Aid Kit fired up the audience with a raging rendition of “You Are the Problem Here” that was wildly applauded. In case the very straightforward lyrics were lost upon anyone in attendance, Klara clarified that the title is “our protest song about rape. We wrote it out of pure sickness and anger out of being afraid. Enough. Is. Fucking. Enough.”
“You Are the Problem Here”
Then it was back to newer material and lighter fare from Ruins and the band teaching the crowd a la-da-da-la-la-la chorus and giving the all-important stage direction, “If you’re not already drunk, pretend that you are.” The band performed “Hem of Her Dress”, the timeless tale of a runaway lover in a rendition punctuated by trombone that displayed the musical DNA of a tongue-in-cheek country tearjerker meets Bavarian beer hall sing-along, with obligatory raucous scream-song chorus. It was a fun moment.
First Aid Kit has never been shy about covers and the band is skilled putting a personal stamp on other artists’ songs. This set included a lovely take on Kate Bush’s Running up That Hill”, another standout moment in the set and a well-deserved spotlight on the festival’s biggest stage.
Kate Bush cover “Running Up That Hill”
First Aid Kit concluded the set with their familiar “My Silver Lining” a philosophical, road-weary yet optimistic ballad that eschews taking the easy road in favour of persistence in the recurring refrain: “I try to keep on keeping on.” Please do, Mesdemoiselles Söderberg, please do.
More Highlights and Discoveries
In addition to full sets from Noname and First Aid Kit, I had the opportunity to experience parts of sets from a number of other artists that left strong impressions and a desire to see and hear more.
MNNQNS, a name rich in Ns and poor in vowels, is pronounced like “mannequins” in French. The youthful French foursome performed with punchy post-punk zeal to a large festival crowd. I caught the end of the set which involved mosh pits, cries of “I wanna sell you something and it’s rock!” and the band’s frontman crowd surfing. Check out their debut EP Advertisement, released in April.
Dirty Projectors, the Brooklyn, New York indie rock band led by David Longstreth is 16 years and eight albums deep into their career, with numerous changes in lineup over the years. The current ensemble of six scores points for gender equality with three men and three women serving up jazzy and new wave-inflected, multi-instrumental alt-rock with excellent vocal harmonies and stellar musicianship all around.
Australian Nick Murphy shed his self-deprecatory moniker “Chet Faker” at the end of 2016 and made 2017 a year of personal musical exploration. Judging by his stunning set of soulful electronic rock that was both dancey and daring, his recent voluntary reincarnation as himself was an inspired decision. Rock en Seine Festival partner Culturebox has made this set available online and it’s worth watching HERE.
The fab five Australian band Parcels seems to hold all the secrets to happiness in hand: a sprinkling of Daft Punk, a bit of the BeeGees, a geeky multi-instrumentalist who plays the triangle with earnest intent and moves like the dork at the middle school dance who is dancing like no one is watching when, in fact, everyone is watching. Did I mention falsettos, five-part harmonies, and a bass player in a classy suit with great hair? People around me forming spontaneous line dances with coordinated choreography, jumping, kissing, raising arms, forming heart shapes in the air with their hands, and smiling ear to ear. There’s no better way to end the evening than in a bounty of bliss and Parcels truly delivered.