Glorious start to the Brussels Summer Festival 2014 with Patti Smith, Arsenal and Suede

The annual inner city festival Brussels Summer Festival is there again, 10 days of music and other entertainment forms (mini racing tracks, Win for Life computer games on the Streets, food and exotic drinks from all over the world, …) in the center of the European capital, with stages right next to Warandepark and the palace used for work by the King (Paleizenplein), a stage by the Mont des Arts with its fantastic views over the illuminated city, and another stage at the Museum Square. With other entertainment forms amidst all that. For 10 days Brussels city center is about music and fun, the bit chaotic traffic due to blocked roads I think won’t cause much problems. One has to be very sour or bitter to complain about people socialising and having fun for just 10 days a year.

Friday I attended Patti Smith’s concert. I think introducing Patti Smith is as needless as explaining why we breathe. Patti Smith is one of the most iconic musicians worldwide after all. Already in the early seventies, she left her New Jersey home with hardly any money but with a dream and determination to get into the arts scene of New York. Both a fantastic poet and great singer, and not to forget a human rights activist, Patti can be seen as one of the pioneers of punkrock as well as one of the ultimate pioneers of women in rock music. The song "Piss factory" more or less described the risky yet succesful breakthrough:

"I’m gonna be somebody, I’m gonna get on that train, go to New York City,
I’m gonna be so bad I’m gonna be a big star and I will never return,
Never return, no, never return, to burn out in this piss factory"

And so she did, and the rest is history. Aged 68, she still tours very actively now, and still has not lost any power in the voice nor in the ideals she represents.

While awaiting the start of the gig it was a good chance to observe this one stage, one of the three used in the festival. With one of the royal palaces on one side and a nice park on the other side, and with a panoramic view over the city just 5 minutes walk from the festival venue, the location could hardly be better. Organisation was very well, the terrain unusually clean for festival standards, only the price of those cocktails and food was a bit high although nothing compared to the really big festivals out there.

But back to Patti. She opened the set with "Dancing barefoot" and then let a lot of her classics pass by. "Pissing in a river", "Beneath the Southern cross" (which she dedicated to love and to all who is loved), "Horses", … The nice blend of rock music and poetic reciting pleased me a lot, just like it did last year when I first saw Patti in concert. It is remarkable how age did not limit her vocal reach a single bit.

The classics that get the whole crowd (about 14000) going then followed in the second part of the set: a wild version of "Gloria" that showed Patti still has the energy and determination just like she had back when she started her career. And no matter how many years ago the song was written, "People have the power" still has that message of hope for a better world, that still is deeply rooted in the souls of a lot of people visiting the festival.

And of course there were the two songs I hoped to hear. They are classics, I know, but they are both the kind of evergreen you just never get tired of, no matter how often you hear them. "Because the night", which Patti dedicated to her late husband Fred "Sonic" Smith, is still lyrically the perfect ode to passion and love. Lyrics such as "Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe, love is the banquet on which we feed" or "Have a doubt when I’m alone. Love is a ring, a telephone. Love is an angel disguised as lust, here in our bed until the morning comes" just perfectly describe the total surrender and passion between two lovers, a song filled with passion and dedication but despite the very clear content never sounding unromantic. And no matter her age, when Patti sings those words "so touch me now, touch me now…" she still does it with as much passion as she probably did when she had her first romantic encounters back in New York City.

"Rock’n’roll Nigger" (the latter word being a metaphor for "outcast", so no racist intentions here) sounded as wild and hard rocking as it Always did, a crowd of thousands shouting along "Outside of society is where I wanna be!" as a statement against the norms and conformist nature of our society. In a way, decades can pass, but some things (such as protest songs) never change.

This also proved when Patti talked to the audience saying that they are the future, and can change the future, and that the future begins NOW! A clear call for arms and actions, shouted with the determination of someone 18 years old rather than someone 68 years old. The idealism to change the world, is still there, and still a vital element of a Patti Smith concert. The crowd got the message and applauded in a way that makes you believe some of them may indeed let the message sink in and become more socially aware.

As expected, a great set by Patti. I won’t review the final gig of the night, by French singer M. Let’s just say it was not my style at all, neither musically nor in terms of stage act. And rather than lamenting about how I didn’t like it, I rather put my energy into writing about what I did like.

Saturday there were two bands I didn’t really expected to see: Belgian act Ozark Henry moved me emotionally a lot with "Sweet Instigator" over 10 years ago, one of the best songs ever made by a Belgian. But abroad I sort of lost track of what Piet Goddaer was doing, only being aware that with the addition of female singer Amaryllis the one man band had now become a real two-piece.

The set was surprisingly pleasant though. In a way it often felt like a lounge bar, but still different. But the music was mostly relaxing, electronic music and synths creating a sort of dreamy atmosphere, the type of relaxation music where you close your eyes and just dream away on the sounds of the music. A few tracks with electric guitar or heavy percussion (both Amaryllis and Piet overpowering the drummer they hired for the gig) being the exception, the set was mainly dreamy and relaxing. The two voices also fit together very well, as the newer songs proved. Amaryllis has a very crystal clear voice, which works out perfectly for this type of music. Of course, during older tracks it was mainly Piet Goddaer singing (back then, Ozark Henry was a one person band) but the few backing vocals by Amaryllis who also took keyboard duties throughout the gig, really showed she is an asset to this act. Ozark Henry wasn’t bad when it was just Piet Goddaer, but they for sure sounded better to me now as a band.

The set opened with "Intersexual", where Piet’s voice sounded very robotic due to sound effects, then moving on with a mixture of new material and older songs. For example "Indian summer" sounded very dreamy, taking you to a nice exotic dreamworld in your mind.

One song I liked a lot contained the lines "I love to live, I live to last, I love to get hold of my past" ; apparently this is "Dear Grass Widow" but either with altered lyrics or with me mishearing a few lines. I also believe I heard "At sea" and a surprisingly nice version of "Rescue" (bit of a rock edge at the end gave the song that bit of extra power). There were more songs I liked, but of which I am clueless about the title. No, Ozark Henry has not been getting the deserved attention abroad, so I realised I was a bit outdated here. The recent hit "Sacrifice" came towards the end of the set, which sadly enough did not include "Sweet Instigator".

One additional kudos to Ozark Henry is the fact they are amongst the few who used the back of the stage creatively. Citations from songs or from other sources were projected on the background of stage in between songs. During those relaxing dreamy songs, images of grass slowly bowing in the wind, snowflakes falling down slowly, or close-ups of waves, added to the dreamy atmosphere. They were so far one of the only bands that actually used the background of the stage as part of the act, and did so in a very calming, soothing, relaxing way.

I did not know what to expect from Suede, a band I didn’t know really. I knew the name, knew they were big in the nineties and recently reunited, but there my knowledge ends. The benefit of a band you’re not familiar with though, is the fact you have no expectations that are very high, or that you’re not impatiently waiting for one or two specific songs to come. You just let song after song pass by, and hoping to be surprised in a nice way. Which did not work out at all the day before with M, another artist I didn’t know yet. Suede however, did surprise in a positive way. A very very positive way, that is.

The band played some excellent guitar-driven rock that is catchy but at the same time also too much their own style to make easy comparisons with other rock bands. Also, the lead singer Brett Anderson was in great shape, constantly running and jumping around (resulting in his shirt being soaked with sweat), coming to the front of stage to get the crowd involved in singing, and twice even leaving stage to go standing right in front of the front row of the crowd. The energy he displayed, hardly standing still a minute during a quite long concert, was quite incredible. Meanwhile, I liked their music more and more as the gig proceeded. This is excellent guitar-driven rock, with a great vocalist, and while the gig progressed I realised having written down 5 songs I wanted to hear again as soon as possible on album, while not having had a single song written down as boring. By the end of the gig, they long convinced me of their qualities, and I’m sure I’ll keep following this band’s new release and new tour (both planned for 2015 probably, as Brett did announce this was the last Suede gig in quite a while as the band now will go into the studio to record the new album).

Songs that specifically stuck with me were "FilmStar", "Can’t get enough", "Trash", "Float away" (the outro being a climax while Brett howled the word "away" repeatedly) and "Tightrope", which is a new song that will appear on the forthcoming album. A nice romantic sounding ballad, with a somewhat dramatic vocal in the chorus, this sounds very promising for that new album.

"Just trash, me and you,
It’s in everything we do,
It’s in everything we do…"
was sung during the chorus of "Trash".

No, not a love song. Actually Brett once called it " "It’s about believing in the romance of the everyday" and about the band and its fans, the values it represents. A sort of ode to being in a band and believing in what the band stands for, and the feeling of connection with the fans adopting that filosophy.

Suede definitely gained themselves another follower.

Sunday I was in extreme high expectations of Arsenal, so I showed up very early to get to front row (I actually ended up 2nd row in front, so that’s a success given the crowd over nearly or more than 14000) and meanwhile could hear the last songs of the set of James Arthur. Not too bad, although also not my style entirely. By the way, hopefully his desire for new tattoos is gone, because I didn’t see any space left untattooed on both of his arms. Well, there’s Always the back and chest, I guess…

To those who don’t know Arsenal or think of an English football club rather than a band: Arsenal are a Belgian duo consisting of John Roan and Hendrik Willemyns (who mainly is on the background but of crucial importance, doing all electronic sound effects and taking care of most of the music, in addition to creating very artsy video clips such as the 3D video for the recent hit "Black Mountain"). The band play electronic danceable music, but mix it with African and Latino beats, creating a very catchy atmosphere where not dancing along is impossible, and where the music takes your thoughts to a far off exotic evening at the beach in Africa or Latin America. It is danceable, it is exotic, and few bands manage to create such nice soundscapes using mainly synths and other electronical equipment. It was sensual too at times, for example at the moments the female vocalist did the heavy sighs sounds during "Melvin" or the way she sensually moved around on stage. I am not saying "sensual" is the key word here, but for sure there is a bit of sensuality added to the exotic, dreamy and extremely catchy soundscapes created by the band.

On album, most songs use guest vocals rather than the band themselves taking care of lead vocals. For example the epic "Melvin" had Shawn Smith on vocals, while for tracks such as "Longee" (Ruth da Costa on vocals) and "Saudade" (vocals by Brazilian singer Mario Vitalino Dos Santos) used Latino guest vocalists to create a very Latino exotic sound. On the latest album we had guest vocal contributions by Danish singer Lydmor (on "Evaporate" and "Temul"), British singer Tim Bruzon (on "Sharp Teeth" and "Black Mountain") but also of names very famous to the Belgian audience such as Gavin Friday and Gabriel Rios. As this was my first Arsenal gig, I was wondering how the guest vocals would be replaced. On record, you are used to Always hear different voices, each song you are used to with the specific guest on vocals. I was unsure how they’d resolve this issue, other than their more or less permanent female live singer who usually replaces all feminine guest vocalists. I assumed John Roan himself, who has been singing live before and who has often done backing vocals when there was a guest singer, would take care of all male vocal duties.

I had sky high expectations of Arsenal, risky because you can end up bitterly disappointed. I wasn’t. On the contrary, the gig was so excellent that it was even better than I dared to hope for. I had very high expectations, but they were even better than I could have wished for. The gig was full of catchy and exotic songs, in my mind I was drifting away to far off places and managed to leave all my worries of day to day life behind during the course of this gig.

And yes, one of the guest vocalists on the last album had come across from Denmark to be present here: Lydmor. A very charismatic and sexy lady, who mainly has a facial expression that entrances. There is something in that dramatic or playful look in her eyes that just grabs you. Dancing and crowling around the stage barefoot and with a rather short skirt (luckily the wind did not lead to any embarrassing moments) and a quite artsy coat, I was very glad to have her on stage. It’s a pity other guest vocalists such as Tim Bruzon could not be present, but Lydmor was a pleasure to watch, truly very charismatic. She opened the set with "Temul (Lie Low)", one of my favourite Arsenal tracks. Later she would return on stage once more to, along with the female live singer Arsenal tend to have with them during concerts, sing "Evaporate" with a nice dance that was impossible to keep you standing still.

As I expected, the other songs were vocally taken care of by the more or less fixed female live singer, and masculin vocals were done by John Roan himself. And it has to be said: John is a very decent singer, and knows perfectly how to include the crowd in the gig. Often standing on the edge of stage to be as close to the crowd as possible, he constantly tried to include the crowd in the event, and vocally he did very well. You are used to the voices of for example Tim Bruzon or Shawn Smith, but that doesn’t mean the songs they worked on sound less good with John Roan on vocals. It sounds a bit different, but he does a very good job singing these songs, so I never felt the songs were less good than on album. The contrary, Hendrik’s soundscapes sounded even more powerful than I’m used to on the Arsenal albums.

I was surprised they included the latest hit "Black Mountain (Beautiful Love)", this time with John singing instead of Tim Bruzon, early in the set, I had sort of guessed they’d keep that one as encore. That said however, the setlist was excellent and using their latest success so early maybe was a good move to grab the attention of the large audience immediately.

Furthermore, all their great songs from previous albums passed: "Longee" (sung by the female semi-permanent live member, whose movements and singing style added a sensual feeling to the concert), "Saudade", "Melvin" (both with John Roan doing lead vocals), and in addition of course tracks from the latest album such as "Not yet free". "Saudade" (where the uplifting Latino sound sounds even better live than on record) followed by "Melvin" was a real highlight. In both cases John had to take care of vocals, but dare I say that in my opinion he sings "Saudade" actually better than the man doing vocals in the album version?

As for "Melvin", probably their most famous track of all, yes it’s easy to get used to Shawn Smith’s quite unique voice on vocals. But different does not Always equal bad. John did a very good job on lead vocals here, so I didn’t feel like the track lost any of its power. It seems most people agreed as the thousands of people all massively danced along during the chorus (which of course is so uplifting and catchy that it is hard NOT to dance along). To extend the song a bit, an intermezzo of the band singing the chorus of Tears for Fears’ "Shout" to the rhythm of "Melvin" came as an unexpected surprised, a bridge before the chorus of "Melvin" was repeated an additional time.

This concert was vocally and musically a great experience, John proved they in fact would perfectly manage with him on vocals rather than guest contributions, and there was a sense of sensuality and playfulness added to the exotic beats. What else to say about the sensual movements of the ladies on stage, or John shaking his buttocks towards the audience? Lydmor being present was a great unexpected bonus.

Sadly enough, on another stage in the city, Channel Zero had long started their set, but I am glad I chose Arsenal to see. It’s a pity though both bands’ playing hours partially collided. I realised that, after Arsenal, making my way to that other stage would be quite time consuming and I’d probably have heard only the last few songs of Channel Zero. No, staying at my place close to the stage Arsenal just used, seemed a better option. After all, Scottish band Texas was not exactly a punishment neither, as they were headlining this evening at this stage.

I’ve never been a fan nor a disliker of Texas. I do think their songs sometimes could use a bit more power (compare the lack of energy in the choruses of for example "Say what you want" or "In our lifetime" to the energy in some of their other songs such as "Inner smile" and "Summer son") and can be a tiny bit repetitive. On the other hand, if you take each song seperately, there’s no realy moment of boredom, and a few songs that do deserve all praise and success they achieved (songs such as "Summer son" and "Inner smile" are just great tracks, full stop).

The band has been going for ages, but Sharleen Spiteri was singing crystal clear. Some vocalists lose some of their power of vocal range during their career (especially those who like to consume some forbidden substances now and then, will see their vocal range go down) but Sharleen sung as crystal clear as she always did. She was full of energy and you could clearly see she enjoyed every minute on stage, joking around with the crowd and making funny remarks in between the songs. The only thing I wonder: why grabbing her genitals’ area several times during the gig, such as while pronouncing the words "Inner smile"? Have I missed some innuendo here, or was this just playfulness and being teasy by a singer who clearly had a good time on stage?

That great time was clearly also the sentiment of the crowd, a lot of people singing and dancing alone the whole set (and it was not a short one!). As I said, I’m a bit indifferent to the less up-tempo songs, so when the large list of hits passed ("In our lifetime", "Say what you want", "I don’t want a lover") I was only slightly enthousiast, despite the perfect vocal performances. Even the new work such as "Detroit City" I would approve but without any specially high scores. Luckily towards the end of the set, the more rock-edged songs passed, and I did enjoy those. "Black-eyed boy" and "Summer son" have that energy in the chorus and in the building up towards the chorus, which some other Texas songs lack. And "Inner smile" is just very uplifting, a song that invites you to dance even when it’s clear it’s impossible anyway to stand still during this song. Those songs were really nice to hear, and made it worthwhile to have stayed during the rather long set of which most songs don’t specifically move me. Luckily, they saved their best material for the last part of the show, so in the end I was satisfied to have stayed the entire set. The enthousiasm of the crowd was huge, so obviously I’m in a minority who thinks their average song could use a bit more heavy guitars.

So far the festival has been great. Patti Smith and Arsenal were the ones I really looked forward to, and they both fulfilled my wishes. Arsenal was even better than I hoped for in advance. Both managed to make me forget my OCD for a short while, that alone is reason enough for me to praise them. With Suede I also discovered a band that I somehow never noticed before, but who I will clearly check out very soon, giving their albums a try. So far, so good, the only exception being that French guy "M", but I prefer to not conclude this review with a sour tone. So far, so very good!

About thepathslesstravelled

An Aspie who has had a lifelong fascination with travelling, discovering new cultures and discovering new ways of life, and with a strange attraction to the less known and often forgotten places in the world. And very obsessed with sports and music.
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