One of the biggest parties on the Dutch music festival calendar, Lowlands Festival has since 1993 managed to attract an incredible amount of talent to its relatively small grounds – only 55,000 people attend at capacity. And for the first time I ever I managed to actually attend it which happened just in time for its 25th anniversary.
After the dust settled on Thursday night’s mass silent discos – which was much fun to sit and witness and try and guess what people were listening to – the rain washed away the pre-party and prepared us for the main event and, thankfully, stayed away for almost the entire rest of weekend.
Friday begins with an early slot from Melbournian wunderkinder Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, who despite the early start – not just in terms of the slot, but the band had literally just flown in from Norway very early that morning – manage to perform a short but high-octane set. Over the past year or so, since their French Press E.P and this year’s debut full-length Hope Downs, Rolling Blackouts have become something of an indie-rock sensation, and with the amount of excellent, energetic-yet-confident guitar-led tracks this still relatively young band has to offer. For instance, album opener An Air Conditioned Man or tracks like Time in Common get the still-bleary crowd moving and shaking, ready for the rest of the day’s adventures. The band still find time to reach into their back catalogue, however, with first E.P Talk Tight’s Wither with You and Wide Eyes even getting an outing, but the best comes to last with their still exceptional single, the Broken Social Scene-reminiscent French Press.
An excellent start to the day then, and after spending some time exploring the festival’s very many quirky additions away from the music, such as the science centre or theatre and literature stages (the latter going under the name SEXYLAND for reasons that become apparent at night), I eventually settle on Belfast’s hottest electronic duo, BICEP. Despite having been around for almost a decade, the duo of Andy Ferguson and Matt McBriar only released their debut, self-titled, full-length last year on Ninja Tune to many plaudits, quite rightly. It is pretty immediately apparent as to the hype surrounding BICEP as they manage to fill the huge Bravo arena – its sheer size making it appear like the innards of the death star – with their crowd-pleasing mix of all things Chicago House, Detroit techno and Italo-disco brought all-under one church. It is quite the sight to see such a mass of people all losing themselves although this becomes quite a common sight as the weekend progresses.
Friday’s main stage headliners Gorillaz completely pack out the Alpha stage, the only (semi) open-air stage, which is a welcome change of setting, as while the refuge from potential bad weather is welcome – which thankfully just stays as potential – it can become a bit oppressive being inside all the time. Gorillaz has always been something of a strange project, massively popular in its original run as Damon Albarn proved he didn’t need the Britpop context which originally made him a star to write exciting and vital music, but in later years, even with recent return after a long hiatus, the excitement has subdued somewhat. It’s not that their now two quickfire return albums, 2017’s Humanz and this year’s The Now Now, were poor albums by any means, it’s just the levels of anticipation and excitement about this distinctly 2000s act has waned somewhat. While it is a nice treat to have deep cut M1 A1 kick off the show, tonight’s set is largely dominated by Albarn’s latest work, which while understandable, and is formidably played by his assembled band, there isn’t much to get the crowd too overly excited until the set’s latter stages.
The accompanying animation too, while always impressive in design, can be rather heavy-handed in its imagery to the point of polemic and thus even a little distracting from the very talented band on hand to make this cartoon-world come to life.
Still, Bootie Brown performing his verses in Dirty Harry and Stylo inject a bit of energy that Albarn appears to be lacking tonight, and even more so when De La Soul, who opened the main stage today, appear to completely own their parts of Feel Good Inc. Ultimately while there are certainly impressive aspects to Gorillaz set, it is a patchy one, saved largely by a set-closing rendition of Clint Eastwood, which some 15+ years later, still remains an amazing slice of pop music.
No matter, going into the late, post-headline and largely electronic sets, Yaeji is ready to save the night. The Korean-American producer and vocalist is a pure joy to dance the late night into, who spends the first half-or-so of her time mostly building up the atmosphere with her impressive blend of house and trap music, before fully launching into her pop-laden, vocal-hook material such as raingurl or her cover of Drake‘s passionfruit which close a very impressive set, leaving excitement for when her debut full-length finally comes at fever pitch.
Old favourites need a bit time
Saturday’s weather is rather auspicious in comparison to the pleasant Friday sun, but thankfully it behaves and doesn’t result in a downpour, which is lucky as many have turned out for Bonobo on the main stage early afternoon. Simon Green has been touring last year’s excellent Migration album for well over a full year now, and as he explains, this set is coming to the end of this cycle, but regardless of whether one has seen it before or not, it is an endlessly enjoyable experience. It’s a simple touch, but his insistence on using a full-band to recreate and push beyond his electronic stylings is a welcome one, especially when his assembled band are this damn talented. Despite playing just a few hundred yards away, Rhye is unfortunately not finished in time to join for his track Break Apart – similarly Nick Murphy doesn’t arrive until tomorrow and thus can’t give his pipes to No Reason – but thankfully the wonderful Szjerdene steps in, as she has all tour, to give the track all the grace and beauty it deserves. By the time of set closer Kerala, the crowd are fully immersed, and it is not at all difficult to see why, as this has easily been one of the most impressive sets of the weekend.
Shortly after, Grizzly Bear need a little time to get acquainted with the crowd. Something that is becoming apparent about the Lowlands festival goers is that they can be a chatty lot, depending on who is playing, and this seems to affect the New York freak-folk quartet, who are uncharacteristically rather timid in their first couple songs, including a surprisingly low-key version of Yet Again. However, in the set’s second half, once the more casual spectators have filtered away, the band re-find their stride and swagger with their excellent single Mourning Sound, followed by their all-time classic hit Two Weeks and suddenly they’re like a new band again. Later on, While You Wait For The Others and closer Sun In Your Eyes make sure to remind everyone what a force of nature Grizzly Bear are, both as a live act and as incredibly gifted musicians and songwriters.
An aspect Lowlands prides itself on is its impressive electronic music booking and the Saturday night at this year’s edition is especially remarkable. Not interested in a more traditional headliner like N.E.R.D? Fine, have legendary DJ and producer Richie Hawtin performing his ‘Close’ show on the second stage, followed by current younger upstarts Daniel Avery and Charlotte De Witte. The three play more-or-less back-to-back sets and each brings something a little special and personalised to the decks without ever breaking the momentum that the legendary Hawtin set up in the first place. Avery and de Witte’s inspired takes on minimal techno owes much to Hawtin, but they do well to step up beyond his long dark shadow produced from his simple-yet-intense stage show, without ever losing interest from the crowd, who pack the huge Bravo tent and remain there consistently throughout.
As the final day rolled around heads were getting bleary, with a notably more laid back line-up install for the remaining stragglers hanging on to the festival spirit. Nick Murphy, (who simply can’t shake off the old Chet Faker moniker) plays a mean set to shake out the cobwebs, however, who similar to Bonobo the day before, relies on a strong live band to really elevate the set. While his material and set don’t quite hit the heights of his contemporary, this is still an enjoyable performance all the same.
Perhaps its the fatigue, but Dua Lipa‘s early evening slice of pop majesty on the main stage before the biggest act of the weekend is exactly what the doctor ordered. The Kosovan-born Londoner is currently one of the hottest acts in pop music and it’s not at all hard to see why when she has such undeniable hook-worms as One Kiss, IDGAF and New Rules in her arsenal. There is a craft to her writing and her voice that is hard to beat in an overcrowded sea of pop music, she more than proves her mettle here with this charming set.
So finally, we come to the most anticipated set of the weekend, Kendrick Lamar. Before Lamar and his band take the stage and the space is still being set up in what appears to subtly be a part of the show, but perhaps I am reading too much into that. Lamar opens with the first of a series of short-films spread throughout the set on the adventures of Kung Fu Kenny, in a clear ode to Wu-Tang’s obsession with Martial Arts and Far Eastern mythology, which are a fun break from the intensity in which Kdot performs (where necessary). It is encouraging to see that now a few years into Lamar‘s solidified place as, one of, if not the, most important musician of our current generation that he is still full of fire and vigour and restlessness, never forgetting that there are many things to be angry, happy or sad about. Lamar seamlessly moves from mood-to-mood, track-to-track and has the crowd, who finally seem to come out of their shell for the big, final act, are eating out of his palms. The best example is HUMBLE. which starts off normally enough until Lamar suddenly stops his band, who are subtly brilliant all night, and performs the rest acapella along with the crowd along for every single word of the second verse and chorus. Once complete, the band return to play it again, and there’s no difference, the crowd are still all in for this.
Elsewhere, Lamar runs through an impressive selection of his back catalogue, although notably only Alright and King Kunta from his masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly but both are excellent, giving much from good kid, DAMN. and even his recent work on the Black Panther OST closing on his SZA-assisted All The Stars. While Lamar‘s set clocks in at somewhere between 60-70 minutes, the sheer prowess he displays on his stage, with his words, with his energy means no one goes away unsatisfied. If there was any doubt of Lamar’s cultural position within the contemporary canon – one on-screen graphic shouts PULITZER KENNY – one only has to witness the man, the myth, the legend in-person to have it confirmed.
All Photos by Bart Heemskerk for Lowlands Festival