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Holding a rock festival in Paris in August when the French capital is deserted by locals may seem like a peculiar idea, especially in a country where such musical gatherings have had a chequered history. But now in its fifth year, Rock en Seine appears to have found the formula for putting on a successful weekend of music.
Getting what is currently perhaps the best live band in the world, Arcade Fire, to headline the first night was a masterstroke. That the Canadian group are so good can come as a surprise given the fact they had 10 people on stage at all times, often including a hurdy-gurdy player, and drew inspiration from the disliked decade of the 1980s (a fabulous rendition of “No Cars Go”).
Win Butler, the lead singer, looked at times like a sweaty refugee from the 1950s in his shirt, braces and polite manner. The band disdain most modern trends in rock but instead pitched their show here in the best tradition of festival headliners – that of a joyous celebration that even Arcade Fire neophytes could enjoy. And with an ever-changing line-up of instruments played from a pump organ or xylophone to the tuba and steel guitar it looked like the most fun was being had on stage.
Arcade Fire was not the only trick Rock en Seine had up its sleeve: the other highlight was undoubtedly the sole appearance in France this year of Björk. Few singers have been so uncorrupted by success as the Icelander, who was as uncompromising as ever. Her Sunday-night set to close the festival was a perfectly judged mix of beautifully rearranged older tunes and heavier, almost techno-style songs from her latest album Volta. “Hunter”, a string-led song from her best album Homogenic, was recast as a gentle brass-based song.
Björk looked radiant, wearing an unusually low-key dress, even if for most performers a gold frilly dress over sheer leggings would be seen as over-the-top. Her brass band fared worse, having to wear hideous bright outfits with weird constructions tied to their heads. But when the music made sense, as on a harsh “Army of Me” or recent single “Earth Intruders” with Björk in strong voice, nothing else mattered. Like the very best artists, Björk demonstrated not only the ability to create but successfully to modify her older work.
Other musical prerequisites for a good festival were in place too. There was the quirky home talent, the musicologist Emilie Simon (best-known for writing the soundtrack of the film March of the Penguins) who alternated between coming across as a Gallic PJ Harvey or Björk.
Then there were the crowd-pleasing rock groups. Kings of Leon have perfected their southern boogie over three albums to become the surprise survivors of the beginning of this decade and they played with confidence as the even younger Fratellis did a day earlier.
Dinosaur Jr as well as the Jesus and Mary Chain provided the now obligatory reformation of old groups with the former grunge-survivors Dinosaur Jr – led by singer J Mascis who looked like he hadn’t washed or cut his hair since those times – coming across particularly well.
There is always room for a disappointment at a festival too and this was provided in Paris by a surprisingly leaden and heavy performance by Kelis, the soul singer. Wearing a brilliant blue sequin top, she even lost out in the outrageous fashion stakes to the Sri Lankan- British urban singer MIA, who wore gold lamé leggings with a fluorescent orange and gold top.
This being Paris, there were also plenty of quirks – one was the popularity of earplugs, this year in a new version sporting a wraparound strap. The crowd was civilised and smart in a manner befitting Parisians who could sleep at home, rather than in a tent, each night. Some even cast off their chic, such as the three revellers who swam around in the mud for most of Saturday. After just five years, all the signs are that the Parisians have finally understood the ways of a rock festival.