It's early on Thursday evening and I am standing in a Dutch brewhouse. The gurgle of machinery gently hums beneath the general hubbub from an assembled mass. I am here for a party, sold by the suggestion of free beer and nibbles but also intrigued to find out more about the Italian festival, Home, who are hosting this event. This is one of many parties that I could be at right now. For I am networking at Eurosonic Noorderslag, the European showcase festival that rocks the city of Groningen to the roots every January.
For many years now, I have wanted to be here. It's got one of those reputations. This is where agents and bookers from Europe come together to spot the next big things. The streets come alive for a few days as 4,000 delegates mix with other punters and the ever-so-friendly Dutch residents, jumping in and out of various venues to watch next year's media darlings. This is your SXSW for the European market. It's frantic, friendly and a lot of fun.
I arrive on Wednesday. It was once the case that the trek to Groningen meant a trip to Amsterdam and then a two hour train journey but new travel routes have opened up allowing some of us to fly direct from London Southend. I'd hazard a guess that there aren't many on this flight who won't be heading to Eurosonic. Agents and music lawyers shake the hands of wide-eyed bands who might be playing their first gig abroad. Truth is, we're all excited to be getting away from it all so soon after Christmas. This is our New Year treat.
My schedule on arrival is a busy one. With just over an hour to make it to the European Border Breakers Awards (The Ebba's), I realise that my plans might need to be flexible if there are any delays in customs. I'll also need to check into my accommodation for the next few days, an AirBnb room in the heart of the city, in that time. But everything works like clockwork - I've never known an airport as speedy - and, barely an hour after touchdown, I'm sat with beer in hand, waiting for the televised EBBA's to begin. It's taken me longer to get past the queue in some much smaller UK festivals.
The EBBA's are an interesting spectacle. Presented by Jools Holland, this live TV show is set up to celebrate all that is good about European co-operation and collaboration. Each year, new and breakthrough acts from around Europe are awarded a gong for their achievements. The past winner list is an impressive read (Adele, Mumford and Sons, Caro Emerald and Christine & The Queens are just a few) and I suspect many from this year have bright careers ahead. We get to hear one live song from each band; this warehouse-like venue is set up to mimic a 'Later With Jools' set. He presents in exactly that way, effortlessly flitting between stages to introduce the next award winner, to present them with their trophies and to ask for any comments they might want to make about their success. Watching Jools do what he does in the flesh, you can't help but be impressed by his professionalism and quick wit. I never thought I'd write that.
It wasn't all for me; some of the music on offer was pop pap, aimed no doubt at a market I no longer understand. But others did stand out. Jain from France delighted all with her impeccable style. Her backing choir charmed with their fine voices. Hinds from Spain played some lo-fi slacker pop akin to The Big Moon before giving one of the best acceptance speeches of the night, arguing that it was as important to break down gender borders as it is to break down European borders. Alan Walker from Norway played a streaming dance hit whilst covering his mouth with a handkerchief. The best was left to last; Dua Lipa (from the UK) did her sultry XX thing before receiving a special award, The People's Choice, in addition to her EBBA. "I might be from the UK but, more than that, I'm European", she said to a whoop of cheers from the Brits in the audience. This wouldn't be the last reference to Brexit over the next few days.
Groningen is a compact city and much of the central part of the town lies inside a looping river. Before heading out, I was a little anxious about finding my way but the maps on the helpful Eurosonic app alongside those in the well laid-out paper daily programmes soon help me to get my bearings. There are a few venues on the outer reaches but most can be walked between in no more than ten minutes. It does make venue hopping a practical thing to do. Groningen prides itself on being the cycling capital of Europe and I meet quite a few who have hired a bike to pedal between venues (you see rows of bikes locked up everywhere you look) but a bike is not a necessity. This is also a city that really does seem to have a healthy plethora of quality venues, all ready to host live music. From larger theatres to dingy bars and the odd pop-up venue, it's exciting to wander around, ticking places off my 'been there' list. I try (and dismally fail) to get around them all, only consoling myself with the thought that there's always next year.
As is becoming increasingly regular at festivals, beer at each of the venues can be purchased via the chip in your wristband. The technology works without hitch and there's many top-up points should the money on your chip get a bit low. At many of the venues, Heineken is the lager of choice though some do have other tasty 'Belgium-like' beer options. It all seems reasonably priced to me never costing more than 4 Euros for a drink. It does take a while to get used to the amount of head that's given as standard in your drink. I make the cultural faux-pas of asking for my drink to be topped up only once. "You are in Holland now sir", points out the slightly offended bar manager.
Eurosonic gigs largely run on the evenings of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Most of the venues kick off their showcases of three to five bands at 8PM with most of the gigs ending about 2AM. For those keen on a later night, some venues then schedule DJ sets and dance parties that'll run through until the morning. I make it each evening through until 2AM but by then my legs are aching and bed beckons. The Noorderslag part of the festival is held on the Saturday. Similar times are involved but it takes place in one large conference centre, the Oosterpoort. I'll write more about that later in this review.
It's Thursday evening and I'm standing in Vera, one of the larger venues I've discovered in Groningen. A trendy looking arts centre, it appears to have a rich pedigree in scheduling bands on the rise. There are queues around the block keen to get in but I've bagged my spot early. In fact, I got here for the previous band, Inner Tongue (from Austria), and haven't moved apart from the occasional trip to the bar to top up on beer. It's a tight squash in this space, standing room only, for this next buzz act. Idles have gone from a band that very few have heard of to a band that everybody wants a piece of in the space of a few months. Those arriving early enough will have seen Joe Talbot, lead singer of these West Country punks, strutting and stomping around the front of the room in a sort of hardcore meditative trance, focussing his energy for the show that would follow. With bleached blonde hair and a furry caterpillar of a moustache, he looks like an unlikely icon but that's exactly what I reckon he'll become. Idles are brutal and gobby, opinionated merchants of noise. They're also one of the most important bands I've seen live in the past five years. They explain the beauty of the NHS and swear about its future chances. They apologise for Brexit, embarrassed to be representing those back at home at this most beautifully European of festivals. I see many great bands over the course of my time at Eurosonic but Idles top the tree.
You can tell you're onto something special when the crowd becomes a throng before the act has played a note. That's exactly what happens before White Wine take to the stage on Friday night upstairs at De Spieghel, a pub-like venue on a busy, party side street. I'd heard their album from last year, 'Who Cares What The Laser Says?', and enjoyed videos from this American-German three piece so I assumed this would be an entertaining show. But nothing prepared me for how fine this gig was. Sweat-laden, theatrical and captivating, Joe Haege (from Menomena and Dodos) prances around his little stage like a court jester. He jumps into the audience, throwing shapes on every platform within this multi-levelled space. It was well worth missing Teleman for. They clashed with this on the other side of Groningen.
A friend recommends Anna Meredith having seen her play at End Of The Road last year. I arrived a little late on the Wednesday evening and, despite having a conference/delegate wristband which gave priority access in most of the queues that formed, I'm still stuck outside for a fair portion of her set. When I eventually get inside the packed-out main auditorium of the Grand Theatre, it takes me a while to comprehend what's going on. An assortment of instruments on stage are contributing to something epic and proggy. This eventually morphs into a techno track and those dancing at the front take this as a cue to move like raved-up loons. Anna Meredith herself, classically trained, gentle and Scottish, moves the genre on again; now, we have an uplifting, singalong folk song that, in the hands of this collective, wouldn't sound out of place in the Polyphonic Spree back catalogue. The set draws to a close with another sound-hop. I think I quite like this band but would need to watch them again to fully be sure.
Another highlight is Finland's Mikko Joensuu. It takes a while of wandering down Groningen's back streets to find the relatively secluded Der AA Theater. But, it's ultimately time well spent. Mikko plays wonderful Americana; heartfelt, intense and expansive songs that have an air of Bright Eyes about them. He's released two albums of his Amen trilogy with a third coming soon. He's coming to terms with his religious upbringing and subsequent shunning of the faith and it's all conveyed with a sense of earnest gravitas.
Elsewhere, on other Eurosonic stages, L.A. Salami grabs my attention with his clever songs that sit somewhere between Dylan and Jamie T. Francobollo, L.A. Salami's backing band for his show at the News Cafe (which has a terrible smell of vomit in the air) put in a fine shift of their own when they turn the Huis De Beurs into a frenzied funhouse. Holy Nothing (from Portugal) play the same venue and deserve a more appreciative audience for their Caribou-like electronica. Elle Exxe from Scotland justifies lots of the hype with an energetic and upbeat set of pop belters. She's not distracted by her unfortunate wardrobe malfunction but many in the crowd are.
I was a bit worried, with gigs starting at 8 in the evening, that I might struggle to fill my time during the days. I needn't have been. For many of the delegates, they use the day for networking and hosting important meetings. At the Oosterpoort conference centre, there's a full schedule of seminars and workshops on all sorts of music industry issues ('how to get more funding for research on popular music?' anyone) but although many of these look interesting, I can't quite summon the energy to gaze at my navel. Instead, I spend my days exploring the shops and markets of Groningen. Some fine discoveries are behind those doors.
All around the town, there are spin-off, alternative events from the main Eurosonic. One of the best I find is Platosonic. From midday to 8PM, Plato Records, a fine vinyl store in the city, hosts short sets from acts scheduled to play on bigger stages for Eurosonic. Looking up to a makeshift platform in the rafters of the shop, I get to see the likes of Ward Thomas, JP Cooper and The Vera Jonas Experiment. Next door, in a coffee shop called Coffee Company, we cram ourselves in to see short shows from Leicester's finest, Mahalia, Tame Impala's sometime drummer, Barbagallo and L.A. Salami (again) with an acoustic set. It's all free in these venues and I note that many locals without wristbands hop between the two. It's good to see that they're not excluded.
Altersonic is another free alternative to Eurosonic. In a labyrinthine venue with many rooms just off the main market square, bands take to one of four (or is it five) stages. This live music overload is all a bit too much for me but I do randomly stumble into a pop-up radio studio where the delightful Gitta De Ridder amazes with her gentle folk.
3PM on Friday and I'm going to a showcase for Suburban Records' 20th birthday. I don't really know much about Suburban records but I'm enticed by the promise of free beer and dirty rock n'roll music. I'm glad that I've made the effort to go. The space in which this party is held is dark and dingy; an underground club (albeit this is upstairs) which resembles the best ruin-pubs in Budapest or the best converted squats in any fine city. The edge rolls across to the crowd. Here we have leather wearing misfits with long hair and attitude. As a band take to the stage, they flail that hair and bang heads in a retro-metal showdown. I can't help thinking that photographer Phil would love it here. In truth, so do I even if I know nobody and feel like an outsider looking on.
As I leave the Suburban Records showcase, my ears are drawn to some noise on the other side of the street. I'm sure when I walked past that shop earlier it was a hairdressing salon but now live music is coming from within. I take a peek. Rockstone are a Dutch organisation who pride themselves on finding under-the-radar acts and giving them a platform. In most cases, this'll mean that they use their video editing skills to publish a session of the act. This evening, they've taken over this salon to put on live, acoustic shows of the best Dutch talent. I can buy bottles of beer for a couple of Euros whilst watching so what's not to like? I'm blown away by the jazzy harmonies and simple charm of Lara Kroon. Amber Gomaa amazes with an incredible voice of pure soul power. Everyone's friendly here; chatty without being overbearing and I stay longer than I'd intended.
All of the excitement from Wednesday through to Friday sees me having a lie-in of epic proportion on the Saturday. A massive marquee at the centre of the market square hosts Eurosonic Air, an afternoon of free concerts. Many of the delegates appear to have packed their suitcases to begin their travels home so this has much more of a local feel about it. The shopping streets are full with people hunting a bargain in the post-Christmas sales. Groningen is returning to normal and the locals are getting their town back. As afternoon passes into evening, I wearily drag my tired legs across to the Oosterpoort for one last party; Noorderslag.
It takes me a while to get my bearings. Even with a map, I can’t quite navigate around this edge-of-town conference centre. I sense I needed to organise my schedule better than I have to make the most of Noorderslaag. This is the part of the festival dedicated solely to Dutch acts. I see enough (and I’d seen enough in the few days before this) to realise that there are rich pickings here. Act of the evening for me was Weval. In the Kleine Zaal, this electronic duo are a wonder to watch. An entrancing light show pulls you into their hypnotic dance dramas for an experience that’s both relaxing and energising. Earlier in the evening, I’d stumbled upon the Popprijs 2016, an award ceremony in the Grote Zaal of the Oosterpoort, established to recognise an act that’s made a great contribution to Dutch music. I can’t tell what’s going on entirely (it’s all in Dutch) but I rather suspect that the act that follows, an exuberant and upbeat pop master with catchy tunes and a shiny suit, Jett Rebel, might have also won the award. Noorderslaag is a fine, distinct and different way to end an incredible few days. As I walk back to my room for one last sleep before the flight back tomorrow, I’m overcome with a wave of sadness that it’s all over.
Some might think that the idea of an exchange and networking platform for European music sounds like an excursion to hell. But, I don't subscribe to that point of view. There's a fresh charm and an optimistic friendliness about Eurosonic Noorderslag. It provides a real opportunity to see the very best new and happening acts in the most glorious of cities. Sometimes, at these showcase festivals (I'm thinking the Great Escape here), you wonder whether delegates actually like music at all, such is their generally cool and calculated gloomy outlook on proceedings. But here, the love of live music collectively pulls us together. I've made new friends in Europe and I'll endeavour to share their music, their apps, their radio shows or the good news about their venues to anybody who might listen. There's no greater endorsement than to say I can't wait for 2018's instalment.
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