Features | Festivals

Stealing the Picasso: The Accelerator and Benicàssim Festivals

By Alan Baban | 1 November 2007

When you enter a Pizza Hut and the décor is impressive it can throw you off slightly; you might, you know, expect gourmet food and stuff. This is obviously a mistake. Viz. Pizza Hut don’t do gourmet. Pizza Hut do Pizza Hut.

Still, there’s something incredibly weird and faintly unsettling about entering a familiar place — ok, a global food outlet — and finding it different, freakish even. A sense of apprehension that I’m almost powerless to describe: the oak-smelling tables, the rakish lighting, the chair with the elegant legs. The whole enclosed red chill.

“This is Stockholm,” says George, before ordering the special.

This is what happens when you order “the special.” The pizza lies there, evergreen. It smells. And it doesn’t taste better frozen. It looks like an inside joke: we all saw the not-so-discreet smirk as our waiter, flushed, placed the dish in front of us all. He looked happy; George just looked. Did they do a Jackson Pollock with mayonnaise? Is that even mayonnaise, or is it something else? Why the fuck does my pizza look like a still life? Who the fuck puts mayonnaise on pizza?

The jizz pizza — “the jeet-za.” The type of oddity that in normal life nets some embarrassment and a bad tip but in the amplified fluorescence of “travel” congeals into a legend. It sticks to my brain still, as I sit here on August 27, trying to summon up my resolve in an overcrowded coffee shop, half a muffin left. I want to tell you everything — I really do. I want to tell you when me and Marissa went fishing in Lake Geneva, or that time Jeff Tweedy and I laughed over a few beers, as he gushed how much he admired my negative review of his new record. I want to tell you this, but I can’t, because it didn’t happen. Mine was a typical budget trip: at no point did I drop beats with Kanye. Though, to be fair, my friend did see Ted Nugent in an airport lounge at one point. We think it was Ted Nugent.

But four weeks is a long time — factor in five countries for added journey fatigue, then two festivals if you want that feeling of creeping tension to be spun cheekyblue into the realms of exhaustion and the red sun. I don’t want to make it out like I’ve been on some quixotic quest into the heart of absurdity and time, but I sit here (now muffin-less) with a mess of expiring ideas in my head and no starting point.

I learned a lot. I’ve seen the Turin Shroud. I’ve looked into the bowels of Stockholm sewage and laughed an enlightened laugh. I have fought a medical student over a glass of chocolate milk. I have seen bona fide, real Goths. I know what it feels like to be staying in a hotel where one is not “the guest.” I now know the proper boarding definition of “guest” (though I’m still not clear on what a boarding definition is, or how it differs from the straight definition). I have eaten authentic Italian cuisine in a Chinese restaurant. I have heard the manager of a KFC query of customers, minus irony, “Chicken?” I found out that life is definitely not a beach chair, as Jay-Z has claimed. I now know that Fraungen isn’t Frescati. I learned that accepting candy from strangers is okay, but accepting a ride (twice) from a stranger with two Chihuahuas is borderline luck-pushing. I have discovered that it’s safer — and more clean — in church.

More specifically, there were two festivals:

1) Accelerator

Accelerator is a two-day event held in the artful parks surrounding Stockholm’s university district; even the beer cans and abandoned Bratwurst seem to be discarded with genuine appreciation for the environment and its cultivated antiquity. As such, the mini-fest is split evenly: Friday is dedicated to groups whereas Saturday acts as platform for singer-songwriters, the Conors and Lekmans that the Swedes are really big on, as evidenced by the cataclysmic stampede to steal front row for the mewl n’ Mao shindigs of Rufus “don’t make me uncomfortable” Wainwright.

The really refreshing thing about Accelerator — the thing that ultimately redeems it from the arithmetic logic of mosh-crazy teens and frigid fans – is that it’s by-and-large a big, end of year student party: battered Converse and proud Sufjan tees abound as cute drunk Swede girls clamber for air, hiccupping “Den er Modest Mouse?” People get wild, but in the Swedish way. “This is Stockholm”, said George — and he was right. Things really are different there.

The first thing that struck me on setting foot in the centre — past the opulence and sun-skimmed waters of Lake Mälaren — is the precision and board-game like foresight with which the city is laid out. Unlike the steam-chute claustrophobia of pent-up London, a real, gas-guzzling beast of a city, Stockholm feels, for large stretches, like the perfect toy-town and the artists at Accelerator seem to have treated it as such. The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn is drunk on sending out megaton stadium riffs into the cozy outer-nooks of an undergrad bar; his band’s first gig in Sweden, fully-reciprocated: the audience clamor for every dog-eared word. Paying further testament to the net’s hyper-jacked rejuvenation of the overnight success is Tokyo Police Club, entering the same bar to a squashed, sweaty crowd, the kids in Costello specs finding begrudged ground next to the biker set and sound zionists. It’s a good set, enthusiastically received, expertly (i.e. passionately) deployed. Sharp rhythmic gutterpunches bend inwards and bottom out in fan favourites like “Citizens of Tomorrow.”

Likewise, the Junior Boys tempted many a bowl cut to their tub-thumping tent and Bright Eyes put in a midnight performance that started off all grandiose and pompous but whose bluster wore down to off-the-cuff remarks (“I thought it’s always light here”) and a loose, homely vibe that saw a spirited impromptu rendition of “Southern State.”

The best, and most unlikely, performance of the two days, though, came straight from the indifferent fingertips of Carlos D. Bored hedonist or dour fuck, Dengler exuded the asshole in spades; Kessler’s erratic frog leaps and the frozen-in-time idlings of Paul Banks did little to deter attention from the mustachioed man in black. Sure, Interpol’s new songs suck and, yeah, their good material is interchangeable at best but their active decision to do jack-shit on stage, to receive ferocious applause for the lack of said antics and to stand there so apparently unaffected by it all is nothing short of the anti-performance; it is a lesson in the sharp side of success. It shits on Springsteen.

2) Benicàssim

The Spanish Glastonbury, Glastonbury-on-Sea, Glasto del Sol – the Festival Internacional de Benicàssim has been called many things by many people and did nothing but live up to its reputation: rampant lager louts — smelly, unctuous alcoholics — plus the odd bespectacled Valencian dude you feel really sorry for because for him this really is it. Wilco, Dinosaur Jr and !!! joined a long-list of very un-Spanish bands in what amounted to a very un-scene celebration of the erstwhile big-leaguers and indie jet-set.

Festival director Jose Luís Morán has braved years of criticism over his continued refusal to allow Valencian groups their part in the four-day event. As it is, the sponsorhip is damning. Benicàssim is irrefutably a populist festival: there is something here for everyone. Everybody is happy. Everybody is, in some way, short-changed.

The apex of the ridiculousness is the “ticket system,” whereby a group of thirt-addled, sweaty individuals have to queue to buy their right to queue somewhere else for their drink, falafel or whatever. By Day 2, bringing your own drinks in was a definite no-no: the offending items of Evian and/or San Miguel would be swiftly discarded by humorless security with all the concentrated, sad dispassion one usually associates with people who work at festivals.

Case in point: the overweight guy working security at the Presets on the second night. This was an overzealous, party-hopped crowd; one that swallowed whole every floating gizzard of strobe-light beamed from stage-centre when the songs cottoned out. This was not an Enya crowd. This crowd was fucking hardcore. They didn’t present a whole array of attractive options for the closet claustrophobe so this is what I did: I looked ahead. And what I saw was unfiltered, blue-tinted blahhh – the unmitigated meh of mosh blown up to a Size 20 and squeezed into blue/black jeans. There might have been a wire coming out of his left ear, but I’m not sure he’d notice. This very depressed-looking man — let’s call him Ramses — gave me many an unconcerned look of withered detachment, his blank-stare flitting beneath the brow-shadow in some half-conscious sweep. At intervals, he exchanged bored glances with the guard working stage-right, a series of silent professional exchanges they’ve no doubt developed over time, the meanings of which I can’t (and don’t really want to) comprehend.

These were the two most intriguing characters I came across, primarily because their empty presence summed up all the general feelings I’d harbored about the modern “festival” in the particular: that of the grim functionality, the ever-so-slightly inhumane.

This was certainly the case in the crushed swamp of the Arctic Monkeys’ headline audience. The band rattled through their hits amid a bevy of flying cups and busted noses. The band played, the audience acted like idiots — everybody was performing at, or near, the peak of their powers. Everybody was doing their job. The crowd, for example, kept surging forward – those emerging from the very-front rows into the gridlock at gig’s end looked spiritually challenged and physically defeated. Most just needed a smoothie.

If the Arctics were playing into the eye of a rapturous home crowd, then the Animal Collective (here, as on the rest of their recent tour, minus Deakin) just chose to look away. Holed in the centre of their elaborate speaker-system, Panda, Avey and the Geologist cooked up fluent and re-wired renditions of old favorites while entertaining the devotees to some new cuts, putting in a performance of sustained and tiring insularity.

This flagrant give-a-fuck attitude was brilliant after days of pseudo-concerns and optimism from the festival’s organizers over bridging the gap between act and audience. Witness, for example, the Cowper-drooping shtick Iggy and his Stooges dropped bang into the middle of their set during “No Fun.” Yes, the living dead himself beckoned teenagers onstage to bellow anthemically, to act like crazed idiots in the hope that — come one, come all — we would the whole of us be enjoined in a rowdy promise ring of decadence, pessimism and the gurn. This was fun for a few minutes, but then came the whole deal of breaking the illusion, of casting those illumined back into the cynical dark of some greater light. Ah, the light tread of euphoria. The mass-herding took something like a quarter of an hour and took the wind straight out the band’s performance – they ended with a deflated “I Want To Be Your Dog,” the second time they’d played it that night.

But, then, this is the Benicàssim experience: absolute overkill. Like Reading, like Leeds, like Glastonbury (yes) it is a MEGA-event built on the illusive oyster of “live music.” That aesthetic kernel still exists, landlocked and wafer-thin, somewhere among the debris and dust of the hundred-thousand or so feet that attended the festival this year. Very many of these people will have left sated; they like “live music.” I like “live music,” too. Benicàssim certainly offers this item at high volume. As such, I must have enjoyed it. I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it.