NIN, YYYs and more at Swiss fest...
Nine Inch Nails St Gallen

Clash attended the OpenAir Festival, at St Gallen in Switzerland, on June 26-28. It featured lots of mud, and lots of bands. Here’s our report.

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It’s 10pm and I have joined the early birds for the pre-festival Thursday gig. I’ve been on a bendy bus with about 150 people and a dozen shopping trolleys filled with beer, and negotiated my way past a herd of goats to get here.

Shantel & Bucovina Club Orkestar, collectively billed as Disko Partizana, appear on stage and before long the tent smells like an Amsterdam coffee shop at closing time - or used to smell before the Dutch introduced the smoking ban.

Shantel is a leading light on the Eastern European gypsy music circuit, but actually looks more like an East Berlin hairdresser than a descendent of the Romany people. However, there is no doubt that this blend of accordion, brass, violin and guitar is the perfect way to woo the unpretentious crowd, which knows what it wants – good music to jump around to.

The next day, the Lovebugs treat their audience to a spirited performance of their pop rock classics, which hint at Robbie Williams’ earlier stuff before he fell out with Guy Chadwick and started looking for UFOs.

While German guitar indie bands singing in English usually let themselves down because their lyrics suck, their tunes are mediocre and their accent sounds like something from ‘Allo ‘Allo. Get Well Soon, though, are the exception to the rule. Fronted by the exotically-named Konstantin Gropper, the band has an aura of class usually limited to elegant crooners and the odd indie star such as Jarvis Cocker. The sound is given added depth thanks to the occasional burst of trumpet and xylophone and their radical reworking of Underwold’s ‘Born Slippy’ – which is recognizable only by the words “lager, lager, lager” – hints at an adventurous musical spirit.

Attending an event like St Gallen puts the conservative booking policy of many British festivals into sharp focus, with the token ‘European’ band from Scandinavia or occasional French DJ being about the limit.

Hearing Germany’s Peter Fox put lyrics in his own language to numerous Jamaican genres might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it is an impressive show and proves that things have moved on a bit since the Hoff was the best seller over the border. Similarly it’s interesting to check out pop/rap act Stress, hailing from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, not least because he is one of the biggest-selling artists here.

For both foreigners and locals, Cypress Hill needed no introduction. Their gig on the main stage draws a massive crowd, but the DJ’s frequent shouts of “Switzerland, make some mother-fucking noise,” doesn’t compensate for the fact that most people were only here for a handful of songs.

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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs

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The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O puts on a more spirited show, with ‘Zero’ and ‘Gold Lion’ proving the main crowd pleasers, but it is The Flaming Lips who provide the high point on Friday. Singer Wayne Coyne begins the gig in a transparent plastic bubble and the overall show resembles a deranged children’s party complete with Teletubbies, giant balloons, confetti and party poppers launched from a long tube.

On Saturday, Swiss singer/songwriter Sophie Hunger, whose voice and songs have a similar quality to Beth Orton, suggests her music could appeal internationally. Masses also flock to the main stage to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, whose warped charisma distracts from the fact that he can’t actually hold a tune (that is a SHOCKING thing to say – Nick Cave-loving Ed). The band’s hirsute appearance evokes scenes from Deliverance, and the possibility that after the gig some hapless Swiss bloke will be exhorted to “squeal like a pig” in the nearby woods. Overall Nick Cave is storming, and what he lacks in vocal talent is compensated for in charm and a natural talent to entertain.

It sets the tone well for Nine Inch Nails, who begin with an intensity hinting that Trent Reznor (pictured, top) has been going in for some self-imposed celibacy for the past three months. But just as things are shaping up nicely for the anger-fueled set which everybody wants, the frontman starts showing off his skills on the piano and demonstrating the softer end of his vast vocal spectrum. When Nine Inch Nails finish with ‘The Hand That Feeds’ and ‘Head Like A Hole’, it feels like they left these crowd pleasers too late.

With the last band finishing at 7pm, things get going (prohibitively) early on Sunday morning, and by the time California’s Aggrolites take to the stage at 1.15pm they are the fourth band to play the stage. Many of the bigger acts could do worse than look at how these specialists in ‘dirty reggae’ can motivate an audience, and their elementary German of lauter bitte (louder please) and danke (thanks) is rewarded by lots of cheering and jumping.

The Streets take to the stage mid-afternoon, with Mike Skinner sporting the Englishman-abroad uniform of loud t-shirt and shorts. He jokes with he audience and his effortless patter goes down well, although when his sidekick bursts into a badly sung cover of ‘Billie Jean’, there is a temporary set back to an otherwise entertaining show.

More of this Princess Diana-style mourning bollocks rears its head with Mando Diao, who feel the need to “ease the pain” of Michael’s passing, in such a cringeable manner I decide to go for a last beer instead of watching more.

Fortunately, the day ends on a far better and entertaining note over at the Starbühne tent, where Germany’s 2Raumwohnung - pronounced ‘Zwei-Row-m-vo-nung’ - are the final act on. Deftly combining indie, pop and electronica, they are like Goldfrapp with a sense of humour and German lyrics. Fronted by a singer who is probably the same age as the British diva, but who seems to immensely enjoy being on stage, 2Raumwohung clearly have a devoted following who even go mad for three new tracks premiered at the show.

It’s the perfect way to finish the festival and a reminder that not only is St Gallen OpenAir offering loads of things other events do not, it also has a line up combining the best of many worlds.

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Take your fancy for next year? Here’s how we traveled this summer…

Ticket price including camping: approximately £100 for three tickets.
BMI flies direct to Zurich from Edinburgh, Manchester and Leeds Bradford. London is covered by several airlines and by train via Eurostar and changing in Paris.
From Zurich airport a direct train to St Gallen takes an hour. Festival bus leaves outside the station and takes 10 minutes to the site.

Find the festival’s official website HERE.

All photos copyright of St Gallen OpenAir Festival.

Words: Olaf Furniss


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