It’s already dark by the time Clash arrives in Groningen. An historic university town some two hours to the north of Amsterdam, the winding streets are beset with cyclists escaping the office through the early evening rain, while canals trundle endlessly under bridges that seem to be centuries old.
In their wisdom, the city fathers have left the Christmas lights up just a little longer than here in the UK, meaning that this year’s Eurosonic Noorderslag gets under way with a blissfully seasonal feel. Sure, it’s cold outside, but the atmosphere generated at this vibrant and eclectic music showcase is warm to the touch.
With icy rain falling outside it’s a relief to squeeze into Communions’ set at Vera. One of the city’s best-loved venues – everyone from Henry Rollins to Pavement to Mogwai have played here – it’s a rough ‘n’ ready boozer with a low ceiling and great sound. The Danish newcomers take it in their stride, their gothic sound having a shoegaze sheen but also that slight hint of grit, with just the right mixture of abandon and control. Fat Possum have already swooped, and if this set is anything to go by then a superb debut album could be the result.
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Barbagallo is the ongoing project of Julien Barbagallo, a musicians perhaps best known for rattling the drum skins in Aussie psych juggernaut Tame Impala. When not blowing minds with the Antipodeans he has perfected his own brand of lilting psych pop, with his softly imposing gallic tones reminiscent of a masculine Francois Hardy. A debut record sneaked out back in 2014, and their next steps should be worth following – cute, unadorned with anything overly fancy, Barbagallo’s set offers simple songwriting laced with mystery.
Saint Sister’s set at Grand Theatre is a roadblock, meaning that Clash high-tails it to De Spieghal to catch Irish group Exmagician. A tight, visceral set ensues, fusing relentless noise with a coating of sweet, sweet sugar, before we catch the opening salvo of Ekkah’s impressive Eurosonic stand.
Anna Meredith’s debut album ‘Varmints’ was one of 2016’s real gems, a truly original work from an artist who normally works far out-with anything remotely pop. Spending much of the past 12 months honing her live set, Anna’s ensemble is now a muscular, finely honed beast, and Groningen’s Grand Theatre bore its full brunt. Operating firmly to the left of centre, it’s nonetheless laced with accessible ideas, setting curious melody against moments of genuine laugh-out-loud humour. Ending in a cavalcade of brass, Anna’s set underlines that her talent could truly take her anywhere.
Palace Winter continue the Danish conversation, and their set at Huize Maas is exactly where we needed at this point: unashamedly fun, and packed with energy to fuel travel-swollen legs. There’s just about time to catch a few songs from imposing Portuguese group The Gift before the road home beneath those glistening Christmas lights becomes just too tempting.
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Thursday finds the conference element of Eurosonic swing into action, while the city itself boasts a number of off piste activities. Goat Girl play a nearby record shop, while local radio stations, blogs, and broadcasters seem to take over every nook and crannie to showcase the ever-vibrant Dutch music scene.
Ireland’s Wyvern Lingo help kick off the evening’s proceedings, while at Platform Theatre our tip Sturla Atlas turns in a typically stylish performance. Clash then high-tails it to Dot where German producer Christian Loeffler is busy turning an arts centre into a planetarium, with his techno-inclined electronics breaking and shattering while star-spangled lights scatter against the ceiling. Trippy.
Ireland’s Walking On Cars are typically intense at the 3FM Stage, while Clash also makes time for Portuguese group Throes + The Shine. In true Lisbon style they’re a fusion – of kuduru and rock music – and it’s one that crackles with a rare energy. The crowd lap it up, the January cold outside being kept at bay by some blistering riffs and those chopped up chants. A curious mixture, then, but one that works.
Dublin’s Hare Squead take control at Huize Maas, with their boisterous rap set laying down some vibes at the central venue. A trio, each voice takes turn to command the crowd, and it definitely works, with the Dutch audience going wild for the Irish outfit – truly, hip-hop is a universal language.
It’s then a long (and we do mean long) walk across town to Simplon, where we find fellow Irish hip-hop prodigy Bonzai. Members of her band overlap with Hare Squead but the approach is completely different, with the diminutive Bonzai standing out front and centre. Tipped as one of 1Xtra’s finest EPs of 2016, the material from ‘Lunacy’ has rarely sounded so fresh, so alive. A superb set, and undoubtedly one of the weekend’s true highlights.
The softly falling snow impedes our return, with regular breaks under the city’s historic architecture to get blood circulating into those fingers. A fortunate stop at Vrijdag found Clash stumbling across French group Her, and their sensual sounds helped keep the tumbling temperatures at bay for another night.
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With snow on the ground it’s time to ease into Friday, and a wander around Groningen’s streets. The lay out of the city itself hasn’t changed much for centuries, with its geography carefully dictated by those intricate canals. Smaller than Amsterdam, it’s compact size is perfectly suited for housing a multi-venue festival – stumbling out of one doorway can lead to a multitude of surprises, most of which are musical.
The evening starts with a brisk set from Francobollo, the Swedish/British group matching their snappy riffs with good humour and plenty of interplay. It’s a suitably comfortable way to ease into the final day of Eurosonic, before Reading tykes The Amazons blow away those cobwebs for good. Tipped for big things in 2017 word is clearly out already with an enormous queue snaking down the centre of Groningen. Clash gets to Huize Maas early, though, and we’re not left disappointed by an energised, clinical set that ticks every box before it. With a crisp, emphatic debut album in their locker and a tighter-than-tight live show The Amazons could well conquer all before them.
A relaxing stroll down to Minerva finds The Magic Gang setting up their kit, the Brighton band making only their second appearance on Dutch soil. They seem to enjoy every second of the adventure, too, with their brisk art-rock thrills delighting the crowd. Playing in an art gallery seems to suit the band to a tee, shuffling between varying shades of post-punk and The Creation style freakbeat. Truly, a group to place on a pedestal.
Mozes & The First Born are lauded as one of the unhinged signings Burger Records have ever made, and that’s an accolade in itself. The band hail from Eindhoven, making this performance as close as we might ever get to witnessing them on home soil. Feral, energetic, and operating with no barrier between themselves and the audience their sick, grotesque garage punk thrills are a putrid reminder that guitar music can still appal in the most delicious, delirious manner.
The Moonlandingz blow mindz down at Vera, but Clash halts up the road slightly to join the queue at De Speighal. Norway’s Slotface have already gained a devout cult following, with the band’s skeletal indie sound set against lyrics of real passion, fire, and intelligence. The room fills to bursting point, bouncers desperately holding fans back as the group rush onstage, each song whizzing past in a blur of barbed wire, dissonance, and deadly charm. It’s compact, precise, and refuses to pull its punches – hopelessly addicted, we leave entirely under their spell.
And with that our Eurosonic Noorderslag adventure draws to a close. The music – and, indeed, the conference – draws on for a fourth day, but with a flight to catch it’s time to leave. There’s time for one final wander around Groningen, to soak up its sights (record shops) and sounds (more record shops). Small but superbly detailed, the city itself it an apt metaphor for the festival, it’s intricate streets drawing you round ever more exotic and mysterious corners.
The vast church steeple in the centre of town is equipped with all manner of bells, and – just as we’re leaving – a tribute to David Bowie rings out across the city. Snow starts to fall, and ‘Life On Mars’ peals up into the heavens – Eurosonic Noorderslag certainly leaves an impression.
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Find Eurosonic Noorderslag online HERE.