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In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

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    photo 4 e1341862239947 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium
    Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

    As you do when you break free from the tethers of email, I left an auto-away message on my Gmail that read, “I am in Belgium of all places.” When I arrived in Belgium, I met with Tom Pieters who was organizing my stay through Tourism Flanders. “I noticed your auto-reply message. Why did you say ‘of all places’?” It was hard to convey to him what was both a little joke and my thoughts on Belgium pre-visit.

    As I type this, I’m on a train back from Bruges, passing through farm fields with scattered cows and small brick cottages with stucco roofing. Since I first arrived in Belgium, I’ve felt the country and my home state of Wisconsin have a lot in common; they’re both most stereotypically known for beer and food that’s horrible for you (cheese and waffles, respectively). And while I begrudgingly take pride in my squeaky-ass cheese curds, there’s always a sense of “Hey there’s more to Wisco than cheese.” In my time here, that’s generally the subtext of Belgium and I suppose anywhere you travel: look beyond the brochure.

    Another reason I’m here is to experience Flanders (the Northern part of Belgium that contains Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, and Leuven) as a Festival. Just the northern part of Belgium plays host to more than 280 festivals throughout the summer. Some are smaller, local festivals in small towns, while others include Rock Werchter drawing over 85,000 people a day. After almost a week here, walking around by myself, drinking some of the best beers I’ve ever had, talking to some mall punks while Rise Against is playing, being in the middle of a Skrillex pit, watching Patti Smith at an amphitheater in the woods, I haven’t seen a brochure that accurately captures the quiet and the loud of Flanders (it’s like a Pixies song!). Even if this little recap of my time serves as a new brochure, look beyond and go and see for yourself.

    –Jeremy D. Larson
    Managing Editor

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    Wednesday, June 27th

    10:45 a.m.  On the train from Brussels airport to Leuven, the hills roll like they do in Wisconsin. I don’t know if you can define “quaint” as the opposite of urbane, but it struck me here for the first time as an optimistic word. Far away places are always filled with wonder and awe, just a sign in a different language can leave you agog as you try to synthesize its definition in your own tongue, but there’s always something vaguely familiar about every foreign place you go. The more places you travel, the more ties you make to other places you’ve been. It’s like listening to the band Girls, having remembered that you used to listen to The Everly Brothers.

    One thing about Leuven as I walk through it in a fog of residual Tylenol PM is there’s bustle with no hustle – static energy. Also, there’s no music blaring from any store or on any street corner. It’s a quiet day, I suppose.

    I’m trying to think of something funny or “WTF Belgium?” about Leuven but nothing really strikes me like here. It’s a small city with a university and bars every 50 ft.

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    2:30 p.m.  And there are 778 bars (or cafes) in Leuven. They definitely roll like they do in Wisconsin.

    photo 12 e1341889557618 768x1024 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    Micro brew in Leuven

    3:00 p.m.  I come to find that Leuven, home of the Stella Brewing Co., is angling to be the Beer City of Europe, much to the chagrin of its bigger brother Brussels. Leuven was built on beer, it ran on beer, it lives and dies by beer, and the beer is really, really good so it gets my vote.

    8:45 p.m.  The only music happening on this Wednesday is a Flemmish High School choir doing a cappella renditions of Queen, Lady Gaga, Isley Brothers, etc.  They did this with impeccable American accents, even though all the interstitial crowd goading and joking was in Dutch.

    belgium flanders 3 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    photo 21 e1341889798883 768x1024 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    11:30 p.m.  Spain won the semi-final because there are about 500 people gathered in the Market Square screaming and watching 36” flat screen TVs jerry-rigged out in the front of the bars. My fair-weather love of soccer is in complete dissonance with the rapt audience so I went to the silent square and took this picture and went to bed.

    belgium flanders 32 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    Leuven City Hall at night.

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    Thursday, June 28th

     10:15  a.m.  Record shopping, going to two places in Leuven. First shop turned up nothing but this:

    photo 22 e1341895163681 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    I prefer the cropping job here — this pose goes a lot better with Frampton saying “I’m In Yo”

    Second shop, Giraffe Records which is a dub and D&B-centric shop turned up this:

    photo 53 e1341895294349 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    12:40 p.m.  Leuven is bustling more today – people getting ready to head out to Rock Werchter hanging out in the street. There’s a dude busking and he’s the worst and I took a video hoping he’d be at least OK to put up but — this version of “Message In A Bottle” is best left unheard.

    3:15 p.m.  Finally arriving at Rock Werchter – Belgium’s largest music festival, receiving over 85,000 people a day. There are three stages: the Main Stage (Pearl Jam, Jack White), the tented Pyramid Marquee (Cypress Hill, Skrillex), and new for this year is another giant circus tent The Barn (Beirut, Garbage).

    belgium flanders 28 e1342024375799 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

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    4:40 p.m. – Brazilian electronic standard-bearer Amon Tobin plays inside of a Tetris barricade set up in the Pyramid Marquee with astral-industrial visuals projected on it. The totally jazz-less set was dizzying and dense — and after the uninitiated were displaced out of the crowd, the remaining head-nodders zoned out with Tobin for the better part of an hour.

    1 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    Photo by Tim Griffin

    5:45 p.m. – Both the Pyramid Stage and The Barn are covered tents and if only it weren’t the hottest day of the year and it were pouring rain and if they had side ventilation I could get more behind that. The tents unfortunately served as hot boxes. In The Barn,  The Maccabees had four industrial fans blowing to keep them cool. The fans were certainly “function over fashion” in the swelter of the tent, but their slick hair and slicker pop-arena treacle rubbed me the wrong way. I sat and listened outside of the tent where it was markedly cooler, where their 2009 single “Love You Better” wandered about as lead singer Orlando Weeks did his best Win Butler impression. I wandered away.

    37 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    Photo by Tim Griffin

    7:35 p.m.  Against severe odds, I’m somehow really digging these Rusko-produced dubstep tracks Cypress Hill’s doing at the end of their set. Also, talk about hot boxes inside of that Pyramid Marquee stage.

    belgium flanders 24 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

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    9:15 p.m. – It’s all about nostalgia and feeeeeeeelings on the Main Stage today. You had the Mellenials and Gen-Y with their American high school bands like The All-American Rejects (who have not aged well), Rise Against (who have aged surprisingly well all things considered), and Blink-182 (what’s their age again?) weighed against the band emblazoned Gen-X’s family crest, The Cure, who despite being the elder-statesmen of the lineup, show the least amount of wrinkles of them all. Each band played to an audience that either wanted to recall the golden years, or an audience in a state of harmless but dubious arrested development. Age, fashion, demeanor, and occasionally makeup separated the factions of fans in the crowd, and oh those poor Cure fans camping in the front row during Blink-182. The pain on their faces surely must have rivaled the pain Robert Smith made them feel when they were younger.

    belgium flanders 17 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

    Blink-182 sounded thin and rushed, and if there actually were a sizable amount of people genuinely losing their shit to “The Rock Show” I would have to capitulate to their age-old antics, but it was lukewarm at best. Who’s embarrassing who here? Also, the way Travis Barker plays drums straight pisses me off and I have no idea why.

    10:15 p.m.  The first Belgian act I caught today was Leuven’s own Selah Sue. She’s opened for Prince, worked with J.Cole and Cee-Lo, and puts on a damn fine show for a 23 year-old from small-town Belgium. It’s hard to tell how in control of her band she is, but the lay back on that dub bass/acid jazz groove is real nice on the song ‘The World”. I got chills (or as this guy told me there, “all chicken-skinned”) during that song not specifically because of a climactic moment, but there was a rousing ovation mid-song that rang of her arrival (in Belgium at least). She’s mastered the art of the Adele kiss-off ballad, the Joss Stone R&B raspy-stomp, and even puts forth a little Brooklyn hip-hop into her song. It was a magnetic performance — the best kind of pop.

    16 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    Photo by Tim Griffin

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    11:20 p.m.  I’m just so impressed with The Cure. “Just Like Heaven” may be one of the best songs ever written, and even though my generation’s timely high school anthems were on parade earlier, it was here I wish I was pre-Hot Topic emo kid.

    48 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    Photo by Tim Griffin

    12:35 a.m. – Waiting for Skrillex to go on and I’m pretty sure like no one’s on drugs. I have mixed emotions about this.

    1:15 a.m. – Skrillex put on an OK show. That visceral punk mentality that I was expecting with his show was absent, the energy of the crowd wasn’t really ready to get absolutely destructive, which was what I had hoped for. There’s a small amount of timidity about the crowd at the dance stage which is not annoying but also not totally charged — and I was pretty deep in there. He minimized any drastic remixes of hits like “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” (which he’ll often remix live to even more mixed results). The wooden plank boardwalk built out from inside the tent toward a giant rave-monolith did start to bow whenever Skrillex dropped that bass. That felt dangerous in a good way.

    8 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    Photo by Tim Griffin

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    1:50 a.m. – Just caught the final part of Justice doing “D.A.N.C.E.” with Jay-Z’s “On To the Next One” on the Main Stage. The crowd feels about equal between Justice and Skrillex, which seems about right.

    12 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    Photo by Tim Griffin

    Friday, June 29th

     1:15 p.m. – Hard to believe I’m watching X. They have a kind of Guided By Voices via The Sunset Strip vibe going on — all rock and confidence and ageless energy. Singer Exene Cervenka literally never stops moving on stage, though it’s more bassist John Doe’s show. While the punk’s dialed down, it’s still a refreshing pallet cleanser from the snotty pop punk of Thursday’s Main Stage lineup. I also happen to spot Bret Hinds of Mastodon on the side of the stage, watching and singing along the whole time.

    2:15 p.m.  In a golf cart being toured around the Rock Werchter grounds and to see how the sausage is made. Eight thousand people are under the employ of Rock Werchter and Live Nation, who partnered with the festival in 2003. The back-end of the fest is really impressive, most notably:

    – Many of the volunteers helping out with security or vending are members of local community football groups or music programs. Instead of paying the volunteers, Rock Werchter pays their parent organization.

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    – Thousands of platforms are placed across the grass in the main areas to minimize their footprint and the mud — unlike anything I’ve ever seen. At the beginning of the day, before anyone arrives, the front of the stages look like de-iced hockey rinks.

    – The entrance to the pit area of the main stage is controlled by gates. Green “O” means you can go in, red “X” means the pit is full. Genius idea.

    – Rock Werchter really is the the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere, which really adds to the escape of the thing more than an urban festival. Sasquatch!, Bonnaroo, even Coachella.

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    – There were Belgian waffles with chocolate sauce back stage.

    3:40 p.m. Wiz Khalifa is so high it’s not only worth noting but it’s the only thing I’m noting. That and I swear I saw a Terrible Towel wave around in the air.

    30 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    Photo by Tim Griffin

    3:50 p.m. – Surprisingly, Perfume Genius has a sizable and attentive crowd over at The Barn. A lot of silence for a festival afternoon in a veritable oven.

    5:15 p.m. – I love the idea of Gossip. I love Beth Ditto’s persona, her honesty, her wit, her whole demeanor that oscillates between a brash whiskey-chugging punk to a coquettish young girl. I love the direct-current punk Ditto. I don’t dig disco Ditto. When she tries to set the night on fire, it’s too campy for me and comes off less Gang of Four pogo dancing and more unglittered pop. Granted the Main Stage isn’t really the place I’d love to see Gossip try to pull off a sweaty punk show full of spit and blood, but grandiose dance songs aren’t my bag.

    22 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

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    6:55 p.m. – Jack White plays with his all-male band (this is my second time seeing the boys, have yet to see the all-female band on this tour, which exists and I’m told is just as tight, if not tighter, than the all-male band). One thing stood out: older White Stripes songs did not seem to make it over to Belgium in one piece. When White offered the mic to the crowd for “Hotel Yorba” it just seemed like it was me singing, and there was not a hushed, lovable singalong to “We’re Going to Be Friends”. One of those sets that felt like everyone was waiting for the big single (in this case “Seven Nation Army”) but that seems so ridiculous considering the wealth of singable stompers White has released in the last year alone. Anyway, White and his band delivers one of the best live shows of the year without hardly trying. That’s what you get when you have a band of studio ringers from Nashville, Brooklyn, and Detroit playing the blues.

    351 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    Photo by Tim Griffin

    7:20 p.m.  There’s a couple with matching Red Hot Chili Peppers ankle tats.

    8:30 p.m.  This may be a fault of mine, but I can’t ever think of Lana Del Ray outside of some sort of context. Even after the dust from the media maelstrom had settled, I was now watching her and all I could think of was Fiona Apple. Nothing felt honest — if Fiona Apple is life, then Lana Del Ray is surely death. Watching Del Ray on stage is like watching a lazy ghost drag you through some Instagrammed past you couldn’t care less about. She’s just all bouffant up-do and schmaltz.

    46 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    Photo by Tim Griffin

    9:15 p.m.  Another pride of Belgium band dEUS, alt-90’s band with steam still in their engines. Don’t know if they’d translate as well in The States, as we’ve already had our fill of 90’s revivals, but they sounded just great.

    71 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    Photo by Tim Griffin

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    11:00 p.m.  Eddie Vedder is already on wine bottle number two. Mike McCready was in a rain coat for a bit. There’s easily 60,000 people watching Pearl Jam. There’s a lot of hits being played, “Elderly Woman…”, “Corduroy”, and “Given to Fly”. Last time I saw Pearl Jam, it was the first night of the PJ 20 show at Alpine which was almost exclusively deep cuts, Mother Love Bone tunes, and, like, “Education”. Tonight is great, the crowd is really feeling it.

    photo 52 1024x1024 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

    Juplier beer is like Belgian’s PBR to locals.

    11:35 p.m.  Vedder just dedicated “Spin the Black Circle” to Jack White and Third Man Records. Let’s just dream about Pearl Jam going in and doing a session at Third Man!

    12:15 a.m.  Some confusion with the lyrics during the crowd participation of “Better Man”.  Vedder took over before the chorus, only a little begrudgingly. Here’s the setlist:

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    Metamorphosis 2 (intro)
    Do The Evolution
    Got Some
    Corduroy
    Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
    Given To Fly
    World Wide Suicide
    Comatose
    Even Flow
    Olé
    The Fixer
    Spin The Black Circle
    Daughter (w/ Another Brick in the Wall tease)
    Just Breathe
    Why Go
    Jeremy
    Better Man (w/ Save it for Later tease)

    Encore:
    Unthought Known
    Public Image
    Alive
    Rockin’ in the Free World
    Yellow Ledbetter

    12:25 a.m. The clarion trumpets of Zach Condon echo across the road where I’m walking home. The small country road that winds back to the bus stop has a great view of The Barn and the sound wafting out of it is Beirut doing “The Shrew”. I sat and listened to most of Beirut’s set in the the perfect night air.

    51 In Travel: Rock Werchter, Couleur Café, and the sights of Flanders, Belgium

     Photo by Tim Griffin

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