Rochefort en Accords Festival Round-Up

Rochefort en Accords Festival Round-up)
(Various Venues in Rochefort, Charente-Maritime, France, August 26th-28th,
review and photos by Lisa Gee)

Rochefort – planned and built in the second half of the 17th century as one of Louis XIVth’s naval bases – is a relaxed place, so chilled, in fact, that it allows cyclists to ride the wrong way up one way streets and hosts Rochefort en Accords: one of the coolest music festivals in France.

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“It’s incredibly rare to find a festival this open,” says Eric Longsworth (above), whose versatile, empathic and muscular cello improvisations were among its highlights. “As musicians we’re almost always obliged to fit into some kind of category. I’m often categorised as jazz, so I’ll play in jazz festivals. This is the only place I can play with bluesmen, pop singers, an African kora player, where all these styles of music are mixed together.” The musicians love the freedom and stimulation this offers.

From an audience perspective, it makes for an inspiring – if occasionally surreal – experience. Friday night saw 1970s pub rock legend Sean Tyla thundering out his 1974 Ducks Deluxe single “Fireball” with the energy of a man a third his age, accompanied by French rock guitarist Nicolas Mingot, rock bassist and ukelele wiz Brad Scott, loud, precise rock drummer Franck Marco and, er, subtle and playful Malinese percussionist Adama Diarra on, er, balafon. The fact that we could not only hear that Diarra was playing, but also what he was playing speaks volumes for the quality of sound engineering.

Individual concerts are scheduled at various venues around town: in the central square, in a selection of walled gardens and on the 1900 “pont transbordeur,” a platform that slides over the Charente Estuary. This is possibly the world’s shortest gig – one song there, one back.

The only indoor venue, the Temple Protestant, is, inevitably, the best acoustically, and where the Rochefort-en-Accords wow factor really flares. We fetched up there twice; once, as planned, for the first event on Thursday 26th, and again, on Friday 27th, when rain stopped (outdoor) play, providing an extra opportunity to feel the extraordinary power of Haitian vocalist James Germain unamplified. On recordings and mic-ed up live he has a terrific soul/gospel sound. In church, as Le Monde put it (but in French, obviously), “he appeared from nowhere and dumbfounded everyone”. Essentially, his baroque opera training kicked in and what came out was something I can only describe as the voice you’d want to sing you out of this world and into the next.

In church with Germain on Thursday were Diarra, Longsworth and Malinese kora-meister Chérif Soumano (above with Amar Sundy), French classical clarinet/sax player Renaud Gabriel Pion (whose Paradise Alley is worth a listen), acute and lyrical Israeli pianist Or Solomon and French left-field folkie Seb Martel who, with Pion, opened the festival with a gently jazzy take on Bowie’s Modern Love.

Friday’s church gig kicked off with Scott Taylor’s commanding solo accordion. Along with Longsworth, Soumano, Germain, Marco, Solomon, outstanding harmonica player Greg Zlap and Algerian bluesman Amar Sundy – a powerful and generous performer, whose exuberant midnight set warmed and uplifted a chilly Saturday night audience – Taylor exemplifies the best of Rochefort-en-Accords: a forensic knowledge of his instrument’s possibilities and an unerring sense of how and when to apply them; the charisma to hold audience attention stage front combined with the humility and professionalism to step back and let someone else take the floor; and an appreciation of the value of silence. He can whistle, too.

One huge criticism. Out of the 26 billed musicians, only one was a woman: the hard-working, but slightly out-of-her-depth singer-songwriter Laetitia Shériff (above). The entire remaining on-stage female presence makes a short and depressing list:

1) a gyrating semi-clad dancer brandishing a skull-on-a-stick
2) a musician’s loud, attention-seeking, apparently plastered girlfriend, dancing at the audience and intermittently shrieking something off key into a mic
3) Sindy, the devoted, sweet but non-performing dog of guitarist Jef Morin

This is the one area the festival organizers could, should, must improve.

Rochefort en Accords Festival website

Lisa Gee is a Londoner and a writer

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