Low Attendance Doesn’t Deter Successful Crossing Border – Festival Report

Despite the attendance levels of 2015’s Crossing Border Festival seeming lower than usual (the festival didn’t sell out for the first time in three years), it hasn’t deterred The Hague from putting on another wonderful week of music and literature. Big names may not have been in abundance this year (last year saw Wilco, Courtney Barnett and Dry the River shine), but the artists that did appear managed to put on shows memorable enough to carry Crossing Border through another successful, rain-soaked edition. Read on for a full report of the festival.

Friday featured a slightly lower attendance than in 2014, with folk troubadour Jonathan Jeremiah headlining the festival’s Royal Stage. Just like last year, Crossing Border Festival takes place in and around The Hague’s Schouwburg theatre, as well as the neighbouring Nationale Toneel Gebouw complex. The ‘main stage’, dubbed The Royal, features 3 extensive balconies and a seated floor, whereas the Raven stage next door features a more conventional floor layout. Above The Raven, the Heartbeat Hotel makes for a café-like seated room, whereas the Heaven Stage can be found up on the very top floor of the Schouwburg theatre. Friday’s Royal stage proceedings were kicked off by Scandinavian vocalist Jenny Hval who, together with an accompanying producer, took her extremely theatrical live set to The Hague’s half-full room. Hval’s new record Apocalypse, Girl featured heavily as the Norwegian vocalist writhed around stage, simulated a sleeping session and wore wigs for the duration of her 45-minute long set. It was evident that Hval tried very hard to convert the audience to her ways, however this didn’t come across very well by the end of the set. Jenny’s voice is absolutely flawless live, being underpinned by eclectic electro undertones and ambient drones. However, it just wasn’t enough to get Crossing Border off to a memorable start.

Aussie trio The Babe Rainbow followed on the Heaven Stage, performing a set filled with laid-back, trippy psychedelia. The three-piece, who hail from the Rainbow Bay, performed in front of a full room as their set flittered between fuzzy indie-psych and trippy funk. Drummer/frontman Angus Dowling, as well as his bandmates, looked like they just stepped out of a 60s time machine, with the crowd generally consisting of people who would’ve found this band cool fifty years ago. That’s not to say they’re not cool today, though, because the hippie undertones which accompanied the likes of personal band favourite Love Forever, as well as new single Aloe Vera, came across with plenty of promise for The Babe Rainbow’s seemingly bright future. One band who also have a very bright future are the American folk rock outfit Lord Huron, whose April release Strange Trails charted in the US Billboard Top 25. Hailing from Michigan, the band (centred on founding member Ben Schneider) drew a relatively sizable crowd to the Raven stage, performing nearly an hour’s worth of upbeat folk rock, most of which was equipped with a heavy dosage of energy. Just like a majority of the artists appearing this weekend, Lord Huron aren’t a name who create instant buzz wherever they go. Rather, they’re busy ensuring that this becomes the case sometime soon, with Crossing Border a very good place to start.

English folk troubadour Jonathan Jeremiah had the honour of closing out the festival’s first day, some five years after appearing on the Crossing Border bill in a small capacity. New album Oh Desire featured heavily, with set highlight Arms (in an extended fashion) sprawling through the beautifully constructed Royal stage hall. Playing to a full (albeit not packed) crowd, Jeremiah cemented his status as one of Holland’s favourite singer-songwriters today. Between songs, Jeremiah engaged in plenty of sarcastic banter with the crowd, most of it striking a laughing chord with the room. “This song’s gonna be in a perfume advertisement” remarked the floppy-haired musician as he led his band through How Half-Heartedly We Behave, before an extended wait for an encore saw most people leave. Jeremiah admittedly confessed that they were unsure whether or not they were allowed to return to the stage, but they eventually did and closed the day with a heroic rendition of Walking on Air. It helped the first day of Crossing Border come to a euphoric close, however it was all but over elsewhere. Upstairs on the Heaven Stage, Cali duo The Garden pulled off the most insane performance of the whole weekend. The twin brothers, Wyatt and Fletcher Sears, took to their bass and drums for the first three songs and played a relatively normal set. Then, by the fourth song, everything changed. Both Sears’ brothers distanced themselves from their instruments, grabbed mic’s and proceeded to rap along to a bass-heavy backing track. It was a far cry from the eclectic garage rock they’d just played, and it seemed as though every drug imaginable had just kicked in throughout their bloodstreams. Both brothers took it in turns to introduce the songs in an unorthodox manner, before launching themselves into the crowd and, amongst other things, doing the worm whilst shaking people’s hands. Once this ended, they returned to their instruments and acted as if nothing had just happened. They describe themselves, genre-wise at least, as a Vada Vada band (basically, party punk), but it seemed almost as if the audience didn’t pick up on this, remaining stagnant for the most part. It didn’t deter the Sears brothers, who just released new album haha, from pulling off a memorable show, though. The likes of Everything Has a Face, I Want That Nose I Saw on TV and the absolutely mental I Guess We’ll Never Know all stood out the most in a set which saw the average song length come in at just under two minutes. One thing which The Garden’s set proved is that, regardless of who’s headlining, the best moments of the weekend come where you don’t expect to find them. It wasn’t conventional by any means, but bloody hell it was good.

The second day of Crossing Border was proceeded by heavy bouts of strong wind and rain, yet once again it didn’t deter people from turning out in their droves for a busier, final day of music. Up on the Heaven Stage, Antwerpen outfit Blackie & the Oohoos performed a 45-minute set filled with doomy electro pop, some of it mixed with psychedelic elements, and some of it with waspy synths and booming percussion. The live four-piece predominantly played tracks from their upcoming January record, with only one previously released song being pulled out of the gloomy bag. Their set pulled a decently sized crowd, however by the second half of the show interest started to fade and people slowly hovered over to other sets. This wasn’t the case half an hour later, when Newcastle-trio (and live quintet) Little Comets took to the same stage. The room, quite a hot one at that, was packed to the rafters with people as the band performed songs from February’s third album Hope is a State of Mind. All their gear and instruments were adorned with handwritten lyrics in the style of their new record, with the 45 minute set flittering effortlessly between standard indie rock and upbeat, danceable indie funk. Definite influence from the likes of Vampire Weekend (and even Beaty Heart) is evident, yet there are also some elements to their sound which are relatively unique. Set highlight Joanna came in halfway through the set, one which ended on a heroic rendition of Effetism. As the song came to a crashing, sweaty end (literally and figuratively), it became very evident that Little Comets were the band of the weekend. Frontman Robert Coles was armed with a phonetically written translation sheet which helped him speak ‘Dutch’, making the crowd laugh quite often at his own expense. Little Comets may have already released three records, but now the time for them to ‘make it’ finally seems to be approaching.

Over in the Heartbeat Hotel, Mercury Prize nominee Eska performed a set in front of approximately 250 people, all of whom were seated in a Cabaret-esque room. Two massive chandeliers dangled from the ceiling, as sprawling red curtains provided a backdrop for the London-based soul singer. Having previously worked with the likes of Grace Jones, Eska certainly isn’t a stranger to big names and even bigger shows. Tonight, however, saw intimacy prove itself as a key element for an hour. Self-titled album Eska was recently nominated for the Mercury Prize, having received generally positive reviews for its eclectic incorporation of psychedelic soul, RnB and blues. Onstage, Eska declared herself as “the real thing” multiple times, with the crowd absolutely lapping up her introspective-yet-grandiose tracks. Eska is often referred to as “the best singer you’ve never heard of”, however her Mercury Prize nomination is just one of many things set to change this. Back on the Heaven Stage, Belfast quartet Girls Names presented the festival’s second day with some much needed rawness. Pulsating basslines, menacing guitars and Cathal Cully’s visceral and demure vocal tone all accompanied one another effortlessly as a select few fans lost themselves in the front row. “Can you turn the lights down please, we’re not the prettiest people” asked Cully at one point, before one fan shouted back, “oh yes you are!” in the campest voice possible. It added a lighter, less serious tone to the very straightforward and punky attitude which the band gave off. Girls Names’ post-punk was lifted almost straight out of the genre’s 80s heyday, which was definitely reflected in the average age of the crowd. Their raw guitars and atonal vocals provided a much needed injection of guitar-based energy into a somewhat tame weekend. This tame weekend was closed by The Cinematic Orchestra over on the Royal Stage, however the real fun was taking place over in the Raven. This is where sibling trio Kitty, Daisy & Lewis performed an hour-long set filled with catchy blues, jazz and classic rock. Onstage, the trio of multi-instrumentalists are accompanied by their own parents, adding an extra family touch to proceedings. With the band all related, you could definitely see that there was an extra sense of connection which ensured that the band perfectly bounced off one another. Walking onstage to the sounds of classic electro track Popcorn, the quintet kicked straight in to Bitchin’ in the Kitchen’s powerful RnB undertones, before recent single Baby Bye Bye made for an early highlight. Every song saw the band switch instruments, with Brother Lewis taking the vocal helm on this one as Daisy switched places with him behind the drums. The whole set was essentially one massive throwback to everything that was popular in the 60s and 70s, with an extra barrage of interesting instrumentation and modern touches adding contrast to the show. Having sold out the Paradiso earlier this year, their Raven show did feel a touch too small and poorly-attended to really do the band justice. However, it didn’t stop the band putting their all into an ultimately successful set which closed out an ultimately successful two days.

Okay, Crossing Border may not have pulled the biggest names this year (headliner Tobias Jesso Jr. pulled out and wasn’t replaced), but what they lacked in popularity, they certainly made up for in quality and new discoveries. On Friday, Aussie psych-lords The Babe Rainbow and Cali punks The Garden shone, with Newcastle outfit Little Comets also standing out on the Saturday. Just like with Courtney Barnett and Kwabs in 2014, this year’s edition has certainly set the scene for one of these three aforementioned acts to make some sort of big impact in 2016. Even though the music has now come to an end, Crossing Border’s literature still continues, with famed author Salman Rushdie also making his way into The Hague this week. There are plans to expand and focus more on music next year, so it’s now just a matter of time to see how Crossing Border picks up from its low ticket slump and get back to its best.

Click here for more pictures from Crossing Border 2015.