Live Review: Stille Nacht Festival @ Various Venues, Rotterdam, 22.12.14

The centre of Rotterdam is one snowfall away from being a winter wonderland. Big bright lights adorn the trees and large Christmas trees have been erected all over the city’s most tourist areas, in particular the areas surrounding Nieuwe Binneweg, the home of this year’s Stille Nacht Festival. The annual travelling festival comes to a close in the Dutch harbour city this year, following two preceding days in Eindhoven and Lelystad. Stille Nacht is essentially a Christmas festival, and All Things Loud was there to experience its last day.

There are three venues participating in the festival this year, two of them churches – the Arminiuskerk and the Paradijskerk – and one of them Rotterdam’s live music hotspot, the Rotown. The evening kicked off in the Paradijskerk with a serene set from the Copenhagen-based solo artist Schultz & Forever, whose hour long acoustic set bellowed through the church hall with grand sincerity. On record, Schultz & Forever’s music is layered and synth-poppy, yet live we witnessed nothing more than a man and his guitar. Debut single Silvia was almost unrecognizable as this lone Dane sat there on the altar with a warm jacket on and a beer at his side. Although the music was nice, it still felt like something was missing. The intimacy of his music may not have been well enough suited to the large acoustics of the Paradijskerk, something which eventually worked against him despite the beautiful surroundings. Over in the Rotown, Limburg-trio Mad About Mountains’ brooding folk rock just missed the mark in garnering enough interest from the seemingly bored audience. It was all quite “folk-by-numbers”, although the inclusion of a pedal steel guitar did help it standout slightly from your usual folk troubadour. Best Friend swayed back and forth between sharp pedal steel and Piet de Pessemier’s smooth vocals, whereas On Our Way Back Home encompassed plucked guitars and a bittersweet vocal tone alongside its recognizable melody. It only just did the job in tying the crowd over until co-headliner Jacco Gardner took to the stage.

London singer-songwriter Luke Sitahl-Singh took to the Arminiuskerk stage not too long after, with his acoustic set-up perfectly complementing the surroundings. Unlike the Pardijskerk, the Arminiuskerk featured a balcony stretching across the sides and back, with a small open space in front of the stage for people to stand or sit. For around half of Sitahl-Singh’s set the crowd was all seated, until one person had the nerve to stand up (the rest of the crowd naturally following, much to the displeasure of those seated). Set opener I Have Been a Fire took the crowd by storm as Sitahl-Singh’s voice roared through the church with immense power and intense emotion. The majority of his set, which leant heavily on 2014 album The Fire Inside, encompassed songs which even Sitahl-Singh himself acknowledged as “depressing”. Depressing is what he does best, though. The likes of Fail For You and Bottled Up Tight both ensured complete silence in the room as we all witnessed Sitahl-Singh’s absolutely stellar vocals. Not only his vocals were impressive, though, as he also showed us his knack for some good old crowd banter. At one point, he told the crowd how he planned to start a festival of his own featuring nothing but depressing music, “because that’s what I’m all about”. He’d planned on calling it Depresstival, before taking a dig at the Dutch city of Lelystad (where he played on Saturday). “I played there on Saturday, it seems like quite a depressing place” he joked as the crowd applauded his city-bashing. “Maybe I’ll host Depresstival there one day, you’re all invited”. His music may be depressing to an extent, but there’s no doubt that Luke Sitahl-Singh is one to watch.

Back in the Rotown, one of Stille Nacht’s three co-headliners took to the stage in front of a full crowd. Dutch psychedelic musician Jacco Gardner has slowly made quite a name for himself since he emerged out of the Dutch farming town of Hoorn little over 18 months ago. Debut album Cabinet of Curiosities was part of the ongoing psych revival, with his second album expected some point next year. Tonight, Jacco and his live band’s 45-minute set drew heavily on new material, most of it having only been played once or twice before. Opening song Hypno encompassed Gardner-by-numbers psychedelic rock elements, before ‘breakthrough’ single Clear the Air’s upbeat xylophone melody and baroque-sounding guitars received the first big cheer of the 11-song set. “When we are to meet again, this feeling’s just the same” sang a youthful and happy looking Gardner through his Vocoder. Old material was further represented as the hypnotic melodies of Puppets Dangling and the instrumental Notus swiftly followed, before newer cuts Another You, Outside and Face featured. All three are exactly what we’d expect from Gardner – a psychedelic melody, baroque-pop guitars and woozy vocals. It’s a well-used formula, and one which Gardner often puts to use without much trouble. The upbeat, rocky A House on the Moon featured mid-set, before new track Find closed the set emphatically. Tonight was all about giving the crowd a taste of Jacco’s new music, and it’s certainly giving us a lot to be excited about. Stille Nacht’s second co-headliner, The Veils frontman Finn Andrews, played a less convincing solo set over in the Arminiuskerk, playing stripped-down versions of Veils songs on piano and guitar. It just didn’t do it for many, with the songs lacking enough punch or memorability for anyone to go home amazed. He didn’t talk much, save for one reference to drinking whiskey in a church.

Back in the Rotown, we witnessed one of Holland’s best upcoming bands in the shape of sextet Sue the Night. The Suus de Groot-fronted group will kick off their first major club tour in this exact venue next March, with tonight’s well-received set meaning that things are looking very promising for the band. Debut single Top of Mind encompassed an upbeat melody and thoughtful rhythm, yet the real set highlight came when one untitled new song absolutely erupted in a mixture of de Groot’s wailing vocals and pounding drums courtesy of drummer Tobias Ponsioen and percussionist/manager Linda van Leeuwen. They left the crowd clearly wanting more, yet we all know that this is not the last we’ll be hearing from Sue the Night. The evening closed back in the Arminiuskerk with a special, stripped back set from country-folk trio Bear’s Den. The beard loving Londoners played a nine song set to a packed church which ended on Elysium, a song which is currently receiving a lot of radio play in Holland. Bear’s Den provided a set which proved their status as Holland’s favourite new folk import, with the band (plus an added trumpeter) having played five shows in four days on Dutch ground.

As we slowly say goodbye to 2014 and look forward to the already-exciting 2015, we can definitely conclude that it’s been a great year for music. Stille Nacht has given us a festival this year which, across all three days, gave us reasons to look back positively on 2014 (Bear’s Den, Luke Sitahl-Singh) and look ahead towards an encouraging 2015 (Jacco Gardner, Sue the Night, Oscar & the Wolf, Kovacs).

Click here for a selection of black & white pictures.