Last summer I participated in a tradition integral for any young, wander lusting millennial: backpacking through Europe. I started in Paris, and hit every country in the EU. Despite the joy of visiting baths in Budapest and shopping in Milan, the ultimate highlight of this entire experience was the music festival I went to: Rock Werchter in Belgium. A four-day event, Rock Werchter takes place in a remote farmer’s field outside of Werchter, and hosts many of the world’s most esteemed musicians every year. Many still-kicking veteran performers have rocked its worn-down stage, including Phil Collins, The Police, and The Eagles. Younger rock performers such as Queens of the Stone Age, Arctic Monkeys, and Franz Ferdinand have played Rock Werchter many times over.
Getting to Werchter is not a trivial process. First, my friends and I took a train from Brussels to Leuven, a university town in the Flemish region of Belgium. From there, a hot and crowded bus transported us to the farm lands outside of the festival grounds. For four days, these farms become home to thousands of tents-rows and rows that stretch as far as the eye can see. At nighttime, strings of faerie lights light up people laughing, people dancing, and an endless stream of cigarette smoke rising from between tents. Every once in a while, we would observe someone walking towards their tent, and disappear in a flash, as though they had been knocked forward by an invisible force. The force in question was tent lines-people tripped over them constantly.
Music festivals are many things, but they are not luxurious. Throughout the festival, my friends and I lived on a diet of instant noodles and Oreos. Showering was impossible unless you were willing to wait in line for hours or flirt with the shower attendant. We spent our days cooking instant noodles, chatting with our campsite neighbours, and roaming around the festival grounds attending one concert after the other.
There are a select number of shows from Rock Werchter that still stand out to me months later: Arctic Monkeys, The Kooks, Angus and Julia Stone, Marshmallo, and Franz Ferdinand.
The Arctic Monkeys were epic: playing for hours into the night and hitting all the moderately-scandalous songs we love to feel angsty to. Alex Turner, the lead vocalist, slinked around in a suit and long gelled-back hair. He gazed at the audience overtop of dark, round sunglasses, even though it was pitch-black outside. They stuck to the hits, and the crowd loved it: they belted every word and every ‘ooh la la la’ along with the band.
The Kooks were similarly charismatic, with quintessentially hipster outfits and guitars slung Beatles-high. An indie band from Brighton, The Kooks play with a sort of laid-back enthusiasm, a too-cool-for-school look that draws in the audience like a magnet. The lyrics to The Kooks are difficult to understand live (perhaps it’s the accent, perhaps it’s the quick words), so the audience resorted to intense head-bobbing and hand-waving.
Angus and Julia Stone were by-far my favorite non-rock act of the festival. A brother and sister folk-duo from Australia, the pair have a unique musical chemistry and an authenticity that is hard to come by at a standard mega-production of today. A little hippie, and very groovy, Julia Stone reminds me of Stevie Nicks, a sort of ethereal being dancing in the lights. Angus has a smoky, deep voice that blends effortlessly with his sister’s high melodic tones.
Every evening, Rock Werchter featured high-energy DJ’s in order to hype up the concertgoers for whatever headliner was playing that night. My favorite of these was Marshmallo, a famously anonymous DJ née Christopher Comstock known for blasting killer remixes while wearing a large helmet shaped like a marshmallow. Throughout his set, the crowd was a euphoric mess of fist-pumps and hip-pops, and it was only after Marshmallo stopped playing that my friends and I realized that we were ready to collapse from exhaustion. Worth it, though.
My favorite show of the entire festival, however, was Franz Ferdinand. The Scottish rock band played in a closed-roof venue called The Hive. A sort of large barn whose inside is known to reach boiling temperature at intense shows, The Hive facilitates a musical pulse only possible in a smaller, indoors venue. My friends and I reached The Hive very late, and we were squeezed into the back. Being 5’2, I could see practically nothing. Luckily, however, many people left due to the heat, and we inched our way up before the show started.
As soon as they came onstage, Franz Ferdinand made the entire venue shake. The crowd was jumping up and down with such a manic intensity that the floorboards were slowly caving. For the last song-”This Fire”-my friend put me on his shoulders so that I could see without jumping three feet into the air. The effect was unreal: suddenly I went from seeing nothing to seeing absolutely everything. Below me was a sea of heads, in front of me was the band, and all around me were blinding purple and red lights. It was the definition of an out-of body experience. As the crowd flooded out of The Hive, they were chanting the last song, gleaning with sweat and drunk on the effect of the show.
I’ll be dreaming of these shows for a long time but until I see these bands again, listening to “Let’s Go Sunshine” from The Kooks is a great way to pass the time.