Europavox’s pan-European showcase a celebration of continental diversity

by James Hendicott
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Located in the oddly inaccessible French massif town of Clermont-Ferrand (best known in Ireland, perhaps, as the home of Clermont Auvergne rugby club), Europavox Festival is an ever-growing European showcase music festival where it’s fully intended that the audience have heard of very few of the acts. Sure, there are big-name domestic headliners – French showcase acts like -M- and Louise Attack – but with 18 nationalities represented, above all the festival brings a real sense of exploration.

The first act we stumble upon, for example, is Free Finga, a quirky Lithuanian artist who sits somewhere between the emo scene and angsty hip-hop, backed on melodic bass guitar. He’s one of a number of performers here who have no obvious touch point on the Irish music scene or the modern charts. Marina Satti from Greece delivers sultry Greek-trad inspired pop melodies. German rocker Ana Erhard, backed by a man in a diplodocus outfit on drums, explores what The Beach Boys would sound like if performed by a garage rock act, and bossanova-inspired French hip-hop act Bianca Costa draws a straight line, musically, between The Bronx and the favela.

Part funded by the EU, a key part of the purpose of the three-stage event held in the heart of a picturesque French town, overlooked by dormant volcanoes, is to promote the idea that acts from anywhere in Europe are capable of impressing audiences anywhere else. While not perfect in that regard – some stuff simply doesn’t translate – the proof of concept is in the quality of entertainment.

Three acts from the north in particular feel almost four-dimensional in the way they hit home; a set of future superstars. Arny Margret is a young singer-songwriter from the westfjords of Iceland, and performs in this pick-perfect, stark guitar style that’s accompanied by the most astoundingly delicate, heart-wrenching lyrics. Think Joni Mitchell meets modern frustrations and you’re halfway there: she is staggeringly moving and impressive.

Svaneborg Kardyb, a Danish pairing made up of a varied percussionist and a experimental jazz pianist sound like lounge music at first take, but over the course of an hour they show almost bewildering depth and a deeply-connected on-stage interaction that has elements of ad-lib and feels playful and somehow witty, too.

Then there’s SKAAR, a Norwegian pop act who falls somewhere in the range of an electro-pop Florence and the Machine, confident and equipped with three catchy early albums that feel perfectly placed to launch a massive chart career (she’s playing shows in Ireland twice in the coming months, so one to catch before she rises too far).

Of course, there’s Irish interest here too. We miss Dundalk act Just Mustard, but Dubliners Thumper, a ‘turned up to eleven rock act equipped with two drummers and three guitarists, spend half their set out in the middle of the audience and seem to have won over thousands of new fans by the time the ears finish ringing from their final jarring chord.

Other highs include Shame, riotous but also slightly out of place having moved their brittle, messy post-punk from dingy clubs to a sunny main stage, and Pedro Winter, formerly a manager and producer at the heart of the ‘French touch’ scene that included dance icons Daft Punk and Justice, performing the work of his famed prodigies to a boisterous 1am crowd.

Events like this, which show incredible imagination and diversity in their programming, would be a huge addition to an Irish scene that sometimes feels like it’s delivering versions of the same show night after night, without the imagination to look further afield. From subtle spaced-out beats played to dingy clubs while supping wine mid afternoon, to massive field-filling DJs and infectious future superstars, there’s a lot about the French festival to appreciate, and to learn from.

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