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I Saw Bruce Springsteen Surpass Staff Benda Bilili: Rock at Roskilde

The dean bears expert witness to Europe's biggest pop festival

By Robert Christgau
Special to MSN Music

©POLFOTO/AP
Bruce Springsteen at Roskilde (©POLFOTO/AP)

Shortly before 9 p.m. Denmark time on Saturday, July 7, I came up with a dandy title for my report on the 42nd Roskilde Festival: "I Missed Bruce Springsteen for Staff Benda Bilili." As so often at Roskilde, which juggles seven stages at once, I wanted to see two acts in the same slot: wheelchair- whirling Congolese Staff Benda Bilili, whose 2009 album might have been a fine beginning or just a great gimmick, and eternally fit super-American Bruce Springsteen, on the 41st installment of his six- month, 63-show Wrecking Ball Tour. The overlap was only 15 minutes -- the Congolese 10-piece began their allotted hour at 8:15. Problem was, Roskilde's big Orange stage supposedly accommodates 60,000, and with 77,500 festival passes, 5,000 day tickets, 30,000 volunteers, and 1,000 media accreditations outstanding, latecomer access was impossible to gauge. I swore I'd leave the Cosmopol tent no later than 8:55.

What I didn't guess was that Staff Benda Bilili would be near the top of the 33 acts I'd see in five days of music. So I marveled through their finale before striding off to try my luck at Orange -- where I easily snuck in from the side. There was only one of me, and at 70 I've had plenty of practice negotiating crowds. Within an hour I'd edged a good third of the way toward the stage, although like 90 percent of my estimated 85,000 fellow fans I watched mostly on an enormous video screen. Springsteen was better than Staff Benda Bilili, and I mean even better. I'm grateful I got so close.

If you've never heard of Roskilde, you have company. Although the event has run every year since 1971 in a small city 20 miles west of Copenhagen, a longevity unmatched by any other rock festival, its renown doesn't approach that of its nearest equivalent, England's Glastonbury, which limped sporadically into the '80s and still builds hiatus years into its schedule. Roskilde plows all its profits into charity, attracts volunteer staff up to publicist and booker levels, and prides itself on artist lineups more varied than Glastonbury's. But even in Scandinavia, idealism isn't a sexy sell, and in recent years -- pressed by the emergence of somewhat cheaper and much narrower competitors like Sweden's Hultsfred, Germany's Rock im Park and Rock am Ring, and the Northside Festival in Denmark's chief port, Aarhus -- Roskilde has attracted progressively fewer non-Danes. In 2012, the four-day event made it a project to combat this trend. Hence MSN was one of three U.S. outlets -- the others were Pitchfork and Fuse TV -- that got flown over to cover.

More on Bing: Roskilde Festival

As a longtime skeptic regarding both music-business do-goodism and sleeping in tents, I was sucked in by a lineup that included plenty of hip-hop and modern R&B -- only Coachella compares -- and also African music, which is so much easier to book in Europe. A little research revealed that although most of the competing festivals are several days shorter, much whiter, and markedly less daring and more sparing with their "alternative" programming, they charge just 50 or 75 bucks less than the quality choices: Roskilde, Glastonbury and Coachella, where $300 or so will get you in. It didn't hurt that although my German forebears bequeathed me a Danish surname, I'd never visited Denmark. The offer of a room in a boarding school west of town and a bicycle to get around on clinched the deal.

The many media representatives on hand were offered 10 guided tours that explored backstage lore and baby bands, campground and old city, ecology and poverty initiatives. But although I enjoyed a face- to-face with two festival bookers, I skipped the programmed stuff and declined to address a gathering of Scandinavian bizzers on the subject of finding "new music." My mission, I explained cantankerously, is good music, not new music, and hearing as much of it as possible is always my m.o. In practice, however, the distinction between new and good isn't always so clear. Passing by the Cult show on the way from dour Danes I Got You on Tape to bang-bang Brits the Vaccines, it occurred to me that the oft- reconstituted garage-metal posers sounded stronger than what I'd just heard and probably than what I was aiming to hear. I was right, too. But I kept walking, because the Vaccines, wildly received on the strength of the punky-glammy hits they've scored on Danish national radio, had a plausible future, where the Cult just mean to wring every last drachma out of their formula. Sometimes seeing a new band live can open it up for you as a record cannot. I tried that a fair amount at Roskilde, with impressive success.

Of the 33 sets I caught, only six -- plus I guess Lee Ranaldo and Jack White of Sonic Youth and the White Stripes, respectively -- were by acts I'd seen before. Eleven I saw all of, but another 13 I walked out on. Thanks but no thanks to skilled hyperleft Sage Francis, well-meaning Swedish-country First Aid Kit, friend-of-Kanye Afro-rapper Baloji, austere post-classical Julia Holter, ill-meaning cartoon-redneck Baroness, there'll-always-be-an-England funk-lite Friendly Fires. (The last two and pop hip-hop draw Wiz Khalifa -- where was Rick Ross when I needed him? -- were my low points.) As an obsessive professional, I was admittedly quick on the draw. But one point of a true festival is to encourage my kind of cherry-picking, and at every show the unimpressed trickled out as the seekers behind them jostled closer to action they wanted more of.

More by Robert Christgau: Expert Witness Blog

What greedhead concert promoters long ago dubbed "festival seating" always favors stronger, taller, younger fans. There were no press sections, and no seating options unless you made them up yourself like the 6-inch ledges surrounding the uprights at Cosmopol; I craned my neck too much and my sacroiliac ached all weekend. But there was payback: acts I'd never heard of, like Luo London's Owiny Sigoma and Zambian Copenhagen's Linkoban; acts I'd never heard, like jangly Brit faves Django Django and Seattle rap fixture Macklemore; acts whose deficient songcraft costs them on record, like Janelle Monae and Gossip; acts who bolstered their questionable reps, like Santigold and the Shins. True, there were also acts who failed to shore up the provisional hopes I still reserve for them: gravelly garage-soul Alabama Shakes, gravely soulful Cold Specks, weary ex-politico Ruben Blades. But eight out of 33 is pretty good, especially when the name artists you're counting on also deliver.

Casting about for a generalization, I'll point out that six of the eight foreground groove. In part this reflects my own interests. But I was struck all weekend by the Danes' natural sense of rhythm. Soundclashing Owiny Sigoma, dubstep Linkoban and uptempo Macklemore all came beats first to body-bumping and sometimes near-riotous effect. Monae had no trouble instigating a double-time 1-2-3-4, nor Santigold borrowing the M.I.A. trick of getting dozens of volunteer onstage dancers to shake it like they meant it. When drummer-driven Django Django importuned fans to beat out a rather complex "ONE two-three-four/One-two three-four," they not only complied but carried on after the drummer dropped out. It was only at Rhymesayers' hip-hop showcase that the audience got raggedy -- when Grieves tried to generate a "soul clap" involving a simple downbeat rather than the traditional tricky three-two, the crowd never quite synched it up. I note for future reference that, Wiz Khalifa and the Roots aside, Roskilde's hip-hop demographics generally ran four-to-one male.

More: Read Part 2 of Robert Christgau's report from Roskilde

With the festival circuit now built into every solvent band's business plan, they're all accustomed to playing crowds larger than they can pull on their own. And far from curtailing sets, Roskilde instead requires at least an hour of music. Nevertheless, a festival adjustment impacted both the Shins and Gossip. Face slightly drawn like he's prone to headaches, James Mercer barely squeezed out a mild "Thank you very much. How you doing out there? Yeah! Glad to be doing this with you guys!" But as I watched three girls swaying interlocked to a Shins song I couldn't name but definitely remembered, I realized that his melodies rendered salesmanship extraneous, touching five or six thousand onlookers unaided. Gossip's barefoot Beth Ditto lacked that fallback. Yet unlike the Shins, Monae, Santigold and even Khalifa, all of whom were assigned the No. 2 Arena stage, the rebellious Arkansas lesbian turned plus-size Eurostyle icon was expected to carry the Orange, and although her warm drawl and punk attitude enlarged her songs, you could hear the cheers die prematurely in the big space. To compensate, Ditto took a hella long time at the close pressing flesh with her sisters and brothers in the pit, many less lissome than the Roskilde norm.

Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.

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