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Rocking at Roskilde: More Triumphs, More Surprises

MSN's critic continues his marathon through the festival's surplus of choices, including a joyous, generous Boss

By Robert Christgau
Special to MSN Music

Read Part 1 of Robert Christgau's report from Roskilde

©POLFOTO/AP
Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards (©POLFOTO/AP)

Varisized women like Gossip's wide-armed peeps and the Shins' swaying teens are a treasured Roskilde memory. But no event this multifarious categorizes neatly, and so it's appropriate that the second-best show I witnessed attracted an abnormally small, old and male crowd. Up against Jack White at Orange, third banana in a band older than 90 percent of the ticket holders, guitarist-first singer-second Lee Ranaldo wasted no motion as he and guitar-bass-drums he never identified -- Alan Licht, Irwin Menken and Steve Shelley, I later learned -- sped through a tight, sweet, angry, dissonant set that added Neil Young, Talking Heads and the Sonic Youth reject "Genetic" to seven songs from his "Between the Times and the Tides." It was Sonic Youth feeling the Ramones instead of the Grateful Dead, and the crowd got bigger as the racket pulled passersby into the Odeon tent. Where Ranaldo's solo music has always been avant, here the pop conceptualizing was worthy of Warhol or, hell, Jack White, whose second hour with his white-frocked all-girl sextet leaned on White Stripes sure shots, with White the big daddy even when he threw a solo to one of the ladies, among them a pedal steel player who hailed from Roskilde itself.

Saturday I was stuck with a similar scheduling conflict, Tune-Yards at Odeon versus the Roots at Orange, and once again chose the smaller venue, mostly because I try to keep up with Merrill Garbus. I probably chose the inferior show -- the Roots are a premier live band, and the encore I caught jibed with the raves they got all the way up to Springsteen's "fantastic." But I've never seen Garbus more confident or less gobsmacked by herself. Her one-bassist two-saxmen band meshed smoothly and raucously with her sampler, her drums, her ukulele and her big fat overwhelming contralto. And then there was her crowd, particularly the loose group near me midway back, a comradely gaggle of eight or 10 mostly female fans dominated by a pink-faced blonde of 18 or 14 who knew all the words and gave her three special friends pats, kisses, massages and sips of fruit soda that I assume contained vodka and probably gave me a contact high.

More on Bing: Roskilde Festival

I'd already caught two good African sets Saturday. But Spoek Mathambo's, like Amadou and Mariam's Orange set Sunday, was slow taking off, and Owiny Sigoma's, like Tamikrest's Sunday, was narrow. A Congolese nine-piece fronted by five polio-surviving professional beggars getting on in years, four in wheelchairs and one on crutches, Staff Benda Bilili floated upful grooves on two exceptional voices -- a falsetto and a rich, mellow thing. Then there was the screechy electric lute an able-bodied young hustler invented, the seven-man coro on call, the soukous and rumba beats, the Special Olympics dance routines. They've snuck a single American tour between two turndowns by immigration goons, so of course I wanted to stay. It was lucky I could pull myself away from the encore.

That's because by walking in on "Two Hearts" I missed only two songs of a set whose force and clarity bowled me over with my mind intact. By the time Springsteen's Marvin & Kim tribute with Little Steven was over, I'd realized that he was projecting joy where Jack White gave off mere ego, and somewhere into the three bitter "Wrecking Ball" songs that followed I was a convert all over again. Having seen Springsteen many times when he was young and brimming over, I'm here to testify that the 62-year-old's performance was just as inspired. I still wish that when the Roots were called out for "The E Street Shuffle" ?uestlove Thompson had been ceded Max Weinberg's chair. But between the depth of Springsteen's songbook and the depth of his commitment, my attention didn't wander for a second, and Weinberg's ineluctable pounding helped. As befits Bruce s most compelling album in decades, anger and disillusionment were never far away even as he provided the celebration the crowd had paid for. Positive and negative were fused, and fans seemed to know it even when he climaxed with the anthems they craved, "Born in the U.S.A." to "Born to Run" to "Glory Days" to "Dancing in the Dark."

The most memorable of these fans was a woman in her 30s who knew the words. Like most of the women at Springsteen's show, she was with a man. But that's not usually how Roskilde worked. When I looked over the stats back home, an odd one stuck out: 54 percent of attendees were female, 46 percent male. Anyone who frequents rock shows in America will think that can't be -- except with someone like Merrill Garbus, guys always outnumber gals at rock shows. Well, not at Roskilde. All weekend I was moved and invigorated by the female posses roaming the grounds and making themselves felt as groups at every concert except the hip-hop showcases and presumably the metal sets I avoided. They were the ones who visibly cared about the lyrics and had a bead on the beats, and seldom did they forget where their elbows ended and the old man next to them began. Even the guys were less territorial than in the States -- Danes are polite. Nor do I believe for a minute that Scandinavia has conquered sexism. But it appears to have made some progress, thus benefitting everyone -- cf. health care.

More by Robert Christgau: Expert Witness Blog

It was with all this in mind that I made it my business to redeem a Sunday less thrilling than my Saturday -- Big K.R.I.T. never quite got over the hump -- by daring the pit to watch festival closer Björk, an Icelandic icon I'd handicapped as the star of the whole shebang coming in. Pit access has been limited at Roskilde since nine Pearl Jam fans died up front in 2000, so I arrived half an hour early, and sure enough the gate closed 20 minutes later. Shortly after she started, however, it opened up again as the unimpressed flowed out. Björk can be weird, and although I dug the starfish video, weird was her choice at Roskilde, where she was accompanied by two musicians and an all-girl choir of 13. Out of journalistic respect, I stayed to the end. But I was fine taking in the "Declare Independence" finale from afar. I didn't really think Roskilde needed it that much.

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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