New Order, Otoboke Beaver, Colin Benders and more stun at this stellar fest just an hour from Amsterdam
Cai Trefor
13:00 27th August 2019

You’ve got to get away from it all sometimes. I’m driven an hour out of Amsterdam and urban sprawl soon gives way to the scenic Lake Veluwe, an area endowed with pockets of woodland and healthy, ample green spaces. It’s not remote but definitely rural. Walibi Holland theme park soon pops up and in the shadow of the roller coasters sits the entrance to Lowlands Festival – an aptly monikered festival considering it’s on land reclaimed from the sea; it’s at an altitude of minus three meters.

On site, people of all ages arrive the revved up for four whole nights. Day tickets are not sold here. The sound of cans fizzing open is heard before people even lay down their tents. The ‘go hard or go home’ message appears to have seeped into some people’s psyche.

Similar to most festivals, the campsite and arena are separate. But it doesn’t close. Once it opens Friday morning, until the early hours of Monday morning, a scene of pummeling sound and punters zigzagging across the site with a wide-eyed lust for life is omnipresent.

At camp, before the gigs even get going, the distinctive Lowlands identity reveals itself – in that there's different gradients of behaviour associated with each section of the campsite. Rumour has it, by the end of the weekend, some people staying in the heavier going campsites stage a drum rave en masse, hitting sticks on hard surfaces including but not limited to the portaloos. Amsterdam hipsters are thought to steer clear of this camp and clump together in a clique. To the untrained eye, it’s all similar; the blanket look is: deck chair, boombox, tinnies, tent and gazebo. With every blade of glass taken up for camping, there’s no doubt this is a firmly sold out fest.

If comfort is more important that camaraderie to you, though, regular camping can be swapped for upmarket ‘glamping’, which I take. Not much time is spent at camp despite the plush serenity: fields stretching as far as the eye can see, tipis, hammocks and Hobbiton-esque wooden huts are basically all that greet my eye here. It’s Lowlands arena – the magnetic hub staging a line-up featuring bands that would headline a lot of festivals, casually plonked on in the afternoon – that matters most.

Going above and beyond, every square meter of the arena – an arena which benefits from having a lakeside spa; you can listen to the bands on the main stage from a tub naked should you not be prudish – appears to have been thought out. For instance, visual art is important: surrealism, sculpture, stylish typography, and cosmic lighting installations add a level of decadence. The art offsets the branded pop-ups so this avenue of income for the fest is less in your face than a lot of rival festivals. Most special, however, is a black Statue of Liberty by artist Fernando Sánchez Castillo, to send a message to challenge the whitewashing of history – and pose the question: whose liberty? A well-known, flawed monument, slavery was rife at the time the original statue was erected as a gift from the French to the United States, so good on them there for using festival as a means of resistance. There’s no doubt at this point whoever is running this festival has their head screwed on the right way.

Political activism aside, the first band I see properly is The Chats from Australia. They’re in the X-Ray on Friday afternoon. Situated in the heart of the festival, it’s a metal-framed venue, which is painted in orange, and the smallest proper live venue on site. Fitted with a screen, which allows visuals to travel along the centre of the central path of ceiling for the full length of the venue – like multi-coloured moving paint – it’s a contemporary multimedia arts space, but with a punk heart. The Chats don’t need anything modern, though, they’re retro AF. They’re good with some VB (Victoria Bitter), a Burger Records t-shirt, and a great backline. They deliver AC/DC solos, frenetic first wave punk power chords, and lyrics that are ridiculous but brilliant. After all, their breakthrough hit was about going on a smoke break (‘Smoko’). A track you might have counted on being a one-hit wonder if the hits didn’t just keep coming. There seems to be a game of one-upmanship against themselves with the lyrics, with nothing off limits. Crowdsurfers and moshers continually throwing all they’ve got in the pit is the best compliment to them. No wonder Universal signed them to their publishing roster.

Although Lowlands packs in the big names – James Blake, A$AP Rocky, Tame Impala are on this year – it definitely takes pride in being a festival with its finger on the pulse. And although it might not seem an emerging act today; months ago, when the festival booked Fontaines D.C., there was no Mercury Prize attention, no debut LP and definitely no sold out Brixton Academy. Their scouts, like scores of other festivals’, just knew they had a live wire band on their hands. Doubt they could have anticipated how much this four-piece were about to blow up. The Dublin post-punk band play on the India stage – a giant bell tent that's less intimate than the X-Ray. And their uncompromising, enigmatic stage show is packed. The heavy sway of bodies crushing into me at the front of the crowd is indicative of the raw passion and excitement of finding a band in their pomp. Singer Grian Chatten feeds off this energy, with his delivery of poetic verses feeling like an expunging of hate. Coupled with confrontational hand gestures and mini head butts to rile the hypnotised crowd into further frenzy, he strikes a balance between tortured artist and entertainer.

Friday caps off with Dutch arena slayers De Staat. The band, who can loosely be placed next to Muse, Faith No More and Beastie Boys on your record shelf, have the unenviable task of filling in for The Prodigy, who, understandably, pulled out of headlining Lowlands in the wake of the death of legendary frontman Keith Flint. They have the fortune, however, of being one of the Netherlands’ most loved bands; and being given a giant production budget to make it a special occasion. They need to justify not being a major globally acclaimed act to be able take the headline spot, and they justify it. Frontman Torre Flim has a great connection with the crowd. What’s more, he has a ramp that stretches like a pier right into the middle of the sea of heads, who all adoringly looking up at their besuited hero. Highlights include politically-charged guest rappers coming Rico & Sticks come out for a rare live performance, and a world’s first collaboration with De Staat; their poignant, atmospheric twist on Prodigy ‘Firestarter’, and their most melodic tune ‘Make The Call, Leave It All’.

Walking from shit hot band to shit hot band isn't Lowlands only and best trick. For a major festival with 60,000 thousand people, there’s a surprising amount of niche attractions: the nooks and crannies off programme – or very small print – that make it a deep dive into the Dutch music scene are great. Most people involved in the music industry in the Netherlands congregate here, whether they’re involved in Lowlands or just hanging out. Appreciation for the close-knit Dutch scene hits a high point watching female DJ duo Cosmic Silk on Saturday night. They play the Armadillo, which is the 24-hour open-air bar, food court and dancefloor at the foot of the five towering orange chimneys modelled on something akin to a smelting factory. A modest PA and a hole in the wall booth for the decks is their stage, and streams of Dutch indie band members, record store owners, and record label folks, come down to hang out – and are ill-concerned by the fact Anderson .Paak is playing. This is about community and supporting people on their way up in the industry. Cosmic Silk play psych, fuzz and ’80s new wave bangers with a lot of passion over a three-hour stint. Proper enthusiasts with some edge to rise in the ranks.

Another of Saturday’s underdog highlights is the pure adrenaline shot of seeing Japan thrash punks Otoboke Beaver. The hell-raising band are the band of the weekend. It’s made all the better being a festival exclusive: they play their first ever EU show, something needed in an industry that allows bands to play so many festivals over the summer and often line-ups can imitate each other. Lowlands adding these girls is definitely a strong to their bow.

The biggest atmosphere on Saturday night is left to the inimitable techno of Colin Benders on modular synthesisers to soundtrack. Playing the massive Bravo tent – the second stage – Benders is a major draw here past midnight. The Utrecht-based musician’s debuting an AV show with a lighting rig that's emitting psychotic, hectic flashes that stretch the full width of the tent as our man on stage remains a silhouette. A musician who played a legendary set with Kyteman Orchestra a decade ago here has moved – since 2016 – away from the hip-hop and jazz influenced sound he became known for. He's into something wholly different and is brave. Against the odds, he’s kept his intrigue and popularity. Benders is a national hero whose global appeal is only just getting going. He’s also overcome another hurdle of not having any studio albums – or singles – to his name under this moniker yet is still drawing massive crowds. Live streams and touring alone has created this buzz.

The last day is crowned by Los Angeles' Louis Cole and band. They kick off the Sunday at the India stage in fine fashion. Any festival that doesn’t have Louis Cole on their bill is missing out. The Brainfeeder-signed artist leads an odd group that have a bit of everything: Cheetos leggings, a jazz ensemble in skeleton Onesies, and dancers and backing singers. The songs are mostly from his album Time and there's some lyrical messages that you can really get behind, like: “I don’t want check my bank account” (‘Bank Account’; not on the LP, mind). And some firm life advice: “When you're ugly / There is something you can do / Called fuck the world and be real cool” (‘When You’re Ugly’; a stellar single from Time). The lack of taking certain things too seriously is offset by a technical level rarely seen on the face of this scorched earth. Louis Cole and every member are like brass band nerds who’ve had a divine intervention from some higher power and play music of the funk gods. The drum patterns played by the dynamic Cole leave jaws dropped. Loyle Carner is in the audience and fixated the whole time, too.

New Order, meanwhile, far surpass expectations becoming a monumental source of pure joy to listen to. There’s anticipation for certain tracks but what works is just submitting to their groove. Bernard Sumner’s vocals and crowd-pleasing stage moves are strong and drummer Stephen Morris is so tight. Evocative keys from Gillian Gilbert are the most enviable in tone and style in pop music. After tricking us that they aren’t coming back for an encore, they come back and do ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ accompanied by the words forever Joy Division and Ian Curtis’ photo beamed out from the projector onto the screen behind them. Talk about giving credit where credit is due.

Thinking it’d all be downhill after a journey through some of the best music ever written; and the fact the hyped afterparty Sexyland club is overflowing with a queue that doesn't seem like letting up (it's a club from the Dam which has a pop-up here for the second year running with off the wall entertainment and music) things don’t dip too badly. They don’t dip because X-Ray serves up the goods with one of the best DJ sets and club atmospheres I’ve ever been in, and it's going on well into the early hours.

Playing lone on stage, Antal, who started off as a house DJ, and has since evolved to accommodate a smorgasbord of sound, drawing on the strangest, soulful left field music from all over the world, is simply excellent. Plus he makes full use of the ceiling projector bringing the X-Ray venue to a celebratory close. Once that finishes, no one is prepared to pull the plug on the party. The Armadillo stage where I saw Cosmic Silk keeps going well into Monday morning, but we just have to take other people word for that.

Bright and early Monday, I leave behind Lowlands, after what’s been an immensely rewarding trip across the North Sea. The mix of big names, festival exclusives, awesome subversive art, strong escapist culture at the campsites, fantastic crowds – uncompromisingly rambunctious, yet caring – is a good one. Moreover, a deeper discovery of the Dutch scene than I already had make it a cut above. Lowlands remains somewhere that will intrigue, educate, and allow me to make new friends. To think this festival is merely the manifestation of a few people’s dream, who intend, more than anything, to put on the coolest festival they can imagine possible on, starts to evoke feelings of even more apprecation in me. The organisers ought to be proud because they’ve created something outstanding. It’s an utterly satisfying experience that keeps my love – and many other people’s love – of big camping festivals burning brightly.

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Photo: Bart Heemskerk and Guillermo Subuno