Five Gigs In Five Nights: The Rapture, Radio 4 and Chikinki at La Cartonnerie, Reims

Sunday September 30, the third annual Magnitudes festival kicked off at host venue La Cartonnerie, in Reims, north-eastern France, with a show featuring The Rapture, Radio 4, Chikinki and the Radiomentale DJs.

According to the festival programme and my attempts at translation, “Magnitudes wants to be a terrain of experimentation and of crossings of different modes of artistic expression,” an assessment that depends on your familiarity with acts like Schneider TM, Malalaft and Emilie Simon. But if there’s a reason to attend the Magnitudes festival as anything other than a series of gigs, it’s to enjoy a nightly visit to La Cartonnerie. Opened just 18 months ago on the north-eastern edge of Reims, La Cartonnerie (“the cardboard factory”) is a purpose-built, state-of-the-art multi-media arts complex that gives even London’s recently renovated Roundhouse a serious run for its money. I’m not sure how La Cartonnerie was financed, but the French have a noble tradition of public funding for the arts and the benefits of such an investment are hopefully as simple as that old chestnut that “If you build it, they will come.” Certainly, if any band reading this wonders if it’s worth the journey off the usual routing of European capitals to, believe me, it is.

(And an important aside for such bands, who will know all too well that promoters are often stingy and mean when it comes to backstage hospitality: not only did La Cartonnerie/Magnitudes deliver all requested rider items, but they served performers and staff a three-course catered buffet, and at night’s conclusion, opened a seemingly endless supply of Piper-Heidsick champagne. Of course, champagne flows like water in this city and costs not much more, but it was still an act of proper, non-required hospitality.)

La Cartonnerrie (“the cardboard factory”): as good as a venue gets.

Among the attractions of La Cartonnerie are the Kiosk, a clearing house for the arts with dozens of local and national magazines for sale and perusal; the Cyber-Base, which hosts workgroups about Podcasts, Webradio and MySpace for fledgling musicians and broadcasters; recording and video studios for use by the public; and a Cabaret performance space. The ground floor bar is open Wednesday-Saturday, serves light food, and hosts regular exhibitions: visitors to Magnitudes were treated to Edouard Levé’s clever essay ‘Pornographie,’ for which the photographer staged “classic” porn shots using fully-dressed actors and actresses, their faces and therefore expressions hidden from the camera, all serving to create a deliberately unemotional and asexual effect. Later in October, an exhibition entitled ‘Reimspunknroll’ will replace ‘Pornographie’, and based on my short stay in the city and witnessing its energy for music, I wouldn’t want to doubt its depth.

Edouard Levé’s photographic exhibition Pornographie at La Cartonnerie: a purposefully soulless set of photos.

All these rooms and bars, however, are something of a supporting cast to the main concert hall, which features the kind of sound, lights and sightlines for which punters and musicians alike salivate. (Unusually for France, the room is also smoke-free, something even The Roundhouse can’t claim.) So perfectly clean are the acoustics that the festival’s opening act, Chikinki, seemed to have problems maximizing the room’s potential: theirs was the quietest band sound I’ve heard in a long time. This may, of course, have been deliberate, in which case it’s a reflection on their use of two small keyboards and the absence of a bassist, but talking to the Bristol-based band’s singer Rupert Browne afterwards, he was adamant that they did not wish to be seen as an electronic band. Indeed, a few songs into their set of subdued volume, Rupert introduced the group’s “nasty side,” at which the five-piece upped the tempo and velocity to about the level that most groups would enter with.

Chikinki had a short and unhappy experience with a British major label, which failed to derail what their myspace page calls “indie/ experimental/alternative” music; rather, it enabled them to look over the English channel for a permanent audience. The group released its recent album The Balloon Factory on the German label Kitty-Yo, and this was the sixth time Chikinki have played France: the festival program suggested that the group’s “Krautrock punk riffs” might enable them to “conquer Europe.” The polite but restrained audience reaction intimated instead that such a conquest will be at best a gradual process.

Chikinki: “sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before” claims their myspace page.

Not that the French crowd was unduly restrained. With Reim’s Radiomentale DJs mixing music from all eras, the vast dance floor in front of the stage gradually filled with young French kids eager to make the most of what some would no doubt once have been called a “double bill of New York post-punk funk.” Radio 4, who have toured France several times before, were ready beneficiaries of both the audience enthusiasm and the venue’s stunning sound, paving the way for The Rapture, themselves touring Europe for the first time in a few years on the hot heels of their very long-awaited (proper) second album Pieces of The People We Love.

The Rapture have been frequent subject matter at iJamming! these last five years: their DFA-produced ‘House of Jealous Lovers’ 12” was the record that re-ignited NYC dance floors, reunited dance and indie kids, and had much to do with making DJing fun again. (At least for me.) Scrambling to make the most of this sudden success, the four-piece eventually released their musically disparate (and DFA-produced) debut album Echoes, while building their home-town following from The Bowery to the Hammerstein Ballroom. Along the way, they were a regular presence in the city’s dance bars, co-hosting the Monday night Transmission party at Plant, where I enjoyed one of my greatest ever DJ nights, thanks to singer Luke Jenner leading the punters onto the tables and bars for a Cabaret-law defying dance session.

Here in Reims, the four-piece revealed a new focus, keeping the stage plot small, and focusing on the dance rhythms that they clearly find so natural. Though Jenner’s fabled yelping is still very much at the core of the group’s sound, bassist Mattie Safer is taking on more of the lead this time around, fleshing out the sound to something more permeable for pop ears. (Interestingly, the first time Safer took lead in Reims, Jenner turned his back on the audience, as if to help shift audience focus away from his formerly accepted role as front man.) Safer wears a constant grin of genuine pleasure onstage while moving to the beat of his own rhythm section, and cowbell/sax player Gabriel Andruzzi rarely stays still for as much as a nano-second; what with Jenner frequently living up to front man expectations, and drummer Vito Roccaforte looking like he wants to spring from his kit like a jack-in-the-box, the result is a frenetic, furious and perpetually funky groove that is a treat for anyone with dancing feet and a nightmare for anyone attempting to take photographs.

(To which, another aside: the French audience, based on my two nights of gig-going, appears to have no interest in documenting nights out with cell phone/digital camera photos. The English don’t seem as bothered by it either. What a relief: it’s the bane of gig-going in New York that more people take souvenir photos these days than pay attention to the songs.)

Gabe, Vito (hidden), Luke and Mattie: The Rapture get to know you on first-name terms.

Tonight’s Rapture set drew relatively evenly from across the two albums, and the highlights were somewhat predictable: ‘House Of Jealous Lovers,’ ‘Killing’ and ‘Echoes’ from the 2003 debut, new single ‘Get Myself Into It’ and future single ‘Whoo! Alright Yeah…Uh Huh’ from Pieces of The People We Love. The latter song is undoubtedly the group’s ace card, introduced by Safir with some classic audience call-and-response, after which his chorus comment on cynical audiences – “People don’t dance no more, they just stand there like this” – hardly rang true of an audience that ranged from the proverbial 15-to-50 and included its share of fawning school-girls in the front rows and whirling dervishes of both sexes around the rest of the hall. Had this been a smaller room, it’s safe to say that sweat would have been dripping from the walls; even as was, the night ended a damn sight hotter than it started.

Pieces of The People We Love is not, it must be said, selling by the quantities some would expect of a group that inspired so fierce a bidding war five years ago. Nor are The Rapture enjoying the same media attention as they did back then. But equally it has to be noted that there are two worlds of popular music out there: the one that defines “popular” in terms of trendy magazine cover stories, daytime airplay and platinum albums, and the other one that defines “pop” as music that people enjoy in enough numbers to make it worthwhile for audience and artist alike. The crowd at La Cartonnerie went totally gaga for The Rapture, who in turn played the best set I’ve seen from them. The Rapture may no longer have much to do with “indie,” but when it comes to playing that funky music, these white boys are among the best in the world right now.

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