Europavox: in setting aside the obvious, we’re welcomed into an entirely new festival world

What do you want from a music festival? For many of the biggest events, the answer, in promoters eyes at least, seems to be fairly straightforward: the biggest acts we can book, perhaps curated to a mild theme, with a few new sensations to offset them. Ideally they’ll all be played regularly on the radio, and they’ll be at least a couple of extra stages where some local stuff can be put on for the sceneheads.

So what if we inverted that concept entirely? Meet Europavox. Located in Clermont-Ferrand in the French massif heartlands (a location, by the way, which is a royal pain to get to from Ireland), the festival has one large main stage filled, perhaps predictably, with well-established French acts. They’d still be new to many of us, of course: acts like -M-, Louise Attack, and Pedro Winter – but they’re designed to bring in the local crowds. After that, things go entirely off script.

Europavox at its heart is an EU project designed to bring bands from around Europe and present them to different audiences. It achieves this, in part, by hosting no less than seven annual festivals, each in a different country, and inviting rising bands from across the continent to form the event’s heart. To give a native example, Irish rockers Thumper recently played in Vilnius, Lithuania, as part of the project, and, indeed, were in Clermont-Ferrand too.

The summer showcase is the biggest of Europavox’s annual events, and its two smaller stages are a mish-mash of pan-European potential featuring bands from no less than 18 countries, all looking to make an impact on a French audience, a team of international journalists (your friendly neighbourhood reviewer included), and a selection of invited bookers from major European venues. And here’s the key: the quality and curation is superb, and even designed so that if you ignore the main stage, you can see every act.

Take SKAAR. The Norwegian electro-pop act from isolated Bergen are given the Saturday night sundown slot, and deliver a Florence and the Machine-esque exploration of wonderfully soaring vocals, emotional exploration and infectious, melodic and energetic pop. They’re from a corner of Europe that historically makes little impact in their particular genre, but they’re riding a wave behind the likes of Sigrid, and of an easily comparable quality. With a local audience of a thousand plus moving as one in front of them, frontwoman Hilde Skaar is in a state of open euphoria by the end.

This is not uncommon. When Thumper, a wall-of-noise basement rock band Dublin gig-goers will be familiar with, turn up, they spend half their set in the crowd as they win over the uninitiated with a barrage of pulsating, maximalist rock. Marina Satti, already something of an icon in Greece, combines a sultry pop style with a glance at Greek trad and a stunningly refined vocal, while Free Finga, from Vilnius, somehow blends a kind of My Chemical Romance vibe with rap and intensely memorable bass guitar.

Overall, the feel is of exploration, epitomised, perhaps, in the quirk backstory of Brussels act Ada Oda. Guitarist Cesar met lead singer Victoria through Tinder (“it wasn’t a match,” jokes their manager), and instead of dating, Victoria – Brussels born and bred, but of Italian descent – ended up translating and performing Cesar’s lyrics (written in French) in Italian as the band’s lead. The result, we’re told, plays perfectly into the Brussels scene: a garage-tinged post-punk band with a hollering vocal, able to tour all of Belgium by avoiding the traditionally distinct touring circuits created by the French and Flemish language divide. Most of the band had to have their own lyrics explained to them, yet they rock in a jarring, punchy kind of way.

There are some serious future stars here, too. Your correspondent has been fawning over young Icelandic prodigy Arny Margret since her debut album ‘You Only Talk About The Weather’ came out last year, and the poetic guitarist from the isolated westfjords of Iceland is still better live. Blending modern afflictions with sparse, pick-perfect guitar, she delivers a sound that tugs on heartstrings, like a modern-day Joni Mitchell with a strong sense of poetic identity and place. By all rights, she should be a huge name: check out ‘The World Is Between Us’ and ‘Abandoned’ in particular for the moments she bears her soul.

Svaneborg Kardyb, on the other hand, are never likely to be massive if only because they’re at their best in an intimate setting, but they are intensely memorable. The duo, performing on piano, wurlitzer, and a wildly varied selection of percussion, blend jazz influences, ad-libbing and a shining inventiveness reminiscent of Portico Quartet, if instrumentally from a different world to the London jazz experimentalists. The Danish duo hypnotise, their set far greater than the sum of its parts and most memorable for those moments where they smile at each other and experiment, linking their songs with strange melodic exchanges and off-kilter hooks.

Another few acts that catch the eye are Cid Rim, and Austrian synth and drums solo act whose at his best when he experiments with his percussion, Zimbru, a moody Romanian rock act reminiscent of our own Just Mustard (who also played the festival, but after we depart), and Anna Erhard, a kind of Beach Boys-buzz sunshine rock act from Germany who appear with a drummer dressed as a diplodocus.

On the main stage, the larger French acts are well-known to the locals but, generally, offer little in the way of allure for the travelling contingent, who tend to soak up the shining variety to be found on the smaller stages, though the sensitive pop melodies of Pomme and the engaging, confronting vocal-led style of Zaho De Sagazan both shine, and London post-punk riot act Shame look startlingly out of place as they somersault about the place and borderline incite the audience, putting in an abrasive set that sits outside of the character with the rest of the line up, but a highlight of the weekend.

As for the town itself, Clermont-Ferrand is a contender for the European Capital of Culture in 2028, and, sat in the shadow of a volcanic range of hills. That gives it a pretty backdrop. It’s also the hub found at the heart of a very rural area, which gives the place its own unique character. Aside from the wine and superb steak, churches hewn from volcanic rock and the general sense of an outsized city centre in comparison to the population (presumably to cater for those travelling in) give the place a distinct feel.

Of course for all the newness, sometimes there’s comfort to be found in the old classics, and that’s how we finish our experience: watching French touch maestro Pedro Winter, a veteran player in the careers of the likes of Daft Punk, Justice, and DJ Mehdi, produce an audiovisual DJing extravaganza made up of the highlights of high impressive career.

So we find ourselves, at 1am in the warmth of the French summer, clutching a cup of rosé and throwing shapes to ‘We Are Your Friends’ and ‘One More Time’, and wishing, as recognisable as this closing segment is, there were more festivals that went so unconventional and hit the mark so firmly. Europavox shines through a combination of daring and booking policy, and there’s barely an act on the whole bill we wouldn’t like to see grace a Dublin stage. Long live continental exploration.