IF YOU walk up to the entrance of a festival and you’re greeted by Rapunzel in a purple castle, you get the feeling you’ll be letting your own hair down for a few days.
Rapunzel’s 10ft ponytail dangling from the turret is only the first striking thing about Solar Weekend – the dance event that sets off a huge techno alarm clock on the sleepy Dutch town of Roermond every year. Set on the shores of the stunning lake Maasplassen, Solar is a brash, vibrant and slightly bonkers weekender – a hippie Mad Max town that’s one of the most well-kept secrets on the European festival circuit, even with titans like Dave Clarke, Green Velvet, Octave One and Hercules and Love Affair on the bill. We’d never even heard of Solar before we were invited to its 10th birthday bash over the August bank holiday, and we thought it’d be rude not to. And after a 90-minute flight to Eindhoven and a hassle-free 40-minute train ride to Roermond, we were ready to set up camp.
Firstly, ditch all your images of Irish festival camping squalor. The Solar site is a 15-000-strong pop-up community, run by happy campers armed with super-soakers to take the edge off the searing heat. As well as the usual food and drink joints (cans of beer for 50 cent, bingo), there’s a wooden shack tiled with vinyl records selling coffee, a tent modelled into a pirate ship, tree houses, a diorama scene from Finding Nemo, an archway made from teddy bears, a pub pool table… the list goes on. Oh, and there are stages in the campsite too. Not an eejit in a gazebo playing reggae from busted speakers, but full-blown stages with huge sound rigs, a few steps away from punters’ tents. Sleeping isn’t really top priority here.
The lakeside Ibiza Stage in the campsite is where the festival is officially opened on Friday afternoon, with a countdown that finishes with a messy water balloon, paintball and powder battle, as Greek DJNikos Akrivos shields his decks with a tarpaulin sheet. There’s no let-up through the rest of Friday, as the Ibiza Stage builds and builds till the wee hours and W&DY kills it with techno grooves and eerie vocal tracks. But it’s not all 4/4 on site – we’re lured to a little hillside outcrop by the sound of Wu-Tang’s Da Mystery of Chessboxin’. We’ve stumbled on the Just Do It Yourself enclave, decked out with tatty thrift store sofas and gaudy lamps, as the DJ plays everything from MF Doom to Stevie Wonder to 2 Unlimited off one deck, with every lightning changeover scoring a huge cheer from his house guests. A proper riotous knees-up, and the festival hasn’t even officially started yet.
Solar 2014 has an official fairy tale theme – and every fairy tale castle needs a king. Step up Marcel Mingers, the big chief of Solar and other Extrema dance events in Holland and Belgium. He welcomes the faithful on stage, gets a few paint spatters on his t-shirt and spends the next hour or so high-fiving punters while we hitch a ride with him in his golf cart. We share a few beers here and there with Marcel over the weekend in ‘Mingers Kingdom’, his little splinter group area away from the madness, with trampolines and bouncy castles for the kids and teepees to lounge in. Aside from tell-tale stories about DJs unfit to print, Marcel gushes about his pet project: “’WOW’ covers my feelings most. I have been thinking many times, ‘Is it already 10 years since we started Solar?’” He said he originally set up Solar, “because electronic music was fitting to the party crowd… beside this we always combined music with overwhelming decoration with other kinds of entertainment, like fashion shows, theatre, gaming and other things”.
This “overwhelming decoration” jumps at us as soon as we hit the festival properly on Saturday. Unlike many festivals that pack away their stages to reuse every year, Solar is a blank canvas that invites ‘Solar creatives’ to submit ideas for stages and side attractions, with the best tenders seeing their ideas spring to life. Among the many eyeball-pleasers there’s an inflatable hip-hop chapel, a DJ booth in a vintage fire truck, magic doors to nowhere, the Spirits of the Forest stage that looks like the Ewok village from Return of the Jedi, the Steampunk Techno Tent with its huge whirring cogs and exposed pipes, the Close Encounters-style sci-fi House For House stage and a helium-voice Punch & Judy karaoke stall.
But for all our wide-eyed wonder at the artworks, we kept being drawn Pied Piper-style to the Toilet Room – a rickety wooden structure no more than 20ft wide, decked out with urinals. The Toilet Room was set up as a “harmless piss-take” of the hipper-than-thou underground DJ show the Boiler Room, and it’s been making a name on the club and festival circuit with its tongue-in-cheek promo nights. It attracts the most up-for-it crowd of the weekend, silly-dancing to jackin’ house, disco and italo, as we mummify ourselves in bog roll and comb each other’s beards with toilet brushes as the team spin everything from Gino Soccio to Azari & III.
But we can’t be on a Toilet break the whole time – the Main Stage throws many a curveball at us all weekend, from Dutch hip-hop to nu-soul, electro-pop and dubstep, tied up with a line-up of visual artists and light shows. New Yorkers Hercules and Love affair are the first big international draw, basking in the sunshine with their unique brand of celebratory acid house with a political edge. They’re torch songs for the disenfranchised, hammered home by flamboyant singers Gustaph and Rouge Mary, who gets the biggest cheer of the night when he whips off his red beret and his hair falls down to his ass. And as a reclaiming of the C-word, their single My Offence is a hell of a rallying cry.
After the Traxx-style house jams, we’re chugged back to the grimy present by gangsta rappers and local heroes Great Minds, who unleash pogos in the crowd and their impressive entourage watching from stage right. They’re still no match for I Am Legion – the tag team of Dutch breakbeat producersNoisia and London MCs Foreign Beggars, bringing the ruckus with their scattershot rhymes and corrosive drops that unleash all manner of moshing around these parts. Somewhat more refined but no less intense, Dutch veteran Joris Voorn – flanked by an MC/bodyguard no less fearsome than Techno Viking himself – kicks the doors clean through with a set of soaring techno that hits melting point during Oxia’s Domino, and it all goes off in a haze of smoke and red confetti.
The Techno Tent is a hard act to follow, but the campsite has it nailed again, as DJ Remy’s fierce techno is given a leg-up by two French pirates – one on high-fret guitar licks and the other on various African drums. It’s surely the daftest proposition on paper, but we lap it up, and then bump into the pair camping beside us in a tepee and they pass on a handful of business cards as Saturday rolls over into Sunday. For the record, they’re called Carpe Horam.
Any chance of a wind-down Sunday is out the window, as none other than Dave Clarke has programmed the day’s proceedings in the Steampunk area. That’s 12 hours of take no prisoners techno from guests including Technasia, Mr Jones, Octave One and Marcel Fengler. Before this onslaught it’s time to refuel – first gorging on traditional Poffertjes pancakes and then some chicken skewers from Alvin’s stall, who we’re told is a Solar legend. There’s a detour into the Theater area, which is teeming with quirky performance artists, like the girl in Y-fronts dancing on a washing machine, medieval storytellers and the feline-masked simulated orgy that straddles the decency divide and falls on its ass.
But out of the wormhole and back to the music, as Chicago legend Green Velvet tears up the Rauwlab tent, flitting between his Velvet and Cajmere alter-egos, dropping tough tech grooves along with his own stream of conscience vocal tics, with a bank of TVs flickering behind him like a 1980s electronic shop window. Back at the Steampunk area, we gawk from the side of the stage at Octave One’s wire-tangled hardware rig as the two Detroit pioneers dart between synths and drum machines, heads bobbing in sync as they cue up their soulful techno masterpiece Black Water and spur on another bananas moment in the crowd. Berghain resident Marcel Fengler is in his element too, sharing the stage and raising a glass to his heroes before the changeover to his dark, clanking minimal set, low on melody but heavy on intricate cyclical motifs, a dart to the head as well as the gut.
So it’s left to Baron Von Techno himself, Dave Clarke to wrap it all up in a big bow of brutal kicks and quickfire cuts, mapping out his own techno lineage with historic pieces like his Red 2 classic Wisdom to the Wise and Jeff Mills’ The Bells, along with exclusive edits and fresh tracks.
The huge mechanical clocks behind him call time on the night and we salute Clarke — and Solar Weekend in general. We may be tired and emotional after our fairy tale techno weekend but we’re left with the smug glow you get when you’ve gatecrashed in on a little secret. Cheers to Solar and the next 10 years… Proost!
Originally in Irish Daily Star