For four days every January, the small Dutch city of Groningen becomes the centre of Europe’s music scene — with tens of thousands landing in northeast Holland for Eurosonic.
Eurosonic-Noorderslag is Europe’s biggest showcase of rising acts – for labels, media, festival bookers and other music industry figures to get a heads up, network and hatch plans for the year ahead.
Acts such as The Libertines, Franz Ferdinand and James Blake played Eurosonic on the rise, and The White Stripes got their big break when John Peel heard their album De Stijl in the cult record shop Platenworm, then brought it home and wore the record out on his radio show.
I landed in Groningen for the 32nd edition of Eurosonic, joining 500 music journalists, over 500 festival bookers and 4,000 delegates swarming around outdoing each other with wristbands and lanyards.
- Conference at De Oosterpoort
But don’t let the industry numbers put you off — over 40,000 ‘real’ punters descended on the city this year to see 352 rising acts in over 50 venues, in a charming city that never buckles under the pressure. It’s a full-on music festival for discerning fans as well as industry bigwigs, with hundreds milling around narrow cobbled streets, the magnificent Vismarkt (Fish Market) thoroughfare and ducking down alleys for the night-time gigs, which run from 8pm until 2am.
Groningen is used to partying — it’s primarily a student town, and over a quarter of its 200,000 citizens go to college. The average age for the whole city is 35, and it seems that every second building is a pub, venue or coffee shop, and there’s no official closing time.
The Irish have put a big dent in Eurosonic over the years – past guests have included Hozier, The Coronas, Jape, Wallis Bird, Villagers, Imelda May and Delorantos. There were 10 Irish acts at Eurosonic 2018 – a stand-out year that warranted an Irish industry meet & greet (& drink) at O’Malley’s Bar on the Thursday evening.
Over the few days Irish hip-hop and R&B was represented by Soule and Jafaris, while Bitch Falcon and Robocobra Quartet brought the weapons-grade noise-rock and jazzy post-punk. Derry girl ROE was a gentle guitar pop highlight, while the singer-songwriter quota was bumped up by Rosborough, Dermot Kennedy, Seamus Fogarty, Ryan McMullan and David Keenan.
Elsewhere over the weekend, we catch Catalan trash-rap (Mueveloreina), Danish pagan folk (Myrkur), French hip-hop (KillaSon) and loads more – with one of the most hyped bands of the weekend the Swiss band Zeal & Ardor, who combine chain gang slave spirituals and black metal.
- Zeal & Ardor
Zeal & Ardor play Vera, Groningen’s most famous club that has hosted the likes of Joy Division, Nick Cave, Slayer, The Cure and even U2 over the decades. The venue also works as a sort of art collective, with a gig poster screen-printing studio upstairs, and the limited collector’s item posters hanging in the halls as a permanent exhibition, along with decades of band stickers, fanzines and flyers stuck to the wall.
This fandom extends to the GRID Grafisch museum, a modern building devoted to the history of graphic design, printing and bookbinding. I was drawn to GRID for the EPEX European Poster Expo, with stunning silkscreen gig posters on display, but soon became hooked by the exhibition of vintage printing machines in a separate workshop. Pieces in the permanent working exhibition range from tiny lino print machines, to ornate Hiedelberg roll printers from the 1900s – all explained by resident craftsman, print historian and tour guide Peter Meijer. When Peter hears I’m a journalist he takes me upstairs to another room to proudly show off a magnificent InterType machine – a huge hot metal typesetting contraption used in early 1900s newspaper printing.
- Peter Meijer on the Intertype
But from one complicated mechanical machine to the simpler pleasure of cycling. Like every other Dutch city, Groningen is best navigated by bike, and there are more bikes than people here, and they have right of way over cars and pedestrians.
With no tourist traps to frantically tick off, Groningen is a joy to passively cycle through. Tour guides Peggy and Sandra guess correctly that our group of four sleep-deprived festival heads prefer a leisurely pace, along picture postcard canal paths with ornate house boats and floating restaurants, to the wide open greenery, ponds and swans in the park Noorederplantsoen. And compared with the Wallen Red Light District in Amsterdam, Groningen’s version Nieuwstad feels quaint, a 30-second cycle fly-by on the way to Folkingestraat, Groningen’s prettiest street, with art galleries, coffee shops, boutiques and tasteful street lights between the terraces.
If you preserve some energy and don’t cycle yourself into the ground, a twilight visit to the city’s highest steeple the Martinitoren is one to tick off. The 365 steps of 550-year-old gothic spire will admittedly feel like a spinning class without the bike, but the steep spiral climb is worth it for the panoramic view of the city, and a chance to try and pick out some of the streets and Eurosonic venues you’ve been traversing in the early hours. Descending the steps is a lot easier than going up, especially when you get a chance to ring one of the bells during a pitstop halfway down.
While Eurosonic is on, there seems to be a gig in every pub, music shop and gallery – and regular bars up their game with DJs from early evening. De Uuerwerker in the trendy Grote/Kleine Kromme Elboog area is a perfect spot to refuel for some craft beers and bar snacks before the Eurosonic gig-hopping starts for the night.
And I soon found out that no night out in Groningen is complete without sampling the infamous local post-pub snack the eierbal – a sort of curried Scotch egg that’s sold in all the chippers, and even in vending hatches for €2 a pop. It’s such a ‘thing’ that even has its own section on the tourist guide city map. At the beginning I thought I was above such culinary antics, but the first one hit the bullseye so hard it felt like that first spice bag. Next time I’m back in Eurosonic I’ll be at the hatch with a pocket full of €2 coins.
But aside from junk food treasure, Eurosonic, and Groningen as a whole feels like an exercise in discovery. There’s a buzz in catching rising bands playing out of their skins in 45-minute sets hoping to snare a break, and that can only rub off on music fans heading back to their respective towns and cities, maybe forcing them to dig deeper to see what theie underground has to offer. On a list of Dutch cities, Groningen is only the seventh largest, but it’s punching way above its weight, and it’s still managing to remain one of the most chilled out cities I’ve ever visited, even if it feels like the centre of the music world at the time.
As a music break, a standalone holiday, or even a detour as part of a longer break to Amsterdam, Groningen gets a hearty salute.
- Printed in Irish Daily Star travel section, February 3, 2018