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My ode to Festi’Neuch, the first music festival this summer

Festi'Neuch 2019 - Patti Smith

This annual Neuchâtel music festival brought big talent to a not-too-big, much-loved town.

"I'd like to start with a benediction for the festival", said Patti Smith on the first night of this year's Festi'Neuch Music Festival in Neuchâtel. The American poet-singer sang her song, "Wings", with its refrain: "It was beautiful, it was beautiful."

And so it was. Smith's mesmerizing performance that night by the Neuchâtel lakeside was one of the high points of the four-day festival, which ended June 16th.

But there were still nearly 50 acts to come: musicians from France, Jamaica, Australia, Britain, Spain, Palestine, Turkey, Holland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, even a little country called Switzerland. The groups would perform rock, pop, reggae, rap, punk, electronica, futuro-cabaret, jazz, and electrified world music.

Besides Patti Smith, the musicians included international headliners Midnight Oil, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, Zazie, Gaëtan Roussel, Inna de Yard, Lomepal, Ska-P, Sum 41 and Caravan Palace. Swiss stars Sophie Hunger and Bastian Baker also performed, as well as Neuchâtel's favorite sons, The Rambling Wheels.

Some of Sophie Hunger's old fans were surprised to hear her razor-sharp band and her voice grown in range and passion to match her song-writing and rock feel.

Festi'Neuch 2019 - Sophie Hunger

The Rambling Wheels showed again that they are totally fun rockin' on stage and ready for a much wider audience:

Festi'Neuch 2019 - The Rambling Wheels

Caravan Palace were the last headliners at the big stage the last night:

Festi'Neuch 2019 - Caravan Palace

And Bastian Baker is still drop-dead gorgeous:

Festi'Neuch 2019 - Dimanche

The 19th edition of Festi'Neuch in Neuchâtel

During four days and nights, Festi'Neuch – in its 19th consecutive year (first year: five acts) – offered 50'000 festival-goers three stages, each with its own vibe.

When you wanted to hang with a headliner and 10'000 of their closest friends, there was a stage for that under an enormous tent. (A tent that came in handy during the exciting Saturday night rainstorm.)

Under the otherwise prevailing pale sunsets and white stars, another stage welcomed a couple thousand spectators to stand and dance. And best of all for some folks, there was the totally cozy little stage below a grassy hillside, where excellent ethnic and emerging bands like Altin Gün, TootArd and Afro Kane performed.

Festi'Neuch 2019 - Ambiance Vendredi

Plenty of food and drink goes with the turf – Portuguese, Thai, Greek, Italian, Indian, Mexican, European, émigré – kebabs, curries, burgers, sausages, fresh lake perch, the inevitable cheese fondue.

If you were thirsty for a beer but too lazy to sidle up to a bar, you just had to wait for the guys strolling the crowd with Heineken backpacks.

There were kiosks offering t-shirts, caps and other stuff, too, but most people were not there to shop.

And this flower girl was giving flowers to people, including me!

Festi'Neuch 2019 - Flower Girl

If you needed a peaceful break from the music and throngs of roving people, there were always calm spots on the grass and rocks along the water. (What's that aroma?) But you did not pay 75 francs per night to sit quietly by the lake for very long.

Ever heard of a Silent Dance Party?

A more cost-effective use of your time was at the haha-named "Silent Dance Party", which is the coolest concept since headphones hit the brain pan. As you entered this closed off area (no extra charge), you were given headphones with three channels you could toggle between. Each channel linked to the music being played by one of the live DJs on stage – rap, techno, rock, pop, even (deal with it) disco.

Festi'Neuch 2019 - Silent Dance Party

Change channels and your headphones changed color – red, green, blue. "Hey, everybody’s on red now, let’s check it out!" ("If you wanna be my lover, first you gotta be my friend.") Dancing with your sweetie, somehow you are in sync even though she's on green and you're on red.

Festi'Neuch 2019 - Silent Dance Party

Festi'Neuch stretched its boundaries farther at three late-night clubs around town.

Festival-goers got in free and sometimes got out not long before dawn. Such a scene, this Festi'Neuch, a perfect fit for its not too big, not too small town, local and global. Kudos to the organizers for giving a venue to young local bands who need a place to perform.

Kudos, too, for efforts to conserve energy and minimize waste with reusable and recyclable cups and other materials. Even if some of the vendors did not pay heed this year, maybe they will next year. But of course, this being Switzerland, almost nobody littered.

Likewise, bravo to Festi'Neuch for providing free earplugs. Our ears and eyes are ready for next year.


(All photography copyright Bill Harby unless otherwise noted.)

Bill Harby

An award-winning freelance writer, editor and photographer based in Neuchâtel and Volcano, Hawai‘i, Bill is frequently called upon to be "funny." His stories have garnered him a select coterie of loyal readers and legions of others who couldn't care less. For more of Bill’s work:

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Bill Harby

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