Highlights of the Gurtenfestival 2011

Staring at cows at 2 a.m., dancing in the moonlight, and wearing a cowboy hat in Switzerland – it all made sense at the time. A music festival is nothing if not a world unto itself, and Gurten fits the bill perfectly: situated on top of Bern’s local mountain and surrounded by forest, the festival is only accessible by the Gurtenbahn funicular or on foot, cutting it off from the daily grind.

And so we dived right in, starting with Scottish indie rockers Glasvegas on Friday. Plaintive gems like It's My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cryand Geraldine aside, they lacked that certain spark and connection with the audience. This could have something to do with the fact that singer James Allan routinely likes to insult the crowd – not the most endearing of traits.

A far zanier proposition were The Rambling Wheels, a quartet of musicians from Neuchâtel wearing matching pink shirts who delivered an energetic live set complete with bonkers solos, drum sticks flying everywhere. Huge fun. 77 Bombay Street were similarly cheerful; the band’s folk-rock spread instant feel-good vibes and their infectious hit Up In the Sky resulted in an outburst of arm-waving.

Friday headliners Kasabian have disappointed us in the past, but this time round we were delightfully bowled over by their electronica-meets-rock bombast. Basel’s The Bianca Story were up next with meticulous art rock – a sound that works brilliantly on their recordings, but comes across as slightly uninvolving in a live open air setting, despite the two singers’ excellent vocals. And finally, electro gods Underworld delivered the post-midnight magic, demonstrating that they could still whip an audience into a frenzy, complete with dance moves not seen since the 90s. The highlight of their set – and possibly of the festival – was the peerless Born Slippy, a classic electronic stomper that turned us into gibbering masses of giddiness.

Since we weren’t brave enough to camp, we had to head back down into town and commendably decided to walk the way. Mistake. Ah, the pain of walking steeply downhill for half an age after you’ve been on your feet for fourteen hours. However – and this is where the cows come in – we did enjoy the sight of bewildered herds of cattle lying in the fields, roused from their sleep by departing festival-goers.

Saturday kicked off with Jamie Cullum leaping around the stage and getting the early-afternoon crowd hopping. Swiss singer-songwriter Pamela Mendez played a low-key set on the Waldbühne, a stage at the bottom of the steepest slope you’ve ever seen, and her expressive voice carried all the way up the hill as she sang about everyday life and the mysteries of the Swiss mentality. Next up, a change of pace with Kaiser Chiefs, whose I Predict A Riot set the tone for a rousing punk rock show, with the mass sing-along during Ruby a fitting highpoint. Singer Ricky Wilson’s favourite pastime is climbing the nearest scaffolding during a gig – so off he went, to the delight of the audience and the dismay of security, who scrambled to keep up with him as he ran through the crowd.

Pendulum’s drum’n’metal extravaganza after midnight had the fans going bananas, beginning with the berserk Salt In The Wounds, right through the reggae-drenched Set Me On Fire to the more conventional Watercolour. MC Ben Mount bounced all over the stage like a mad dervish as he conducted the audience to jump at his command. The last slot went to Bubble Beatz, drummers Kay Rauber und Christian Gschwend surrounded by their trash machine made out of plastic barrels, pots, pans, steel pipes – in fact, anything you can find in a junk yard. They played electro-infused beats with such enthusiasm that they induced a complete power blackout at one point. Kudos!

Sunday introduced a proper festival atmosphere with lashings of rain and gusts of mountain mist, so we strapped on our wellies and braved the elements. Gustav & Les Black Poets came, saw and conquered: all thoughts of the dismal noon weather were dispelled by their lively onslaught of rock-brass-folk-pop melodies, sung in German, French and English by a merry band of nine.

Calle 13 steamed up the main tent with Puerto Rican rap and rhythm, while outside, Ohio’s The National made their unhurried way through a mellow rock set. Singer Matt Berninger is a welcome change from the usual crop of high-pitched vocalists: bearded and nattily dressed, he takes the occasional sip from his customary glass of red wine as he sings in his deep baritone about being carried through the skies in a swarm of bees (Bloodbuzz Ohio) and walking with spiders (Terrible Love). Resourceful members of the audience had managed to track down an Ohio state flag and were waving it about in the rain, prompting Berninger to walk out into the crowd and bestow his bottle of wine on them. Now that’s class.

The Gurtenfestival of 2011 boasted a splendid line-up, mostly sunny weather, hilariously overpriced drinks, amazingly sanitary loos, mad headgear, and a wonderfully amicable atmosphere. I think we may be back.