Highlights of the Gurtenfestival 2012

In the end, it came down to a battle of the bands. Two giants of the Swiss music scene, barely known outside the country but huge in Switzerland, they’ve both been going strong for 20-odd years, both have had hits that every Swiss child can sing along to, and both hail from Berne. In one corner, there was Züri West frontman Kuno Lauener and the band’s signature tune I Schänke Dir Mis Härz. In the other corner: Patent Ochsner frontman Büne Huber and the classic W.Nuss vo Bümpliz. Playing at the Gurtenfestival was playing to their home crowd – with the added frisson that these two bands have nurtured a good-natured rivalry over the years and this year’s Gurtenfestival would be a showdown of sorts. So who won?

First, there’s the small matter of the 35 other bands gracing the Gurten stages. Friday saw the Swiss outfits dominate the first half of the day: Bern newcomers Pablopolar delivered assured pop-rock with big melodies that hint at a possible future as stadium-fillers, while James Gruntz from Basel performed laid-back tracks, his voice an instrument of jazzy textures and astonishing range.

Friday night belonged to headliner Lenny Kravitz, who sauntered onto the stage in tight trousers, a leather jacket and the ever-present sunglasses, looking the epitome of cool despite the rain pelting down. From Mr. Cab Driver to the magnificent Fly Away to the newer, more personal Black And White America, Kravitz and his band emerged as engaging, rock-solid performers at the top of their game. Kravitz braved the elements at one point, clambering off the stage to greet the screaming fans in the first row. The English Show included, it has to be said.

Saturday saw the sun come out and the festival atmosphere ratchet up a notch or five. Frank Turner was a true highlight of the day, his folk-punk bracing and straightforward, the crowd hopping and bopping along exultantly to the rousing I Still Believe and If Ever I Stray.

Elsewhere, British indie-rockers The Subways were balls of energy on the tent stage, all clattering drums and brash bass lines; elder statesmen of hip hop and neo soul The Roots showed nothing of their age as they grooved out on the main stage; and German-Swiss visual trash punk band Bonaparte featured performers in weird and wonderful costumes that were simultaneously fascinating and repellent. Post-midnight, Example’s show didn’t quite gel – his mixture of dubstep, trance and hip hop works brilliantly on record, but unexpectedly does not translate onto the live arena. Many of the songs lacked the excitement and drive of their studio versions, although trance stomper Changed the Way You Kiss Me did get us all dancing.

Sunday proved to be an exercise in clothes layering, the day alternating between perfect blue skies and thundering rain, often within the same hour. Did that stop us? Mais non! Swiss French rapper Stress provided good cheer as he entertained the crowd with an energetic show and between-song banter in heartwarming French-accented German.

Over on the tent stage, Santigold played a lovely low-key set, while Plan B kicked off his concert with support from Faith SFX, an astounding beatboxer who came across as a kind of human-machine hybrid and whose bass sounds alone almost literally blew us away as we walked past the subwoofers. Plan B and band nailed the first half of their show in natty suits and thin 1960s ties, the glorious retro sounds of Prayin’ and She Said sending the audience into raptures. The second half saw the band change into hip hop outfits and play tracks from Plan B’s debut album Who Needs Actions When You Got Words. You’d think the contrast between retro-soul and modern-day hip hop would be jarring, but here it worked a treat.

Meanwhile on the third Gurten stage, Bern-based Labrador City charmed the crowd with their sophisticated, sweeping, MGMT-esque pop – a band to watch out for. On the main stage, Jan Delay & Disko No.1 were surprisingly entertaining despite shamelessly pilfering and reworking the best songs of the past 20 years.

Sunday headliners Snow Patrol had the elements working against them – dark, threatening clouds turned into pouring rain, driving many audience members home and drowning out some of the band’s subtler moments. Half-way through the set, the sun peeked out and a huge double rainbow appeared over the stage, stopping singer Gary Lightbody in his tracks as he gleefully pointed it out. There’s no doubt that Snow Patrol work best indoors with a dedicated audience, and we could feel that this was a rather routine gig for the band. Nevertheless, Lightbody’s live voice was a delight, his between-song banter as amusing as ever, showstopper Chasing Cars still appealed, and the relentless, beat-driven Fallen Empires was hypnotic.

So what about the battle of the two Swiss bands? Musically, they were a tie, although The English Show’s personal preference lay with Züri West. In terms of sheer numbers, Patent Ochsner lucked out with the weather. While the Züri West crowd huddled together under the onslaught of the rain, the sun came out for Patent Ochsner’s Saturday evening set – a glorious night with a whole field awash in a sea of faces. We knew we were witnessing a very special moment when 20'000 voices sang the W.Nuss vo Bümpliz chorus as one. Even toilet breaks didn’t stop anyone: as the chorus kicked in, we could hear the singing from behind a thousand loo doors.

There’s no more fitting image that sums up the madness, dedication, peacefulness and love for music that rules the always magnificent Gurtenfestival.