10 Things We Learnt at Belgium’s Rock Werchter Festival

Rock-Werchter-festival

I have been to one European festival before – Main Square in France – but that was six years ago. In that time I got used to the stricter, but definitely more organized, festivals in Australia and the US. If there’s one thing you should take away from this piece it’s this: if you’re going to a festival in Europe, you should be very organized from the start.
Rock Werchter is located just outside of Werchter, about 40 minutes west of Brussels in Belgium. From Brussels, there was a train to Leuven and then there were shuttle buses to take punters out to the festival site in Werchter.

Rock Werchter hosted a huge range of acts, including our own Xavier Rudd and Tash Sultana, alongside Arcade Fire, Kings of Leon, Radiohead, Royal Blood, Linkin Park and Blink 182.

I’m not a multiple day festival camper any more – too old for that shit – so I stayed in Brussels and traveled to and from the festival on the Thursday and Friday. Here’s what I learnt:

1. You don’t need to worry about much when you’re there

I was asked for ID exactly zero times, which is a relief given I left it in my bag in my Airbnb back in Brussels. Beer was $3 a cup, you could smoke anywhere and everywhere, and there was no specific area for anything, really. Food was cheap and didn’t take long to get, they had phone charging stations, and since the music didn’t start until 3pm you didn’t have to worry much about heatstroke or sunburn.

They left the main bars open after the last band and had big areas of restaurants and bars between the festival and the camping area. I was able to get multiple beers and Nutella crepes after the bands had finished.

The security is also nowhere near as strict as it is at other festivals I’ve been to. After Radiohead had finished on the main stage and most of the crowd had left, groups of people picked up broken tarps and started getting others to jump over them – similar to school when you’d do it with a skipping rope – and then pelted them with empty bottles when they stopped jumping.

I thought it was a one-off, but it kept happening and no one did anything to stop it. Security’s only concern was gradually moving people away from the stage, and they only interfered when people wouldn’t move.

There was an after party in an area called The Hive which you could only access if you were camping in that area. I wasn’t allowed in but I sat outside for a couple of hours to listen to the music they were playing and watch people play frisbee with a flattened out beer can while I waited for it to get late enough to get the train back to Brussels from Leuven. Yes, I thought they were weird too.

2. Getting to and from the festival was a different story, though

I realised quite late in the day before I headed to the festival that I hadn’t printed my tickets for the train or the event, and that all tickets gave me instructions that I had to do so. I ran around Brussels desperately looking for somewhere to print them, effectively missing all the early evening acts, only to get on the train without anyone looking at the ticket. I tweeted Rock Werchter asking if I could just use the ticket on my phone and they tweeted back that I could ask them to print a duplicate ticket at the event – right after I had printed my event tickets – so all of my running and panicking was in vain. This is what happened to me last time I was in Europe. I flipped out about following “the rules” which never actually paid off. If I had been more relaxed, I would have saved a lot of time.

I assumed there would be a way to get back to Brussels after all the bands finished but when I checked the train times during Kings of Leon‘s headlining set on the Thursday night, I realized the last train was leaving from Leuven station in half an hour, and it had taken a good hour to get from there inside the festival. I had a very long (and expensive) taxi ride from Leuven back to Brussels.

Trains were delayed getting there on the second day, but little to no communication happened at Gare du Nord station and I had to rely on the Brussels metro app and check the signs as they updated on the platform. Don’t leave things like that to chance in Europe, there’s a chance you’ll learn an expensive and annoying lesson in the process.

3. If Arcade Fire are playing, you’d better be into it

About four songs into Arcade Fire‘s set, Win Butler asked the crowd if they were enjoying themselves. “If you’re into it, fucking show us! You’ll learn this lesson in relationships – if you appreciate someone, show them!”

4. Kings of Leon did not reign supreme

Oh, Kings of Leon… what happened to you? I’ve seen them four times, admittedly on the Aha Shake Heartbreak, Because of the Times, and Only By The Night tours and I was never disappointed. But seriously, their live show is full of newer, bland songs that do nothing to get the crowd going. I subjected myself to about half an hour of them and then walked away in boredom. The fact I stayed back to watch them instead of getting my train home was salt in the wound. They are a classic example of a band who got too big too quickly and got overwhelmed by their own fame, only to continue getting booked for headline spots and not living up to the hype. What a sad display that set was. If I was Win Butler I wouldn’t be mad that the Rock Werchter crowd weren’t showing enthusiasm during Arcade Fire‘s set, I would have been mad that the Followills headlined and didn’t even try.

5. Don’t wear new shoes

My trusty old Converse shoes had been soaked in London rain and smelled really, really bad, so I thought buying a new pair of sneakers to wear to the festival would be a good idea… despite this never being a good idea, ever. Just don’t do it. My feet were actually bleeding where the shoes had rubbed my heels, and it made the second day of the festival really hard. My feet were aching, even though I sucked it up and wore my Cons, and I still have blisters on my pinky toes.

6. Royal Blood and James Blake should have switched spots.

James Blake, I’m sure your music is great when played in a little venue and everyone watching it is just planning to smoke weed at home in bed afterwards. But it’s not a very good way to get a crowd psyched for a headliner. Even when the headliner is Radiohead and their last few albums do admittedly sound a lot like James Blake. Royal Blood fucking rocked it and had everyone excited, instead of having half the front row sitting down and the front parts of the crowd half empty. Next time, put the energetic bands on before the headliner to warm the crowd up.

7. We live in a bit of a scary world now

Given the recent events in Manchester, London, Brussels, and Paris, no chances were taken with security. We had to walk through a metal detector upon entering the festival and when moving from one stage area to another. I did briefly consider selling my tickets during the aftermath of the Ariana Grande show but I figured I’m going to die one day anyway, and I might as well go out happy while watching Radiohead, my favorite band. I’m sure this thought crossed others’ minds, but Rock Werchter did really well to show us that we were safe and luckily, there wasn’t any trouble.

8. No matter how annoying or heavy it is, take a jumper

I seriously regretted not bringing another layer on the Friday night, especially when it started raining.

9. The stages for European festivals are huge.

I was on the barrier, in front of the screen, for James Blake and Radiohead and not even anywhere near them. Even if I had been in the center, I wouldn’t have been able to see any of their faces clearly.

10. Radiohead are just… *sigh*

Anyone worried that their live show will lack energy with the inclusion of the songs from A Moon Shaped Pool or The King of Limbs is sadly, sadly mistaken.

Their set covered all albums except Pablo Honey, and each song moved perfectly into the next even when they had to move instruments around and change positions on stage between songs.

I’ve been waiting years to hear “2+2 = 5”, and I finally got to, alongside pretty much every other song I was hoping they would play. They seemed more comfortable playing songs from Kid A, In Rainbows and A Moon Shaped Pool than they did playing their early stuff – “My Iron Lung” from The Bends; “Let Down”, “Lucky”, and “Climbing up the Walls” from OK Computer – but they turned it on for ‘Paranoid Android’ and a beautiful version of “Karma Police”. Thom played two choruses of “Karma Police” solo and acoustic to close the set, and the mass singalong that accompanied him is what I imagine heaven to be like.

They played a full two hours, with two encores, and showed enough energy to suggest they could have easily gone on to play another hour after they left the stage.

They’re still at the top of their game and the best at what they do. Let’s just hope they stay around for a while longer so they can please their old fans and win some new ones.

The verdict on Rock Werchter?

It’s great fun if you don’t take it too seriously, give yourself a lot of time to get around, and don’t really care about sleeping. Since it usually takes place a week or two after Glastonbury, they’ll always have great acts playing, so it’s well worth the cost of the ticket to go along if you can.