Roskilde Festival : Roskilde, Denmark

Robbie Williams, Neil Young, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and more at the best festival in Europe...

It starts like a wake but soon turns into a party. A crowdsurfing ban and a maze of new crash barriers are just two of the most prominent new safety measures put in place at Roskilde in response to last year’s tragic crush, which left nine Pearl Jam fans dead. There are candelight ceremonies and tearful memories, but Roskilde 2001 is no sombre affair. Mostly it proves the cruelly ironic fact that Denmark’s annual alternative to Glastonbury is probably the safest and

best organised festival on the summer calendar. Even Michael Eavis is here to pick up a few tips.

One early highlight is a showcase of acts from Berlin’s lo-fi electronic label Kitty-Yo. Canadian-in-exile Gonzales steals the show, firing off X-rated raps about the music business and dirty sex like Eminem‘s mouth hotwired to the twisted brain of Chris Morris. Class.

Semi-ironic American slackers? Roskilde has its fair share. If, like me, you have never quite got the joke behind Queens Of The Stone Age, try watching them blast an ocean of hungover Danes on a sunny afternoon. Total nuclear punk-rock meltdown ahoy – like a giant robot Ozzy Osbourne eating Sonic Youth alive. Suddenly the Queens make a lot more sense. The same is true of Beck, who cartwheels through much the same set as he knocked out in Brixton last week, but somehow the aloof goofing and overcooked cabaret elements work better in front of 30,000 Eurokids.

And so is Nick Cave, but for different reasons. As he hits his mid-forties, the Satanic Sinatra seems hellbent on stirring up the placid waters of his last two albums with shows of boiling, intense, skin-flaying ferocity. Caveand his Bad Seeds have not been this animated and engaged for years, ripping through ‘Stagger Lee’, ‘Red Right Hand’, ‘The Mercy Seat’, ‘Oh My Lord’, ‘Hallelujah’ and a dozen more like human lightning conductors. Stunning.

A bill shared by Bob Dylan and Neil Young is just begging for comparisons. Dylan celebrates his 60th year with a mildly diverting skip down memory lane, remaking such classics as ‘Just Like A Woman’ and ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ as upbeat country-blues jigs. Like Lou Reed, Robert Zimmerman insists on delivering one of the most fearsome and raw-nerved songbooks in history like he’s reading a room-service menu. But Neil Young, not far behind in age terms, is still generating cataclysmic levels of guitar tubulence. To witness Crazy Horse deconstruct ‘Hey Hey, My My’ and ‘Like A Hurricane’ into 12-minute noise symphonies of molten rhythmic turmoil is to experience classic rock at its most vital, visceral and exhilarating.

The pairing of PJ Harvey and Patti Smith is also a tempting act of fate. Although Polly‘s most recent album bristled with Patti allusions, they are poles apart at Roskilde. The Noo Yawk veteran is all bony clatter and visceral squawk, red in tooth and nail. She quotes William Blake in verse and, as a bold nod to last year’s tragedy, Pearl Jam in song. By

comparison, a scantily clad Harvey sounds voluptuous and warm, lending a newly plump sensuality to even scouring sexual angst anthems such as ‘Dry’. Patti would probably win in a scrap, mind. It’s the wiry ones you need to watch out for.

Among the other Brit contenders, hotly tipped ambi-groovers Zero 7 are a disappointment. Soothing sound surfers on record, noodling acid jazzers on stage. Maybe next year. Later, Stereo MC’s go up against Faithless in the cod-spiritual Brit-hop stakes. Ramming the second (Green) stage tent, the Stereos deliver more bouncy vibes than their slack comeback album suggests. Faithless gather a huge congregation to the main (Orange) stage to fill the drizzly night air with roaring trance and rumbling neo-beatnik poetry. They pack far more punch as glacial disco titans than muddled jazz-rockers, but this is still a cracking stadium spectacle. Both bands, of course, essentially spout hippie bollocks.

Closing honours fall toThe Cure, who postponed last year’s set out of respect, then regrouped especially for this lumbering yet sporadically magical one-off show. But star prize goes to Robbie Williams, who packs the main arena during a torrential downpour and still goes down a storm himself. Sporting a new blond-tipped Mohican crop, the Chris Evans of pop belts out his increasingly bulging sack of hits. He also covers Limp Bizkit‘s ‘Rollin”, U2‘s ‘Beautiful Day’ and Queen‘s ‘We Are The Champions’. Like a Hollywood blockbuster, we may try and resist Robbie but he still pushes all our dumb pleasure buttons. If this is a charm offensive, he’s a B-52 bomber. The weekend belongs to him Neil Young, Nick Cave and Polly Harvey – but mostly to triumph over tragedy. Rock on, Roskilde.

Stephen Dalton