Years ago, Groezrock was as much a draw for British punk rockers as Download or Reading. For many of us it was our first festival outside of the UK. After a fallow year, Groezrock has evolved and become more refined, but it still boasts an exceptional line-up and an excellent atmosphere.
I travelled over to the sprawling festival site in sleepy Meerhout in the company of Goodbye Blue Monday, who were playing the smaller Cockpit stage on Saturday. We were keen to get a Jupiler down our necks as soon as we arrived, which fortunately coincided with Pkew Pkew Pkew getting things started.
The Cockpit wasn’t here last time I attended Groezrock and it’s an excellent addition: a smaller space that’s ideal for showcasing new bands. There’s barely any reason to leave, with Press Club and Spanish Love Songs next on the bill. Both play moving, energetic sets and get a wave of love from the crowd in return. I also managed to see Samiam for the first time ever (I got a bit weak in the knees during She Found You) and also got right down the front for Counterparts.
Counterparts are my dream hardcore band – the atmospheric guitar lines speak directly to my soul – but they’re a little too heavy for my friends, so I lose everyone. I know I’ll find them again at The Cockpit, as Not On Tour prepare to hit the stage. There’s a gaggle of Belgian pal right at the front, we have a big group hug and I feel at home.
I decide it’s a good day to go completely mental at the front and, fortunately, everyone else has had the same idea. If it’s remembered for nothing else, 2019 should be known as the year Not On Tour became huge. At every festival I’ve attended this year, Not On Tour have been there, giving 110% and causing a frenzy at the front.
The remainder of the evening involves drinking cocktails in the VIP area with some of my musical heroes, and trying desperately not to embarrass myself. I’d been seriously sozzled since my first tiny Euro beer (a hardcore overnight drive from Manchester to Belgium will do that to you), so it proves quite a challenge.
I suddenly recall that Jawbreaker are headlining and run over to the main stage. Their limited comeback shows have had a lot of press, but the reaction to them is lacklustre at best. The crowd’s dissipated by the time I get there, although there’s still a hardcore crew the front. I stay right to the end, out of respect, awe and inebriation.
I awake in my tent on Saturday, to discover that I’m sleeping on a half-eaten portion of chips.
Memories of a drunken ramble through the backstage last night begins to dawn on me. The campsite is drenched and our friend Jack’s tent is not as waterproof as he thought and it’s collapsed. Everyone’s dry mouthed and looking like their hygiene and mental fortitude has taken a nosedive. At least I don’t need to play a set later.
We’re keen to catch Belgian gruff punks Rich Widows opening The Cockpit stage. I’m surprised how many people have made it out of bed, there’s a sizeable cluster of warm hearts assembled for this lovely band. It’s my first time seeing them and I’m impressed; they’ve got a laid-back vibe that’s appealing and easy to enjoy.
I take time to have a ramble around the soggy festival site, taking in the great selection of labels in the record fair and the specialist beer garden, plus a dash of Bad Cop / Bad Cop. There’s an ominous asphalt cloud looming above.
Chaser’s set is timed perfectly for the mercurial weather. The skies fall just as they hit the stage and the tent floods with people. Most importantly, even when the sun comes out, the tent stays rammed. They smash it on the larger Back 2 Basics stage, the biggest I’ve seen them play, but they look right at home. They’re full of so much good 90’s punk rock energy it hurts.
The Penske File are an inspiration. Few bands have their energy and charisma; they must be one of the best live bands out there right now. They’re playing the only outdoor stage right in the middle of the biggest downpour, but they’re worth getting wet for.
It’s hard to put your finger on what’s so special about this band, but I think it’s the purity of their grins on stage. They love this. Playing for us makes them intensely happy, and it’s infectious.
During Kamikaze Kids, guitarist Travis Miles pulls back from the microphone mid-verse, smiling too hard to sing. They’re humbled by the dancing crowd singing along as the sun starts to escape the cloud. These are future legends honing their craft. I cannot wipe the grin off my face after their set.
I casually stroll over to watch Dead Swans decimate a room. The Revenge Stage is the home of circle pits and hardcore; the bass rumbling through the speakers sounds cataclysmic, with chunky dropped chords lowering us into a pit of raw power. It’s sick.
Goodbye Blue Monday have mentally prepared themselves for playing to ten obligated friends, but The Cockpit tent is packed before they even start. Blame it on the rain, but there’s enough fans mouthing every single word to their miserable pop-punk tunes to show how many hearts they’ve touched. It’s a scruffy set, but that lends a charm to their performance. Emotions are clearly running high when they announce that this is guitarist, Jack Cunningham’s, final show with the band. It’s a bright and bouncy show, as ever, and the audience seem genuinely touched.
Local pop-punks For I Am are sterling and effortlessly professional. Incredible vocalist Hanna Terweduwe has the crowd eating from the palm of her hand within seconds, while the band leap around in excitement. It shouldn’t come as a surprise when Hanna addresses the crowd in Dutch, however it’s unfortunately rare to see a Belgian act onstage at this festival – everyone’s been speaking English. The sheer enthusiasm from the crowd shows what an excellent choice they are, at it’s peak on Hanna’s duet with FOD’s Hans Roofthooft and a major stage invasion at the end of the set. The Bearded Punk Records’ family is out in force.
Afterwards, I’m distracted from a food mission by the cacophony emanating from the Red Bull stage. There’s a duo playing screeching hardcore. The stage is set up so that guitarist’s gigantic cab occupies the space of an absent front man. Checking my Groezrock app, I learn that this is Coarse – an excellent surprise find for the weekend. In the meantime, Dog Eat Dog are taking the packed-out main stage back to 1994.
Employed To Serve offer further proof that women belong at the front and centre of a hardcore stage. Howled, guttural lyrics, unrelenting back line force, and filthy, destructive riffs create an all-consuming onslaught. I can’t quite get my head around their matching, branded jacket uniforms, although they do look like a ruthless team of audio assassins.
The main stage is the busiest I’ve seen it for The Bronx; they create an electrifying energy that courses through the enormous tent. Vocalist Matt Caughthran launches himself into the crowd for 6 Days A Week, with the world’s longest XLR being passed overhead by the considerate crowd. They split the whole room down the middle for a gargantuan wall of death. They are on fire and the crowd love them for it.
I catch a bit of Beartooth while my friends fool around on the ground. There’s a broken camping chair, Doritos, beer, saliva, vomit and an unexpected bundle of punks on the damp grass. Festivals, eh?
Such Gold smash the Back 2 Basics stage with a technically-inspired show that they make look easy. The audience are a touch subdued, clearly a lot of hangovers being sweated out, however a lot of people mention later in the evening that it was their favourite set of the weekend.
A quick dash across to Defeater pays off, although Defeater fans all seem to be exceptionally tall, drunk and elbowy. This is melodic hardcore at its throaty finest: heavy and hard by still very fucking fast. My head aches to bang along to this; the crowd looks entranced. The vocalist hides in a baseball cap, facing the drummer a lot of the time and concentrating on the music.
Hearing a few hundred people yelling, “The King is dead,” louder than the music is why A Wilhelm Scream are destined to be a top band of any festival weekend. It’s a miracle Wilhelm are here at all after the catalogue of travel catastrophes. It’s also their first show with new six-stringer Jason Milbank (of Senses Fail), who proves himself instantly worthy in this church of shred.
As ever, A Wilhelm Scream are intense, tight and charismatic. The slew of sweating punks hurling themselves off stage is a testament to the power this hand have to make you abandon your cares, your worries and your concerns for your own personal safety. It’s marvellous.
Snuff are a proper, actual, no fucks punk band (which is ironic, given their origin as a lampoon of those punk bands). They are the punkest thing I will see today, and they never play less than the best. Opening with a singalong to What Happened? they trounce our some much older tunes to great fanfare.
For a band who’ve been dining out on the term ‘fart in a jar’ for 20 odd years, there’s something undeniably youthful (juvenile?) about Snuff, still. They’ve got an unusual line-up at the moment, with the addition of punk rock’s busiest bassist, Wes Wasley, it’s still a classic show.
One of the most charming moments of the weekend is Millencolin‘s Nikola Sarcevic pulling out an acoustic guitar for a moving rendition of The Ballad. Entire choruses are sung solely by the crowd into the silence of this Belgian evening.
Millencolin’s set is otherwise excellent, pulling in classic Pengiuns & Polarbears-era anthems alongside new tracks from True Brew and their latest album SOS. The new album is introduced with a pretentious banner drop, but otherwise it’s pretty enthralling and an excellent opportunity to see band I’ve admired since I first discovered punk rock.
Over the weekend, there were whispers that Dropkick Murphys might not be a fitting headliner for a festival this size. Anyone who thinks Dropkicks are fit to headline clearly haven’t seen them live recently.
They have an impressive multi-level stage show, with three podiums risen behind the main band. The introduction is overblown, but the moment two spotlights hit the bagpiper the energy in the tent soars. Playing traditional folk songs to drunk punks clearly pays off; they’ve got a huge budget and a huge reaction. I keep expecting them to play Drunken Lullabies, but apart from that confusion it’s an exceptional show.
The difficulty with punk fests in general is that the headliners are booked on nostalgia value. Punk is about hot, raw basement shows – having your ears ring and your beer spilled in the crush of the pit. When there is so much fresh talent available, it’s impossible for a band to remain relevant long enough to reach headline status. There are few current bands that I’m excited about that could headline – the closest might be Idles. As as result, we wind up with headliners that had their heyday 20 years ago, trawling out old, irrelevant hits that we’ve heard too many times before.
That said, Groezrock have made an excellent effort this year to give space to up-and-coming new bands as well as major headliners. It caters to every facet of taste; classic acts like Snuff or A Wilhelm Scream, growing bands like Goodbye Blue Monday or For I Am, heavy hitters like Defeater, Counterparts and The Bronx. Despite the dangers of Belgian beer, I head for the ferry feeling like I’ll be back again next year.