Back in 2001 Lyon's nightlife was in an abject state. Promoters of any form of music were subject to constant pressure and restrictions from the local government. Parties were forced to close at 1:00 AM. Local DJs like Sébastien Devaud, AKA Agoria, were regularly being arrested for breaking laws on opening hours. The situation remained fairly bleak, until in March of that year socialist mayoral candidate Gérard Collomb came to power with a mandate to boost Lyon's nightlife and therefore its student population. The city's key cultural figures were gathered and asked to give their thoughts on improving the situation. A small group of people including Devaud and Vincent Carry (now the Nuits Sonores director) campaigned for a dedicated electronic music festival. Carry eventually convinced the mayor to join them on a night out, looking to give him a greater insight into their nocturnal culture. Ten years on and Collomb is still in office, and Nuits Sonores is France's most important electronic music event.
It has been a gradual process, but the level of trust and integration the festival enjoys within the city is unparalleled; a fact that is immediately apparent upon arrival. Lyon's stunning main square—the Place des Terreaux—serves as Nuits Sonores' central hub, which includes Hôtel de Ville, its 17th century-built city hall. Parties take place in any imaginable space right across the city, with no apparent restrictions on sound. This has led to an almost overwhelming five-day program.
The main NS day (Hotel-Dieu) and night (Aciennes Usines Brossette) venues provided welcome focal points, which, in line with Nuits Sonores' commendably progressive approach, change each year. Sections of the far-reaching Hotel-Dieu building date back to the 15th century and it was an active hospital until 2010. Stages were erected in two of its splendid main courtyards, hosting a program which split its time between house/techno/bass and more indie/band-orientated entertainment. Brossette, a former factory, had the look and feel of Sonar's gargantuan night venue, Fira Gran Via, albeit in a more manageable form. Nuits Sonores production credentials were most closely tested here—and in the main succeeded—with giant projections, stadium-sized stages and more than adequate (save for the third space) soundsystems.
In addition to the daytime action at Hotel-Dieu, a different outdoor space was utilized each day for a free one-off party, Apéro Sonore. Locations ranged from a wooden shack in a sun-filled park decorated with bunting, to a weighty dub soundsystem parked on a rain-swept street, to Isloee playing live in front of thousands in Place des Célestins, one of the city's central squares. In all cases there was a harmonious mix of mainly French club kids and curious locals. Friday night's Circuit Electronique saw 13 Lyon venues host parties, each loosely themed on a different city. It was difficult to draw any conclusions as to the state of the city's permanent club infrastructure (unless you had a driver handy) but the two we visited—La Platforme and First—seemed to suggest that the range runs from intimate and interesting to mainstream and trashy.
Mini Sonores / Extras
Mini Sonores spoke to the lengths that the festival has gone to integrate itself into the wider Lyon community. Parents brought their children to one of Hotel-Dieu's many courtyards to enjoy a surf rock soundtrack, a mini DJing school and various other bits of interactive fun.
The Extra! program, meanwhile, was an opportunity to get out and see some more of the city. Matters of gastronomy, photography, roller skating, cycling, cinema, musical chairs and much more besides were explored daily from Thursday to Sunday. There were also some good old-fashioned parties, with a soundsystem under a bridge beside the river Rhône being a particularly clever use of the space. However, this portion of the festival did serve to highlight a general flaw of Nuits Sonores: its communication. Attendees were confusingly offered as many as five different versions of the overall program, with none of them containing an all-important map that detailed locations.
As you might have gathered at this stage, France's second-largest city plays an integral role in every aspect of Nuits Sonores. If you don't mind travelling by foot, most venues in the city are accessible in less than 30 minutes, and if not, are usually just a short cab journey away. Both the Rhône, and its tributary the Saône, snake through the city, with the picturesque old town splayed steeply uphill from the banks of the latter. It's also worth noting that Lyon is known as France's food capital, although it's probably advisable to revisit outside of the festival schedule in order to fully indulge in its delicacies.
Lyon and Airflex Lab's Opti warmed up for Hudson Mohawke, Julio Bashmore and Joy Orbison at NS Days 1, and after his set spoke eloquently about his and others' struggles to bring UK sounds to the city. Peoples' ears have gradually been opened over the last few years, he says, but what was striking from an outsider's perspective was his dedication to remain and educate, rather than leave Lyon. This type of spirit had been evident in the past through figures such as local hero Agoria, who, after claiming he would not be playing this year, closed the main stage at Brossette on the Saturday, DJing alongside Laurent Garnier and Brodinski to an enormous and ecstatic crowd. Elsewhere Lyon artists played largely supporting roles, but the festival has been—and evidently will be—a continuing source of grassroots inspiration.
Christine Kakaire noted in her review of Nuits Sonores last year that there was "no single show-stopping act" and this was again the case in 2012. The lesser discussed indie portion of the program seemed to fall flat on NS Day 2, while over on the second stage, Berghain's Ben Klock and Marcel Dettmann gave one of the weekend's most feel-good performances. (Yes, you read that right.) Both beamed from ear-to-ear as they took a track each, interacting with a buoyant crowd (Klock was regularly grabbing cameras to take pictures for people) as they moved through cuts like Bam Bam's "Where's Your Child?" and a thumping techno remix of "Ghetto Kraviz." The main stage the day before had seen Joy Orbison dexterously rattle through a crowd-pleasing set—"Getting Me Down," "Ye Ye," "Swims"—before Maya Jane Coles closed things out capably on a tough house tip. Pachanga Boys (Rebolledo and Superpitcher) resembled a latter-day Wighnomy Brothers as they tossed their hair about on the Kompakt stage and dropped Basement Jaxx's "Flylife."
After he was inexplicably left to sort out his own technical issues, James Murphy proved that disco can move a massive main stage crowd with his DJ set at Brossette on Night 1. Chris & Cosey took things to ear-splitting levels with a surprisingly danceable performance that night on the third stage, while Theo Parrish pushed his singular blend of funk, soul, disco and house on the same system two nights later. Following recent tragic events, Beastie Boys and Donna Summer were well represented over the weekend, with Flying Lotus dropping "Intergalactic" during a hip-hop heavy set. Running Back's Gerd Janson was a standout of the Circuit Electronique program on the Friday night, fuelling his continually growing reputation as a DJ who makes people lose their shit.
Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer's Re:ECM performance at the majestic Théâtre des Célestins looked on paper to be a welcome experimental aside. The reality was that its scheduled slot on the Saturday evening (the fourth day of the festival) was ill-timed, with most in the warm auditorium fidgeting to fight fatigue as the pair improvised in one continuous movement on modular synths. Villalobos then reappeared later that night under wildly different circumstances as part of the secret program on the main stage at Brossette, with both him and fellow surprise guest Dixon expertly moving the biggest crowd of the weekend
Before his closing set that night, Agoria discussed how the attitudes of the Nuits Sonores founders have changed down the years. "We were all kind of 'punk' when we started out...[but we realized] we can only change the establishment from the inside." While it's true that the festival is subject to a unique (and highly enviable) symbiotic relationship with the local government, the years of trust building and careful micro-management have resulted in a globally relevant festival and a superlative advert for the city of Lyon.