On a weekday afternoon, in a room darkened by the cover of a leafy fake tree, a man-with-guitar takes a break from his set to chat up the crowd. The show has been moved indoors in case the rain comes early, and now Andrea Bignasca must let his earthy growls and riffs work their magic in the wee alpine village the museum has so painstakingly reconstructed. Flanked by an amp and a stuffed mountain goat, Bignasca kicks off a bluesy original with a self-deprecating joke in English. His accent may betray his roots, but his usage of the word douche is faultless.
Welcome to Zermatt Unplugged: five days of live music in offbeat places at the foot of the Matterhorn. Here, the so-called “mountain of mountains” is not just a scenic backdrop or source of inspiration for t-shirts, dog collars and Toblerone. In the words of the Matterhorn Museum website, it is also a monument to “Conquest, Betrayal and Death” – which is about as rock ‘n’ roll as it gets.
My plan over the next two days is to cram in as many concerts as possible. The full line-up consists of around 60 acts, some I wouldn’t rush to see at home. This cranky dismissal bothers me. Stale habits, harsh judgments, a stiffness of opinion that comes too easily in an age of opinionated stiffs – the festival may be more personal challenge than getaway, an attempt to unclog that thing called an open mind.
Based on my first estimate, this means no fewer than 10 concerts. This means James Blunt. This means James Bond-like excursions, with a few venues reached only by cable car. On the stage billed as Europe’s highest, the grand piano had to be delivered by helicopter, dangled from a rope like a climber.
But first, I have to get to Zermatt. After an early-morning diagonal chug through rock and pine, I follow the music to a hotel terrace. J.P. Cooper, a shy Mancunian with pipes of honey, is one of the festival’s “new talents” and the first act of the day.
While I get my bearings, Cooper plays to a noontime crowd who are respectful to the point of piety. Birds chirp, someone drops a knife and the only steady movement comes from the singer’s dreadlocked associate, who circulates with a bag of CDs. The lady next to me asks him for the name of that song she liked – “the one about the water, the one where he’s singing something about the water” – but up here, it’s all smiles. With the crook of the Matterhorn softening in the haze, I feel a lurch of emotion and blame the altitude.
The Zermatt population apparently swells to five times its size during the festival. On the streets, it’s hard to tell who has come for the music, the spring skiing or the view. The artists are a bit easier to spot, with their unruly hair and clothes that might not hold up in inclement weather, yet this is a cultivated affair. At the gritty late-night Starsailor and Kill It Kid gigs, I can’t imagine anyone moshing, crowd-surfing or hunting the acts down after a show – a missed opportunity, since the town’s ban on cars leaves them more or less trapped after the last train out.
I suspect the technical requirements for playing unplugged, along with Swiss laws capping live music at 100 decibels, encourage more moderate behavior. Beyond that, each gig tends to vary. While some acts opt for quirky instruments and others sit in chairs, the focus is always the music.
Yet “unplugged” alone can’t explain the richness of sound or emotion that threatens to disarm me at every show. As I mull this over in a café, I think I know why. Maybe playing unplugged is not just about stripping back the music, but seeking a higher truth. And what better place to find it than Zermatt, where the majesty and cruelty of nature create artistic tension, casting a spell on the artists who dare to make the pilgrimage?
After the long-awaited gig of soul-surf-garage band Duck Duck Grey Duck, I ask singer-guitarist Robin Girod just as much. Is playing in such an epic setting somehow different?
“Not at all,” he shoots back, before taking a moment to reflect. “No, no,” he smiles, “it’s the same.”
I get to the hotel lounge late and grab the only empty seat. If I stand I can just see the capped head of Tobias Carshey, watched over by a shrine of some saint or other. Every nook and passage is jammed with people, some down on the floor, rapt, their feet grazing the wooden patch called a stage.
Further back, where the air is clogged with the smell of French fries and rain, families play board games. Waiters bark out orders. The walls are covered with Matterhorns-on-canvas. And I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
The festival’s biggest venue looks at first like a circus tent, but not inside. A retractable chandelier hangs from the ceiling, and the center seats are lined with sheepskin. While there is plenty of space to dance between the rows, I already miss the smaller makeshift stages.
When James Blunt walks out and hushes the crowd with a flattened palm, I brace myself. This is, after all, the final show of an 18-month world tour. No surprises, I think, no deviations from the emotional register he has implicitly promised to the audience of the quickest sell-out in festival history.
So far, I am right. The band is tight and Blunt knows what he’s doing. I duly clap along and, during an up-tempo number, even stand. This prompts the man on my left, who has been playing blackjack on his iPhone, to do the same.
As we sit back down, the band disappears offstage and Blunt takes to the piano. I smell something earnest in the air and wait for the hush, but he looks out at the audience. Some light banter, I figure, maybe a story from the road. But no. He delivers a rousing dedication “to all the husbands and boyfriends who were dragged along” and forced to listen to his many “miserable” songs.
I think I must not have heard right, but Blunt goes on. “Seriously,” he says, above the cheers, “I have many miserable songs.” Then he places his hands over the keys and adds, “So, sit tight because we’re gonna’ be here for fucking hours, listening to James fucking Blunt.”
The crowd roars. Blunt plays the first chord. And at 5,000 feet above sea level, I let go.