As I’m walking towards Cinema Palace, the festival HQ in the centre of Brussels, something catches my eye. Flashing on a screen atop a shiny screen is the advert for FiftyFifty Lab, beaming out a bold announcement:
“Brussels is finally getting its own showcase festival”.
Why not before? That’s what FiftyFifty Lab, a new smart curation festival set-up by FiftyFifty Lab PR and KuratedBy Agency, asks and aims to answer. Twenty ace alternative festivals – including Melt Festival, Dekmantel Festival and Primavera Sound – were invited to invite explosive artists that are on the verge of blowing-up.
Named due to its half-and-half cocktail of both local talent and international up-and-comers, it’s all about bigging up Belgium and what it has to offer. As the deputy mayor says at its opening: “I always say I’m the deputy mayor in charge of culture. But if there are no artists, no festivals, I’m just the deputy mayor in charge of nothing.”
Europe, of course, is teeming with promoters teaming up to big-up the buzziest bands. From Brighton’s Great Escape to Spain’s Sonar, showcase festivals hold a key place in the festival world. But, for some reason or another, Brussels has missed out.
It’s even more bizarre considering the layout of its venues. The city centre’s bars, clubs, dives and gig venues are concentrated more strongly than a pint of tripel karmeliet. It’s one of the most vital criteria for a showcase festie – to not have to make pilgrimages between venues every half an hour – and FiftyFifty Lab gets fifty out of fifty in that respect.
Sauntering from Cinema Palace to L’Archiduc (250m, no more), the first act I catch on the festival’s opening night is Erika de Casier. The Copenhagen r’n’b singer blends buttery smooth production with properly double-denim, halter-top levels of late 90’s vibes. ‘Do My Thing’ absolutely slams on the night, with a bop-worthy instrumental that somehow sounds like a warped version of the Tracey Beaker theme. A nineties kids’ dream, basically.
Next up I’m in La Madeleine, a big room venue with the enviable chic (and ace beer) of the best Amsterdam clubs. Belgium locals KRANkrattle through a set of two-step, Burial infused shufflers, played with foot-slamming live drums. It’s no wonder the decibel screen on the club wavers into the red zone (or that earplugs outnumber airpods around the club).
Backed by an everflowing, cascading waterfall of dubbels and trippels, I follow a group heading to FFormaTT. It’s a mad venue – an old car park turned into a literally underground club – fit with an information desk entrance and concrete detailings. Belgium MC Miss Angel again brings UK vibes (grimy grime goodness abound) but with local energy, packing out the car-park with people parked for the entire set.
Ears ringing, I return to the hotel. Well, via an afterparty at C12, obvs. Brussels sure knows how to party.
Equipped with my FiftyFifty Lab tote bag, I get ready for round two. Its colour of blue is so strikingly unusual for brands – a kind of deep royal blue – that I ask Clara Dhilly, one of the PRs, what the backstory is.
Turns out it was designed by Studio Vue, who often work on museum and art projects. It all clicks together, then – FiftyFifty Lab isn’t just a showcase but a curated project too. As Mathieu Fonsyny, head of FiftyFifty Lab booking and production and CEO of KuratedBy puts it to me: “When you see more than a thousand people per night totally blindly trusting us and the curators, filling all the venues, you achieved what you were trying to do!”
It’s so expertly handpicked by a handful of experts, that its collection of artists are as carefully calculated and cuttingly cool as a collectable Casio. A muso’s museum of the future, I guess.
Its star piece in its second night exhibition is ShortParis. Seriously, at all costs, emotional or financial, see them live. Catching a late night plane, quitting your job, missing your wedding; it doesn’t fucking matter. A punky collective from Russia, they’ve set labels alight with their killer live performances. These guys are like Joy Division on Es, mixing in operatic Russian vocals for good measure in the upstairs of AB Club.
Special props to GLORIA, too. Closing the festival at mezzanine maze Bonnefooi, the Boiler Room Project Director is on the cusp of something huge with her futuristic r’n’b project. Grabbing audience members at will (or not) to dance with her and sassing the audience for being too quiet, she’s a heady headliner worthy of major audiences.
As I leave Brussels after a continental breakfast and a thumping hangover, I think back to the billboard that first caught my attention. “It’s the biggest billboard in Brussels,” Seb Desprez – PR for FiftyFiftyLab and DJ – told me proudly.
It sums up the ambition of the festival. Despite its name, nothing is done in half measures, launching itself into the premier league of showcases in its launch year. And, like the billboard that looms over the city centre, it’s already made its mark on Brussels.
Listen to the FiftyFifty Lab playlist for a taste of what they’re all about and head over to our Instagram (@tmrwmag) to see a video diary of our time in Brussels.