Climbers kitted out with crampons and ice axes walk across the top of the 820ft high Mauvoisin Dam en route to scale glaciers on the mountains above, as the thud of a bass drum echoes up from the valley below.
“We talked a lot about going the same way as most other festivals and cancelling, but we thought this would be just too sad. If we could do something we needed to try at least”, Michel May tells me.
He is one of the organisers of the annual Palp festival – a collection of food, culture and music which takes place every year over the Swiss summer.
As the climbers walk past they look slightly bewildered at us tucking into our dam-top brunch, one of the food events on offer. A big attraction of Palp is one of the festivals within the festival – Rocklette, an unexpected combination of rock music and Raclette cheese, the soundcheck for which we are listening to as we eat
“We didn’t sleep much in the run up”, Michel adds, as chords from an electric guitar ring out between the mountains.
“U.S. bands started having to cancel straight away and the list of countries which need to quarantine keeps changing, so we’ve been walking a thin line.”
Just a week before the festival started Spain was added to the list and Michel was left with another slot to fill. On top of finding enough acts to complete the line up, he and his team have also had to think about the logistics of hosting an event that pulls a crowd.
There are various different rules and a protection plan from different organisations that we have to follow, so we have to work with them.”
“We have to ask people to register and enter their contact details, sometimes it feels like we are the police but we have no choice.
“We’ve scaled things down this year and made it so people have had to buy tickets online.
“We’ve limited crowd sizes to 600 and split them into two separate groups of 300, with separate entrances, double the amount of bars and staff, and staff from each side of the divide don’t mix during the festival.”
I ask how they keep the two groups apart.
“We use the same fences they have here for the sheep and cattle.”
The music guides us as we wind our way down the valley to the festival to check out psychedelic band Tau, fronted by Irishman Shaun Mulrooney.
I was skeptical about how social distancing would work at a festival, but as we break through the treeline it’s clear that the setting lends itself to it. A crowd gathers round the band but more opt to sit in small groups spread out on a gentle hillside that makes for a natural amphitheatre. A short walk away stalls sell plates of the melted raclette cheese the region is famed for.
For London metal band Orange Goblin, Covid-19 has seen them on the bill twice, rather than once. Partly to help limit crowd sizes, partly to help fill the line up.
“This was our very first show since December 19 last year”, frontman Ben Wade tells me. “It’s our 25th anniversary year and we had big plans so seeing everything wiped out by covid has been hard to take. Even the soundcheck here has been an incredible buzz, just to feel the volume again.
“It’s been fantastic to see people’s faces in the audience and see them enjoying themselves. It’s been a year of so much uncertainty and confusion regarding live music I think everybody just wanted to let off some steam, I know we certainly did.”
Orange Goblin played two different venues, one just down from the dam, the other higher up in the alpine pass of Col du Lein.
“The air was a bit thinner up there, but it was a beautiful setting right up in the mountains with lots of mountain bike trails, people hiking, cable cars. It was typically alpine, with cows and goats wearing bells.
“I think following this year’s experience it’s a festival that’s going to gain a bit of notoriety across Europe now. The number of people in the industry who have seen the photos, and said ‘where was that you were playing, I’d love to play there, the setting was so beautiful.’”
Rocklette certainly has a big advantage over other festivals when it comes to staying afloat during the pandemic, namely having the alps as a venue. But I don’t think that was the only key to its success. Also on its side was the ability to adapt and have a different vision of what a festival looks like.
The compromises it made also had some upshots. Limiting crowd numbers and having multiple performances gave fans the chance to have a more intimate musical experience, while the layout of venues made social distancing natural, encouraging people to take a step back and enjoy the music in a different way.
Obviously, it’s not a model every festival can adopt, but I’d come away with a welcome taste of life pre-2020 and a glimmer of hope that there are ways in which the show can go on.
When I got back to the UK I checked in with Michel to see how the rest of the festival had gone. “It was great, all the events completely sold out. That made for a really good atmosphere. We had people that were partying and going crazy and people who sat back and watched from further away. The venues we’d picked allowed it to work well. We even had the police that came on Saturday to check the protection plan and they said that it was great.”
“I don’t think things will be back to normal next year but hopefully it will be closer to the way we were living before and I think it will be probably a bit easier to plan because of the experience we’ve gained”, Michel tells me, already looking ahead to next year.
Rocklette: Under 14s get in free and paid tickets start from £21
Where to stay
B&B accommodation at 3* Hotel Bristol from £120 per night per room £60pp.
How to get there
SWISS operates up to 180 weekly flights to Switzerland from London Heathrow, London City,
Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh (seasonal during summer) and Dublin from £52 one-way* (Economy Light fare only includes hand luggage).