Flow 2017 Day 2: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
A storm is coming. A storm will hit Helsinki hard. That was the weather forecast for Saturday night: a storm for the ages. Like clockwork, the storm hit at 7pm. After a extraordinarily hot day the heavens opened and lightning stroke over Suvilahti and extreme wind made the crowd ran for cover.
And it all lasted less than 10 minutes. Enough to cancel a few performances and close down the Balloon Stage. However, the chaos and the apocalyptic predictions will have to occur some other time. Hardly any more rain fell and the festival resume its program with normality.
Since the shows of Mikko Joensuu and Timo Lassy were cancelled, I decided to call it a day. Retreat and regroup for Sunday’s pack agenda.
It’s already a tradition to schedule a folk artist to open the Balloon Stage in the afternoon on Saturday. This year, Julie Byrne took such a slot. Just a singer and her voice, with her guitar and a bunch of songs. Byrne is a strong songwriter who whispers about common places and common moments of life using a very soft voice and sublet fingerpicking. Short glimpses of life, nothing like heavy storytellers like Sun Kill Moon or Mount Eerie. At Flow, Byrne’s performance had a charming nearness and tenderness, relaxed and light. A soft landing to the festival. On her music, I only missed a little bit of blues to give some edginess to the music.
As the store was approaching, the Red tent was hot and humid. Come think of it, that was the right atmosphere for Sparks. The band’s 14-song set was heavy on the most recent material, including four songs from their upcoming new album Hippopotamus, their first in eight years. Contrary to many legacy act, the newer songs were among the highlights of the show. Songs like the the opener What the Hell Is It This Time? and Missionary Position were fun and a good example of the Mael Brothers witty art-pop. The show ended with a couple of glam rock classics (This Town Ain’t Big For Both of Us and Amateur Hour) off their most popular album, Kimono My House. Visually, there was something terribly comforting in Sparks blue stripped sweaters. Plus, Ron Mael’s trademark tap dance, on the day of his 72nd birthday, was a stroke of pure genius.
Flow 2017 Day 1: You have no right to be depressed
The first day of Flow Festival 2017 treated festival goers with a beautiful sunny evening. Everybody loves sunshine, sang Roy Ayers. Instead of getting a much needed dose of vitamin D, I spent most of my time inside the pitch-dark Black tent, where the most rock and roll side of the program happened.
The first thing to notice about this year’s festival is the larger festival area, which places a new, bigger Balloon Stage in a whole new area. It’s almost like a festival within the festival. Not a bad thing, though. The whole festival grounds feel less crowded with more space around the main stage.
As every year, there will be voices complaining Flow is way too big and not hip enough, despite how the festival brands itself. I’ve attended Flow every year since 2010 and it’s always been a massive festival with a lot of hype around, but also with excellent, diverse lineups. With a declining live music scene in Finland, I’d rather celebrate an overrated Flow Festival than lament.
But back to the music. A very solid Flow day for me with the opportunity to see five outstanding shows with hardly any breaks.
This was the perfect example of a feel good show. Band and audience had a great time. Litku Klemetti is rising as a star with a very peculiar brand of Finnish rock. Blending pop, iskelmä with prog-rock elements and 1970s retro vibes, the show was a lot of fun with moments in which Klemetti shredded her six string like a guitar hero. A very enjoyable oddity for international ears.
Black metal x Flow Festival is a strange proposition. However, Oranssi Pazuzu are in a whole different level, well beyond the boundaries of the genre and combines metal with psychedelic rock, doom and kraut. Starting with Saturaatio, the show was loud and scary, a kick in the guts, yet a spectacular show. The stroke-provoking bass lines still resonate in my ears. The band transitioned between songs with mesmerizing psychedelic jams that silenced the whole tent. A trip into a violent, uneasy nightmare.
The mood was heavy after Oranssi Pazuzu, so the best choice was to seek lighter, happier sounds. Roy Ayers was the right man to put a smile back in my face. Besides sporting the coolest jacket, the 77 year old had an expression of pure happiness. And he knows how to transmit that happiness to the audience with his timeless groove. The songs were as simple as they can be: vocals > vibraphone solo > keyboard solo > bass and drums > back to vocals to end the song. Enough, though, to get people dancing.
Car Seat Headrest
It was the highlight of the night. I was really looking forward to seeing Will Toledo’s band and there was no disappointment here. Much more rocking than I expected: meat and potatoes rock and roll. The setlist, of course, included the best songs of Teens of Denial with a good alternation of rockers and soulful ballads, Even a cover of James Brown’s classic I Don’t Mind blended surprisingly well into the show. The band also played a new song, War is Coming (If You Want it), which will be coming out on Monday, Toledo announced. Car Seat Headrest has a bright future with a leader who looks like the 21st version of Buddy Holly and a guitar player is former FC Barcelona player Carles Puyol doppelgänger who plays in a Doom video game t-shirt.
The only disappointment was the small crowd the band attracted. Rock and roll is not selling tickets these days.
The Black Lips
I caught a couple of Lana del Rey songs, which sounded tamed and lamed. Maybe I just happened to see the slow part of the show. The place was packed, though. Back to the Black Tent, as the clock reached midnight, The Black Lips were ready to close the night with another rock and roll show. The band has become a slightly bizarre outfit, with a peculiar sense of fashion and a new drummer who is coming straight from the Fargo Season 2 set. The show was fun and sloppy, just like a garage rock ought to be. In the end, everybody was pogoing like crazy under a rain of toilet paper.
The death of the music festival. Long live Flow Festival
This summer I entertained the idea of only attending festivals with a lineup I didn’t like it. Just a festivals presenting bands and artists I don’t want to see. Why? There’s no time for music. Modern festivals have such an extensive program of activities that music becomes secondary.
Festivals are not concerts any more, but a destination and weekend-long experience. Not much different than a trip to a spa. You can choose to watch movies, play classic 1980s arcade games or enjoy art exhibitions and visual arts. What about yoga or running a 5k along fellow festival goers. Plus, let’s not forget the high-profile culinary offerings and top-notch cocktails and craft beers.
In addition to all those activities, there are concerts. Bands that play music in front of thousands of people. However, concerts are just a sideshow. Background music. Festivals represent well how the last decade cheapened music; even more so since the introduction of streaming services. At a festival, we experience music in a similar way as we consume Spotify: the playlist mode. We listen to a few songs, snap a pic or two, and quickly move on to the next show. Like it often happens when we listen to a playlist, it is very easy to skip to the next song, changing genres and music styles in seconds. The traditional one-hour festival show is way too long for our current attention spans, impaired by newsfeed and never-ending scrolling. Concerts are the background music for Instagram stories. It’s all one song, really.
Flow Festival is no different and its evolution has been towards this model. Pick up the official magazine and you’ll read not only about music, but art, design and food. You won’t find a complete list of artists. This is not what drives the ticket sales. It’s the Flow experience what does. Don’t care much about Ryan Adams or Frank Ocean, go and see Pulp Fiction at the pop-up cinema, instead.
This year, the Flow experience is enhanced with a bigger festival area and new activities. The festivals adds 1.5 hectares, but the daily capacity remains at 25,000. New Flow, old Flow. There are also changes to the configuration of the stages. The iconic balloon stage is doubling its number of seats to over 1,600. This is a much needed improvement as last year the Balloon Stage area was dangerously overcrowded to the point it was no fun to try to see a show there. The chill-out zone, the Backyard, has also been redesigned and will host yoga classes. Perhaps the best new idea is the We Jazz Vinyl Market. If you’d like to buy some vinyl records, a number of labels are setting shop next to the Balloon Stage. There, you can sit in Eero Aarnio’s classic furniture. Isn’t that cool?
That’s the 2017 Flow experience, but what about the music?
And then there’s the music
Despite all the noise, Flow continues to offer a leading music program of the highest quality. I can argue this year Flow presents one of its strongest lineups in recent years. Or at least, I find a high number of must-see shows. Characteristically of Flow, the program strikes a balance between genres -pop, rock electronica, jazz, folk, hip hip, and cleverly combines mainstream headliners with solid list of artist to be discovered.
Who’s the main headliner? Your choice is a good as mine. Frank Ocean is an audience favorite and the artist most requested, but the variety of the program gives you the opportunity to choose your own main act.
This year I’ve done my homework and I have figured out my schedule and made a list of artist to watch. I’ll have to endure a few hectic moments, running from stage to stage with no time to breath. The program packs too many artists in the prime evening hours. And of course, there are some painful overlaps as well. It’s so bad I’ll miss Black Motor, Jenny Hval and The Holy among others.
Anyways, below are my picks for Flow 2017. You may have others.
Friday night is punk night
This year’s opening night will be ear-splitting. In Finland, there’s not a proper rock and roll festival any more. The Horu Smoku Summer Boogaloo festival was wonderful, but didn’t happen this year. So, thanks Flow for not ignoring rock fanatics. In 2016 we saw Descendents and Iggy Pop, and this year we have the opportunity again of seeing great guitar oriented rock bands.
On Friday night, loud guitars will soar with the spaced-out this-is-how-your-worst-nightmare-sounds black metal of Oranssi Pazuzu, followed by the garage rock of Car Seat Headrest and The Black Lips.
Teens of Denial was one of my favorite albums last year, so I’m particularly thrilled to see how Car Seat Headrest presents these lo-fi songs on a big stage.
Re-energized after a line-up change, which now adds sax player, and with a solid brand new album, The Black Lips should throw an entertaining, danceable end-of-the-night party. Expect a bunch of songs that revisit 60s proto-punk.
Laid back Saturday night
On Saturday night, I’m missing a big headliner because I don’t really care about The XX, back at Flow’s main stage for the first time since 2010. Goldfrapp don’t do it for me either and the hardcore-meets-rap of Death Grips is a question mark. It could be a mind-blowing show or simply a headache. Therefore, my Saturday at Flow is looking like a relaxed evening of mellow and elegant sounds at the Balloon Stage. Just like grown-ups do.
In the late afternoon, Julie Byrne will be the first performer at the Balloon Stage. It’s the right setting and time for her warm and intimate songs of her latest album, Not Even Happiness. Let’s just hope the audience will be silent and quiet. Her songs need it.
Saxophonist Timo Lassy and his band can be considered the festival’s house band. Almost every year, Lassy has performed at Flow in different configurations, always making the audience dance with his groove. This time the band will welcome some very special guest including American singer Joyce Elaine Yuille and Finnish jazz-legend Eero Koivistoinen.
Last year Mikko Joensuu’s performance was one of the high points of the festival. The Nordic Music Prize nominee returns to Flow, but this time Joensuu is taking the Balloon Stage. The show is bringing closure to the Amen trilogy
All in Sunday
The third and last day of Flow Festival is packed with A-List performers. Coincidentally, the names of these artists carry the letter A: Astrid Swan, The Afghan Whigs, Ryan Adams and Angel Olsen.
Astrid Swan’s latest album, From the Bed and Beyond is brilliant and I can’t recommend it enough. While a festival tent can’t provide the intimacy the music deserves, you should not miss an opportunity to hear these songs live.
The last time I saw Ryan Adams was more than a decade ago at the Azkena Rock Festival in Spain. Without doubt, that was the worst show I’ve ever seen. Of course, there’s not much show when the singer, drunk as a skunk, barely sings or plays, making his band stop and start songs randomly. Luckily, Adams got it together and during the last decade he’s produced a solid body of work and some remarkable songs.
Over time The Afghan Whigs have become one of my favorite bands. Leader Greg Dulli has that rare talent of being able to write songs and perform straight to your soul. It’s that emotional. The band’s records combine rock and old school R&B to soundtrack the perfect crime.
Ghost World – You Made Me Smell Your Fingers
Last Friday I accidentally stumbled upon a free show at Teurastamo and it couldn’t have been a happier happening. I got to see Ghost World play a loud and fast rock show. This slacker rock quartet is a time capsule to the sound and the of 1992 college radio. Think Babes in Toyland meets Dinosaur Jr. at sunrise after a long night.
The band’s live set is a little bit raw and rough, even sloppy, but the songs are full of emotion and soul. Despite the loudness and the apparent anger, there’s plenty of room for softer pop melodies. It’s teenage wasteland with a smile.
Make no mistake, though. There’s no grunge nostalgia in Ghost World music. The band members are too young for that or even have lived the era. They are just a bunch of guys and a girl with nothing else to do but play loud guitars. And, it’s re-energizing.
Ghost World released their self-titled debut album last spring via Svart Records.
Them Bird Things – House of Stone
Them Bird Things are back! Electrified and reenergized.
This year Them Bird Things celebrate their tenth anniversary with the release of Stephen Crow Must Die, their fifth album. In the last decade, the band have produced five outstanding albums, first revisiting the songbook of sixties garage band Mike & The Ravens and then mastering their very own blend of folk, rock, country and psychedelia. Those albums were mostly acoustic, however, Them Bird Things were always a rock and roll band at heart. This was, it is only natural the band would release a loud, vibrant, dirty rock and roll album. That’s what Stephen Crow Must Die is. Guitar riffs, thundering beats and above all an excellent vocal work by singer Salla Day. Plus hooks, plenty of them. A bastard child between Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and The Pretty Things.
Stephen Crow Must Die will come out later in the summer, and today you can hear the fist single, ’House of Stone’. As expected, Them Bird Things can’t do things the easy way, and therefore invite you to experience their new music in the form of a 360 video.
Notes from Tallinn Music Week 2017
Who killed genre? The question kept repeating in my head throughout the whole weekend as I walked the streets of Tallinn, from venue to venue, exploring sounds, discovering new acts.
Are music genres meaningless nowadays?
This was the theme of the panel that kicked off for me this year’s Tallinn Music Week (TWM), possibly the best music showcase festival in Europe. Three brilliant music minds led the panel discussion: music writer Simon Reynolds, DJ and Senior Director of Programming at KEXP Kevin Cole and music journalist Kieron Tyler. All of them agreed we live in some sort of an undefined post-genre era. Boundaries are vanishing and slowly disappearing. The festival’s program is a good example of this. It lists 34 different genres and most of the bands refused to be classified in one genre. Artist rather choose different tags to describe their music, even making impossible combinations such as avant-garde and easy listening. The weirder the mix, the cooler the band. That’s the trend.
Still, the music program at Tallinn Music Week is very much anchored in traditional genres. Whether you’re a metalhead, wish to explore unheard folk from different countries or simple you want to dance the night away to funk or hardcore techno, there’s a showcase that’ll fit your taste. The diversity of the festival is sublime, making it tremendously inclusive and welcoming.
So, music genres matter, right?
Not really. Or better said, we really don’t care. In the pre-Internet, pre-streaming days, music fanatics had a deeper connection with the music they listened. Fans were rockers, punks or metalheads. Crossover was unlikely. After all, music discovery required time, effort and money, so why to spend limited resources chasing a genre one might not like. Along with the music genre came fashion and a way of life. Go to a metal show in the eighties as a punk and you’re likely to take a beating. Gangs did not mix well and music was a key component of a lifestyle.
Nowadays our music listening habits are much different. Music is a commodity. Thanks to streaming services we can easily jump from one music genre to the next one before a song is over. From Mastodon to Kendrick Lamar, from 1930s Appalachian music to Nigerian funk.
This is why music genres do not matter at a festival like TMW. Genres are just hints, signposts that allow us navigate through the festival. Start your evening listening Hungarian folk and end up in a techno party after a few gut-punching shows. This diversity, this inclusiveness is what TMW does best. And it does with an impeccable production that takes over the city across singular venues.
Three things I learned in Tallinn
Donald Trump is a glam icon
Simon Reynolds is the author of outstanding music books such as Retromania and Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and its Legacy. Reynolds is a much better writer than speaker, but at the music conference in Tallinn, he delivered an hour-long lecture on glam rock and fame. David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Alice Cooper were probably the biggest stars of glam rock. You may want to add Lady Gaga to that group. But think of someone else. What if Donald Trump is the ultimate glam rock star, said Reynolds. His obsession for stardom, fame, his multi-persona. Apply some makeup and, scarily enough, this thought might be true.
Rock belongs to the basement. Rock bands and loud guitars are no longer the main performers at any festival. At TMW rock music lives in Woodstock Rock Stars bar, in the outskirt of Tallinn’s old town. There, bands come to play in its low-ceiling basement, while locals drink cheap beer and whisky shots, surrounded by posters of Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. In every edition of the festival, I’ve experienced fantastic shows in this soggy watering hole, like Black Lizard in 2013. This year was no difference. On Friday night, I head to Woodstock to see a couple of rock bands from Canada: Like A Motorcycle and The Stanfields. Both offered a fantastic rock’n’roll experience. The Stanfields blend hard rock with elements of Atlantic Canadian folk. And yes, that combination got the dozens of rockers in front of the stage jumping and pogoing. Like A Motorcycle displayed even higher energy with their ear-piercing punk rock, revisiting the riot grrrl sound of bands like Sleater-Kinney.
Rising stars: TMW 2017 MVPs
Ok, I’m cheating here. I did not get to see Mikko Joensuu in Tallinn, but I heard many delegates raved about his performance. “Transcendent”, Kevin Cole called his music. The fact that his music is not getting more exposure outside Finland is bewildering.
The first time I saw The Holy I was blown away by their massive, overwhelming sound. In Tallinn, the band played a late night gig at the beautiful Kino Sõprus theater and once again they delivered a fabulous show, creating awe-inspiring soundscapes. The band’s live sound is loud and overwhelming, yet clear and melodic, taking the songs from their debut EP to anthemic heights. Beautiful music.
I must admit this Estonian guitarist was completely unknown to me, but after this year’s festival, I will keep a close look at his work. Erki Pärnoja and his band played four packed gigs during the festival, presenting his newest album Efterflow and becoming one of the stars of the festival. On Thursday night, I got to see Pärnoja’s gig at club Sinilind. Ok, seeing is an overstatement because when I arrived to the venue, the place was completely packed and I could only find a spot behind the stage. From there, I absolutely enjoyed the band’s ethereal and dreamy pop explorations with a collection of elegant instrumentals.