With a wide range of sounds and ideas, Flow Festival manages to offer up the unexpected too.
Words: Jake Hawkes.
Photos: Patrick Gunning
Finland is a country of extremes in a lot of ways. Obviously, there’s the contrast between the freezing, dark winters and the pleasantly light and relatively warm summers, but that’s not all. It’s a nation of health-conscious sauna lovers, but also one where a late-night burger place (which inexplicably sells pear-flavoured milkshakes) is full to the brim at 4am on a Thursday.
Fitting neatly in the middle of these contrasts is Helsinki’s Flow Festival. Taking place amid spectacularly stark industrial buildings, it’s one of Europe’s most eco-friendly events – even removing red meat and poultry from its menus to cut down on its environmental impact. It also makes a strong bid for being one of the continent’s most musically diverse festivals. At any one point, Gabba-esque dance music will be pounding away in one corner while avant-garde jazz draws an equally large, if much more serene, crowd in the other.
Between the two are the stages which play host to most of the recognisable names. Even here though, there’s plenty of variety. Kelela’s polished R&B draws a tent-filling crowd from the very start, while Jockstrap’s genre-hopping setlist shows exactly why they’re currently up for the Mercury Prize. Ending on a new track – a freewheeling explosion of electronic noise and glitchy spoken word, the latter certainly leave an impression.
Headlining the festival’s first night is Afrobeat superstar Wizkid. It’s a set which is light on surprises, but high on energy, with the amount of pyro matched only by the number of water bottles he throws into the air. Helsinki isn’t exactly his home turf, but he does his best to win people round and it feels like there are more than a few new fans by the end of the show.
Finishing up Friday is Shygirl. Relaxed and conversational, she strolls on stage at midnight and talks to the crowd as if she’s known them her whole life. ‘Firefly’ is introduced as her “favourite song”, an opinion seemingly shared by large swathes of the crowd, who sing it back to her at high volume and leave her smiling from ear to ear.
Occupying the same slot the next day are Amyl & The Sniffers, who seem similarly happy with their booking. “We got that fucking midnight slot!” shouts lead singer Amy Taylor before launching into a set which feels like the audio-equivalent of a hand grenade. People are crowd-surfing from about five seconds in and before long a circle pit forms which is so big it threatens to touch the sides of the tent.
So far, so punk rock. But what sets Flow apart from most festivals is their refusal to be defined by genre, with a Saturday run of pre-Amyl acts which is enough to make your head spin. New-wave legends Devo show that they’re more than just silly hats and ‘Whip It’ (although both make an appearance), Pusha T rattles through a thousand slang words for cocaine, and Lorde cuts through it all with one of the most captivating shows we’ve ever seen.
Just under two years since the release of ‘Solar Power’, her set sees a genuine pop star owning her headline slot. Massive hits get new instrumentation and those new songs get another airing after a debut at Boardmasters a couple of days before. Throughout it all, Lorde has the crowd in the palm of her hand. “Your language is complicated, how do you say thanks so much?” she says with a smile. Judging by the screams from the crowd, the sentiment is more than reciprocated.
Opening with ‘Royals’ and closing with ‘Green Light’ is obviously huge, but it’s also gratifying to see how well tracks from ‘Solar Power’ fit in alongside the hits from ‘Melodrama’ and ‘Pure Heroine’. It’s the calm between albums for Lorde, but with a performance this good, we’ve never been more excited to hear what comes next.
Sunday is a similarly eclectic experience, with Finnish trap artist Sexmane working the tent into a frenzy, complete with a full live band and a guitarist whose solos would put some rock bands to shame. A rotating ‘SEXTAPE’ screen graphic completes the absurd picture, but with guest stars and an undeniable stage presence, he’s an unexpected highlight of the afternoon.
From Scandinavian rap to something more familiar, Caroline Polacheck puts in a dazzling performance on the main stage. Flawless vocals are paired with idiosyncratic dance moves and stage chat which includes the line “how does it feel to be so, you know…Finnish?” tracks like ‘Bunny is a Rider’ and ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’ are so undeniably big that It feels like only a matter of time before Caroline takes her rightful place as a pop megastar.
Topping the bill are Britpop icons (and Dork cover stars, dontcha know – Ed) Blur. There’s always the worry that reunion tours are cynical cash grabs or attempts to recapture decades-old magic, but tonight’s set shows the right way to go about things. Alex James starts things off reclining in an armchair for some reason, Damon struts about in a feather boa, and the whole band seem genuinely thrilled to be there.
Songs from new album ‘The Ballad of Darren’ are gamely received by the crowd, but Damon and co. know what everyone’s really here for. The hits go down a storm, and no matter how many times you’ve seen Blur play, you’ve never had a thrill quite like the one you’ll get when you hear 30,000 Finnish people shout the words to ‘Parklife’ in unison.
As Blur walk off stage and the festival site closes, talk starts of where to go next. Like any inner-city festival there are late night bars and afterparties on offer, but general consensus pulls in another direction. In possibly the best expression of Flow Festival, and Finnishness in general, the real hot ticket is a community-run sauna, open 24 hours and free to everyone. Whether or not a steam cleanse after a night of drinking is the best idea is up for debate, but hey, when in Helsinki…