Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Flow Festival 2013 - Review

Flow Festival is a 3 day (plus an additional evening opening concert, so technically 3 and a bit days) festival set in the urban environs of Suvilahti power plant close to Helsinki city centre.

For the 2nd year running Breaking More Waves joined the Finnish crowd amongst the chimneys, concrete, brick and tarmac to sample the atmosphere and music that included the likes of Kraftwerk, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Alicia Keys, Public Enemy, The Knife, Haim, Grimes, Mount Kimbie, Husky Rescue, Kendrick Lamar and even some free jazz. Here’s our review (of sorts) or rather….

10 Things That We Learnt At Flow Festival 2013.

1. Finland (and Flow Festival) takes its environment seriously.

The evidence? A wind powered stage in The Black Tent. The biggest cycle park we’ve ever seen with hundreds, possibly thousands of punters cycling to the festival (and virtually everyone else either walking or using public transport). Ample rubbish bins all divided into a variety of recycling / environmental categories. A 1 Euro returnable deposit on every can of alcohol sold meaning that litter was something that hardly existed. Even the toilets were always stocked with toilet paper and had running water and soap provided to wash your hands afterwards – not something all festivals achieve. Then there was the pretty lighting illuminating the harsh industrial structures that surround and create the site. We were thoroughly impressed.

2. Pop gigs are always interesting when artists play around with preconceived ideas about authenticity.

The often perceived wisdom / expectation / prejudice is that a gig by a musician or musicians should include a display of their talent (or lack of) through live playing and singing in order to make the show valid and of artistic merit. The Knife’s opening concert at Flow played around with those ideas to a point where the post show debate around the concepts of their art became as important as the art itself.

Starting with lots of dry ice, weird instruments and hooded robe wearing figures, The Knife’s show certainly appeared to start as a moody and atmospheric but relatively straightforward live gig. Yet within a few songs the robes and instruments had been discarded as the band morphed themselves into a shiny jumpsuit clad interpretive dance troupe that reminded us of Pans People from 1970’s Top of the Pops. Much of the show was spent with the dancers lip-synching and cavorting with big cheesy smiles on their faces to a backing track of the band’s latest album Shaking The Habitual (which included a comical attempt at what appeared to be Riverdance) with no pretext of playing live at all.

It was virtually impossible to tell which of the numerous members of the dance troupe were Karin and Olof, the two creators of The Knife’s studio music and if the whole performance was some sort of big art joke or a deeply thought out concept designed to challenge the audience. Either way it provoked a reaction, some of the crowd shaking their heads in huge disappointment, others dancing and punching the air with delight at the fun and energy of it all.

Was the performance a rip off? Possibly. Or was this gig actually more stimulating of the mind than your standard meat and two veg ballsy rock n roll gig? Was this better or worse than thousands of people watching a DJ set? Was this any different to Sunday night’s headliner Kraftwerk who provided another gig ‘experience’ - a visual spectacle with 3D projections but very little evidence of live music being played? Would watching Karin and Olof standing behind a bank of computers pressing a few buttons and twiddling knobs have made for a better live show than the crazy often anarchic dance routine that the Flow Festival witnessed? We’d argue not. This was about having fun, about being physically involved. “I don’t want to hear you, I want to see you,” one of The Knife’s dancers shouted at one point. Maybe this was a clue to how The Knife view things, even if not all of the audience thought the same way.

3. Finnish people like a nice sit down.

We don’t think we’ve ever seen so many seating opportunities at a festival. From beanbags to coloured laminated chairs to plastic seating shaped like naked bottoms to terrace platforms surrounding the Balloon Stage (an open in the round stage under a giant white sphere), wherever you went on the site there was somewhere to sit. This was largely due to the lack of soft areas on site, the ground being mainly hard surfacing, although the organisers did create special garden areas with imported turf and planting.

4. Finnish festival goers look great.

Notwithstanding the fact that Flow is an urban festival so everyone can go home after the night’s entertainment and have a decent sleep and shower, the crowd at festival looked fantastic. Whereas in the UK every festival we’ve been to in 2013 seems to have an unwritten rule that everyone should dress down and that women should wear denim shorts with their arse cheeks hanging out, in Helsinki it was a case of dressing up and looking super awesome. (Note: Exception to the rule - a worrying trend of long white sports socks pulled up nearly to the knee. Really? That one was just plain silly, even sillier than arse cheeks hanging out).

But overall, Flow Festival truly had the most beautiful festival audience of the year. It’s easy to understand why it’s gained a reputation as hipster event, but we think that this is more to do with the urban location and the largely 20-something affluent crowd than a definite desire to be hipster, but frankly we’d rather hang out with these gorgeous creatures than the crusty, stale lager breathed, sweaty, shouty types that inhabit many of our own UK festivals.

5. Electronic music is in good hands - old and new.

Demonstrating that it’s still possible to stand nearly motionless at a podium and do virtually nothing and yet create a great gig, past masters Kraftwerk wowed with their 3D visuals that featured mid-air floating robot figures and space ships zooming out into the audience with a set of classics that included the likes of Autobahn, The Robots, The Model and Tour De France. Likewise the of the moment hyperactive crazy-alt-pop of Grimes got the crowd busting some seriously way out shapes on Sunday night in the Blue Tent, Austra received an unplanned encore for their operatic synth-pop and am-dram ballet moves whilst Husky Rescue (streaming below) showed that Finland can do softly sung electronic sounds as well as anyone else. Electronic music really is in good hands.

6. Guitar music isn’t dead either.

Haim’s rammed set in the Black Tent was all the proof you need of that. With vocal duties swapped due to one of the band being on throat rest at doctor’s orders, Haim got things sweaty and raw. On record the band may come across like a trendy version of Wilson Phillips meets Fleetwood Mac gone r’n’b but it’s their live gigs where they really excel with a kick-ass rock n roll sound. Add to that Este’s now infamous ‘bass face’ and in between song banter (this time encouraging the audience to take her for a spot of after show swimming) and it was no surprise to find a huge crowd enraptured with Haim’s first ever Finnish gig.

7. We don’t understand jazz.

Flow includes a wide spectrum of music. We watched hip hop, soul, indie, electro pop, rock and alt folk. We also watched some jazz, something that in the UK is isolated at festivals, but at Flow is incorporated into the bill and is as popular as any other genre of music. We caught Black Motor & Veneri Pohjola; a free jazz act. We had no idea what was going on. People applauded in places which appeared to be the middle of a song, that is if you can really describe the pieces as songs. The four musicians on stage each appeared to be playing a completely different tune. There were no discernible or obvious melodies. It was the musical equivalent of eating curry, peas, and peanut butter on toast whilst drinking a banana smoothie upside down and calling it baseball. Somebody please explain it to us.

8. Flow Festival takes its food seriously.

What does festival food mean to you? A greasy burger from a van? A jacket potato with cheese and beans? Not at Flow. Whilst the food wasn’t cheap (the average price for a meal was around 10 euros) the quality was very high. Moko’s beetroot pasta with goats cheese was our particular favourite, but we also enjoyed delicious Thai and American cuisine. There was also quality coffee, delicious cupcakes (the Brooklyn Café’s Red Velvet and Chocolate and Peanut Butter ones found us above cake heaven) and beverages included Coffee with Baileys and Champagne.

9. There’s something to be said for banning alcohol in the front of a main festival stage.

The Finns are a polite bunch but add in the fact that the main stage area was divided into a ‘non-alcohol’ zone at the front and an ‘alcohol’ at the back meant for those who like to be able to watch a band play without drunken oafs pushing their way through the crowd to get to the front and alcohol lubricated loud chatterers ruining the sounds you’re trying to listen to, the festival was a real pleasure. It may not be as boisterous or full of rock n roll mosh pits, but there’s something to be said for being able to go right to the front of a headline bands set and still have plenty of space around you to dance and not get crushed, with everyone being respectful of personal space.

10. If you want less rowdy more civilised, if you want cool, if you want a really varied but interesting line up, if you don’t want to be woken up at 4 in the morning by two dirty drunk teenagers in the next tent vigorously going at it like hammer and tongs, if you want a sense of respect, if you don’t want to come home feeling like death warmed up, if you want to try something different, if you want an urban setting that looks harsh in the day and beautiful at night, if you don’t want beery lads pushing through crowds, if you want a top notch European festival, then try Flow. 

That’s what we learnt. 

Husky Rescue - Tree House