We’re not usually ones to retread old steps when it comes to festivals, but Clash simply couldn’t turn down the gracious invitation to attend this year’s Flow Festival in Helsinki for the second year running.
Held in the impressive environs of the former Suvilahti Power Plant, its one of the more eclectic urban festivals we've been to. Now in it's 11th year, it’s an immaculately programmed delight, attracting over 57,000 guests across three days. Clash can’t wait to get stuck in.
Arriving on the Friday to unseasonably warm weather, we’re treated to an enchanting bout tour around the city’s archipelago of over 300 islands dotted with buildings from the islands’ maritime past. A highlight is docking at the newly accessible Lonna, which during the 1880s was used to store mines for the Russian Navy. It’s truly beautiful to view the city from the water.
With the fresh sea air still in our nostrils we arrive on site to see our first Finnish act of the weekend. Nuslux, real name Roope Eronen, is an enigmatic individual. In the only venue change we’re aware of over the weekend, he’s moved from indoors to the incredible 360-degree amphitheater, seated Balloon stage. But his slot is possibly mistimed, being better suited to after dark in a smaller space. There’s a tiny audience but everyone is engaged. His endearing DIY electronic set channeling The Radiophonic Workshop and squiggly, wibbly, minimal tech is beguiling. While we may have only intended to catch a few tracks we find ourselves staying until the end.
It’s an uneasy segue from this into post-rock innovators Slint. Their iconic ‘Spiderland’ LP is unquestionably a remarkable album but it's no lie to say that though they’re impressive musicians, to watch them live is a tiny bit boring; especially in a massive, sweltering tent.
It’s a perfect time, then, to get tucked into the saliva-inducing array of food stalls on site. The goods on offer predominantly fall into the category of fuss-free fresh fusion cuisine, with a heavy vibe of vegetarianism. Some of the prices are eye watering to overseas attendees, but the quality is undeniable. Portions are also quite small, perhaps the reason Finns are so slender. It could easily become three-dinner Friday.
Our first small revelation of the festival is Nina Persson performing her solo album ‘Animal Heart’. We previously thought of her as the inoffensive if insipid pop princess from The Cardigans. Here, despite visibly shrinking in the sunshine, draped in a ravishing black kimono, she’s truly beautiful and surprisingly imposing. Her voice is much gutsier and raspier than we remember, and her silver bearded guitarist is of particular note. She throws out opulent, tricky melodies with the minimum of effort and not a little magic. Bold, unsettling lyrics are shrugged off with insouciance. On the surface she’s as clear as a lake but there’s definite depth and darkness hiding there, too.
Jessie Ware (pictured above) on the other hand looks like she's been on a booze cruise of Scandinavia and hasn’t slept for an entire month, bless. Get this woman a holiday. She can sing, that’s for sure, but whereas her soulful sounds may work as a precursor to a bit of a bump and grind usually, in a festival setting, not quite so much. Debuting three songs from her new album certainly keeps things interesting, but the audience finds it hard to participate. Despite her strong stage presence there’s still a vibe of Jessie J singing Luther Vandross B-sides feel to the set, which is polished but perfunctory.
Unlikely teacher-on-a-sabbatical Cubase star Evian Christ plays, in hindsight, one of the best sets of the entire weekend in the grassy RBMA Backyard. Something that started out as a bit of fun has seen the youngster collaborate with Kanye, sign to Tri Angle Records and create some of the best ‘ambient’ electronica around. We indulge in some serious sit-down dancing (there’s multiple dinners to be digested) and watch an incredible duo of Finnish guys dance in our eye line all the way through. One looks embarrassed as he shuffles from foot to foot, clutching a folder. The other one busts out moves like the bastard son of Michael Jackson and Missy Elliott. We start off laughing, kindly, and end up wishing he was on stage. Props.
Everyone is excited to hear the dark swampy PJ Harvey-like blues of Mirel Wagner but we literally can’t get near the stage. We certainly wouldn’t have minded watching blind, but the ambient noise of the nearby Ceephax Acid Crew is a bit of a mood killer. Disappointed, we head off for a few beers and hope we get lucky with the next band we want to watch on this stage.
Amazingly, we do get in, but have to get there a ways before the start of the stately Tinariwen. A colleague joins the fray, one who isn’t overly familiar with the band of Tuareg musicians. Watching her fall in love with their innovative blending of musical cultures is joyful. They effortlessly meld the sounds of the desert with that of the psychedelic west coast and contemporary rock. They even have their own Bez, performing a wrist-swiveling dance with a huge smile on his face. In the hot, dusty night we are transported: closer to the Sahara than the pine forests of Finland. Nonchalantly rhythmical, effortlessly brilliant, their set is mesmerising.
The sun is still blazing on day two, so we hop along to Sibelius Park in order to see the famous monument dedicated to the Finnish composer. It’s slightly spoiled by tourists (ourselves included) crawling about its base like ants. But it doesn’t diminish the beauty of the abstracted organ pipe structure, which glints in the sun in a dazzling manner. A stroll by the water and an unexpected and childishly thrilling opportunity to cook sausages over an open fire leads us back to the site and a second wave of local talent.
Rap and hip-hop are serious currency here and Noah Kin, a local young talent, has definitely got some game. Forfeiting the yawn-inducing cock-blocking lyrics so common with his peers for a more spiritual bent imbued with self reflection, he sounds fresh and vital, with beats veering between busy and relaxed, hectic and halcyon.
We drop in and out of a few other acts in the interim but are saving ourselves for the majesty of Manic Street Preachers (pictured above). There’s little room for argument, whether you’re a fan of their recorded output or not: they are an incredible live proposition.
The Welsh threesome delivers a mixture of tracks from critically acclaimed new album ‘Futurology’ alongside a smattering of massive hits. James Dean Bradfield looks dapper in a sharp black suit and Nicky Wire, maybe no longer exactly hip, is just cool by default. ‘A Design For Life’ is a particular standout and our enthusiastic singing draws British expats to all sides of us to join in exalted arm-waving abandon.
Our spirits become so high (nothing to do with drinking mischief-inducing Estonian liquor prior to the set, of course) that we create a force field around us. We’re incredulous to be told that they’re not such a big deal here but reckon on this performance winning them many new fans. It’s an epic end to a solid evening. We’ve expelled all of our energies on this last gig and although we dip our heads into Clash favourite Jamie XX briefly, we don’t linger. Instead we head back to our hotel to limber up for the sweet sounds of Sunday.
Our last day sees us gathering again around the Balloon stage, part of an audience literally melting with the heat to catch New Jersey boys Real Estate play a shimmering, drowsy set of songs from recent album ‘Atlas’. Voice and guitar mingle to an almost otherworldly degree, reverberating and blooming into something close to perfection in the late afternoon. It’s gentle, uplifting and entirely non-indicative of the rest of the evening.
Up next is an old-school entertainer in the best tradition. Janelle Monáe’s (pictured above) set turns out to be a treat. She’s wheeled onto the stage in a straightjacket like some funked-up Rick James-ified Hannibal Lecter. Added to this grandiloquence is some matching, slightly dodgy, hothouse band fashion reminiscent of Prince & The Revolution in their prime. They may cloak their southern-fried funk with space age semantics, but really, they’re a James Brown appreciation society of synchronised dancing, white clothes and even whiter teeth. It’s infectious and a great precursor to tonight’s headliner.
It’s hard to believe it’s the 20th anniversary of OutKast bursting on the scene and changing the game forever. Big Boi (pictured below) is as box fresh as ever and André 3000 manages to retain an air of handsomeness sporting a white wig and sweat-inducing jumpsuit blazoned with the words Narcissistic Americans. A further moment of panache is provided by a surprise appearance from Sleepy Brown in a silk smoking jacket.
There are lots of ladies on show, and at one juncture a questionable, full backdrop-sized soft porn, slow-motion image of a woman peeling off her panties at which the crowd collectively blushes. Still, a boisterous ‘Roses’ and ebullient ‘Ms Jackson’ has the crowd singing along in unison. These songs have aged incredibly well. After a solo spell from Big Boi, André re-appears and does ‘Hey Ya!’ with the help of some easy-on-the-eye audience members. It’s a bit testosterone heavy, even with the fierce presence of the black masked, be-winged female backing singers and bass player. But Clash leaves suitably satiated and already looking forward to next year.
In addition to this litany of talent there has been art shows, film screenings and the opportunity to get your photo taken through one of those face apertures that magically transforms you into the speakers of OutKast’s ghetto blaster, Björk's flower or, Clash’s favourite, Nick Cave’s dog. In truth there’s very little that could be improved upon: bands run to time, the recycling actually works, there are places to sit if you want time out, and pretty much everyone speaks English. Helsinki has been a dichotomy of the dreamy, relaxing, invigorating, exciting and unexpected. Ultimately it’s an urban festival executed exceptionally well. Kiitos and kisses all round.
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Words: Anna Wilson