There can be few more picturesque countries than Norway. Even in the drizzle, most parts of the Scandinavian nation retain a degree of rare and raw beauty. When the summertime sun shines, the feeling that there is nowhere more beautiful is reinforced. On a weekend where much of the UK experienced temperatures in the early 30s, this particular part of Norway – an hour or so drive south of Oslo – is just a tad below that – but it’s quite hot enough for any pasty-faced, sun-averse Englishman.
Aside from a few minor spots of rain on the way into Tønsberg, the forecast is set for the late 20s for the rest of the weekend. The festival site is compact enough but with plenty of open spaces for lounging, eating, drinking and, of course, watching music in front of one of the handful of stages. The main feature is a tower/castle (the slott) atop the prominent hill (the fjell), which is home to two stages, as well as a panoramic view of the fjord below and rolling tree-topped hills in the distance. As the sun slowly sets on this side of the festival late in the day, the view can be as distracting as it is stunning. With all this in mind, Slottsfjell promises an awful lot.
My first act of the festival, Sweden’s Alice Boman, is a haunting prospect, even at mid-afternoon on the opening day. Her voice is almost so light that it blows away in the wind. The softly delivered words are slowly, carefully and even mournfully sung. The backing is mostly sparse, with electronic keys and little else allowing Boman’s voice to carry significant weight. This dynamic is unfortunately interrupted towards the end by the audible raucousness of the distant – but not quite distant enough – Dropkick Murphys.
Haim are somewhere near an ideal festival band as they go to great lengths to demonstrate. Their interactions with the crowd are charming but textbook fare, and seem to be received appreciatively. Once their stadium-style rock gets going, the now-legendary Este Haim bass face is deployed with regularity, not that the rest of the band allow themselves to be outdone in terms of poses. In a situation like this, on a hot day with the sun beating down, it is actually surprisingly easy to disengage your critical brain and forget all of the – perhaps valid – negative things that have been said and written about the trio, mostly revolving them being derivative. If you can manage to do this, then you, like the band, will probably have fun.
Returning to Swedes, Lykke Li is an artist who has her act incredibly honed, though that doesn’t necessarily make it any more entertaining. Much of the material since her debut record seems be of a similar style, i.e. anthemic songs tinged with sadness. As time wears on this grows tired. Although there is nothing particularly terrible in itself, it becomes difficult to really look beyond the middling blandness of much of the set.
Slottsfjell has a varied programme, both in the day and at night. Once the sun sets, there are a few options where to continue your night. The most impressive of these is Kastellnatt: a vast, disused warehouse with two stages, an awful lot of space in which to dance to a lot of loud electronic music, and an incredibly long bar. It is here where Diplo’s shtick baffles me, but seems to be the greatest thing on earth to several thousand youthful Norwegians.
Tønsberg at night is a slightly odd place at this time of the year. It’s a large town by Norwegian standards (population around 40,000) and during the summer it is a popular location for people to party on boats. This becomes painfully clear when wandering along the marina during the early hours as vessels of various sizes – some incredibly sized yachts, complete with mirror balls on deck, and some more modestly sized – deliver a conflicting combination of music and raised, drunken voices.
In the past few years, Norwegian music has developed an increasingly positive reputation, perhaps even moving out of the shadow of their Nordic neighbours Sweden. The home-grown acts at Slottsfjell get prominent billing, and there are no doubt a few gems to be found. Highasakite are one of these. A Norwegian number one album is evidence of their popularity here, but their mid-afternoon set on Friday is proof of quality; something that transcends borders. For a group with much going on, including obscure brass instruments, their slightly unusual brand of pop is remarkably tight. Playing tracks predominantly from their most recent record – though in a different order, obviously – each song could be a single. The rousing ‘Since Last Wednesday’ is aired towards the end, giving the banks of thousands the opportunity to sing along to perhaps their catchiest cut.
Farao is another Norwegian act who shows much promise. Kari Jahnsen, based in London, has an impressive and forlorn voice on record and even more so in the flesh. Her words echo around the tent powerfully. The songs from her self-titled debut EP are remarkably full of depth and mysterious, decorated with a voice not too far away from Scout Niblett. A low-key and morose cover of Queens Of The Stone Age’s ‘Go With The Flow’ is a nice diversion but the real attraction and interest lies in her original material.
If you are looking for polished greatness from industry veterans it is difficult to look past Phoenix. Light and airy but with a great degree of substance and buoyancy in their pop, they open with a handful of tracks from ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ – arguably their finest record. ‘Lisztomania’ is the most breezy and catchy of these and the crowd clearly appreciates their presence and enthusiasm. There is indeed a lot to like from the cheerful Frenchmen.
Buraka Som Sistema is the festival’s closing band – for me anyway – and they manage to take things to the next level. Perhaps this is due to the warmth, perhaps due to the setting sun or just the fact that Slottsfjell 2014 was drawing to a close. The vigour with which the Portuguese play their beat-heavy music is unmatched by anyone I see. By the end of it all at least half of the crowd has taken their tops off, frantically waving them in the air. I am so nearly moved to join them, but restraint once again gets the better of me. Bare-chested or not, it is a perfectly fitting end to a festival that completely delivers on its promise.
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Words: Luke Slater (Twitter)