Live Report: SPOT Festival, Aarhus, Denmark

A showcase event with just a few differences...

Back in 2011, an Icelandic artist called Olafur Eliasson had something of a psychedelic wig-out and put a massive rainbow-glass ring on top of the arts museum in Aarhus. Your Rainbow Panorama, as it’s known, instantly became this unsung Danish city’s most identifiable feature – its Eiffel Tower, its Statue of Liberty, its Gravelly Hill Interchange Spaghetti Junction.

Three years on, and on a sun-dappled Friday evening I’m one of a privileged few granted access – via a much sought-after pass gratefully procured that morning – to a landmark event at this iconic location: Your Rainbow Panorama’s first ever rock concert.

Well, I say rock – it’s more of an ambient soundscape, really, custom-composed by a chap called Anders Stochholm, performing with his brother Soren under the geographically curious alias The Portuguese Man of War. Getting the thing on at all is quite a challenge, glass and metal not being the ideal noise conductors, so 19 speakers have been carefully situated around the ring, while the Stochholms occupy a booth in one, um, corner.

The result is rather magical, an ever-evolving sensory head rush as the setting sun bathes each section in mood-altering colour, those down-tempo beats veering from balmy to glacial as you meander from orange to blue.

And that novel experience is a suitable introduction to this the 20th edition of SPOT (May 1st-4th), a fest that’s anything but another shove-them-on showcase: here they take Nordic acts new, old and established and actively encourage them to do something a little different, with interaction particularly encouraged. The hugely popular Faroese singer-songwriter Teitur, for example, is on shortly after the ring business – although he only turns up halfway through.

The high-concept first section is hosted by the director of a documentary made about the singer’s recent ‘Story Music’ album, plus a couple of volunteers who navigate their own path through the film’s various scenes, via audience responses and his MacBook. It’s like documentary-clip DJing, if all pleasingly slapdash, as we spend a fair bit of time just watching the director fiddle with a Quicktime dialogue box, on the big screen.

Particularly enjoyable is the bit after Teitur eventually appears and prepares to sing a recent single, with its atmospheric video as a backdrop, the anticipation only heightened by the director then delaying proceedings to turn the laptop’s volume down.

Also not onstage for all of his allotted timeslot is WhoMadeWho’s Tomas Høffding, aka Bon Homme, who proffers a sizeable chunk of it to a singer called Lydmor. The two Copenhagen-based acts perform enjoyable alternate sets, but it’s only when they then finish the show together – almost like an old TV variety act (pictured above) – that the full magic blossoms, a spunky blend of quirky melodies, a bowler hat, beard and her little drum machine we initially mistake for a handbag. Their forthcoming combo album should be well worth catching.

Continuing the unique-event theme, several artists make use of local connections to bolster their line-ups, to good effect. Dad Rocks! are originally from Iceland but now live in Aarhus and manage to squeeze a violinist and three-piece brass section onto a pub’s tiny stage. Their Gorky’s-like jangle-pop goes down particularly well with the toddlers in massive ear protectors, and frontman Snævar Njáll Albertsson eventually joins them for a dance, if only to give his assembled players more room.

Also packing a stage, at the sizeable Voxhall venue, are The White Album, a much-vaunted trio who turn out to be a lot more mellow than their moody-bearded press photo suggests. Their harmonic shtick is agreeable if slightly underwhelming, in truth, until they bring out 20 white-clad female backing singers for the final few songs, which gives the low-key folk a lofty grandeur.

New for 2014 is the SPOT Film section, which seemingly seeps into other sections of the programme, encouraging atmospheric newcomers Keep Camping to follow Teitur’s lead and live-soundtrack their smoky ‘n’ sultry short film, Julia, as well as playing a regular set. (Although it transpires that the festival’s promisingly titled Naked strand is just about acts stripping down their songs, disappointingly.)

SPOT’s 20th edition also sees the welcome return of outdoor stages, after horrendous weather forced them all indoors a few years back and almost killed the festival off. It’s good to hear this lively, arty city reverberate with main-stage rock, although my al fresco highlight actually occurs in a tiny tent nearby. Having waited patiently for those big speakers to die down, the London-based Norwegian singer Farao soars through some glorious synth-backed tunesmithery, while also fretting about whether the canvas setting is messing with her sound. Far from it.

Indeed, that bijou tent might also have suited her similarly promising compatriot, Ellen ‘Sea Change’ Sunde (pictured, above), whose misty electronics get a bit lost in the vast Godsbanen main hall, which resembles an upturned ark. But clearly more at home here are the epic Danish ‘dismal men’ (as their website puts it) Get Your Gun (pictured below), who share a violinist with Dad Rocks! but none of the jauntiness, resembling troubled Nordic trawler men recounting horrors at sea, the ghosts of harpooned whales swimming back to haunt them.

As if to accentuate SPOT’s diverse appeal, the final two acts of our fest couldn’t be more different from that hairy, murk-heavy affair. Local boys Annasaid – playing in a pub kitchen – are annoyingly photogenic and make mighty rock-pop with a hint of math, while much less photogenic but still (heavy)set for stardom is the truly fabulous Truls.

A chirpily chubby chap from Oslo, Truls’ (pictured, main) onstage presence suggests James Cordon starring in a biopic of Mike Skinner, but don’t let that put you off: he sings like a darts-playing angel over beats that make you want to wave your arms in the air on a plastic chair, which indeed we do. Give it a year and half the songs on big US pop albums will have his name in the credits.

That isn’t quite the end of the weekend’s pop, mind you. Clash heads home via Copenhagen, at the time in the midst of Eurovision mayhem, where on a huge city-centre stage Albania’s entry sings a domestic folk song accompanied by a dozen children in national dress attempting elaborate formation dancing. Quite a change of pace, but strangely fitting, somehow, and I anticipate a successful tournament for Ms Matmuja. She’s knocked out in the first round.

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Words: Si Hawkins
Photos: Rasmus Lydersen Vester (Get Your Gun, Sea Change), Henrik Bruun (Truls),
Si Hawkins (Your Rainbow Panorama/ The Portuguese Man of War), Renee Raijmaekers (Bon Homme and Lydmor)

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