In the Norwegian capital with First Aid Kit...

A brisk but pleasingly blizzard-free late-February Thursday evening in Norway’s capital, and above some nondescript city-centre shops, Karin Park eases us memorably into this year’s By:Larm, the big Nordic showcase.

‘Noise City’ is the fest-title’s loose translation, and the always creatively attired Swede is making some novel noises at this showcase for the excellent Cosmos label. “This act is usually electronic, but today needs to be acoustic,” warns the host, which brings to mind the old Newman and Baddiel sketch in which MTV Unplugged would book, say, Utah Saints, who’d walk on, stand around for a bit then walk straight off again.

But, no, Park and her improvising drummer make an impassioned, impressively varied racket, the singer initially utilising a cheesy keyboard but finishing with a thrilling flourish, wailing almost unaccompanied but for the sudden cacophony of mighty thumps coming from her colleague, whose knob appears to have been twisted violently upwards. Volume knob, that is. It’s a wonder that the neighbours don’t start banging too.

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Hotpants, Hair and Despair

Nicking a few free tins for the road – look, it’s £7 a pint in Oslo, different rules apply – we head off to what’s a more compact By:Larm programme this year, with only the more central concert halls remaining. Because, let’s face it, at multi-gig affairs like this only mad obsessives venture out to the venues on the outskirts – so now it’s darkness on the edge of town. True, that does mean a bit more queuing, but there’s also more of a buzz about the bands to see.

Two Nordic acts both equally ready for a wider breakthrough are about as different as can be, and should really swap stages on Thursday night. Hjaltalín, from Iceland, were once a happy-go-lucky pop-rock collective but last year released an astonishing album called ‘Enter 4’ (review) – nominated for the 2014 Nordic Music Prized that’ll be awarded later in the fest – concerning the singer’s breakdown. Hence they’re a bit intense for The WiMP Tent, the fest’s big party marquee (named after Norway’s version of Spotify).

Deathcrush, on the other hand, are stuck in the corner of the view-unfriendly Mono, which isn’t ideal as you really need to clap eyes on this mighty three-piece for the full rock majesty. All flying hair and flirty hotpants, they’ll nail the WiMP Tent later in the weekend.

Newer to Clash but also hard to see are Norway’s Tremoro Tarantura, because they stay hidden behind a glitzy curtain for as long as possible, although their rich post-rock onslaught causes such a rumpus that the curtain is yanked down long before the end. Quite a show.

And talking of stage furnishings, pretty much the opposite approach is taken by the Kurdish/Swedish singer Zhala – the first signing to Robyn’s Konichiwa label – whose set features an array of exotic drapes, which initially seem slightly pointless given that the first few songs occur in virtual darkness.

Eventually the enigmatic one-woman band meanders over and switches on her custom-made light show, before cueing up the next backing track. These between-song interludes are a little bizarre, but the music is quirkily arresting, an arms-aloft mix of catchy dance beats and Arabic flavours.

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Sadly, Roxette couldn’t be here tonight…

A slightly ad-hoc vibe also now applies to the Mercury-inspired Nordic Music Prize. Once a grand, glitzy affair patronised by Norwegian royalty, that presumably didn’t quite fit with the fest’s alternative ethos and now it’s all scruffy T-shirted hosts and likably ramshackle production.

The all-important nominations are presented via a narration-free VT package on a big screen, for example, but there’s an unfortunate misalignment and thus the bottom third is missing, including the all-important album titles. And it just stays like that for all 12 albums, presumably due to some overly chilled engineer having pressed the required button, checked the display, and thought “close enough”.

The actual award-giving is a bit underwhelming too, given that The Knife’s success with ‘Shaking The Habitual’ (review) was pretty predictable, and that they were never going to collect in person. Last year’s winners were well-established Swedes too (get your money on Ace Of Base for 2015), but thankfully First Aid Kit do turn up to present the award, to, um, some random booking agent.

There’s a sense that this year’s award ceremony is really just a precursor to the folky sisters’ own set, which is fair enough, as they could charm even the most evil of dictators. Particularly affecting is the a cappella and completely crowd-silencing ‘Ghost Town’, in which they even insert an audience-friendly Oslo mention. With sly machinations like that there’s no wonder they’re apparently David Cameron’s new favourite band. “They sound like Emmylou Harris,” says the chap from Denmark’s Empty Tape label, standing nearby, “if Emmylou Harris came from Stockholm.”

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Dastardly and Utley

For proper music royalty at By:Larm, though, you’ll want to look at the conference line-up, the likes of John CaleGlen Matlock and James Murphy all doing interesting Q&As. But be warned, there is always the potential that you might find yourself unwittingly sitting across from someone significant over breakfast. “So, what brings you here?” enquires Clash on Friday morning. “I was doing a talk yesterday,” says the chap opposite. “What about?” “Oh, my life and career.”

The subsequent “So… who are you?” is one of life’s more toe-curling moments, but said geezer turns out to be the actually very personable Adrian Utley from Portishead, who hints at several interesting new projects while also gently rebuffing further investigation. Keep ‘em peeled.

He’s safely back in Blighty by the Saturday night/Sunday morning finale, and the big ol’ WiMP Tent is rocking, from Naomi Pilgrim’s diverting urban pop (with edgy, hoodie-clad backing band) to the festival’s ludicrous final act, Proviant Audio, a full-blown jaunty jazz-funk outfit, with zany props. Mouths are agape. Still, if you need to put such people on, put them on at 2.30am. At this stage of the festivities, only those of us making notes will ever remember.

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Words: Si Hawkins
Photos: Oddbjørn Steffensen

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