The last time we alighted in this magnificent city was aboard the craft The Baltic Queen, sailing from Stockholm – hence arriving at an airport after that feels positively pedestrian. That is, until you catch the first glimpse of the old town and it’s perfectly preserved medieval buildings. It’s hard to find an adjective to do Tallinn justice. Part Grimm fairy-tale, part utilitarian Soviet stronghold, it’s a staggering visual mix of Scandinavian, Bohemian and Byzantine design incorporating elegant onion dome churches, 70’s utilitarian hotels and winding cobbled streets; a spectacular location for a music festival.
What began as a small project with the admirable aim of recognising Estonian music has metamorphosed into Tallinn Music Week, a showcase event that has blossomed into a city festival boasting an incredible programme of music integrating visual arts, craft beers and pop up restaurants. Last year had a politicised air due to the presence of Pussy Riot, with Freedom Of Speech as the unofficial theme. This year the focus is female-centric and it proves an exhilarating choice.
We decide to go in strong and turn up at the official pop up restaurant to watch fellow journalist John Robb interview Viv Albertine, guitarist of seminal punk band The Slits. Discussing her late blossoming career and autobiography she candidly discusses what it was like to be a young woman at the front line of the 70s anarchic music scene. During a laughter-inducing hour she recounts, with incredible frankness, anecdotes about 1970s oral sex, friendships with the Sex Pistols, losing your artistic streak, beating cancer and ultimately artistic resurrection. It’s an unexpected delight and a pertinent beginning to a weekend peppered with robust female voices.
We wander off to the venue Von Krahl where a slew of Danish bands are playing the Official Opening Party. Formed only a year ago, Lowly are a noise pop band from Denmark that have already garnered attention in the UK; even before the music starts its clear they have a wonderful visual aesthetic, as two shorn haired girls in Jane Birkin black stand in the middle of the stage harmonising over deep rolling waves of shoegazey sound in the sonic mould of 4AD. They sound a bit like the Cocteau Twins wresting with The Knife - and that’s no bad thing at all.
Sinilind is a rabbit warren of tiny bars and drinking spaces with a live stage area bang in the middle, with excited chatter and speculation drawing us here to catch a three piece from Russian speaking Belarus. Super Besse wear their skeletal post punk influences with angular pride; a cold wave conjuring of Joy Division and Josef K, while their raw guitar, dense spectral keyboards and pounding Pornography era Cure bass lines have a distinctly familial feel. Yet despite the obvious derivation they sound fresh, important and absolutely essential. The echo of the bass propels us home.
Saturday is to be a gentler affair and very much focused around the Mustpeade Maja Hall, an understated yet regal concert venue. In the smaller of the two halls Mari Kalkun is playing, a local minimalist folk musician who constructs intricate arrangements of turn of the century folk songs on a zither. Although singing in her native language - which many of the audience doesn’t understand - it doesn’t seem to matter. Conjuring beguiling birdsong on ‘Skylark’, Mari imitates their calls - reminiscent of Kate Bush’s avian tics on Aerial. Overall it’s meditative, bucolic and really rather beautiful.
In the building’s second hall, slightly larger, is Cirkl, the Estonian musician Liis Ring, who begins her set tentatively (we later learn that this is her debut solo show). Against a backdrop of trees projected over Arts & Crafts tapestries and little table lamps, she sits at her piano and plays elegant runs over recordings of tinkling, trickling water. Despite a few technical hitches she continues to loop handclaps, small percussive bursts and guitar lines before switching to a synth, deepening the jazz inflected tone of her set. Her sweet, restrained vocal is wonderful, intense yet spacious and light.
We stay in the same venue to catch the next act, the majestic Vashti Bunyan. Discovered in the 60s to great acclaim, she became disenchanted with lack of early success and simply disappeared. ‘Rediscovered’ around a decade ago she released a new album and has collaborated with numerous contemporary talents. Tonight she’s on stage with friend and label mate, Gareth Dickson. Her iconic calling card ‘Diamond Day’ is absolute sparkling simplicity and you can almost feel buds springing open and tendrils of green creeping across the room.
Amidst this beauty is genuine humbleness; she’s surprised throughout at the enthusiasm of the crowd. ‘Train Song’ is perfectly harmonised before Dickson plays his own song ‘Click Clack’ coming over like a latter day Nick Drake. It’s an unbelievably enchanting set of fragile folk with an emotional impact that takes us all by surprise.
The next morning, we head to the thoroughly incongruous setting of a large roadside hotel to attend the KGB tour. Hotel Viru was built in 1972, a dazzling complex commissioned by the Soviets in a bid to bring Western money into the country and further their propagandist aims. To increase effectiveness, the KGB moved into the 23rd floor, wired the hotel and proceeded to spy on people. Our tour guide recounts the incredible story of the staff and visitors to the hotel with much insight and humour. It’s a mind-blowing history lesson.
This could only be bookended by gallons of hot wine served in a little café that has more than the whiff of middle Earth about it. Warmed inside and out we trip off to witness a ‘home show’, the wonderful experience of being allowed into someone’s private house to watch a set. Greeted by beautiful blonde children selling cookies, a clutch of sweaty journalists gather on stools and sofas for MiaMee (Estonian/Swedish). Shrunk down to a three piece for the tiny space, the band begin playing solid if initially predictable ethereal pop that grows and turns into something far stranger, darker and exploratory that we could ever have expected.
From sunny ballads they segue into complex time signatures and wailing Robert Fripp style guitar. By the time the singer is double tracking and pitch shifting her vocals and the keyboardist has gone into interstellar overdrive, we find ourselves amidst a seriously trippy avant folk, free jazz maelstrom. It’s spectacular stuff and has everyone chatting about checking out this bands back catalogue when we get home.
An atmospheric meander along the railways tracks, evocative in the dark drizzle of early evening brings us to the Craft Beer Festival. After quaffing several heady 11% brews we settle into a small tent at the back of the venue, quite unprepared for hot tip Repetitor. The Serbian three-piece play post-punk garage with wit, venom and exhausting energy in a set that is as ferocious as it is fun.
A sassy snake hipped female bass player starts the party, before the drummer batters in like an embryonic Dave Grohl, a star in ascendant, pulling the best drum face I’ve ever seen on a woman. Then the lean, vitriol fuelled singer drags us further into a world of anger and angst as he kicks across the stage like an unstoppable force. During our end of festival reflection, everyone cites them as one of the best shows of the weekend.
After this the few bands we catch just can’t compare in terms of energy and immediateness, so we get to drinking instead. A tactical elk stew and the most delicious black bread in the world could easily fuel another energetic evening but we head home to avoid the inevitavel clocks sprining forward confusion. It’s been an intoxicating and wildly disparate few days in terms of music and activities. The hospitality, the food, the beer, the enormous amount of local talent, has left our heads spinning.
Before we leave on the Sunday, our hosts take us to an incredible restaurant on the outskirts of town, Umami. Boasting a local seasonal menu, they serve up fresh dishes in a space populated with beautiful furniture, arresting paintings and great produce. It’s shorthand for the weekend here: full of generosity, surprise, tradition, experimentalism, compactness and expansiveness.
It’s been refreshing to see a bill, not only dominated by strong women but being curated with so much attention to detail and passion for music. Absolutely exceptional.
Words: Anna Wilson