Flow Festival

I’m somewhere in Helsinki city centre next to an abandoned gas tower ringed with oversized fairy lights and giant red helium balloons. I’m here for the annual Flow Festival, which showcases international bands as well as home-grown Finnish talent, as are 16,000 of the hippest Finns all wearing subtle high fashion garb: stripy Marimekko t-shirts, little red woolly hats and perfectly distressed jeans.

Mostly I’m here to interview Andy Butler from Hercules and Love Affair about gay issues and men, but I’m also here to experience my first ever music festival, if you don’t count Glyndebourne that is. I’ve just turned 30, so I felt it was high time to experience this rite of passage that has somehow passed me by year after year, mostly because I’ve been working as a classical musician in opera festivals in France every summer.

Flow Festival is a great one to start with; it’s hyper organised, bands start on time, there is no littering because you get given 2 Euros for every beer can you give back and the food is a delicious organic array of Finish classics, favourites like lasagne and sushi.

As I arrive, nervous about my forthcoming Andy Butler interview, Asa Masa are playing on the main stage. The guy from the Finnish music expo tells me that they are his favourite Finnish rappers and although I can’t claim to be a big fan of Finnish hip hop, they are pretty damn good. The crowd seem to be loving the performance and judging from the amount of singing along, they are playing hit after Finnish hit. I haven’t a clue what he’s rapping about, which is a real shame because it’s really beginning to grow on me; they don’t sound at all dissimilar to MC Solar.

Eventually the time comes for my interview with modern gay icon and disco genius Andy Butler. He’s late because he’s just arrived from Norway and I’m super nervous, even more so because the reporter from NME is in there before me talking about his musical style and I have been told to talk to him about fashion style and boyfriends. When the time finally comes he is a gentleman, albeit a gentlemen wearing neon Speedos and a cropped t-shirt.  He talks to me about his favourite gay bar in London, prudish British boys and being sent naked pictures by handsome fans on Facebook.

Also he tells me how he loves the guys he dates to not have heard of his band; how that makes for a more normal relationship. Absolutely no chance of that here then because Hercules and Love Affair have packed the Black Tent worryingly full. Their set is brilliant: full of hypnotic Nineties riffs and bubbly disco beats perfectly tempered to whip the dancing crowd into a frenzy. He even comes from behind the decks to show off his racy Speedos and surprising break dancing skills.

The next day begins more gently with a set from Iron and Wine, who are polite, punctual and have agreed to play for longer to cover for the indisposed Lykke Lee. They are wonderful musicians, in particular the drummer who used a bizarre array of ‘found’ percussion to bring extra texture to the rhythms, and the saxophonist who revelled in playing glamorous Eighties cadenzas and was then able to switch to the clarinet with total ease. From the minute they began, Samuel Beam had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand with his husky lyrical voice and lovely full beard.

But it’s Janelle Monae who really steals the show on the Saturday of Flow Festival. I had learnt my lesson from Hercules and Love Affair and didn’t want to be anywhere near the back of the tent, so I arrived early with a long drink in hand: an odd gin and lemonade mixture that the Finns apparently love. She is unbelievably good; her musicians, the Arch Orchestra, are second to none and she whizzes about the stage like a tiny female James Brown complete with a velvet matador cape. When it came to her rendition of ‘Cold War’ I have to say that I shed a tear.  She was totally engaged with her audience and her voice was pitch perfect.

Next came Tightrope, an awesome hit, and as she shuffled her now famous toe sliding dance, hundreds of black and white balloons cascaded from the ceiling. She also covered the Jackson 5’s ‘I Want You Back’ and Robert Downey Junior’s ‘Smile‘. Even at her tender young age she is well on her way to becoming a great star: she has a very real vocal talent; she can sing as well in every part of her range and slide effortlessly between octaves; her dancing is wholehearted and she looks totally stunning in her sharp formal wear.

The next day the lovely PR guy takes me to see Twin Shadow, who I hadn’t heard of but were rather fantastic. The band is basically one man, George Lewis Jr., who looked resplendent in his little black pork pie hat whilst strumming his shiny black guitar and singing hits from his album ‘Forget’.

After a quick plate of delicious meaty meatballs and mash it’s time for Kanye West to end the festival. Word has gone round that he’s starting 15 minutes earlier because he wants to play for longer, so almost all 16,000 of us assemble at the main stage for 9.15. Fifty minutes later we are all still waiting. All the journalists seem adamant that he won’t play, apparently one of the banners on the main stage has torn in the wind and that’s the kind of thing Kanye wouldn’t stand for, but to their surprise he did play and for over 2 hours.

The Finns were a tough crowd to win over at first, mostly because I don’t think anything has ever started this late before in Finland, but pretty soon he had them singing along to hits like ‘Love Lockdown’ and ‘Heartless‘. But Kanye, despite his dramatic hydraulic entrance, the somewhat over the top golden fireworks fired from the top of the stage and the cast of 50 female contemporary dancers, didn’t really seem to be present. The sound and light were top notch but West’s lyrics could barely be heard. I caught such choice words as bitch, porn star and Louis Vuitton, but other than those he seemed to be mumbling; odd for someone who has made his career out of being a word spinner, literally.

However about two-thirds of the way through his set this all changed; and it happened, oddly enough, when he started singing his guest vocals from other peoples songs, in particular Katy Perry’s ‘ET’ and Estelle’s ‘American Boy‘. He suddenly seemed to wake up and even began jumping and dancing around. So when he did finally sing ‘Gold Digger’ it was a great moment, but by that time some of the crowd had wondered off to try and catch the rest of Battles or eat some of the dwindling supplies of meatballs.

During his final song ‘Runaway‘, West was apparently so moved by his own performance that he started crying whilst singing about his inability to remain faithful to just one woman. This was in harsh contrast to his earlier protestations of “You ain’t ever seen one man on stage with this many hits before”. However no one else seemed particularly moved, they just seemed a little bored. He seemed to cut short a lot of the high tempo songs and then do extended, self-indulgent, 12 minute long versions of auto tuned ballads.

Flow festival was an incredible mix of Finnish bands, international talent and great dance music, from the likes of Horsemeat Disco and Tensnake who packed out the black disco tents. There were great mini areas, like the Diesel bar with up-tempo Finnish DJs all playing all day long and the Ben and Jerry’s Cafe serving much needed ice-cream treats. Janelle stole the festival, Kanye seemed to be a bit lack lustre and even Finnish hipsters get pushy and refuse to queue after 4 or 5 beers, but for my first music festival it was utterly magnificent and, of course, very easy to wholeheartedly recommend.