The secret ingredient which elevates the normal to the special is hard to put your finger on. What is it about a song or a city that makes you breathe in so deeply and feel so alive in that moment of giddy recognition?
So it goes with both Flow Festival and the city in which it takes place. That city and its humble people provoke constant intakes of breath as you meander through cobbled streets pierced by rays from the sun which pass through the crystal clear sky and land on monuments, trees, patio cafes and people at rest. Untroubled by crime and commercialism, yet mortified by the winter cold and their isolation at the top of Europe, the Finnish capital’s polite populous are so welcoming that they’ll take you to their favourite spots and show you the city’s best bars, and while you’re present they’ll talk to each other in perfect English so you don’t feel left out.
Lapped by the Baltic, with city beaches and tiny islands, and old buildings and exciting modernist ones, their city is a Scandic gem yet they’re so humble they’ll just talk about how small it as and never get cocky about its attractions. In any other country Flow would make all sorts of blustery boasts. Nearby Sweden (a former coloniser of Finland) and Russia (the same) and Norway, the latter newly awash with oil money and becoming rather arrogant of late about its festivals like Oya and ByLarm have a different, more brazen attitude to the always outward-looking, always engaged and always ready to listen Finns.
Flow is a triumph, but there’s no need to shout about it for them. They could do though. Everything from top to bottom is so wonderful – the graphic design, the programmes, the programming, the setting in the old Suvilahti gasworks and power station, the food (reindeer, fresh salmon, berries, sushi) and the atmosphere. You can only really complain about the eye-watering cost of a beer and the rules about where you can and can’t drink the damn thing – and those are variables that are set at a governmental level.
Flow’s ethic, its aesthetic, can be traced through a lineage which encompasses the great European urban festivals of recent years: Primavera and Sonar in Barcelona, Nuits Sonores in Lyon, Berlin Festival. Its closest British comparison would be Field Day – if Field Day wasn’t so unremittingly rubbish in its deflated vibe and lackadaisical organisation. Flow had blown much of their budget on Bjork‘s headline performance, though for most of the 63,000 of us watching it appeared to be money well spent. The Icelandic pixie trilled with intent and was in something of a good mood (apparently), smiling and yelling “KIITOS!” (the Finnish for thanks!) after every song. Dressed like David Bowie in a silver get up and with an otherwordly blue wig atop her pate, she delivered what many of us had hoped for as the by-now infamous David Attenborough-style visuals alluded to planetary defect and nature’s wonder – quintessentially Nordic concerns which shape the views of those in Finland as much as those in Iceland. Earlier this year Bjork spoke about how she had become obsessed by science and was looking to encourage kids to learn about the world around them, and this performance would surely spur those desires all the more. The highpoint of the set, which included spine-tingling backing vocals from a dozen members of a female choir, was Joga – that cracked heartbreaker which sends ripples of recognition and shivers of empathy through your body.
It was perhaps no surprise that in a country which has one of the highest levels of gender equality in the world, female performers should be so widespread and produce so many highlights at this year’s Flow. St Vincent‘s headline set in the tent as Bjork was winding up was a smack in the face. Annie Clark’s wide-eyed, wild stage presence marked her card as a kind of female Nick Cave. Her banshee-like delivery, furrowed brow and constant stage leaps were utterly engaging. Her gothic undertones were best expressed on the jumpiest numbers like Krokodil.
As an alternative to the bluster, Feist charmed with a lovely performance which incorporated much audience participation and reminded you of her appearance on Sesame Street where you thought: “She could really make the best teacher ever.” Two hot air balloons floated over us all during this set, provoking a thousand Instagram shares.
Feist broke out a banner reading “Free Pussy Riot!” – those Russian teenagers mercilessly pursued by a government in a country which is but a few hours away by train but a long way away in terms of its mores. And Sam Urbani from Friends also sported a Pussy Riot T shirt, later revealed to have been knocked up quickly before the show. The tent was rammed and the audience already knew the words to I’m His Girl and all of the other future Friends hit jams.
Local lads French Films turned in a suitably breezy performance of their Drums-esque schtick to choruses of approval from the Finns jiving with intent down the front. Local vocalist Manna and Finnish dance-pop ensemble Pepe Deluxe also flew the flag for the home team.
The only damp squib was The War On Drugs, with their soporific pseudo-psychedelic sound which stinks of retromania. Shangaan Electro wrapped things up with some pleasant beats and thus it was home time – or more accurately a drunken cycle ride to an afterparty with Finns smuggling in cider (hopefully none of which is illegal).
Rumours circulated that the festival might have to relocate next year, so let us hope that if it does the new venue will be just as spectacular and do justice to Northern Europe’s festival par excellence.