There’s always one tell-tale sign that an event is a Ja Ja Ja one: the sheer number of Nordic accessories on display. The venue jump from the small, intimate Lexington (which has played host to a monthly showcase of exciting Scandinavian talent) to the – relatively – vast and grandiose Roundhouse means that it’s well nigh impossible to avoid seeing a Kanken backpack. The venue is full of enthusiastic fans of music from Europe’s northern countries; some of them local and some clearly using the opportunity to have a mini-holiday in London, as proved by people asking, at the bar, what an Old Speckled Hen is.
The reason for the bigger venue is Ja Ja Ja’s first festival – two nights (and a day) of bands, films and other regional delights. The format takes a well-established event and turns it into a two-day bonanza. It’s to the organiser’s credit that they’ve managed to turn the Roundhouse into a hotbed of all things Scandinavian. Away from the music, there’s food from popular Shoreditch restaurant Fika, a bunch of films being shown (including The Punk Syndrome, a wonderful look at a Finnish punk rock band that comprises entirely of learning disabled people), artwork from Örvar Smárason (múm) and Sindri Már Sigfússon (Sin Fang) and lots more beside. In terms of expanding Ja Ja Ja beyond its roots, it’s a flawless job.
In terms of the music itself, as to be expected from a first attempt, the way it’s been organised isn’t quite perfect. Aside from the main room, there’s also the smaller Ja Ja Ja Stage, which is located by a rather busy bar. This proves exceedingly difficult to get into at almost every attempt and recalls memories of queuing endlessly at festivals like The Great Escape. It’s frustrating to an extent considering the wealth of talent that’s in the room (such as the noisy I Was A Teenage Satan Worshipper, fuzzy rockers Black Lizard and swoonsome Swedish/Norwegian Postiljonen pop trio among others).
Yet the advantage of this unfortunate situation is that attention can be focused on the Main Stage. The most anticipated couple of performances of the weekend occur on the first night: múm and Mew, effectively acting as joint-headliners. Smárason introduces the former after The Land Between Solar Systems and prefaces their set by saying that a lot of material contains slow songs before launching into the rather aptly-named Slow Down. If a range of tempos isn’t their strong point, it’s more than made up for by the range of their sound. The quintet are constantly swapping instruments and, whilst their lighting is fairly basic, they are still to be remarkably hypnotising for the lion’s share of their hour onstage.
It’s been four years since Mew last played London and, judging from the reaction that greets them, they have been missed. Their opening track, new song Making Friends, sees them emerge with the house lights still on. It’s a soothing start, but as soon as the audience starts to feel comfortable a wealth of flashing lights accompanies the start of Special and from there on in they are treated to something resembling a greatest hits set.
The fan favourites are rolled out with the most minimal amount of time-wasting. Apocalypso and Saviours Of Jazz Ballet become one long song and the result is unashamedly epic. Am I Wry? No and 156 are animated and anthemic, whilst the two unreleased songs from their next album (which is still being made) sound like a progression from No More Stories. This might go some way towards explaining why almost no tracks from that LP are played. By the time the final note of the triumphant, soaring and emotive Comforting Sounds is played, everyone is left wanting more.
Some organisational issues are to be expected on a festival’s debut year – big name draws The Raveonettes pulled out before the festival even began – but even despite that, the Ja Ja Ja Festival is an enjoyable event that manages to expand without losing sight of its roots; in fact, the extra additions really add to the overall experience. It’s the music that takes centre stage though, rightfully, and the variety and quality of the its acts that makes Ja Ja Ja Festival worth coming back to.