Astrid Swan returns to her festival weekend experience discussing rock gods, masculinities, privilege, peace as an active human choice and being a fan of live instrumentation
These are the words I need to write to tell my truths about those who are gone and those who live, those who are close to me and those I can only imagine, those on stage and those in the crowd at 1 AM. Let my subjective experience be the only weapon I need to fight for the right to exist in myself. Let me talk about the time I had among 75 000 people over one weekend at Flow Festival. Let time collapse as it does every day when dead people are in this room with me. I can smell them and touch things they have held when they were alive. It is not a clean operation. It’s messy. It’s chaos. My life does not clearly delineate from others. We overlap, we share genes, habits, memories, traumas, recipes, the good and the abundant bad. We share music – the way air moves around us in sophisticated waves of sound. We share the humidity in a festival tent brimming full. Yet, we have our specific experiences.
It is messy, because my intentions can never be a hundred percent clear, even to me. Because as I write, life occurs, people close to me make their moves, some die, some become more gentle. Nothing is fixed, not even hatred or connection – never love.
Flow Festival dreaming
I went in expecting things: fabulous food, glamorous people, out-of-it humans, beauty and crowdedness. Oh, and music that will rip my heart out. The Kills were the main reason I wanted to attend Flow Festival this summer. I needed to see Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart in flesh. I have been a fan of theirs for nearly ten years, but I have never caught them live, where I imagine their energy is most captivating. Like life itself, festivals come with surprises both good and bad. The true disappointment of this year was that Alison came down with pneumonia and The Kills cancelled about a week before the festival.
During Flow Festival the surprises were of the structural kind: women’s bathroom ‘yard’ was like a scene from Girls (the HBO series), as my friend said on Friday. Young women boisterous, drunk, high, beautiful, choosing to have fun – appearing adorably in control of their own chaos. Some shows appeared to be in the wrong place: people could not fit in to see M83 in the red tent venue, which was disappointing. The weather, as a pleasant surprise every evening, cleared up for the nights after horrible rain during the day – thank you weather fairies.
Another unexpected realization I had was just how completely we are transforming the way we take experience in as human beings. This means that to validate our life experience we must narrate it on various social media channels. This is as much about belonging and bonding as it is about FOMO. I’m part of this phenomenon as much as anyone. When I saw the visually amazing site of Flow Festival, my immediate thought was to Instagram the hell out of the weekend. When I glimpsed the audience being filmed in front of stages, even the front row was usually with a phone in their hand and quite often with their eyes staring into the screen rather than looking up at the performers.
Laura Mvula was the first artist I watched early Friday evening. She sang to a half-full audience on the main stage and had major technical issues during the show. Still she filled my heart with joy. Mvula’s band was huge: in addition to the usual (drums, bass, guitars, keys) she had a three-piece backing vocalist group, a cello player and a harpist (one of the choir ladies). Mvula’s presence was strong, commanding, pure and direct. Later I read in an interview that off-stage she suffers awful panic attacks and cannot be alone at all. Such a contradiction to the way she carries herself while singing and playing. The stage is a magical place in so many ways.
FKA Twigs was my Saturday’s crush. She was both impressive and disappointing, simultaneously intimate and hollow. Her voice and technique are fabulous, her performing and dancing looks unplanned and spontaneous, but is in fact super demanding and necessitates a ballerina past. She is obviously developing her art to where it will go – like an artist, not an entertainer. Yet, the stage looked empty to the point of accidental bareness. And musically things just weren’t quite happening the way I was hoping.
There is a magic that happens when people play together. It is an energy that is pretty impossible to generate when a human sings to a backing track (even though the backing track is played by people). Something happens between people. It happens when they play together. This is often my problem with live performances that don’t have live playing, or have very little live stuff on top of lush tracks of backing tape. Then the performance is a different kind of presentation. The energy is maybe more around the personality of the performer – it’s more of a display than a communication. I’ve seen some great and lovely shows with just a guy and a laptop, but during Flow Festival, it was the bands that impressed me most. M83 balanced somewhere in between what I just described. Too bad I didn’t fit into the tent to really engage with his performance. Even from the outskirts of the tent though, I was in love.
Masculinities on display
Weirdly, Flow Festival 2016 was a celebration of rock gods in a very old-fashioned way. Maybe it was just one of those last hurrahs of the old white man in a universe that is kind of going ‘Blaah… enough already’. Think of Iggy’s skin wrinkling and stretching as he moves on a huge screen singing classic after classic. Iggy Pop, older-than-my-dad, child-like, sexy, strong and completely ernest, transporting us all for a moment to the warmer times of the 1970s. I thought that seeing Iggy now would be like a visit to a really interesting museum. My expectations were not high. I was surprised that actually his traditional, direct rock and roll was the most refreshing experience of live music in a long time. When this year has killed Bowie and Prince already, I felt lucky to have been there watching Iggy throw shapes, still living and breathing his rock’n’roll ride.
[… ]Oh the passenger
He rides and he rides
He sees things from under glass
He looks through his window side
He sees the things that he knows are his
He sees the bright and hollow sky
He sees the city sleep at night
He sees the stars are out tonight
And all of it is yours and mine
And all of it is yours and mine
So let’s ride and ride and ride and ride
Oh, oh, Singing la la la la lalalala (Iggy Pop – Passenger)
The Last Shadow Puppets on Saturday, gave another performance of the traditionalist variety. Alex Turner was channelling rockstar behavior circa the 1960s and 1970s, while his partner Miles Kane continued from where the Gallagher brothers were in the late 1990s. Musically, this was a kind of entertaining history re-evaluation with great string arrangements from Owen Pallett. The performances offered the kind of excitement that comes from not knowing weather the front man will collapse, simmer down, or if he is just doing the best lost-boy-rockstar impersonation ever. Cuban heels, double turn-ups on blue Levi’s, a black leather jacket and an over-grown Beatles mop – what’s not to like about Alex Turner?
While the masculine rock tradition was definitely present in many performances by white men, there are nuances of variety wherever you look. Iggy’s bare skin makes him vulnerable and his thinning long hair and sheepish eyes add to the quizzical nature of his aggression. Miles Kane is camp in his patent leather slippers and flowery cloak. Alex Turner’s performance is so knowing and ironic, it may be a parody. And then there is Morrissey at midnight.
Morrissey appeared at 00:00 sharp in the big red tent that supposedly fits 14000 people. We were overflowing, but calm as if waiting for the sermon to begin. I stood in the middle of all those people, surrounded by religious fanatics. I was holding my breath thinking seeing Morrissey might be like unlocking a door. The first chords and bars of music confirmed that the sound of Morrissey’s band came firmly from the 1980s and 1990s aesthetics. Drums were a little too overbearing and the rest of the band was kind of boring and mostly overshadowed by Morrissey’s voice. He performed beautifully, singing amazingly well for anyone, let alone an ill man, who keeps having to cancel shows. Morrissey wore a grey suit jacket, with rosary beads wrapped around his hand and other decorative chains hanging from his waist. Inevitably, it all made me think of the Smiths and the dandelions. Nostalgia was as thick as the air among the crowd.
Morrissey is a mass of contradictions. Mainly, he spouts his opinions with concern about the state of the world, while appearing both racist and hateful. Then on stage (through the videos shown during his show) he fights animal cruelty and racist violence by the police. He guards his privacy. I know I am watching a performer do a brilliant performance. I’m supposed to leave my expectations at that. But that’s the beauty of music; my imagination is always with me. And when he sings his songs, there is no facade. He is giving us everything. He carries himself wherever he goes. Morrissey’s band are in white shirts and suspenders. I have a mess of thoughts about hierarchies and class in my brain when I think of this performance, but I cannot puncture them out into an orderly sentence right now.
Rock’n’roll is an old and dying way of rebelling in the world, but it was ever present at Flow this year. And isn’t rock’n’roll one of the revolutions that happened to masculinity? I wonder what ANOHNI would say about this? She performed Sunday evening to a weary but ecstatic crowd, demanding (through her beautiful music) for us to wake up and save the planet. None of it just a performance. She used to be Anthony in Anthony and the Johnsons. Her transformation is real.
Flow Festival forms its own universe. For three days the area of Suvilahti transforms completely. Something dull and industrial becomes a fairytale of lights, colors and a tender feeling. Most of the time, despite the huge crowd, the atmosphere remains incredibly calm and gentle.
I need to remind myself that this is a privilege: us humans allowing ourselves and each other this space together. This festival is proof of the lengths that capitalism has gone to infiltrate into everything culture-related and proof that the way we interact together is a choice. The sense of freedom and peace is also a privilege. I think we need to be aware of that.
The threshold and inequality is visible around the entrance area to the festival, where underprivileged people flock to gather bottles, drink their own party potions and maybe catch a riff or a line of some music. While Flow Festival is bigger than ever this year, its prices make sure that it is an affair created for those with money. Is it just me, or can you already predict a time when this kind of abundance will just be a narrative we retell to the new generations who cannot believe the wastefulness we lived through as an everyday luxury?
Living is bittersweet and living is cruel. I realize now that the most wonderful and most important relationships of my life may only last a day or for some hours. Sometimes a weekend can derail everything, or heal or change trajectory. A morning is enough time to open your eyes and the night is long enough for anything to happen. The stories that collided at Flow this weekend tickle my mind. Like the masses that move from tent to stage to bar to yard and beyond – a little too much traffic making my nerves shake.
Somewhere in me there is a broken-hearted woman who sits alone, smoking and drinking, who feels hatred and pity, loneliness and turmoil and just doesn’t care where she ends up. That woman is like a miniature Stevie Nicks at her worst point of addiction – where all hope is lost – she gets her comfort from the soft bassdrum and no cymbals. I let that broken woman stay in me and I play her favorite music to her every so often. (She loves SIA)
Keeping this tiny havoc-lady small and content means that I can remain a functioning woman who changes from high heels back to Nike Frees after seeing Alex Turner strike his drunk and high poses for an hour. Because comfort is fabulous. Keeping her safe means that I can watch with curiosity and love while the young ones let it rip. At 1 AM in the taxi line I can admit that all I’m feeling is content, mildly annoyed with tiredness and ready to drink tea and watch Californications season 3 on my couch.
Thank you Flow Festival 2016!