In our last feature on this year's Flow Festival, Fiacha Harrington experiences overcrowded spaces and missed appointments amongst this year's thrills.
A brief introduction
Flow Festival marks the end of summer and the beginning of the autumn. It’s a last minute chance to hear some great music and catch up with friends old and new. The festival is usually held in Helsinki on the second weekend of August, which is the last weekend before schools start back. Flow takes place in Suvilahti, which is on the outskirts of the Kallio neighborhood, about three kilometres from the centre of the city. The festival has apparently reached its capacity at this location, with the announcement that there was a new attendance record set this past weekend.
The organisers at Flow go all out to put on the best Festival in Finland, from the music itself to the surroundings, the food options and even the odd corner where you can sit down and relax – it’s no small feat to be able to pull it off with aplomb, but it doesn’t always go that way.
A big thanks is due to the organizers, promoters, all the staff, the artists and a mainly well behaved crowd. My experience over the last few years has been that Flow is a very civilized affair and avoids the more common rowdy elements often associated with music festivals. Seeing as the venue is only a twenty minute walk from where I live it avoids the need for camping and the other less attractive elements that I’ve encountered at other festivals. The organisers at Flow go all out to put on the best Festival in Finland, from the music itself to the surroundings, the food options and even the odd corner where you can sit down and relax – it’s no small feat to be able to pull it off with aplomb, but it doesn’t always go that way.
Are you connected?
I arrive on site on Friday evening. To my surprise there are already quite a lot of people here, normally at this time there are far fewer people around. This year it looks like people want to kick off the festivities as early as possible. Cellular coverage on site tends to be poor, which makes it very difficult to message or call with people you are either trying to meet up with or have already managed to lose. This year this isn’t a problem and all weekend I have maybe two dropped calls and one text message that cannot be sent. No matter how good my intentions are to see as much music as possible each year, it never really becomes a reality. The closest I ever got to doing that was a few years ago when my wife and I decided that there is so much good music on offer that we are going to stick together all weekend and not wander off and keep socializing to the minimum. Don’t get me wrong, meeting up with people is second only to the good intentions of seeing as much music as possible.
This year was no different. I decided to split my time between the three big venues: the Main Stage, the Lapin Kulta Red Arena and the Black Tent. I also made a couple of vain attempts to see something at the Bright Balloon 360 Degree Stage. I decided to pass up on the smaller venues as I am not a fan of crowds and/or tight spaces. After watching Jaakko Eino Kalevi failing to get the crowd going in the Red Arena I figure it is time to take the traditional first walk around site and see what is what before the place fills up too much.
The food offerings are even better than last year with the addition of Vegan Alley, which is obviously taking into consideration the recent surge in interest for vegan and vegetarian food.
Little has changed since last year, the organizers know that they are onto a good thing and why should they change something that obviously works quite well for an audience this big. The food offerings are even better than last year with the addition of Vegan Alley, which is obviously taking into consideration the recent surge in interest for vegan and vegetarian food. Now that this little tour is done, it’s time to try meet up with friends.
Where on earth are you? And the art of sticking together
After about half an hour spent making calls and sending texts trying to explain where you are, where they are and where on earth we should try to meet, this seems to be no easier irrespective of whether you know the site or if you are connected by phone. Most people unfamiliar with the site seem to be oblivious to the map on the other side of the timetable that is being handed out before the main gates. After a couple of failed attempts I manage to meet up with old friends. Meeting up with my wife and another friend and colleague proves to be an easier affair.
We wander back to the Red Arena with the intention of watching Lil B. When the show begins so does the “I need to get a drink / I need to go to the toilet / what else is on?” tune. We agree “let’s meet back here” where we are watching the gig, but when I return they have all gone. So this leads to an inevitable new round of calls and texts, trying to re-group prior to the much anticipated appearance of Iggy Pop on the Main Stage. After regrouping we all stay to watch Iggy Pop do his thing. The veteran does not disappoint. Many a younger artist could stop and take note how a guy in his late sixties shows how to get the crowd going. The Main Stage seems to be daunting to many an act, even if they have been round the block a few times. This year artists such as Sia and FKA Twigs failed to really interact with the crowd and many shows over the years have failed spectacularly in not being able to take command of the stage.
The crowd goes wild and that isn’t a good thing
What happened next, took me by surprise. Towards the end of the Iggy Pop set my wife said she wanted to go see Paperi T (x Pekka Kuusisto x Samuli Kosminen) at the Balloon Stage. We worked our way through the Iggy crowd but as we came close to stage right things grounded to a halt. There was really nowhere to go and people kept trying to push through. Obviously we weren’t the only people trying to go see Paperi T. We tried to slowly make our way forward but we really got caught in a bottleneck between the stage to our left and the old gas container to our right. You could really feel the tension building as people were becoming frustrated with the lack of forward movement and others from the rear were aggressively trying to push through, it was obvious that there was no way of turning back.
Some people obviously had no consideration for others and were aggressively pushing those in front of them as if they were somehow entitled to go wherever they please and others be damned.
I remember from last year that this spot was a bit tight at times, but nothing could have prepared me for this. The crowd begins to get hostile and I really started to think that a fight might break out, with people coming from the rear pushing their way forward. This was the first time in living memory that there was such an aggressive crowd at Flow; sure there had been the isolated cases of people being too drunk and acting erratically but this was something totally different. Some people obviously had no consideration for others and were aggressively pushing those in front of them as if they were somehow entitled to go wherever they please and others be damned. After about ten or fifteen minutes of being pushed around it was obvious we were not going to get anywhere near Paperi T. I like the idea of the Balloon stage and the chance to see crowd drawing artists in an intimate setting, but this situation seemed dangerous. We slowly made our way out of the crowded area, leaving Paperi T to be seen by others. Instead we had something to eat.
We lost our friends, so instead of losing time looking for them we head to the Red Arena to watch Mikko Joensuu give one of the best shows of the weekend. We then met more friends that were visiting from out of town and made our way towards the Main Stage to see Massive Attack & Young Fathers. I am still feeling a bit shook-up after the crowd altercation and decide to call it a day even though it means missing out on Jamie XX and The Savages. But what I really need right now is some quiet time and a good night’s sleep.
Saturday is off to a good start after the rain stops
On Saturday I arrive on site early, on my own. I go to the press tent to enquire what the attendance figures were for Friday. I’m informed that it was a sold out day and that 25,000 people were there, and that 75,000 are expected over the weekend as all tickets are sold out. I ask what the attendance was for Friday of last year and I’m told 23,000. The fact that there is only a difference of 2,000 people makes me think that there were 2,000 too many people yesterday and that the site is now at over capacity.
The overcrowding has left a bad taste in my mouth but I try to put it behind me and make my way to the Red Arena to see Moonface and Siinai. There are only about 100 to 200 people there when they take the stage – some of whom look like they are there to take shelter from the rain. Over the years Flow has had unbelievably good luck with the weather and even though it has been raining all morning the rain stops after a few songs and more people begin to come to the tent. The sound is great and the day is off to a good start.
So as not to spend the evening trying to find people in the crowd I decide to meet up with some friends off site for a chat and to make a plan for the evening. My wife joins us a bit later to let me know that she is going to head off to the festival for an evening with the girls. Being the parents of a two-year-old boy we rarely have the chance to go out, but my in-laws are looking after him all weekend so we try to make the most of the time off.
With a plan in hand we get back to the festival and we are ready for some more music. Chvrches are a positive surprise and they really get the crowd going in the Red Arena – there’s a real pleasant vibe that reminds me of Flow at its best. However much you consider the music as important at the festival, it’s the overall experience that you really take away with you – that’s what you look back on.
Poor scheduling decisions
This year I feel that there were some poor decisions made regarding scheduling and where acts played. This became very apparent on the Saturday night. For some reason The Last Shadow Puppets were on the Main Stage at nine and M83 were in the Red Arena tent at ten. M83 was obviously a much bigger draw. With a mainly young audience interested to see one of the biggest electro acts at the moment. On the main stage meanwhile, The Last Shadow Puppets were obviously having more fun themselves than anyone in the audience, most of whom were totally unfamiliar with their material.
I feel that over the weekend the majority of acts on the Balloon Stage should have played elsewhere, to allow for a larger audience. Kamasi Washington, Thundercat and the aforementioned Paperi T. played on far too small a stage. Acts like Morrissey and New Order are no strangers to playing main stages while this year they seem to be relegated to playing in the tent. There may of course be other reasons as to why this is the case, but from the audience’s point of view this decision seems strange.
Meanwhile in the tent, people were being aggressive with no respect for others just pushing anyone who they felt was in their way. I am sure that I am not in the minority in considering Flow Festival to be a very civilised affair and that’s what made it all the more disturbing to see this unnecessary behaviour going on. After a couple of songs of M83 I decide to leave and make my way out of the tent. I briefly considered going to the Balloon Stage to see Dungen, but I thought I might be going from bad to worse and instead decide to take a breather and drink some cola.
It’s just past eleven and we have regrouped with the plan of seeing Morrissey. Trying to avoid a repeat of M83 we get to the Red Arena while there is only a couple of hundred of the devoted gathering near the stage. We decide to stand our ground to the right of the mixing desk, hoping to get the best sound and close enough to see what is happening on stage, so as not to be totally dependent on the monitor screens on either side. Initially it feels a bit stupid just standing there in an almost empty tent. Soon it becomes obvious that the tent will be packed by the time Morrissey takes the stage, even though FKA Twigs is the big draw on the Main Stage.
By the time Morrissey takes the stage at midnight the 15,000 capacity tent is full and even though there is some pushing and shoving, the overall feeling is relaxed and the crowd go wild for Mozzer. Saturday for me ends on a high note.
While we’re waiting, we’re treated to what can best be described as a Morrissey’s personal visual mixtape. It’s a series of music and film clips played on the big screen behind the stage, from the Ramones to Warhol to The New York Dolls. Watching the old videos is a blast and passes the time quickly. By the time Morrissey takes the stage at midnight the 15,000 capacity tent is full and even though there is some pushing and shoving, the overall feeling is relaxed and the crowd go wild for Mozzer. Saturday for me ends on a high note.
Sunday family fun and games
Sunday is a day of two parts: the early afternoon is dedicated to family time and the evening is for music. Flow has a tradition of organizing a family event from one until six on the last day of the festival. Even though this is only my second time coming to Flow as a family, it feels like we’ve always been doing it. The Resident Advisory Backyard acts as a hub for families to gather and hang out. While adults compare opinions on the festival gigs so far, kids are treated to music, drinks, food and free tattoos. One of us has to run around after our two year old who seems to be making the most of the event. He is particularly impressed with his new tattoos but is very disappointed that they wash of prior to going to daycare the following day. It’s nice to catch up with other friends with families. In some cases we haven’t seen them since the same event last year. After about three hours everyone’s energy is depleted and the majority begin to leave, or one parent remains to continue on into the evening. For us this means I get to go home while my wife stays behind to watch Ruger Hauer featuring Regina, I am happy to do so.
After a meal and a change of clothes it’s time to do it all one more time. We make it on site to see a bit of J.Karjalainen who seems to have pulled a surprisingly big crowd, some of whom seem to be stragglers from the children’s afternoon as there are quite a few toddlers with headphones sitting in strollers. By six o’clock the crowd has diminished.
Can you hear me? Or are you too old?
Sundays at Flow often feature heritage or retro acts and this year is no different with the lineup including the aforementioned J.Karjalainen, veteran US punks Descendents and the iconic New Order. Like many others I too am here to see them rather than some of the newer artists like Daughter, Thee Oh Sees, ANOHNI, Kamasi Washington and Sia.
We arrive early and hang out by the mixing desk carefully avoiding the throng of die-hard fans gathering by the front of the stage happy to watch from a safe distance.
After wandering around aimlessly for a while, we make our way down to the Black Tent. It’s only my second time there during this festival. We arrive early and hang out by the mixing desk carefully avoiding the throng of die-hard fans gathering by the front of the stage happy to watch from a safe distance. I was expecting a greater turn-out but there is no crowding except for the first few metres directly in front of the stage. Descendents take the stage. They are a bunch of middle aged men trying to pass off as angry young punks, but from where I am standing it doesn’t make much of an impact. The sound seems to lack much punch, in fact at best it sounds muffled and weak.
There have been quite a few discussions over the weekend regarding the sound. Those who I have talked to have the general consensus that the sound on the Main Stage has been great but in the Red Arena tent the sound has been often poor, but at other times quite good, the discrepancy remains a mystery. The quality of the sound and the reception to the gigs seems to be mixed too, sometimes a good performance outweighing poor sound.
Taking us out on a high note
The culmination of the weekend for those of us who are forty plus is hopefully going to be New Order. Yet again we opt to go early and stake our ground near the mixing desk. For me New Order is one of those bands that I have always admired and wanted to see live, but they seem to be in the twilight of their career and I wonder can it really be as good now that Peter Hook is no longer with them. But seeing as I have no personal reference other than their recorded output with which to compare this performance with – I shall to have to wait. We are treated to a nice mix of hits, but it’s the surprise encore of two Joy Division tracks – Decades and Love Will Tear Us Apart that makes this the best show of the weekend. I never thought that I would ever get to hear Love Will Tear Us Apart being performed live by the next best thing to Joy Division.
I leave the tent with a smile on my face and all the negative aspects of the festival seem to fade away. As we make our way out we stop briefly to watch someone who we presume is Sia on the Main Stage, but for all intent purposes it could be anyone.