In The Wild Wild West

I never intended to go to Sweden this summer. With my heart set on the Balkans and a job waiting for me in Istanbul, Scandinavia was hardly on my way. But when a friend mentioned that he’d volunteered at a festival in Gothenburg, my interest was piqued. And when I found out that the festival was held on my birthday, I couldn’t resist. I filled in the application form and booked a flight to GBG for Way Out West 2013.

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I first heard of Gothenburg a few years ago when a newly-found hostel friend showed me a delightful video clip by local indie band De Montevert. Impeccably dressed men and women cycling around gorgeous cobbled streets in the Nordic sun with bright blue trams gliding past? Hello, perfect city. While De Montevert weren’t playing at this year’s Way Out West, The Knife, another of my favourite bands of all time, were headlining.

After attempting to decipher my volunteering contract which was entirely in Swedish, I deduced that I’d be picking up rubbish for the three days of the festival. Not the most glamorous of jobs, but at least I’d be able to catch some music. However it seemed Google Translate failed me again, because when I show up on the first day, I’m told that despite not knowing a word of Swedish, I would be exchanging tickets for wristbands at the entrance tent. I quickly become fluent in Festival Swedish, otherwise known as useful phrases like “No, not your left arm, I don’t care how many festival bracelets you’ve collected, GIVE ME YOUR RIGHT ARM”.

Thankfully my shifts were mostly in the morning and early afternoon, so a couple of the other volunteers and I had the opportunity to check out the festival proper. Held in Slottsskogen, or Castle Forest, smack bang in the middle of the city, the grounds are some of the most stunning I’ve ever witnessed in a festival (and I’ve been to one in a castle). Every minute detail from the electronic wristbands given to punters to the free earplugs handed out by thoughtful volunteers has been accounted for. I was almost surprised when the Swedish weather turned inclement that the organisers hadn’t been able to control that too – but of course the Swedes still looked incredibly fashionable in ponchos and gumboots.

Thursday

Half way through my first shift we start to hear murmurs of a possible cancellation by Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Unfortunately the rumors prove to be true, and I have to resort to explaining to devastated punters in English why the festival’s headliner has pulled out. Thankfully Beach House prove to be a more than ample replacement, slotting into Young’s headlining spot with ease with their dreamy pop. California may have been miles away (literally and with the weather, figuratively too), but for the hour-long set Beach House brought the West Coast to Way Out West.

these new puritansIf the festival during the day isn’t enough, it’s after midnight where WOW really comes into its own. In 2009 the festival introduced Stay Out West, a series of club shows around Gothenburg from festival artists. This year the line-up was almost as impressive as the festival proper, including Austra, Say Lou Lou, Shout Out Louds and Autre Ne Veut, as well as a special disco set from Swedish heavyweights Lykke Li, Miike Snow and Peter, Bjorn and John. After the disappointment of Neil Young, I head to the nearby Annedalskyrkan church to catch a witching hour set from These New Puritans. The setting is incredible; lights bathe the entire Gothic church in a blood red wash, the stage is set high up on the altar. These New Puritans saunter on stage to a hushed crowd sitting in the pews. What follows is one of the most sinister sets from any band at the festival; it feels more like a cult induction than a sermon. Even when the comparatively lighter piano kicks in on ‘Fragment Two’, I can’t help but think what Jesus would have thought if he knew the kind of activity going on in this place of worship right now.

Friday

Some excellent bass face courtesy of Este Haim (Photo by Gem Royston-Claire)

Three sisters playing essentially modernised versions of Fleetwood Mac songs. On paper Haim shouldn’t work, but there’s something about the three sisters from LA that has captured the blogosphere’s attention in the last 12 months or so; having only listened to their EP a couple of times I was curious to find out why. It seems that half the festival has a similar idea; the LINNÉ stage is bursting at the seems. The girls are obviously still blown away by the amount of attention they’ve been receiving, and put in a rocking set that is one of the highlights of the festival. Most of the tracks are lifted off the forthcoming album Days Are Gone, which if the live show is anything to go by will be one of the surprise hits of 2013. The girls’ banter between songs is amusing (“You are all just so sexy, I can’t control myself!”) but it’s the bass face of bassist Este that is the most hilarious.

Judging by the crowd waiting patiently at the Flamingo stage in the late afternoon sun, it’s pretty obvious why Friday was the festival’s only sell-out day.  Earlier in the day the girls on my shift were giggling excitedly as they explained the size of their crushes on local crooner Hakan Hellstrom. Expecting something more akin to a Swedish Justin Bieber, I’m surprised when the curtains adorning the stage are theatrically pulled back to reveal a middle-aged Bon Jovi lookalike backdropped by a big band. What follows is certainly the strangest set of the festival. Without understanding a word of the lyrics, it’s easy enough to guess the themes of Hellstrom’s songs circle around unrequited love and loss. The girls swoon; even the boys are arm in arm singing along. Despite it all sounding a bit naff, being caught up in the pride of having a local on stage is a special moment.

We opt to bypass the crooning sounds of Miguel to get a front-and-center position for the evening’s headliner The Knife. We certainly aren’t alone; the first show for the Stockholm duo in years has the already sizeable crowd rippling with anticipation. The Knife have been one of my favourite bands since I first heard Heartbeats as an early-teenager, and with their notoriously elusive appearances I never really expected to see them live. It was one of my biggest reasons for making my way north. Fifteen minutes after they were due to start the crowd starts to become agitated. Eventually the lights dim and the crowd silences. But instead of the band a bare-chested fitness instructor walks onstage wearing blindingly pink tights and heavy makeup. He spends the next twenty minutes warming the crowd up with chants of ‘I am not a man! I am not a woman!’ and encouraging us to hug the person next to us.

Eventually he decides the crowd is warm enough and exits stage right. The anticipation builds to an almost excruciating level. A ten piece band dressed in hooded robes enters the stage shrouded in smoke. In pretty standard fare for the Knife it’s impossible to tell who’s who. They open with the ominous ‘A Cherry On Top’ from their latest album Shaking the Habitual. Their first album in years marks new territory even for a band famous for pushing the boundaries – its centerpiece is a 19 minute long drone.

All of a sudden, the masks come off and Karin Dreijer Andersson moves to the front and begins to sing. Or is it Karin? Suddenly there are three main singers. It soon becomes obvious that none of the band are playing their instruments; by the third song they are moved to the side of the stage, discarded. What follows is less of a live show and more of a high school dance eisteddfod routine – choreographed to the hilt, each song is “sung” by a different member of the band. Despite the lack of masks it’s still impossible to tell who the real band members are. I can’t work out whether to be in awe or shake my head in disbelief. The set closes with Silent Shout, and I can’t help but wonder what just happened. At the very least, the Knife are shaking the habitual in what is expected in a live show.

Saturday

By mid-afternoon on Saturday the number of wristbands needing to be exchanged slows to a trickle, so we are assigned rubbish duty for the rest of our shift. I don’t mind too much, because it gives us a chance to be in the festival grounds. Swedish people are the cleanest I’ve ever seen and there is not a wrapper in sight, so we catch some of Of Monsters and Men. Their meteoric rise to fame is still slightly evident in a show that’s a bit loose around the edges, but handclaps and audience participation in almost every song masks it pretty well. OMAM follow a tried and true formula, but they do it better than most of the other indie-folk bands that have flooded the scene in the last few years, so it’s understandable when Little Thoughts gets one of the biggest reactions of the whole weekend.

And not a bare chest or southern cross tattoo in sight.

And not a bare chest or southern cross tattoo in sight.

I clock off my shift just in time to catch James Blake sauntering onstage during a brief respite from the Saturday rain. Towering over his bandmates, Blake doesn’t look like one of the more popular dub/electronic producers in the world right now. His classical training shines through much more in a live setting, where his vocal loops and soaring melodies are given more of a chance to drive the songs. Thankfully none of the technical difficulties that have plagued much of his recent tour occur today; it’s pitch perfect. Retrograde and a heartfelt cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You are the highlights of what is a pretty stellar set.

It’s almost impossible to get a view of tiny Clare Boucher, better known as Grimes, from behind her gigantic set up of synths and sample pads. LINNÉ is again overflowing; it appears that one of the most hyped acts of the past few years has swept up the ever-trendy Swedes as well. The set consists mostly of tracks from her breakthrough album Visions, and it’s refreshing to see that Boucher is attempting to play it live as much as possible. During crowd favourite Genesis, two blonde dancers appear on either side of the stage and proceed to spend the rest of the set in a loosely-choreographed dance. It’s slightly distracting, but when Grimes explains that they’re actually Gothenburg locals who she had just met today, all is forgiven.

The main festival closes with a theatrical set from Alicia Keys. She arrives on stage carried by two burly men dressed in tuxedos to the tune of Empire State of Mind; the first few songs involve mime and some poor acting on the models’ behalf. All of a sudden I realise I’m soaking wet and freezing; the last few days have finally caught up with me. I decide to call it a day and head for the warm confines of my bed. Even with the inclement weather and cancellations, the past few days have been a blast. The Swedes are known for doing things pretty darn well (except perhaps Ikea instruction booklets), and Way Out West is no different. Certainly worth making the detour for.

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