Published August 15, 2011
THE SETTING OF OSLO’S ØYA FESTIVAL: A PARK SURROUNDING THOUSAND-YEAR-OLD MEDIEVAL RUINS.
Wednesday, August 10There’s something a little strange about taking a seven-hour flight to Oslo in order to see a bunch of English-speaking bands—but then again, Oslo itself is a strange hybrid of ancient, unique culture and fully globalized, gracious hospitality. All the menus are in Norwegian, so it’s often a gamble ordering food, but it’s also true that almost everyone speaks flawless English—even the clerks at 7/11. And the Øya Festival, the four-day music blowout that brought me to the country, takes place in a medieval park in Oslo where thousand-year-old ruins of the ancient city stand—but it was headlined by Kanye West and Pulp.
Øya itself, unlike some American festivals I could mention, is blissfully well-organized and manageable: just four stages on the festival grounds, with sets smartly staggered so that double-booking mostly happens between bands whose fans aren’t likely to overlap anyway. Plus, none of the big acts go on until after 4 p.m.—a very welcome consideration for those of us who are apt to stay up long after the fest’s 11 p.m. close each night, in search of new bands and free Ringnes, the local pilsner, which runs 70 kroner ($12.87) if you can’t find some party willing to give it to you gratis. (Thankfully, these parties weren’t in short supply.)
I fought jet lag that first day to catch Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, whose act is worth seeing if just for the nostalgia factor: its frontman, Alexander Ebert, unashamedly channels ’70s folk artists and Jim Morrison in his stage presence, what with his long linen tunics and overgrown hair. You’ve heard their song, “Home,” but you haven’t really heard it until you’ve heard it surrounded on both sides by Ebert’s semi-philosophical stage banter. (There was, I think, some stuff about how love and positive thinking are really important.) The festival’s first dilemma happened that evening, with Warpaint scheduled to go on at 9:20 and Kanye West at 9:30, but I figured that of the two, the four-girl LA art-rock group was much more likely to come out on time than the notoriously self-obsessed rapper. I wasn’t wrong: Warpaint started their first song promptly at 9:22, and I was able to catch a half hour of their set before Kanye even started. Theirs is dark, sexy music, with song titles like “Bees,” “Beetles,” and “Undertow,” well worth a listen for fans of Cocteau Twins and Bat for Lashes. As for Kanye—I’m happy to announce that reports of his ego and outsized touring demands infuriating Jay-Z and endangering The Throne now seem exaggerated, as this show was subtle and restrained.
Kidding, of course! It was every bit the bombastic ego trip we were expecting—scads of ballerinas, giant religious iconography, the lot—and all the world better for it. After last week’s Hitler debacle, he kept the stage chatter to a minimum, preferring to play hit after hit: most of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and plenty of old favorites like “Jesus Walks” and “Golddigger,” as well, for a total set time of more than an hour and a half. There was, however, one predictably self-aggrandizing monologue about how he is great and his fans are great, but the press is not great: “Fuck the press!” he yelled, to some halfhearted cheers from the press tent. If it hadn’t been for that comment, I might not now be inclined to link you to a video of him falling down during “All of the Lights,” but we have to give as good as we get. The press loves you too, Kanye!
Thursday, August 11 I started the day with a cruise through the fjords of Oslo, ending up at a beautiful campsite where the festival’s International Program organizers treated us to Ringnes, grilled salmon, and extremely music-nerdy games (name-that-album-cover, for instance); I was later awarded an extra beer ticket for derring-do after jumping fully clothed into the sea, an experience I’m very glad to have had exactly once.
GUIDED BY VOICES
Back at the festival, the first order of business was Guided By Voices. I was struck by how casual Norwegian music fans are about where they end up in festival crowds—anytime I wanted to throughout the festival, I could show up to a stage about 20 minutes early and be guaranteed a front-row place. I felt a little lame staking out a spot when so few others did the same, but it was worth it when Bob, Mitch, and the rest came out, fully prepared to drink, smoke, high-kick, and rock. I ended up next to some very tall, very excited Dutchmen who’d flown in from Holland just to see the band (and flirt with the female security guard). As a Bee Thousand proponent, “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” and “I Am a Scientist” were probably the highlights for me—but the great thing about an hourlong GBV show is that you get about thirty chances to applaud.
Janelle Monáe is an artist of an altogether different stripe, and her set confirmed my growing suspicion that she’s one of the smartest, most distinctive acts working today. Her energy is inimitable—and her stylish backup singers and dancers, in futuristic black-and-white, lent the whole affair an air of The Love Below-era OutKast. The crowd ate it up: at one point Monáe was even able to convince those assembled to slowly crouch for a solid two minutes. Presumably, they all rewarded themselves for the exercise with ridiculously expensive pizza afterward.
This being Norwegian summer, the sun doesn’t set until almost 10 p.m.—meaning an 8:45 start time was perfect timing for Explosions in the Sky to play an entire set against a languorous sunset. They seemed to appreciate it, anyway—and once an hour of their epic, narrative instrumental post-rock was over, I was in too dreamy a mood to really enjoy the (literal!) smoke and lasers of Aphex Twin, which threatened to cause nightmares instead.
Friday, August 12 With plenty of time to kill before Noah and the Whale’s set at 4, I walked over to Oslo’s Akershus Fortress, a 700-year-old medieval castle on the sea (with a Nespresso machine in the information center that offers coffee for 10 kroner, an unheard-of amount in a city where nachos run you almost 20 bucks). In the middle of four days of backpack-slinging crowds, it was a nice treat to spend some time in a place with plenty of room to roam—and with a panoramic view of Oslo, marred only partially by a glacier-sized cruise ship. (An old Norwegian woman I asked to take my picture wrinkled her nose and said, “With the ship?”)
Sunshine is the right backdrop for Noah and the Whale, whose poppy optimism was perfectly at home. The weather played as more of a contrast with the next two acts I saw: British punk band Bring Me the Horizon and immensely popular Norwegian black metal group Kvelertak. Bring Me the Horizon brought multiple instances of the surreal: for one thing, it felt disconcerting to watch a British deathcore band play their violent fare, with abrupt announcements like “This is a song called ‘Fuck,'” all the while knowing that action disturbingly similar to the theoretical lyrical content had happened in their home country just two days prior. It’s also a strange experience watching Norwegian people, who are uniformly six feet tall, stunningly attractive, and stylish in a way that smacks of J. Crew catalogs, nodding along to deathcore.
With Kvelertak—whose lyrics, I’m told, center on Viking folk tales, though I can’t be called upon to back this up—I could at least make out some piercings and tats in the crowd; the most memorable moment from that show would have to be when lead vocalist Erlend Hjelvik lifted what can only be described as a sort of owl helmet onto his head and performed an entire song that way, proffering a taxidermied owl on a stick for the crowd’s benefit.
KVELERTAK’S ERLEND HJELVIK, IN A MOMENT OF POPULIST INSPIRATION, GETS DOWN TO THE CROWD’S LEVEL
Jarvis Cocker may be pushing 50, but Pulp’s set at 9:30 felt like, well, the first time. (Oy. Sorry.) Different Class, His ‘n’ Hers, and This is Hardcore were all well-represented, and Cocker’s stage presence still ranks among the absolute sexiest in rock music. (During “This is Hardcore” itself, he propped himself up between two monitors at the front of the stage, and he—well, he—we’ll just say Camille Bidault-Waddington was a lucky lady while they were married.) And Cocker did his best to keep the audience intellectually stimulated: he read out some quotes by William Blake (in honor of the date, Blake’s death day) and Henrik Ibsen (in honor of the venue). The Blake: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom… for we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough.” I vote to put that on Cocker’s tombstone.
Saturday, August 13 After a late night—I headed to the middle of a forest for a tiny midnight set by traditional Norwegian joik artist Mari Boine, across from a lake whose Norwegian name apparently means “Trollwater;” then to a club for a DJ set by Twin Shadow—I made it out of bed in time for a quick trip to Oslo’s answer to Central Park, Vigelandsparken, which contains 192 bronze and granite sculptures all designed by a single artist, Gustav Vigeland. Then it was off to the festival site in time to see the Avett Brothers, whose heartfelt Carolina country-rock wasn’t too American to connect with the Scandinavian audience, every member of which seemed to know every word to every song.
I bounced around a bit after that—a little from mysterious, spirited British indie-rockers Wu Lyf, a little of Jamie xx’s DJ set, a little more from the haunting Mari Boine—before, sadly, leaving the festival grounds for good. But that didn’t mean the music was over: How to Dress Well’s live set at Sukkerbiten, a club stationed behind the city’s weirdly majestic opera house, started at 1 a.m., and the festival afterparties started even later. Tom Krell (aka How to Dress Well) played a couple of new songs that Krell will be recording this month in London; having heard a bit, I’m confident that his second album will be huge.
And as for Sunday morning: leaving Oslo is hard to do, and it’s even harder when you went to bed what feels like just minutes before—but knowing I got the most I could out of my four days in this odd, beautiful little place on the North Sea made it a lot easier.