The biggest piece of news from the first day of Gothenburg, Sweden’s Way Out West festival wasn’t who was there but who wasn’t. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, the band slated to headline the day, had to drop out at the last possible second, axing all their remaining European tour dates after guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro broke his hand. When Way Out West organizers got onstage an hour before Young’s set to make the announcement, there was no mass hysteria — a few scattered boos, a widespread collective “aaaaw” noise, non-Swedish-speaking me asking random bystanders “wait, what’d he say?” — but this was still a heavy blow for the festival, since a big chunk of the crowd had obviously come for Young and Young only. I was bummed to miss Young, but I felt worse for the organizers. When you book graying headliners, maybe this is the sort of risk you run. But this is a festival that does so many tiny, great things. This year, for the second year straight, the fest was entirely vegetarian, selling no meat options on site; it’s impossible to imagine a decent-sized American festival trying that for at least five or six years. A Sony booth let you leave your phone there to charge and play around with one of Sony’s new phones in the interim. A tiny remote-controlled robotic helicopter-hovercraft thing, with a camera attached, floated continuously over the crowd and nearly sent Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker into onstage conniptions of delight. And then there’s the setting: Gothenburg, a beautiful and relaxed mid-sized city, one that can accommodate a festival like this without feeling overwhelmed, a city with parks all over the place and seafood so good I felt like I was hallucinating. (Shout out to the oyster-soup shooters at Restaurant Gabriel, because goddam.) But all these wonderful little details can’t make up for the loss of a headliner, and somebody had to step up. Fortunately, somebody did.
On the big stage, with no replacement in sight, the organizers threw the afrobeat band Jupiter & Okwess International, who’d opened the show, out to play a second set for a small but enthusiastic core of drunk dancing people. (I saw the very end of their set; it was good.) But Beach House, originally set to play the smaller third stage opposite Young, suddenly found themselves the night’s default headliners, with the crowd of onlookers spilling way outside the third-stage tent. (Among other things, that turned Way Out West into that rarest and most glorious of beasts: A three-day festival with three female-fronted headliners.) And they turned out to be perfect for the role. Victoria Legrand’s throat, you could tell, was feeling rough, breaking when she reached the big notes and making her sound like a drunken ’40s cabaret singer during between-songs patter, even (or especially) when she was talking about the importance of childhood imagination. But the band, their stage gorgeously lit like a nightclub in a David Lynch film, looked incredible, especially Legrand. She played in near darkness, the stage-lights hardly ever picking up the sparkles of her dress, and swung her hair around wildly whenever her songs reached their dramatic, cathartic points. And Beach House songs do have dramatic, cathartic points, something that’s not always obvious when you listen to them on record. The first few times I saw them, Beach House tended to fade into pretty near-nothingness onstage, and the prospect of seeing them while severely jetlagged would’ve turned me into a total sleep-zombie. But they’ve figured out how to present these great songs like rock stars, teasing out their internal dynamics and sounding bigger and stronger than I’ve ever heard them. They absolutely belonged in that headlining spot.
Even if Young had played, this would’ve still been a fairly sleepy first day of the festival. First days are usually like that, and the endless sprinkling of enthusiasm-dampening rain didn’t help, but many of the bands playing on Thursday struggled at grabbing their moment. Alabama Shakes got plenty of mileage from Brittany Howard’s authoritative moan-howls, but their blooz churn came off as pedestrian bar-rock. The singer-songwriter Jose Gonzalez, a hometown hero, tends to sound pretty sleepy, and Junip, the band he leads, actually increased the sleep-factor, playing their post-rock drones like soft jazz; it was pretty, but it didn’t exactly command attention. The other Swedish acts on the bill didn’t fare much better. Daniel Adams-Ray is a dirt-stached male-model pixie type a cartoonish all-white getup (white shorts over white tights), and his version of rap music is among the worst I’ve ever heard. Leading a similarly attired onstage choir and setting off colored-smoke flashpots whenever possible, the Adams-Ray spectacle suggested what might happen if the Polyphonic Spree were reborn as synthpop wood-elves who decided that they were party-rappers now. It was confusing. The thoroughly generic Swedish rock band Johnossi, meanwhile, got plenty of love from the crowd. But their arena-sized trudge fused late-period U2 with late-period Interpol and added in a thundering backbeat, coming off like a rock band who existed to soundtrack American car commercials.
The Syrian singer Omar Souleyman, finally granted entry into Sweden after customs officials kept him from performing at a recent Stockholm festival, was a rare spot of energy during the day. I watched Souleyman bomb at a Chicago street-fair a few years ago. But here, he had a crowd who treated his incantory Arabic dance music like party music, which was the right call. (The Way Out West crowds, to their credit, treat everything like it’s party music, batting around inflated condoms during Beach House and dancing on tables to Factory Floor’s serrated blare.) Souleyman cut a dramatic figure onstage, clapping his hands and standing near-motionless, content to let his amazing backup multi-instrumentalist, and a very good tent light show, do most of the work. And the brightest spot on the undercard was Tame Impala. The Australian band had to play right after the Neil Young announcement, and they don’t really come off as stars, especially after starting their set while sounding a bit scattered. But as they eased into their far-out space-grooves, they seemed to gain purpose and definition right in front of us. And by the time they got to tracks like “Elephant” and “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” they were getting a heroic reception, kids in the crowd whooping at opening notes and doing the thing where 10 of them lock arms and belt along. These songs are hits, it turns out. Tame Impala didn’t transcend the chilled-out vibe of that first day, but they did find a good place within it.
The afterparties were a different story — non-chill, in the best way possible. Every night, Way Out West, the proper outdoor festival in the park, is followed by Stay Out West, a citywide affair that takes over most of the surrounding clubs and functions as a mini-SXSW. Factory Floor, the British dark-rave trio, headlined at the ornate, vaguely skeezy Park Lane, following an Autre Ne Veut set that I missed because I was too dumb to figure out Gothenburg’s tram situation and a satisfyingly strummy performance from the former Beta Band bloke Steve Mason. The last time I was at Way Out West, three years ago, I watched Sleigh Bells and Die Antwoord, on consecutive nights, pack Park Lane to beyond-dangerous capacities, the fired-up crowd crawling over each other like lobsters. Factory Floor didn’t have those crowds or that level of excitement working for them, and that seemed just fine to the trio, who barely move onstage and who never directly acknowledge their audience. But their set worked as a punishing energy-jolt anyway. Factory Floor tracks build and build mercilessly, never letting that tension turn into release. Nik Colk moans and mutters incomprehensible vocals through heavy filters and plays her guitar with a bow or a drumstick, never a pick, adding ghostly discordance to the heavy lockstep bloops of the other two. And it matters that Factory Floor are a band instead of a laptop thing; there’s a physical heft and intensity to their sound, and the glitched-out rave projections and assaultive strobe lights only added to the blare. This isn’t fun music, exactly, but in its force and its masterfully merciless bloodlust, it was still the best thing I saw all day.
It looked like similar things were happening at the Red Bull Music Academy’s Gothenburg setup. I arrived just in time to see the New York rapper Mykki Blanco finishing his set shirtless, covered in sweat, standing on the bar in only floral-print shorts, and I must’ve missed some serious shit there. After Blanco, the Chicago footwork producers DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn took over. I’ve never really been able to wrap my ears around their skittery, off-center sound, but the Swedish kids found a way to dance to it. And when I’m in a carpeted hotel ballroom, halfway across the world, hearing Ty Dolla $ign’s voice — even in chopped-all-to-hell form — I’m always going to be happy.
[photo by Annika Beglund]