The Knife (Olle Kirchmeier)

Giorgio Moroder dances by stabbing two fingers in the air, like the aging European man that he is. He also plays air-slap-bass. The Italo-disco legend is here in Sweden, at Gothenburg’s Way Out West festival, to DJ in the afternoon sun. There are trees all around him, and he’s in front of a placid duck pond, with families biking by on the opposite bank. Above the crowd, a ludicrously huge and unnecessary disco ball hangs from a crane. Moroder doesn’t seem to be doing much of the actual work of DJing, leaving that to his much younger American understudy Chris Cox, but he hams it up with aplomb. Sometimes he sings bits and pieces of his hits through a vocoder; sometimes he leads audience clap-alongs on a drum machine and then cracks himself up by throwing the clap-tempo all off. He’s in a business-casual button-down, and his famous mustache is just starting to grow back. By way of introducing “Giorgio By Moroder,” the Daft Punk song on which he tells the story of his life, he tells even more of the story of his life (“I was always really into sex”). Mostly, though, he and Cox play the hits, and they sound utterly magnificent: “Bad Girls”! “Hot Stuff”! A disco-house remix of “Take My Breath Away”! The theme to The Neverending Story! “Together In Electric Dreams”! “Flashdance… What A Feeling”! At one point, he plays “The Chase,” an indelibly percolating track from his score to Midnight Express, and all of a sudden, hundreds of people are dancing to a piece of interstitial music from a 35-year-old movie. And when he plays “I Feel Love,” the feeling — freaking out to that song in the midst of so many absurdly attractive Swedes — must be something like hearing it in a club in 1977. It’s a hell of a way to start your day at a music festival.

The second day at Way Out West had a ridiculous lineup, just crazily stacked, and even with just three main stages, it was impossible not to miss so much stuff I wanted to see. Case in point: You had to make the choice between Moroder and Rodriguez, the rediscovered psych-rock hero and subject of the Oscar-winning doc Searching For Sugar Man. So: Here we have a festival where the two back-from-oblivion funky ’70s geniuses are actively competing with each other. And this being a festival, the right answer is usually “both.” So I tore myself away from Moroder long enough to see Rodriguez bask in crowd goodwill, seated at center stage, good-naturedly plucking out the starry-eyed blues songs he recorded decades ago. It was cool, but I couldn’t help wonder which tracks Moroder was playing while watching it. That’s the curse of the festival: Whatever’s going on elsewhere immediately seems fascinating, no matter how good the thing you’re watching is. (Poor Angel Haze, who went up against both Moroder and Rodriguez, and who never had a chance.) And that was far from the only battle of the day.

Battle #2: the battle of the good-natured Californian indie harmonizers, HAIM vs. Local Natives. Local Natives were on the main stage, playing a little while longer, so I knew I could see all of HAIM and then still catch the last few of their songs, and that’s what I did. This was the right choice. Local Natives sounded great, yelps curling confidently across the park, but HAIM was the thing to see. The three sisters, who look as Swedish as you could possibly look without actually being Swedish, skipped onstage to “99 Problems” and kept hammering with weapons-grade charm the whole time they were up there. People were losing it for this band, treating them like stars, giving them one of the biggest reactions I’ve seen all weekend. Este Haim, who you know is the frontwoman because she’s the oldest and because she talks the most between songs, couldn’t stop commenting on the general hotness of Swedish people, but she showed a commendable disregard for her own hotness by pulling constant Angus Young grimaces, basically the most awesomely ugly facial expression a human being can make. And she earned those Angus Young grimaces because she played like a motherfucker; all of them did. On record, HAIM are all loose-flowing studio-pop atmosphere, and that’s there in person, too. But they’ve also got this jittery energy that you only hear in their stage show, and they rock harder than I could’ve expected, even launching into something resembling George Thorogood blooz-attack mode at one point. Their whole show is an utterly inspiring thing, and if you have a music festival and didn’t book them this summer, you fucked up. They were built for this.

Battle #3: The battle of the spectral tough-chick synthpoppers, Bat For Lashes vs. Grimes. A tough one to call, since the 20 or so minutes I saw of Bat For Lashes were great. Natasha Khan’s voice is a deadly thing in person, and her dance background is starting to show through, too, since she poses her way across the stage with a ridiculous level of aplomb. “What’s A Girl To Do” and “Glass” are great studio-pop songs that Khan and her band translate perfectly to a live show, and walking away was tough. But Grimes was something to behold, too. Twisting around behind a bank of synths, Claire Boucher tweaked her songs until they sounded something like ghostly house music, and put enough echo on her voice that even the stuff she was saying between songs sounded like a faraway blur. Her two backup dancers were Swedish girls, possibly identical twins, joining her for just this one show. They looked and dressed exactly alike, but they didn’t do synchronized dancing; they just struck ferocious badass poses on their own. And the effect was jarring and weirdly absorbing, another just-off thing in the stage show of an artist who revels in deathlessly confident just-offness. Like Boucher’s songs and her videos, a Grimes live show feels, more than anything else, like a trip into Boucher’s private universe, her own reshaped cultural universe, and that’s a fun place to spend an hour.

Battle #4: The battle of the masterful slow-build tension-releasers, Godspeed You! Black Emperor vs. Miguel. The weekend’s biggest heartbreaker. A Godspeed show I saw at a Baltimore Masonic temple 10 years ago remains one of my favorite-ever life experiences, a deep immersion in the band’s mysterious dynamic shifts and majestic crust. But they’re not the sort of band you can sample for a few minutes and get anything out of. You need to commit, and a festival is a hard place to commit. (See: The bit on the Knife below.) The half-hour I saw of their set was grand and powerful, but it was also, in its way, dark and withdrawn, and maybe it shouldn’t have been happening during daylight hours. Miguel, on the other hand, is probably one of the most generous and ingratiating performers on the face of the earth. His live band expanded on the psych-soul dynamics of Kaleidoscope Dream, roughing them up with some clangy rock riffage that, at times, smacked of TV On The Radio. But Miguel himself reminded me of nobody so much of Usher. He’s got that same studied crispness to his onstage demeanor, his dance moves so perfect that they felt almost fussy. Miguel’s moves are positively breathtaking: James Brown footwork, Michael Jackson spins, splits, slides that stop at moments so perfect that they seem to violate laws of physics. And he sells all that stuff with so much passion that it almost, almost seems like he hasn’t spent countless hours practicing every second of his live show. As someone who cares about pop songs and showmanship, his was a ridiculously gratifying live show, an absolute triumph of craft. Sweden is the land of focused and orderly pop music, so you might not expect a miasmic soul singer to get over there. But Miguel is enough of a star to transcend those sorts of borders, and he would probably find a way to make women scream in, like, Antarctica. We should probably stop lumping Miguel in with Frank Ocean and the Weeknd. He might’ve gotten famous when the woozy drug-soul sound blew up last year, but he would’ve become a star no matter what happened. When someone can perform like that, it’s practically inevitable.

The two biggest names of the day, though, were homegrown, and though they didn’t play against each other, they set up an interesting binary. If you were local, the day’s biggest star was Håkan Hellström, who played during the daylight and who seemed like he was doing everyone else a favor by consenting to do so. Chances are you’re never heard of Hellström, but he’s the man over here. Hellström is a wiry, stringy-haired skinny guy approaching 40, and he plays slick and impeccably structured indie-pop with massive widescreen hooks and way more slickness than you’d think the sound could bear. He’s Peter Bjorn & John if two of them quit and Elton John and Meat Loaf joined in. And from what everyone tells me over here, he’s probably the biggest star in Sweden. All over Gothenburg, there are posters for Kann Ingen Sorg, a new movie about characters from Hellström’s lyrics — imagine, say, if there was a romantic comedy about Sherrane, the character from Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a titanic crowd go nuts for an artist they way they did for Hellström. It was just complete hysteria — massive soccer-shout singalongs, couples looking into each other’s eyes and mouthing lyrics at each other, teenagers pogoing madly, art kids doing interpretive dances at the back of the lawn. Seeing Hellström in Gothenburg is something like seeing Eminem in Detroit — except that people know who Eminem is outside the Midwest, and Hellström is a totally unknown property everywhere but Scandinavia. (So maybe it’s more like seeing Tech N9ne in Kansas City.) I’d seen Hellström the last time I came to Way Out West, in 2010, so I was at least ready for the level of insanity he’d provoke. But it was still something to marvel at. And this time around, it was easier to see why people love Hellström like that. Much of the appeal is apparently the lyrics, which are all in Swedish and which I absolutely didn’t understand. But his songs are big and catchy and perfectly paced for massive singalongs, and he’s a tireless performer, spinning and high-fiving bandmates and running all through the wings of the stage, grabbing hands and projecting wholesome and good-natured starpower. He’ll never be famous in America unless we all suddenly learn Swedish, but if you’re curious, it’s well worth clicking through a show like this on YouTube.

Hellström had spent some time playing drums in Honey Is Cool, the ’90s Swedish group that eventually became the Knife, which gave him a weird and fascinating connection to the night’s headliners. But where Hellström was determined to blow his songs out until they reached the last people in the back of the crowd, the Knife were so bent on deconstructing the whole festival-headliner experience that they practically ignored the audience. As reported, the Knife’s Shaking The Habitual show is more of a performance-art statement than a musical performance. It’s an impenetrable affair, with dancers and costumes and no real assurance that the people you’re watching onstage are really involved in making the music you’re hearing. And it didn’t work. It lost me. I tried, I really did. Before the group came out, a flamboyant face-painted Richard Simmons type came out to lead the crowd in aerobics for some reason — in bending, stretching, jumping, yelling “I see you” en masse, shaking hands with the stranger next to us. And this went on for nearly 20 fucking minutes! Amazingly, the crowd went along with it, and so did I; the whole routine really did work to make my back a little less stiff after a day standing in the sun. But after all that, we got a couple of robed figures coming out into darkness, to play extended drones on some harps and zither-looking things that we could barely see, and any remaining enthusiasm seemed to gradually dissipate. Shaking The Habitual is, by design, a harsh and uncompromising album, and the group did nothing to streamline their nine-minute grind-and-blip epics. Instead, the big onstage troupe of dancers did choreographed maypole routines, freaked each other, spent long minutes just standing stock-still and staring at the crowd. One of them was a rhythmic gymnast who had one of those twirly stick-streamer things; another was, I think, a woman with a beard painted on. There were moments — like the set-closing “Silent Shout,” where the stage just looked like bodies flying through darkness — where it all came together. Mostly, though, it was the sort of pretentious performance art that you see a ton of in college when all your friends are art students, except done on a huge stage for a paying audience who really, really wanted to get into it and who mostly just couldn’t. The lights looked cool, the music sounded amazing (if almost exactly the same as it sounds on record), and it was obvious how much work went into the show, but the end result was a total mess that simply did not connect.

Even after that, though, give Sweden credit: It loves its dark synthpop gloom. Immediately after the Knife debacle, a big chunk of the crowd trekked all the way across town to Rondo — a beautifully cheesy ’70s-stye nightclub on the edge of an ancient amusement park, with red carpets and red curtains everywhere — to see Austra. Katie Stelmanis had her band with her, but she didn’t have Sari and Romy Lightman, her usual twin backup vocalists. For whatever reason, their absence made Stelmanis seem less like the frontwoman of a band and more like the opera singer she trained to be, prowling the big and ornate stage and showing off the full and deeply impressive range of her voice. The songs from this year’s great Olympia sounded great, but “Lose It” and “Beat And The Pulse,” both from 2011′s Feel It Break, are apparently actual hits over here, the type of songs that inspire mass singalongs among the people leaving the club after the show. And that’s one of the many great things about traveling to a festival like this one: Seeing a relatively fringey artist like Stelmanis getting some of the adulation she richly deserves.

[photo by Olle Kirchmeier]

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