On Friday, I sat down for a beer with Joel Borg, one of the founders of Gothenburg, Sweden’s Way Out West festival. (I might post the whole conversation later if I get time; it was an interesting one.) The festival’s booking has a general sonic identity of its own, one that exists somewhere near the three-point intersection of “indie rock,” “other music that people into indie rock often also like,” and “music that sounds really good when you’re buying clothes.” But that’s not a booking philosophy, to hear Borg tell it; it’s just what happens when a small group of people are putting together a show with as much of the music they like as possible, trying to sell tickets but also to introduce people to music they might not otherwise hear. I asked about one of the festival’s blind spots, the total absence of the soaring and triumphant melodic death metal often associated with Gothenburg, and he said the reason there was twofold: Gothenburg already has its own metal festival, but also nobody on the booking committee is that into the stuff at the moment. Which, you know, fair enough. This is a festival that grants prime outdoor real estate, in a single day, to country-folk singer-songwriter Iris Dement, Senegalese drummer Cheikh Lô, and jazz expressionist Ravi Coltrane; they are doing something right. And even though Friday’s show had the better lineup on paper, there was a moment on Saturday evening where I saw Cat Power leave the stage to Pusha T’s “New God Flow” and then immediately ran across the park to see Danny Brown come onstage to Chief Keef and Riff Raff’s “Cuz My Gear” — a moment where my brain went into this total turnt-up euphoric shorting-out place, where I realized that I’d been hearing nothing but great music for hours and that I still had hours more left to go. Festivals exist for a lot of reasons, but one of them is a moment like that.
Another moment: Watching Kendrick Lamar rocking a gigantic stage in front of thousands of amped-up foreigners and thinking how far this kid has come in such a short period. Three years ago, the last time I came to Way Out West, Kendrick was just one of the more promising young guys in rap-blog limbo. Less than two years ago, when I first moved to Charlottesville, I saw him rock a half-empty college room, his eyes all full of fire. (This has nothing to do with anything, but shout out to the two Charlottesville kids who I randomly met on the tram and who I hung out with for a while last night.) Now, that same young rapper, still as lyrically dense as he was back then, has a well-oiled festival show and a live band, and he’s got this tremendous crowd responding to him viscerally. Everyone in Sweden speaks English, but it’s not their first language, and so it’s a trip to see a guy like Kendrick, whose linguistic inventiveness might be his greatest strength, transcending that many barriers. He only had to release one masterpiece to get there, too. Kendrick’s a ferocious performer, too, one capable of reproducing all those twisty flows onstage with no hypeman help. His band doesn’t really add much to his sound, and his festival set is so rehearsed and organized that it chokes out some of the spontaneity. Still, though: Great set, better moment.
Danny Brown didn’t get a main-stage spot this year, but he, too, is now enough of a star that Swedish kids are rapping along word-for-word to unreleased songs that only exist as live-show YouTubes, so he’ll get there. And his live show is something special right now, an all-out blast of delirious, fired-up party music. He’s been throwing great songs up online regularly for the past couple of years, and when you hear those songs all together, loud, with drunk people bugging out around you, it becomes readily apparent that this guy is on a serious roll at the moment. Judging by what I heard yesterday, Brown’s forthcoming album Old could bring together five or six great, or potentially great, trends happening in music right now, pushing them all to be as great as they can be. Brown is an internet-rap weirdo, a monstrous lyrically-lyrical spitter, and a molly-addled populist all at once, and he’s rapping over music that pulls the best from dark-cathedral trap-rave, from apocalyptic digital dancehall, and from squiggly Soundcloud IDM. And he pulls all that together effortlessly, into one roaring and cackling Tasmanian Devil persona, whirling across the stage and the barrier without ever missing a bar.
Chan Marshall obviously doesn’t have the level of onstage confidence of Kendrick or Danny, but she’s getting there. The first time I saw Cat Power live was 14 years ago, and her live reputation back then was, let’s say, spotty, and justifiably so. It was hard to watch her struggle through shows when she so obviously didn’t want to be there. Well, she wants to be there now, and her level of swagger is higher than it’s been in all those years. Her voice is in ridiculously strong form, too; she sounds even more like a soul singer now than she did on her wonderful tour for The Greatest. Midway through her set, she sang an abbreviated version of her 2012 parenting anthem “Nothin But Time,” probably my favorite song that she’s ever written, and she followed it up shortly afterward with a heart-stopping covers medley of the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin” and INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart”; I seriously thought I might cry. She sang “Metal Heart,” her Moon Pix oldie, as an anthemic slow-building torch song, giving that song an authority that it never had before. She’s still a bit of a spaz onstage, but that spazziness no registers as charm, not fragility. She finished her set tossing white roses to bandmates and audience members, like a total boss. And then she danced to “New God Flow.”
As much as I liked Cat Power, though, I missed a bit of her set because she had the bad luck to overlap with the best act I saw that day, and probably the best act I saw at the entire festival. The eight members of the Gothenburg band Goat keep themselves intentionally mysterious. They all have different ways to cover their faces — hijabs, plastic Halloween masks, ceremonial African joints. Musically, they belong to a genre that doesn’t yet exist; call it psychedelic Afrobeat disco-metal. It’s a clattering, percussive mess, with most of the members playing drums at one point or another, and the tracks spiral out like feverish jams, not like structured songs. They’re fronted by two female singers who dress like shamans or witch doctors and who jump around tirelessly with a sort of animistic verve — a bit of a racially weird spectacle, I suppose, but a spectacle nonetheless. This was easily the funkiest music I heard all week — and this is on a bill with, like, Miguel — and it moved with a noisy liquid grace. Imagine, if you will, that when Ozzy Osborne left Black Sabbath in 1979, Tony Iommi didn’t hire Ronnie James Dio to replace him. Imagine, instead, that Iommi had discovered D.C. go-go and decided to start making music like that, and that he’d inexplicably hired Bow Wow Wow singer Annabella Lwin to help him do it. That’s Goat. They don’t play too many American shows, but you should absolutely go see them if you get a chance. They are on some shit.
The final main-stage headliner was Alicia Keys, sort of a weird choice for an indie-heavy festival like this one. Keys has some serious jams, but she doesn’t have a ton of pop-star imagination. And judging by the first half-hour of her live show, she could do the exact same show, right down to stage patter, in Milan or Tokyo or Johannesburg or Denver, and she probably does. So for me, the real headliner was Disclosure, the brotherly British house-music duo who made one of my favorite albums of the year. This worked just fine. Disclosure have worked hard to come off like an actual live act, rather than just laptop DJs, and they do stay busy up there, getting busy on bass or cowbell and occasionally singing. Still, they might as well have been DJs; they were, after all, mostly relying on piped-in vocals, and there’s not a ton of looseness or improvisation in a setup like theirs. But even with that weird DJ-or-live-band tension going on, Disclosure is a fuckton of fun live, especially in Europe, where these songs are anthems rather than critically-acclaimed Soundcloud bangers. Every time a chorus would hit, the crowd around me would go absolutely apeshit, and you haven’t really heard “Latch” until you’ve heard a giddy mob of Swedes belt out every word.
That “Latch” performance turned out to be the end of the festival. The biggest of the after-shows was Ingrid, the forming-like-Voltron Swedish pop collective of Lykke Li, Peter Bjorn & John, Miike Snow, and various others, who’d all taken over a film-studio warehouse across town. I spent two hours trying to get to that show, getting lost, arguing with a cabdriver, taking wrong trains, and attempting to extricate myself from conversation with a terrifyingly creepy Swedish random who really wanted to know my “take on Dilbert.” So I missed Ingrid and got shut out of a too-full Mikal Cronin show, and “Latch” was the last song I heard anyone perform all weekend. How could that ever be a complaint, though? That shit ruled. The whole weekend ruled. If you can go some future year, you should.
[photo by Annika Berglund]