There are a lot of festivals that happen later in the year, but often it feels like a last gasp for the summer season by the time we get to early August. Stateside, we have two remaining primary ones, Lollapalooza and Outside Lands, the former of which usually has one of the more straightforward lineups in any given year. By now, artists have been bouncing from fest to fest for months, the lineups all blur together, and it often seems as if all the big events have come and gone.
That is, unless you live in the Nordic countries. Every year, on one early August weekend, a trio of festivals occur at the same time — Gothenburg, Sweden has Way Out West, Oslo has Øya, and Helsinki has Flow. And every year, the festivals share a few artists between them — which in turn means they share some of the more exciting lineups as festival season winds down — while also booking a lot of their respective local talent.
Though it began as a small, more jazz-oriented festival in a different part of the city, Flow has become more and more of a heavy-hitter over time. Like in 2015 and 2016, the 2018 iteration of the festival took over the former industrial park Suvilahti, offering a more urban setting than many festivals, as concertgoers watch acts not in a giant field but next to a giant old gas container and flanked by factory buildings now repurposed as offices and a brewery. And even compared to the rise in attendance between 2015 and 2016, Flow 2018 felt that much more crowded. (Those crowds also included a lot of bees. Like many places in Europe, Finland has had an uncharacteristically hot summer, and there are a shitload of bees as a result.)
The festivalgoers this year were treated to another installment in what’s becoming Flow’s customarily strong and diverse lineups. There were a handful of names you’d see elsewhere this year, the artists who become reliable additions on any festival poster. Fleet Foxes took the mainstage and performed through a deluge — the one true bit of rain that hit despite storm forecasts for the weekend overall — which was actually a perfect setting for churning songs like “Your Protector,” if you didn’t mind getting soaked.
Fleet Foxes leaned on older hits for a crowd-pleasing set. The next day, Grizzly Bear appeared on the same stage and leaned more on their most recent album Painted Ruins, though also inspired singalongs when they got to stuff like “Two Weeks.” Elsewhere, you could catch Yaeji at the dance club yard, or two sets from Kamasi Washington on the other end of the festival where they have a circular stage under a balloon and surrounded by colosseum seating, or Shame’s raucous set at the smaller of Flow’s two tent stages. The latter two, in particular, have been building reputations for exhilarating live shows, and they were some of the most anticipated and subsequently celebrated performers of the weekend.
But while Flow always chooses the right usual suspects, they also avoid falling into the same patterns of other festivals thanks to their parallel focus on national acts. There were a whole lot of Finnish artists to check out that aren’t as well known (or, as of yet, known at all) in America.
Early on Friday, there was Karina — a group whose folk-pop might be sung in Suomi, but is also dreamlike and diffuse enough to register as beautiful even if you don’t speak the Finnish tongue. Later, Onni Boi offered a set that blurred the lines between electronic, indie, and R&B. Mia Kemppainen, one half of the dance-pop duo LCMDF, played one of her first sets under her solo moniker Mio, another electronic pop project that trades some of LCMDF’s occasional sugariness for music that’s still infectious yet also feels a bit more nocturnal.
One of the standout sets for the whole weekend came from the recently-reunited Finnish trio Joensuu 1685, delivering a transporting space-rock set late into Friday night. Joensuu 1685 is the project of Mikko, Markus, and Risto Joensuu — you might recognize Mikko’s name from when we ranked him an Artist To Watch last year for his solo work, and you might recognize Risto and Markus’ names from the Finnish krautrock outfit Siinai, who collaborated with Spencer Krug for a couple Moonface releases.
Though Joensuu 1685 never became too famous outside their home country, their reunion here felt like one of the weekend’s big events. Their set was mesmerizing, going from long synthesizer drones to propulsive krautrock and post-punk rhythms to shoegaze freakouts. In the middle of the set, they built one song up for five minutes, just rumbling basslines and persistent drums and suspenseful synth textures, until Mikko finally yelped into the microphone: “Hey little girl, is your daddy home?” Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” is a song that’s been covered a whole lot, but I’ve never come across a 10 minute space-rock version of it. And while the centerpiece of Joensuu 1685’s set was a stunning cover, all of their own material hit just as hard, ending the festival’s first night on an otherworldly and beautiful note.
(One Finnish artist not on Flow’s lineup also deserves a shout-out. The preceding night, Joensuu 1685 played a warm-up secret show at a tiny club. A singer named Suad opened for them, offering a hard-to-classify mix of R&B and synth-pop. Though she didn’t play the festival itself, she did perform one of the most memorable sets from any Finnish artist this past weekend.)
Though it isn’t uncommon to come across rock bands trafficking in dreamlike textures or sublime noise in Finland, the really popular stuff here is rap. They have a lot of their own homegrown stars, including names like View and the very successful Paperi T. And though it’s typically quite a perceptual puzzle to watch Finnish dudes rap while looking like vikings and/or goths, it’s clear there’s a real passion for the music here.
That’s meant that Flow has often had a more significant presence from globally-known rap artists than some of its European counterparts, like the rock-leaning NOS Alive for example. This year, that meant that the hurricane that is Brockhampton arrived to play the big tent stage on Flow’s final day. (It’s technically a tent stage, but that sells it short — we’re talking about a giant tent of the sort I’ve never seen at a U.S. festival, one that can fit a small mainstage’s crowd within it.)
Like in America, there was a feverish reaction to the ascendant Brockhampton, Finns dancing and singing along to every bit of every song. The last time I saw them perform, it was in a small club in New York, at one of their first shows; that was less than a year ago, and now Brockhampton is performing to swelling, fervent international audiences.
And of course, there was Kendrick Lamar. As always, Kendrick delivered a set overflowing with superstar energy. In past years, there was a conflict between his festival-conquering sets and his visionary recorded work; the summer after To Pimp A Butterfly came out, he was only performing a couple songs from it while instead focusing on the old bangers still. Now, he has a set that is just bulletproof, opening with “DNA” and never really letting up from there as he cycles through all the highlights old and new, along with nods to collabs like “Collard Greens” and “All The Stars” (which surprisingly occupied the final, closing slot of his setlist).
Flow always does a good job with the headliners, mixing genres and eras to seek a balance. This year you had Patti Smith holding down the legacy spot that Iggy Pop and Pet Shop Boys occupied in past iterations of the festival. You had Lauryn Hill, continuing her oddly-arranged 20th anniversary tour of The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. (Perhaps no other set at Flow 2018 was as divisive as hers; the next day, people either described it as transcendent or a complete mess.)
Hailing from the neighboring country of Sweden, Lykke Li and Fever Ray’s sets went over big, too. It’s always curious to see the slight differences in crowds across the world: Another way you knew you were in Europe was when Charlotte Gainsbourg filled the big tent for a late-night closing set of smoky synth-pop. And if there was an artist that rivaled the anticipation and insanely packed crowds of Kendrick, it was Arctic Monkeys, deep into their summer of world-conquering headline sets. Those guys are big in America. But to see them in Europe, with all the effortless swagger they’ve accrued over the years, is to see a compelling argument that they might turn out to be one of the Greats.
At the end of it all, there was one more Event, one more artist who packed the big tent for a late-night finale. That was St. Vincent, who wound up performing a set that seemed to blow away anyone who was present. When Annie Clark released her stunning fifth album under the moniker, last year’s MASSEDUCTION, she embarked on a tour that almost felt like more of an art installation than a live show, just her onstage below giant screens with a series of Pop Art-esque visuals. It was cool, and fitting, but also seemed to rob the music of some of its potential — St. Vincent is a notoriously impressive live experience, and these songs begged for the same kind of explosive onstage interpretation that her past work had received.
Now, on her summer festival circuit, St. Vincent is doing that. Backed by three other musicians, Clark now lets those MASSEDUCTION songs boil over, stretch out into even more warped forms; she lets these unshakeable refrains go on just a little bit longer, makes them just a little bit more gratifying. She plays her recent single “Fast Slow Disco,” the highly addicting dance version of MASSEDUCTION’s elegiac “Slow Disco,” towards the end of the set, and it becomes this overwhelming, jubilant party all the sudden.
Flow Festival was wise to place her at the end. St. Vincent’s set was, simply, incredible, and it was just the kind of endorphin rush the whole weekend deserved as its conclusion. Flow might still not register as widely as the European monoliths like Primavera, Glastonbury, or Roskilde. But once more, the latest installment of Helsinki’s big climactic summer event proved that it’s one of the coolest festivals around, a perfect answer to the waning days of the season.