My (misspent) youth featured who knows how many concerts, shows, festivals and gigs, ranging in size from the small local pub with sometimes fewer than 10 to 20 of us devotees to general admission behemoths featuring tent cities and reincarnated walls of sound with 200 000-plus music-loving freaks all sharing a moment. Almost exactly 20 years ago, I attended my last large-scale festival in the United States, the Lemonwheel in upstate Maine quite literally on the Canadian border (featuring actual mounted Mounties!) for the most epic of Phish shows during four days of camping and two days of shows.
Today, festivals at least in Helsinki, appear much more grown-up in many ways. Or, perhaps it’s the attendee. That was my impression of the Flow Festival. Situated near an electrical power plant and the heart of Helsinki’s rather more colourful districts, this festival blew me away. With around 28 000 attendees each day, and featuring acts I’d not expect in Helsinki, surprises lurked around every corner of the venue. Ten stages, loads of amazing (mostly vegan and sustainable) food on offer, and plenty of port-a-loos, some which even flushed, this was fantastically fun. (My last festival could boast no such luxuries, and the port-a-loos were an unbelievably unpleasant experience by the second day of that misadventure! Trust me.)
I confess: most of the acts at Flow aside from Patti Smith (who rocked the house contrary to the review the Helsinki Sanomat), Lauryn Hill (who slightly disappointed me only because she played short, the song was off and she did not reprise any classics from The Fugees) and Kendrick Lamar (who connected and amazed me, even if I did fear the bruising from the hyped up audience at moments) were utterly unknown to me before this weekend. Some I’d probably heard on one All Songs Considered or another. However, I’d never heard of most of them, particularly the Finnish acts. But, what a treat they all were.
Sunday began under dark, ominous clouds and threats of rain. But, as our crew entered the venue, the skies appeared a bit clearer and the air was filled with anticipation and excitement and joy. Overwhelming joy just being at Flow. This was a common theme across the three days. Everything up to that point had been oodles of fun. Why shouldn’t Sunday be any different?
Finding a man in a jacket with my husband’s name on it was one thing; my husband he most certainly was not. The first song I made it to by a Finnish band, Pyhimys, featured a kitty cat. Purrfect. Lyrically I understood nothing, but I liked this act. A lot. Not understanding the lyrics represented another common theme to my weekend. But, that mattered not. The vibe was funky and sweet. So sweet in fact, a little girl appeared on stage and sang along with the band and the crowd. More of that, please.
Next up was a lot of random-stage hopping and a bit of food. One take away from the previous two days was eat early if you plan to eat at all or don’t want to wait an incredibly long time for so-so food. The queues get long the later in the day you eat. Whilst the previous day featured Ethiopian food to die for, Sunday offered up another Helsinki favourite, Na’Am Kitchen. North African and Middle Eastern flavours combined creating some of the most tasty treats imaginable. Spicy red lentils and black-eyed peas never tasted so good. Unexpectedly, there was even salad — fresh, gloriously crunchy mixed greens! And, this was at a festival cooked out of a tent! If you happen to be in Helsinki, go to their brick and mortar location. You will not be disappointed.
Next top was Moodymann, a Detroit legend, provided some of the best dance music I heard all weekend. From New Order to more contemporary funk, he had us all grooving and feeling fine. I rather regretted dashing to get to the next stage. But, that is also the Flow experience. So much is happening simultaneously that you have to sacrifice the beginning or end of one show to catch the next. And, on it goes….
Enter Kendrick Lamar. Poet. Rapper. Historian. Urban fable-ist. Artist. Former thug-turned-performer. Pick your label and apply as you will. Kendrick was fun. I completely lost all of my peeps before he went on — the main stage area was jam packed like sardines by the time Kendrick’s performance began, which made it all the more interesting in many ways. I have no idea how long he performed — I don’t really care. It was fun, it was compelling and he had us all right there with him. The best bit of irony of the entire weekend also popped up at this point. Flow sent out messages to attendees via its mobile app and displayed huge screens asking the audience not to film or photograph Kendrick’s performance. (We appreciate your kind request and mostly rejected it.) Yet, somewhere in the middle of his set, the man himself asked us all to pull out our ‘lights’, which consisted of thousands of mobile-phone powered torches. Naturally, no one took a single photograph. Uh-huh. Well played, Kendrick. Well played.
The final act I caught was St. Vincent, and I honestly do not have the words to describe what I witnessed. Massive power guitar. Haunting lyrics and vocals. Surreal costumes and choreography. And, boundless beauty. Girlfriend is quite honestly gorgeous. I immensely enjoyed this act, but it was also time to go home.
Flow introduced me to an incredible amount of music, most of which I’m still listening to thanks to the Flow Playlist on Spotify. There’s so much I didn’t see. But, there’s more than enough for just about everyone.
- Use the earplugs. It’s Thursday after Flow and my ears are still ringing ever so slightly.
- Pace yourself. Don’t fret about what you might miss; something else will intrigue and delight you just as much. And, you might be surprised by something utterly unexpected and/or unintended.
- Pick your landmarks and make sure your crew knows them well. It’s damn near impossible at times to find folks.
- Spend a bit of time people watching. This weekend gave me such a different perspective on Finns. And, I’m infinitely grateful for and endeared by it.
- Removing that three-day wrist band is weird. I’d grown to rather love it.
So, when do we get to do it again? Here’s to Flow 2019. I don’t care who is playing; I’ll be back.