Suvilahti, Helsinki, Finland
Flow thrives in the liminal space between some absolutes that have come to define the leading Helsinki festival over the past two decades.
The event’s charm lies somewhere between its post-industrial power plant surroundings, its sustainability and carbon neutrality commitments, and its dual focus on both established mainstreamers and esoteric music-makers. There’s something to be said about an average evening at the inner-city gathering, which could quite easily see a bunch as varied as rap veteran Pusha T, Italy’s Nu Genea, composer and sound artist Maya Shenfeld and house hero Louie Vega performing concurrently across the concrete Suvilahti site, which will be home to Flow for just one more year before a move someplace new. And that’s not touching on the non-musical offerings – namely dining, talks and art – that come together to complete the Flow long weekend experience.
Taking a similar tack to London’s All Points East (or even California staple Coachella), the festival is slick in its set-up and thoughtful in its curation, with many of names appearing at Flow playing in Finland for the first time. As such, crowds are excited to catch many of their favourites in the flesh. However, there is a sense of reserve at shows from artists who’d typically garner far more energetic reactions. When it comes to the headliners – who this year included Wizkid, Lorde and Blur, following frontman Damon Albarn’s appearance last year with Gorillaz – it is surprising easy to get in the thick of it with only minutes to spare, something that feels like a rarity for performers of this scale.
There was a lot to take in at the festival’s most recent gathering, but here are just five standout moments from Flow 2023, shared alongside a gallery of images.
The weekend began at the X Garden, a sort of extraterrestrial greenhouse-like structure new for 2023. Its programme shined a light on Helsinki’s homegrown club scene through all-day takeovers from local crews. On the Friday, it was the turn of Club U-Haul – a party and collective launched to uplift the Black and brown queer community in the city – and their troupe of resident dancers and interdisciplinary artists, alongside safer space hosts who were situated around the venue. Finnish DJ Yeboyah, a Flow returnee, burned sage behind the decks to a sweat-inducing soundtrack of hip-hop, amapiano and UK funky with a Kendrick Lamar into Daft Punk blend going down a treat as Club U-Haul hosts reminded those in the audience to drink water and take care of their friends.
Raven, the dazzling comeback album from R&B foreteller Kelela, has been on heavy rotation from our side since its release in February. For its live iteration in the inky confines of Flow’s Black Tent area, the artist leaned into the record’s clubbier motifs to deliver a soaring set of album staples. In keeping with her history for dabbling in alternate versions of fan-favourites, these were largely in remix and pumping dancefloor edit form, plus the ice-cold vault classic, including 2013’s Enemy. She cut a singular figure on stage, her silhouette dancing across kaleidoscopic yet minimal visuals as breakbeats and thumping kicks converged with trademark ethereal vocals. The crowd – as we’d soon come to experience elsewhere – was divided into the die-hards and the more casual passersby; depending on where you were standing, you could experience an altogether different atmosphere. It’s good to have her back.
A stroll around the wider festival site, past gallery-like inside spaces, plant-based food vendors and the striking Balloon 360 stage – where the likes of Nala Sinephro, Arp Frique and Balming Tiger took turns to perform to cosy crowds in-the-round – led us to the main stage ahead of Wizkid’s Friday night headline performance. It took us five minutes to secure a prime spot near the front of the stage, which was lined with a curious (at arrival time, at least) amount of water bottles. The purpose of these bottles, aside from working somewhat against the festival’s sustainability ideals, was soon made clear: those who did snag a front row spot were sprayed by the untiring Nigerian star at every chance possible – when the pyrotechnics weren’t doing their thing, obviously. The energy is sky-high as Wizkid, a slim live band, plus the equally exuberant DJ Tunez careened through his grab-bag of Afrobeats, R&B and big-name collaborations before an enlivened audience. Entirely momentous.
The same rings true to Jyoty’s Saturday set at the leafy Front Yard stage. As appears to be the Flow way, many of the festival’s international bookings are reserved until later in the day, with the in-demand DJ and broadcaster’s dinnertime slot doubling as a sort of mood-setter for the night ahead. Here, dancers vogued and gin-based tinnies fist-pumped as the perennially sunny selector took us to London, Brazil and South Africa via the Renaissance tour – think baile funk edits, a Cuff It remix, Nikki Nair and HudMo’s club smash Set the Roof and even a Charli XCX and Bicep Glue mash-up that felt like a coming together of disparate worlds. Bookended by New York staple DJ Voices and Helsinki’s own Sansibar, it was easy to lose hours here on the festival’s second day.
The final day saw the return of the tricky clash; where Friday saw Kaytranada and Shygirl vying for similar crowds, Sunday saw two former Crack Magazine cover stars, Sudan Archives and Christine and the Queens, taking their respective spaces at the Black Tent and the larger Silver Arena at the same time. A little before that, however, it was the turn of Caroline Polachek on the main stage for her first Finland show. Full disclosure: we’ve seen Polachek a few times now, but her voice will never not impress. It unfurled like a vista at first light across songs like the SOPHIE-dedicated I Believe plus older tracks like Doors and So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings. Polachek glided across the stage in a swirl of black tulle, a bleached stripe across her hair harking back to her Chairlift days as she gave a crash course on the music that will come to define her current artistic era.