There was effortlessness in easing into Helsinki’s Flow Festival after the world’s three year hiatus from large-scale public events. Upon arrival in Finland there is a societal warmth that greets you much beyond the heat emanating from the two million saunas (the most per captia in the world).
This is a healthy and strong populus for whom destructive acts such as pitting varying tribes against each other in a form of culture war isn’t a concern, and a youth that isn’t starved of opportunity. Daytime tours to the design university and state library showcase a free higher education model coupled with amenities such as free-to-use music studios, VR and 3D printers – all of which are available to anyone. It’s this foundational grounding that unifies the people and gives them a sense of national pride.
Set in the disused power plant called Suvilhati, Flow is impeccably programmed and detail driven. As one of the world’s first carbon neutral festivals, they are also meat free but from a musical standpoint there is also a lot to admire. Friday kicks off with former Crack cover star Burna Boy beaming with energy and a summer-soaked Afro-pop vibe to the visually pleasing main stage. The Nigerian superstar is flanked with an eight piece band, backing singers, and a huge confetti cannon for a crescendo finish showing all the hall-marks of a future headline performance.
Over at the Backyard stage, NTS mainstay OK Williams re-upped the tempo with a selection of proggy trance cuts which set the energy for the night. Further exploring the site’s hidden indoor seated gem – The Other Stage – I witnessed a superb performance from Finnish experimental ambient outfit TRAINS, but the evening’s highlight came from London experimental jazz outfit (and MC) Alfa Mist. Playing on the excellent Balloon 360 Stage with the crowd circled around them, it was a privilege to be able to watch these musicians connect with each other in this unique setting. Unfortunately less can be said for main stage headliners Gorillaz whose continued transition away from being an animated audio-visual project into a live band means a lot of the magic that made them so unique has been lost.
Saturday was the busiest day for beats which were amply served by Sherelle, Anz, and DJ Stingray who played consecutively. In between the DJs, I took the rare opportunity to see the reformed Bikini Kill replete with Kathleen Hanna’s high-octane energy continuing to justify why they achieved cult status in the 90’s. Her battle-cry to the audience to start their own bands and make an impact on the world was a perfect continuation of their lofty position.
The evening belongs to Dublin’s Fontaines DC. With three albums since 2019 and a rare consistency across this output,, the pandemic downturn has propelled them forward as perhaps the most vital band around today. Packing one of the smaller tents at midnight, Singer Grian Chatten prowls the stage with anxiety-inducing restlessness that amplifies the sincerity and urgency in their music. This was a rare moment to watch them in an intimate setting and it was gratefully taken.
On Sunday, as part of the adjacent, yet overlapping month-long series of events, I was able to watch the outstanding choreographic masterpiece Tree of Codes from Wayne McGregor alongside installation artist Olafur Eliasson and electronic composer Jamie xx. Originally commissioned in 2015 but continuing to tour, if you are presented with this opportunity then its essential viewing. A spell-binding and unique collaboration of physical brilliance.
The energy left is focused on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ triumphant return to Flow. A performance that many may feel wouldn’t be possible given a further familial bereavement a year ago. Cave’s ability to channel grief into further amplification of his huge back-catalogue means there is further power and emotion that runs through every vein of what they and he do. Cave spends half of the performance in the adoring crowd who fanatically try to entice their hero to engage deeply with them which he duly does. It’s a performance that leaves many in tears including Cave.
With weekend sightings of outgoing Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, there is no doubt this is Helsinki’s main event in cultural calendar. Flow Festival remains a jewel in the Scandinavian festival crown. They are continually raising the bar.