Hosting Massive Attack, Morrissey, PJ Harvey and an outrageous supporting cast, Getintothis’ Peter Guy and Vicky Pea go gallivanting in Gothenburg to see what the fuss is about at Way Out West.
Shanghai, Rotterdam, Philadelphia – all cities which have regularly drawn comparisons with Liverpool. Yet there are few cities we’ve visited which bear similarities quite like Gothenburg.
Sweden’s second largest city, behind the capital Stockholm, Gothenburg is a traditional maritime port sitting atop of the Gothia River on the country’s west coast and is widely considered the epicentre for cultural and musical happenings. The sea, tourism and it’s industrial history pervades Gothenburg alongside it’s people’s deep love of their city.
Amid the townhouses which run alongside the canals there’s a myriad of museums and art galleries arching around the central square of Götaplatsen while the working class district of Haga is not too dissimilar to Liverpool’s Ropewalks with its independent outlets, small eateries, record shops and coffee-shop hangouts – all of which have slowly been transformed since the 1980s calling for some to decry the gentrification of this area once renowned for its picturesque wooden houses. It is also a city rich in greenery with the botaniska trädgård (botanical gardens) taking pride of place in the centre of the city while the 32 acre Kungsparken circles the walls.
But, like Liverpool, it’s Gothenburg’s musical heritage which is inescapable. Our visit coincides with the Stadsmuseum‘s major exhibition charting the city’s musical rise from 1955 to the present, beginning with the early jazz pioneers including Little Gert through the blues explosion as the rockers and traditionalists went head to head in gang fights before the pop explosion of the 60s as instrumental cosmic-gear-adorned oddballs The Spotniks brought a blend of Star Trek and The Shadows to the stage. It was during this fertile period that bars and clubs sprung up to meet the demand of the burgeoning force of the city’s music scene and the comparison to Liverpool’s Merseybeat era is easily drawn.
The punk and heavy metal of the 70s and 80s saw the rise of the likes of Genesis P. Orridge collaborators Leather Nun (cited as a huge influence on western counter-culture) and Hammerfall (there’s a funny aside here when one of the band’s members was fired after his breastplate armour was stolen backstage). However, it’s the latter years of Gothenburg’s musical heritage that’s made a significant dent on European pop culture with the likes of Ace Of Base, José González, Little Dragon, The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, Jens Lekman, Goat and The Knife all making sizeable impressions across both sides of the Atlantic.
And the pride in its contemporary phase of Nordic invention is reflected across three days of Gothenburg’s biggest music festival, Way Out West. Set within Slottsskogen, Gothenburg’s largest public park – not unlike Liverpool’s Sefton Park – this easily accessible yet rather vast space is home to wide green lawns, a lake and houses five stages all within a ten minute walk – think Latitude meets LIMF. The live performances kick off around midday and go on until midnight when the park shuts down and the action switches back to the city for Stay Out West when a variety of bars, clubs, gig venues, the Hagakyrkan church and a club on the Bananpiren pier each host a range of shows deep into the night as punters walk, shuttle bus or tram it across to various districts.
All of which for the novice makes for an intriguing adventure. Our gallivanting around Gothenburg began early doors on a sunny Thursday morning; with the site being set up and barely a soul in view, we’re able to digest things. Similarly to Primavera the two main stages – Azalea and Flamingo – sit facing each other and allow punters, should they wish, to simply engage in an all-day game of musical head tennis. The large Linné tent is the furthest stage from entry hosting perhaps the most adventurous music of the weekend while the outside pop-up mini platforms of the Höjden and Dungen house Swedish and rising electronic artists respectively. A wander around the lake brings you out into the press area containing a rather grandiose period house, a handful of bars, pizzeria and dining area.
A brief trip back into the city to explore allowed us to take in the fabulous Gothic indoor fishmarket, Feskekôrka, and sample their delicious – yet wildly expensive – shrimps and roasted cuts of salmon.
Back on site and the first of a variety of sure-fire sonic wins take to the Dungen stage as John Talabot and Axel Boman team up for Talaboman providing warm, undulating washes of electricity which is the perfect marriage in the glistening afternoon heat. Like much of the programme, organisers opt to throw in several big hitters early on in the day and it’s characteristic on day one when M83 take to the Flamingo stage at just 4.25pm. On the opening day it’s not a problem as we’re fresh and ready for anything yet as the festival unfolds across three days which go on until anything approaching 4am it makes the likes of Jose Gonzalez and Anderson Paak regrettable misses in our festival weekender.
M83 prove a frustrating combination of cinematic widescreen synth epics and rather naff big pop – in attempting to push their music to a wider audience they lose the nuance and emotional pull of their earlier material and it’s noticeable when band leader Anthony Gonzalez leaves the stage that much of what they’re peddling is indeed backing tracks fronted by a growing troupe of session musicians – one of which bears an alarming resemblance to Alex Zane who’s OTT guitar/drum affectations are almost too much to watch. That said, when they nail it, they’re simply divine; Midnight City sounds ridiculously huge, Reunion and Go! are gold-encrusted pop nuggets and closer Lower Your Eyelids To Die With The Sun is one of the finest pieces of music we hear all weekend.
CHVRCHES have no worries when it comes to balancing subtlety to big pop noise – they simply dispense with the former and comprehensively wallop the latter. Of course, it helps to have such mighty gems like Recover, Clearest Blue and Empty Threat in your arsenal but what makes today extra special is Lauren Mayberry‘s cheeky precociousness. Having once been a tad restrained and unsure of herself as a frontwoman, she’s now seriously embracing her role; vaulting, athletically leaping, straddling a set of toms, cat-walking from the back to the lip of the stage and best of all wise-cracking about moon-walking across the slippery surface before head-banging her way through a pummelling Bury It. Awesome stuff.
Similarly awesome is Gothenburg native, Anna von Hausswolff. Regular readers of Getintothis will know this writer has long admired her deft blend of an almost operatic vocal and instrumental approach to making music while fusing it to mutant prog and kraut textures – but to hear it live is another matter entirely. Having tuned up for sometime she and her small army of musicians unleash the most furious waves of sounds all weekend; it’s near-doom metal in its power. The grandiose magnificence of Come Wander With Me/Deliverance, the centre-piece of her latest album The Miraculous, is von Hausswolff’s crowning glory; all fizzing ambient dissonance before breaking out into a primal howl and seismic crunching guitar walls which is akin to Kate Bush jamming with Sleep with Eno in the control room. If that sounds slightly far-fetched, just go see her.
If there’s a clear disappointment, and recurring theme of the weekend though, it’s that not only do no homegrown talent match Hausswolff for creativity or verve – but they offer very little in terms of diversity. Too often they sound characteristically Scandinavian; all the journalistic cliches could be trotted out – ethereal, glacial, celestial, other-worldly – all combining into some kind of divine, err, Sonic Cathedral. Maybe?
Norweigian Aurora is a classic example. Having seemingly emerged from Narnia she is both captivating and utterly bland – all shocks of white hair and porcelain skin draped in woodland attire while her voice is crystalline and quite beautiful. Yet her songs are utterly insipid. Like a John Lewis advert film-reel on repeat. The same can be said for the vast majority of Nordic artists we encounter and it’s a shame as the Gothenburg museum exhibition displayed such a wild and exotic array of characters the region has produced.
No such problems for the likes of Kamasi Washington who is the festival’s stand out act by a country mile. His 3pm slot on Friday is nothing short of a masterclass in musical fusion. Where on record The Epic is an ambitious showcase of artistry and finesse, live he, alongside his relentless band, reimagines it into a cauldron of deep funk jams which recalls the greats of Hendrix, Prince, Coltrane and Miles Davis into some kind of hook-laden disco work out. It’s nonstop fun and for an hour the Linné tent dances as one.
Indeed, the Linné tent hosts the majority of the stand out performances from the weekend – and it’s also the only part of the festival site which allows alcohol to be consumed while watching the performances – something which, for better or worse, certainly results in a lack of vibrancy among the crowd. Indeed, Way Out West has perhaps the most polite, restrained and openly affectionate festival crowds we’ve ever seen. It’s striking that during an hour or more of Massive Attack hurtling imagery of terrorism, global corruption and political sloganeering, one couple beside us merely kiss all the way through. Peace and love, indeed Ringo.
Back in the Linné tent, meanwhile, Chelsea Wolfe provides some much-needed gristle and grit to proceedings, Julia Holter is mesmerising, Cali pop-punk vets The Descendents show why Green Day cribbed their entire sound before it existed, Beth Orton combined humble shyness with the delicate electronica of 1973 from her recent album Kidsticks to the guitar-thrumming of oldie classics including She Cries Your Name before Kaytranada offers up good reason as to why he’s one of 2016’s most-hyped artists showering the packed tent after dark with his gloop of ebullient dancefloor shimmies, swaggering Chance The Rapper beats and deft Janet Jackson/80s samples. Married to a raft of banana-palm-tree-neon visuals, he proves a late night treat.
Indeed, it’s the late night affair as Way Out West transforms into Stay Out West which proves our genuine win. Recalling a ultra-mini SXSW or perhaps closer to the early days of Liverpool Sound City, Gothenburg comes alive to people darting off to all corners of the city and while the students have departed home for summer, it’s certainly the most buzzing time of day.
Taking the advice of those ITK, we reserve space on guest lists ahead of the Stay Out West programme and it proves a real tip – seriously, if you go, do this as the queues post midnight are long and potentially wet! Thursday night we board a shuttle bus to be whisked off to Camp and Furnace – or should we say, Gothenburg Studios – an exact replica of which the directors at Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle hub have clearly ‘borrowed’ inspiration from their Scandinavian counter-parts as we walk around various warehouses adorned with fairy-lights, bunting, long benches and tables complete with street food hubs, craft ales and even a band on stage which resembles the Harlequin Dynamite Marching Band.
Just as we’re beginning to think we’ve woken up in a dream in L1 – we’re snapped back in the room as the Fire! Orchestra 24-piece serenade us with some extravagant brass-led waltz. Next door (in what really could be the Blade Factory) Morgan Delt offers lo-fi psychedelic offerings before Thundercat entrances us into a deep coma with his therapeutic blend of entrancing bass-led jams and jazzy meanderings. We’d dearly have loved to stick about for Dungen and Algiers but the hour long bus journey-walk home post 3am was simply too much of an ask.
It’s this kind of endurance which proves once again essential when on Friday, we take a different route at Stay Out West swerving the pull of PJ Harvey – we’ve seen her before and know what to expect, so go in search of the new – and are rewarded by two of the weekend’s best new artists and sets in our favourite city centre bar, Pustervik.
The front bar sees two DJs spinning college rock including the likes of the Pains of Being Pure At Heart while in the back main room new 4AD propisiton Liima detonate jagged electro-pop bombs with gleeful abandon. Three-part Danes (from Efterklang) and one part Finnish percussionist Tatu Rönkkö they’re clearly having fun while recalling Yeasayer in that their music is wildly eclectic yet riddled with spicy hooks and ultra-catchy choruses.
They’re swiftly followed by Secretly Canadian signings Whitney whose charismatic swagger is balanced with quite gorgeous harmonies, delicately poised rhythms and mini flourishes of guitar, trumpet and some audacious drum fills from singer Julien Ehrlich. Both bands prove a revelation and spur us on to more drinks upstairs were Joan Shelley‘s porch-blues-folk is both easy on the ear and proves a timely antidote to anything we’ve heard all weekend. Simple, direct Americana played to a packed bar of attentive listeners. It works wondrously.
Back downstairs, as we settle for the balcony, the now-sardine-packed main room await what organisers are calling the new Lana Del Rey. What emerges is 21-year-old London-based, Albania-born Dua Lipa. The first few bars of her opening track are indicative of what’s about to go down – chrome-plated bolshy chart pop with recent top 15 UK hit, Hotter Than Hell being lapped up by the ecstatic masses. She could very well be massive. We’re left rather indifferent but still suspiciously intrigued by it all.
Our final trip of late night travels at Stay Out West saw us take up a pew in Hagakyrkan – a modern church with thin tower. Bathed in thick purple light and blackening shade Tim Hecker on Friday sends us spiraling into a coma-induced drone which would be frightening were the music not so transportive and rich in its meditative all-consuming nature. He’s a revelation. Contrastingly, William Basinski sends us to sleep by virtue of his repetitive flat ambience. It’s a shame, for having seen just how powerful he can be (his Kazimier date in 2015 was incredible) we’re left scratching our heads at why? The answer is simple – two tracks elongated over the same riff for 45 minutes was simply too much at nearly 1am.
What’s also too much is the driving torrential rain for much of Friday and Saturday. With rain seeping into our boots, mud coating our jeans and not even a drink to ease our woe, we can only face 15 minutes of Grace Jones‘ theatrical hoohah – for all her tribal exoticism and naked-body-painted cavorting after arriving on stage 20 minutes late we quickly retreat for shelter. The elements put pay to Jessy Lanza and Wildbirds & Peacedrums – two acts we were so keen to see – while The Libertines pull out of their scheduled slot (only to return the following day) joining the likes of Anohni, The Kills, Haim and The Avalanches as high profile cancellations leaving Massive Attack as the one genuine big, big gun who truly send shockwaves across Slottsskogen.
So what else did we learn?
Well, from the get-go, the Swedish stereotypes do come to the fore – Way Out West is an incredibly clean and polished festival; its vegan-only stance is reflected in the array of tasty yet healthy cuisine on offer while the ominpresent Oatly provide not just the only milk option on site (it tastes horrific; all coffee and tea are reduced to gargling what feels like pasty muesli) but a tacky dance shed as you enter the site. This emphasis on environmental awareness extends to the bars – cash isn’t an option, only cards which sets off alarm bells for those of the Getintothis team who incur big charges via payment by plastic overseas.
And as aforementioned, while there’s thankfully zero chance of dickheads lashing bottles there’s a tendency for crowds to become rather lacking in atmosphere. In turn this places further emphasis on the Stay Out West element of the festival – this is perhaps where organisers can build and extend creating further buzz and excitement – and indeed programme more new, emerging talent.
While the weather did Way Out West no favours, the in-out system from the Azalea and Flamingo stages was ridiculous come Friday as the mud reduced leaving the main area a Herculean task. If all that seems negative, well, we’ll balance it out to say we had a seriously good time. Way Out West is an expertly programmed festival in an idyllic setting with a line up which straddles the huge pop titans of Morrissey and Sia (we didn’t see either, we’d rather pull our eyes out) with the shit-hot hype stars and a shopping list of critical darlings. Factor in a quite magnificent city and the late night offerings and it made us think – this is what, given time, budget and ambition – Liverpool’s International Music Festival should strive to be. And for anyone reading, we can offer fewer better appraisals than that.
Getintothis’ top six picks of Way Out West 2016
1. Kamasi Washington
There’s little doubt who made the most impression at Way Out West. Kamasi Washington and his extended collective – who it should be pointed out are as equally as impressive and key to making the whole performance an otherwordly experience – are simply magical. At 3pm amid dull muggy clouds, he bursts out the traps with Change Of The Guard from his 2015 album The Epic and it serves as a definitive statement of intent – for this truly is the line drawn in the sand for all others to match.
For the next hour his set unfolds with a frenetic, beautifully paced narrative as he passes the baton to each one of his band allowing them all to take centre stage. While the opening number allows the main man to push both fierce and sensitive saxophone to the fore like the most funkiest and ferocious copshow soundtrack yet to be penned, it’s the second number which sees organ maestro Brandon Coleman fuse elements of Herbie Hancock with Sun Ra and cheeky little flourishes which only add to the momentous grooves. Double bass player Miles Mosley then attempts to emulate his boss with some extraordinary skills as his finger dance down his instrument before swapping bow and technique contorting sounds from an upright bass we’ve never heard before. It’s sublime stuff and you can almost see members of the crowd making mental notes to check out the individual members of the bands’ solo albums.
As Mosley’s superfunk winds down soprano sax player dad Rickey Washington – “the man who taught me everything I know – is wheeled out to dual with trombonist Ryan Porter. What should be noted is that while there’s some ridiculous musicianship on show, it’s not only near effortless in its delivery but rarely seems superfluous or convoluted instead its fluid and creates a huge swelling party atmosphere as jungle boogie dual drummers Ronald Bruner Jr and Tony Austin nonchalantly work their kits in unison like Olympic synchronised swimmers.
Having waited in the wings with textured backing vocals and gesticulations seemingly willing the Gods for more super-powers, vocalist Patrice Quinn‘s closer begins momentarily a tad too syrupy and for a flicker we’re worried it’s all going to close on anything but interstellar – however, as her voice steadily soars to the heavens Washington raises his fist – a huge cheer goes up from the crowd and the entire network of players roar into action for a six minute flurry of blockbusting music. It is without a doubt one of the greatest festival sets we’ve witnessed. And we’ve been attending festivals regularly since 1995.
If we were a little worried that Way Out West lacked a bit of oomph it arrived in style and a poncho on our second evening as Liima brought an electrical storm to Pustervik. Playing their album ii in almost its entirety they skilfully meld huge stadia-sized hooks and choruses with sizzling dissonance and Tatu Rönkkö‘s relentless rhythms. The robotic nature of their sound implores the crowd to bodyrock as Trains In The Dark lives up to its name sending limbs rocking in propulsive kraut posturing while Roger Waters is a rampaging squall of thrilling noise.
Woods sees Rönkkö utilising his ironing board temporary percussion frame adorned with kitchen utensils to dramatic effect as tins and colanders go flying before the sinister alien-drone of 513 sees vocalist Casper Clausen smile and embrace the front rows of the enraptured audience as they bob to Rasmus Stolberg‘s clunking bass lines. Closer Amerika is both malevolent and utterly funky typifying a live band who simultaneously sound dangerous – but deliver it with mischievous devilment. All thriller no filler.
There were no two bands at Way Out West we looked forward to seeing more – and the one-two of Liima and Whitney at Pustervik worked a dream. While the former were seemingly beamed in from a glacial extraterrestrial universe, Whitney exuded novice homeboys on their debut tour outing – the only thing alien about them was drummer/vocalist Julien Ehrlich‘s decision to drape a wet towel over his head resulting in a distinct resemblance to ET. Although their live performance was pretty out of this world too.
Like Kamasi Washington, the Chicago band operate as a tight unit allowing each member to introduce spectacular flourishes – but where Kamasi’s bunch extend their chops into epics, Whitney specialise in momentary licks oozing subtlety and nuance; see Golden Days marriage of brass with vocal harmonies, The Falls‘ bridge between chorus and verse which deftly contains delicate Max Kakacek guitar riffs and the Will Miller trumpet jam-stomp of Red Moon. It’s a lesson in restraint.
And then there’s that voice – we could listen to Ehrlich all day – especially when he sings those extra falsetto notes on the likes of Dave’s Song imploring ‘Take me in your heart again… Don’t you know I need you here my friend…‘ If there’s a knowing swaggering arrogance (‘We party harder than any band’, insists Ehrlich) among them, it’s forgivable when you hear the tenderness of Light Upon The Lake and organist Ziyad Asrar‘s ode to his dad, No Matter Where We Go.
Album opener No Woman is saved to last – it’s simply beautiful – and the band drag it out with a false ending which collapses before being brought back to life with a mini jam which is deliciously infectious. Never overplayed, this is band seriously motoring, we’ll be joining them on the road every step of the way.
4. Tim Hecker
It was the third time we’d seen Tim Hecker – and his finest by some distance. Playing music from his latest album, Love Streams, he once again immersed us deep into a trance-like state – but where in the past we’ve dipped in and out of this dreamlike state through a disconnect with the textures and sounds he was creating, this time round we were completely lost. Contextually it helped that the magnificent Hagakyrkan church was his platform while the 1.45am start and several ales and exuberance following the action in Pustervik allowed our minds to be suitably lubricated for something psychedelic. Hecker duly obliged as we were sent spiralling into the dense misty abyss. Almost 45 minutes later, we emerged from the deep dub-meets-sheet-metal-noise-cavern feeling both refreshed and utterly done in. It’s both life-affirming and comatosing.
5. Massive Attack & Young Fathers
Massive Attack provide the ideal end to our weekend in Slottsskogen – and it’s ironic that after so much beautiful and quite harmonious music that it should end with something which is designed to pummel you like a migraine while thwacking your ethics into check and questioning why you put up with the amount of global shite around you.
That’s Massive Attack, they’ve been insisting on doing it so for years.
Yet there’s nothing retrospective about their sound or message, it’s a contemporary lesson in rhythmic dynamites married to a hardcore message as 3D, Daddy G and their growing cast of vocalists and collaborators each take to the stage one by one.
Opener United Snakes is like a digital bullet to the brain as the large visual screen ramps up the unease by beginning an endless frenetic barrage of political messages of condemnation or gigantic flashes of colour blocks. It’d be a nightmare for any epileptic. Daddy G’s Risingson is the ultimate murder ballad before Azekel adds dark-alley soul to Voodoo In My Blood. The arrival of Young Fathers for three mid-set numbers (‘brothers on the same page‘) may see a dip in quality compared to that of Massive Attack‘s catalogue yet the trio unequivocally add further to the unfolding drama as each adopt their own serial killer character – the motionless camp lunatic, the raving, bulging-eyed madman and the tribal-drumming preacher-turned-butcher.
The most surprising number, Futureproof, arrives amid a slow burst of red dots on the giant screen – and we say surprising as the album from which it’s taken 100th Window is a career nadir – yet as the dots swell into a sea of stabbing explosions the lacerating guitars and drum pads create a cavalcade of quite blistering sonics to the senses. It’s one of the moments of the festival. The introduction of Horace Andy signals a haunting Angel before the entire collective unite for a barn-storming rendition of Safe From Harm. It’s a mighty finale proving the Bristol heads are a necessary antidote in these most unsettling of ages.
We were going to include CHVRCHES here, and to be fair they are equally deserved (we’re cheating, we know) however, we’ve waxed lyrical enough about them and Thundercat were another of the late night surprises which ensured we went home with a big grin on our faces and an extra spring in our steps. And it’s kinda funny that these super jazzy outfits seemed to reign supreme in Sweden. Because here is a dude, Stephen Bruner – ex members of thrashers Suicidal Tendencies – leading his band through complex, super-laid back cosmic jazz which could be seen as obtuse yet it was delightfully funky and allowed us bathe in its luxuriant velvety softness until the early hours of Friday morning. In all honesty, that’s the way we’d like to end every night.
Photos by Getintothis’ Vicky Pea except * where indicated by Peter Guy