Flow Festival Helsinki August 11-13 2017


This year’s Flow Festival featured expanded terrain and sold out to 75,000 visitors over three days. Although decimated by a thunderstorm on Saturday at 7pm, just as the Timo Lassi Jazz Band were set to play their 10th anniversary concert on the expanded Bright Balloon Stage, where I happened to be at the time, it recovered after a few cancellations and had what seemed like an increased population on the Sunday, complete with kids wearing huge earphones. It was my fourth Flow, and I’m beginning to feel my age, especially as the walking distance between the Bright Balloon Stage and the rest of the Festival has expanded as well, now featuring ten different spaces. Not so good for the short attention spans of the selfie-afflicted ‘post milk generation’ as they were referred to in the festival advertising. I appreciated my free ‘Cold Latte Brews’ nonetheless, especially as the only beer available was in tiny cans selling at 6 euros 50, courtesy of the local Lapin Kulta which had regenerated itself in green ‘natural’ brewed clothes. And there were some real musical delights amongst the dross.

Friday began for me in the Other Sound, now changed places with what used to be known as the Voimala, which meant it was adjacent to the Resident Advisor Front Yard, a space which features the endless dull thud of techno bleeding into the building. The Other Sound began with the NYKY Ensemble, basically a bunch of Sibelius Academy students and the odd staff member from the University of the Arts Helsinki, who were playing the Flow Festival for the third time, and have existed since 2009, on this occasion playing pieces by Philip Glass in celebration of his 80th birthday. Some early chamber works for flute, cello and piano, and a couple of ensemble pieces for multiple keyboards, brass and strings, which were all proficiently played and got a rapturous response from the audience cramped into this smallish space.

Then it was off to the Bright Balloon 360 degrees Stage, now twice as big, for Joshua Redman: Still Dreaming, featuring cornettist Ron Miles, and an admirer of Don Cherry, bassist Scott Colley, who studied with Dewey Redman, and Brian Blade on drums. Playing works by a quartet of Ornette Coleman alumni of the 1970s and 80s featuring Joshua’s father Dewey Redman on sax, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell called Old and New Dreams. All members of this band are now deceased, but they released two albums on the German ECM label, one in 1979 called Old and New Dreams, and the other a live album called Playing. Joshua’s band played a mixture of their compositions and historic tracks, including his father’s Rush Hour, culminating with Joshua’s composition dedicated to Charlie Haden, Blues for Charlie. A sublime set, dedicated to a 40 year old jazz tradition, but making it new.

The DJs of Helisinki’s We Jazz now have their own tent, where they play jazz records and sell records from their own and other labels, such as Svart (Swedish for black), and which provided a refuge for me and a host of others during the storm.

But back to the Other Sound, where Laura Cannell, a UK violinist and recorder player who specialises in the overbow violin, where the bow is looped over both sides of the violin, and plays two recorders at once. She has been much lauded in the Wire magazine, and already has three albums out, which combine religious music such as Hilda Von Bingen with folk music, and makes powerful reference to birds. One of her albums is called Beneath Swooping Talons, another Feather Swing of the Raven, and she recorded her last album in a lighthouse on the east coast of England. Her last song is called ‘The Drowned Sacristan’, and she’s off to Norway tomorrow for another concert and some recording. A charming, if fleeting, presence.

Aphex Twin was playing to a packed Lapin Kulta Red Arena, but it was basically a blinding, and rather migraine-inducing light show, accompanied by deafening techno, which I soon got sick of, and went back to the Other Sound, which was featuring Plié, a duo consisting of well-known Finnish drummer Joonas Riipa and his brother, Ville, a vinyl DJ also operating a sampler, which was much more enjoyable, and less crushed.

Tampere-based jazz trio Black Motor whose name sounds like a metal band, used to consist of drummer Simo Laihonen and bassist Ville Rauhala along with the rather scary-looking saxophonist Sami Sippola, who sported a long black beard, and released a number of acclaimed albums over a ten year period. They have now changed their line-up, replacing Sippola with blond bearded saxophonist Tane Kannisto, a member of legendary drummer Edward Vesala’s Sound and Fury, who also plays the nagaswaram, a Tamil wind instrument formerly played by US saxophonist Charlie Mariano. They have a new album out on We Jazz records called Branches, and it’s equally as good as they were before, as they’re all brilliant musicians. Unfortunately they get a disappointing crowd in the Other Sound and aren’t as appreciated as they should be.

London Grammar is headlining Friday night in the Lapin Kulta Red Arena at midnight, and they get as big a crowd as Aphex Twin, a fact that their drummer Dot Major says they’re ‘a bit overwhelmed’ by, especially as it’s their first time in Helsinki. They managed to sell out two nights at the Sydney Opera House this September and add a third at the Enmore in pretty record time too. The audience are really up with them, cheering at the opening chords of ‘Hey Now’, the opening track of their first album If You Wait as they begin their set. Hannah Reid is wearing tight jeans and a denim jacket over a grey hoodie and looking very casual but also concentrating intensely on her singing. When she comes to the opening track on their new album, Truth is a Beautiful Thing, ‘Rooting for You’, she brings out a stool to sit on – ‘singing this is difficult, not that the other songs are easy’ – and proceeds to sing the first part of the song unaccompanied, hitting some fiendishly high notes in the process. Her voice is both powerful and gorgeous, and she also plays quite a bit of piano – more than I remember last time I saw them at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney. They play mostly songs from their first album, as the second doesn’t appear to have been released in Finland yet, and it’s all very downbeat, even tortured, passionate stuff. At the end, Reid says ‘we always think nobody’s going to come, so this is quite amazing’. She even invites the audience to sing along to ‘Strong’ and they seem to know the words to most of the other songs too. A lot of young Finnish women are looking up at the group rapturously, and kissing their boyfriends when it’s over, as the crowd urges them to come back for an encore, which they can’t do. It’s a relatively short, but powerful set, and we manage to miss the last metro as a result, and only just get the last tram, which gets me home at 2am. But London Grammar is definitely the highlight of the festival, and they’ve obviously got lots of Finnish fans. They’re off to the Way Out West festival in Göteborg, Sweden tomorrow, where they’ll get an equally huge response.

Day 2 starts with Virta on the Bright Balloon Stage – an instrumental post rock trio with trumpet, electronics, guitar and drums, who sold out three nights in a row in Helsinki’s most established music venue Tavastia, recently, and have an album out on local jazz label Svart. Stylish, a bit like German minimalists Neu!

I’d never taken much notice of Sparks before, although they were around when I was living in the UK in the 1970s, and I must have seen them on Top of the Pops and even the Old Grey Whistle Test. I’d always thought they were a UK band, as they spent so much time there, but they’re from LA, and have a real talent for comedy. They’ve also been going for at least five decades, although they had a bit of a lull in the 1980s, and keyboard player Ron Mael, he with the scowl and Hitler moustache, is looking very long in the tooth, while his brother, vocalist Russell, has a toupe or at least a comb-over. They come on as a six-piece, dressed as gondoliers in black and white stripes and matador pants, and are absolutely hilarious in a deadpan sort of way. They do a couple of numbers from their imminent album, ‘Hippopotamus’ and ‘Missionary Position’ and are just what we need on a terribly humid day to lighten the mood in the calm before a storm. Apparently Queen once opened for them at the Marquee Club in London, and when they released their 21st album in 2009 they did a series of 21 concerts in London, each one featuring one of their albums, which must be something of a record. They’ve been lauded by Thurston Moore, who’s played with them, Morrissey and the Smiths – they have a hilarious track called ‘Lighten Up Morrissey’ (she won’t dine out with me, she won’t have sex with me …) and numerous other UK luminaries, influencing New Order, the Human League, Duran Duran and many more. Björk called them ‘the most refreshing thing in my life’ and I can see why. A real revelation, and I caught up on all their videos, which I heartily recommend, after I’d got home and dried out after the storm. I must check out their radio musical ‘The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman some day’, which they made in Finland, so they’re no strangers here. Apparently much of the rest of the festival was washed out, although Flume was supposed to be headlining in the Red Tent.

Day 3 was super-crowded, and a good day to downsize, as I saw only two bands, both Finnish, and both absolute highlights. Jazz trumpeter Verneri Pohjola packed out the Bright Balloon Stage with his new album, Pekka dedicated to his prog rock musician father, and looking resplendent in a cowboy hat, jeans and a stud belt. His quintet, which included guitarist Teemu Viinikainen, Tuomo Prättälä on Fender Rhodes, Mika Kallio on drums and his regular bassist Antti Lötjönen, were in explosive form. In his liner notes to the album, and in a Finnish television program earlier this year, Pohjola pointed out that he wasn’t ‘raised’ by his father, as he was two when he and his mother divorced, and although he did play with him before his untimely death at 56 in 2008, he was never close to him. He dedicates the album instead to his mother, who did raise him. VP has become one of the foremost Finnish jazz musicians, and the release of this album on the UK Edition label will hopefully make him even better known, along with his father’s compositions.

Finally, in the Other Sound, Pekko Käppi, a virtuoso on the jouhikko, a Finnish bowed lyre with horsehair strings. Käppi, with his band K:H:H:L, a trio consisting of Tommi Laine, a guitarist on a Bo Diddely cigar box guitar ( he also plays baritone guitar, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, slide guitar, lap steel guitar, cavaquinho (a small Portuguese guitar), drums, percussion and synthesizer) and Nuutti Vapaavuori, a bassist on a three string cigar box bass (who also plays electric bass, percussion, and synthesizer), who both contribute vocals and really manage to whip up a storm. Käppi is a feral looking guy, a Hendrix of the jouhikko, and has developed his own custom made double necked model, adorned with a skull and crossbones, which he really thrashes. His singing is also passionate, and his latest album, released on Svart Records, is called Matilda which may have an Australian connection – he’s been there is the past – although Svart Records aren’t giving anything away. The title song is a slow ballad, which is unusual for him, and on this occasion he has a light show, and the stage is adorned with reindeer skulls, lit up from inside, complete with antlers, and a couple of human skulls as well. He received a rapturous response from the audience, and even does an encore – generally not permitted at the festival. I first saw him here four yeas ago with a mate playing a kantele (Finnish zither) made from a skateboard, and was totally knocked out. He’s only got better since then, and his eccentric band complements him ideally. Nothing could eclipse this, certainly not tonight’s headliners, Ryan Adams and Frank Ocean, totally mundane in comparison.


About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.