Flow Festival: Updating the music festival for 2017

Finland is the fifth happiest country in the world so it knows that a great music festival doesn't involve flat lager, overcrowded venues and being knee deep in mud. Here's what we discovered when we visited Flow Festival.

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Music festivals are big business. As our enthusiasm for festivals increases, organisers are looking for new ways to combine our love of live music, with other leisure activities. Go to Croatia to listen to house or hip hop and bake in the heat, revel in nature in the wondrous sites of Wales’ Green Man Festival or Wilderness or delve into the foodie haven of Port Elliot in Cornwall. Festivals have become the reason so many of us venture to new lands on the hunt for alternative festival experiences, more bang for our buck and possibly a better chance of catching the bigger and more elusive performers you might not get to see at home.

Enter Finland’s Flow Festival, a music festival based in the country’s capital of Helsinki, whose lineup this year included Lana Del Rey, Frank Ocean, Aphex Twin, London Grammar, Young Thug and The xx. Situated in a disused power plant, the festival has grown from a humble 2000 capacity indoor jazz event to hosting 75,000 guests and some of the most recognised names in music.

While the festival does offer travellers the ideal excuse to visit the Finnish capital, it doesn’t claim to be anything novel or specialist. Its uniqueness comes from its quality – of making the core elements of the festival very, very good. A ‘music, arts and cuisine’ festival, the first thing that is apparent upon entering is the importance of its visual presentation. Opposed to the usual bland and brand heavy panelling seen in many city festivals, Flow’s felt more handcrafted. From the shimmering ‘FLOW’ lettering near the main entrance through to the macramé hangings that draped the outside of the always busy Red Garden to the balloons that floated high in the sky signalling the festival’s help points, the theme was tied together by the use of the festival artwork’s vibrant red. The Bright Balloon 360 stage is an attraction in itself, a theatre in the round style venue, with raised seats beneath a huge, glowing orb creating a spectacularly intimate performance space. The production quality throughout the festival is impressive too, making each artist’s set feel like a full show. The visuals and lighting in the Lapin Kulta Red tent are particularly atmospheric, while the industrial feel of the Resident Advisor garden seems very fitting for the artists that grace its stage.

Image 1 -3 Photo courtesy of Flow Festival / Jussi Heusien
Image 4 Photo of Ibibio Sound Machine courtesy of Flow Festival / Konstantin Kondrukhov

Art isn’t localised on one stage or area but presented many ways through the festival. This year included Danish artist HuskMitNavn’s mural outside of the grounds and the graphic work from Aalto University students projected onto the screens of the Main Stage and Lapin Kulta Red Arena between sets. In addition to this, the Riviera Cinema Bar screened films made by Finnish students. Each artwork appears in the festival programme and features in the app, so it’s easy to familiarise yourself with the art through the festival.

The popularity of the festival has seen people travel from all over the world to its site, which boasts nearly 40 different food vendors from Helsinki’s best restaurants, as well as multiple bars serving up far more than your standard Heineken. In fact, this year there was a Bullet Bourbon cocktail stall, as well as a champagne bar and several others selling craft beer. The choice and quality of food through Flow is worth mentioning – the festival’s organisers prefer sustainable vendors, those who locally source their ingredients and vegetarian and vegan options and you can really tell – the food at Flow is beyond the quality seen at many festivals.

Image 5+6 Photo courtesy of Flow Festival / Andrew Taylor

What to bring to Flow
  • An appreciation for new music – especially as half the lineup isn’t in English
  • An appetite – the food at Flow is seriously good
  • A cagoule – we were so thankful we brought ours brought ours when the storm hit!
  • Ear plugs – we recommend the titanium Flare Audio ones
  • A power bank – if you want good content for the ‘Gram, then a fully charged phone is needed. We recommend the Anker PowerCore 20100, available here

 

Musically, the festival offers a mix of Finnish, Scandinavian and more internationally known artists covering jazz, folk, electronic, pop and plenty of rap and hip hop. In fact, this year’s line-up included a good dose of home grown hip hop artists such as Kube and Ceebrolistics alongside performers such as Princess Nokia and Vince Staples.

On Friday crowds flocked to see their queen Lana Del Rey on the main space, the set converted into a theatrical stage, a dazzling visual display behind parted red drapes. As she executed the hits and the cult favourites from her three albums, her audience stood completely silent, unwavering in their commitment to her show. ‘Change’ was a particular highlight, the words more heartfelt when performed live. During the show her connection to both her band and the audience seemed unbreakable, the screen behind her feeding the audience more of the Lana Del Rey dream that plays such a large part in her appeal. When the performance finished, it was as if a spell had been lifted. The subdued audience quietly then moved on to the next performer.

Young Thug’s effect was less so. Having been transferred to the main stage following Beth Ditto’s cancellation, the typically large and charismatic character didn’t seem confident to command the space. While Vince Staples provided a flawless performance, inside the cavernous venue of the Lapin Kulta Red Arena, it appeared to lack the raw energy that would the smaller Black Tent would have allowed. Princess Nokia’s vivacious performance proved this theory correct. During her set, she asked people of colour, women and trans people in the audience to step forward and take the front row, explaining it wasn’t often these people are put first, before encouraging young people to make art – “your input is so important.”

Image 7 Photo courtesy of Flow Festival / Konstantin Kondrukhov
Image 8 Photo courtesy of Flow Festival / Shoot Hayley
Image 9 Photo courtesy of Flow Festival / Konstantin Kondrukhov
Image 10 Photo of Young Thug courtesy of Flow Festival / Samuli Pentti

Saturday’s severe weather had particularly harsh consequences for some artists on the line-up with Danny Brown being taken off stage just a few lines into his first song and Sampha’s cancelled altogether. While repair work was done to the two major tented areas, festival goers queued patiently in the rain on the edges of venue for nearly an hour waiting for Bicep to perform. It was certainly worth the wait, the crowd tearing through the space once the safety checks had all been done, drenched but in well enough spirits to dance throughout their set of tunes new and known. ALMA and Flume’s appearances continued the lively festivities of Saturday evening – thousands of young Finns flocking to see the most promising commercial artist in Finland play.

Other highlights from this year’s line-up included Sadar Bahar’s Sunday afternoon set at the RA garden; the perfect blend of house and disco – ideal for easing one into a third evening of performances. Of course, the most anticipated artist that day was Frank Ocean. Having reportedly cancelled his previous dates in Finland, he had a lot to live up to. However, his performance, complete with stunning live visuals shot on stage by Spike Jonze, live orchestra and spellbinding rendition of ‘Pink + White’ might have made up for his prior absences. Watching from the sides of his specially built runway style stage, looking up at the romantic visuals and single flood lit stage, Ocean managed to create an intimacy between him and the thousands of spectators, baring his soul before them. The cinematic nature of the show will no doubt stay in the minds of Flow’s attendees for many years and surely one of its most successful bookings from the last few years.

While the size of Flow Festival has increased every year, those that have regularly attended state that thirteen years after it began, it hasn’t lost any of its charm. Hearing of the unfortunate incident between DJ Inga Mauer and the security team covering the festival certainly cast a shadow over this year’s experience, which even the storm had failed to do the day before. Recognising the severity of the incident, the founders issued a statement about their next steps against the security team, which should provide a warning against other such companies who misuse their position. For many others, Flow Festival was a positive experience of best music, food and drink Finland has to offer. As it continues to grow, its aims as festival becomes more important too – Flow is an entirely carbon neutral festival and has been for almost a decade, powers the site using renewable Biodiesel and recycles/reuses its waste so that it does not contribute to landfill. Its commitment to quality throughout all areas of the festival certainly puts it ahead of many of its contemporaries, leading by example.

See more pictures from Flow Festival on Instagram.
Featured image courtesy of Flow Festival / Konstantin Kondrukhov.
Phie McKenzie is on Twitter.

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