A Trip To Oya In Oslo Via Pavement, Munch & MIA
, August 20th, 2010 03:36
If you go for a cigarette on the fourth floor balcony of the hotel, you see cruise-ships and boats flanking a floating stage, upon which an opera is in full flow. Mountains, and a sky streaked with colours drawn from the palette of the gods and goddesses. And to the left, the human carnival that is people coming and going to and from the twelfth Oya, the greenest festival in Europe. The people are happy and flush with anticipation.
Day one. The rain is tipping down in bitter squalls of little diamond teardrops and the ground has turned to mush the colour and consistency of English tea. Maybe this is what most rock festivals in big parks are like. I've seen them on the telly. I first came to Oya a few years ago. I thought it was different. The sun shone brilliantly for four days and I sat on the grass in a field full of ten thousand tall blonde people who looked like cartoon superheroes and I very nearly had an epiphany. Everything was clean. Now I have mud on me - never a good look - and there are sixteen thousand people criss-crossing between more stages. I have somehow contrived to miss my favourite group The National even though they were playing in the nice new shiny dry Opera House thirty seconds from the hotel at lunchtime. I do bump into them later, though this is no use to you or me, and they say it was very weird playing an opera house at lunchtime. Scott is getting his dry cleaning done at reception.
Day two. It is extremely hot and sunny. This is better. This is what we signed up for. To the right the wooded forests tumble greenly like a blurry landslide of Christmas trees. To the left the light glistens and dazzles on the Zen meniscus of the grey-blue water. Somewhere in the middle Pavement are playing, and playing well, the guitars sound like icepicks and dragon-breath, and Stephen Malkmus is announcing, "This one is for the ladies. The reason we do this." Then he adds, "Uh, besides for ourselves." This is much better.
People you see in the lift: Paul Weller, Stephen Malkmus, Romy from The XX, Big Boi. People you see in the canteen: Jonsi, Yeasayer. People who, when you've found a sparsely-populated room playing tacky 80s disco, one floor down from the cool industry party where everyone is networking, join you briefly in busting uncle-at-a-wedding moves on the dancefloor even though you've never spoken: Wayne Coyne.
Day three is changeable and day four is sunny again. Enough weather. Back on Day One Iggy & The Stooges are screaming through 'Gimme Danger' and 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' and the rest, and while this is terrific fun and Iggy never gives less than all, I'm thinking: what would happen if I said I wish he'd ditch the old thrash band and do smart dark ambivalent stuff again like his masterworks on The Idiot and Lust For Life? What if I said his sinister, intellectual, prophetic work with Bowie had five times as much merit as these time-honoured three-chord work-outs? Would I be pilloried? Mocked? Taken out the back and quietly shot? Would that be as reckless and foolish as saying: remember when the medium of Rock aspired to reaching the state of Art or Poetry? But Iggy has earned his day in the rain and is not the right handle for this train of thought. He prefers now to be a body to a brain, and that's his prerogative, though not everybody's.
Other things are going on. Gaslight Anthem are doing Springsteen karaoke. Sleigh Bells are ferocious and aggressive as all hell and I can't justify liking it but do. By contrast, Air are quiet and gentle and wafting as all heaven and I can't...etc etc. Who's this guy in a white puffy bomber jacket and blonde fright-wig who sounds part-REO Speedwagon, part-Benatar? Surely a Norwegian. Oh, it's Ariel Pink. And here is a proper Norwegian band, Serena Maneesh, wildly loved here for their constant oscillation between robust dream-pop and random white noise. Headlining is M.I.A., a stroppier Konnie Huq who shouts and dances a lot over backing tracks, appears to have one tune, but tosses in some naive Lego politics now and again, so clearly that qualifies her as a frequent magazine cover star whose every utterance consists of boundless wisdom.
Now on Day Two the weather encourages me to walk a long way to Ibsen's house, where the gist of the presentation appears to be that, for all his talent, Ibsen was a right miserable sod who was sarcastic and patronising in person. The Norwegians don't lack candour. They are friendly, helpful and drink like fish. Their aftershow parties begin when most Brits are cosily tucked up in bed. It seems it would be great to live in Oslo, aside from the ludicrous expensiveness of food and liquid and, well, everything. On menus, where the price should be, there is an illustration of an arm and a leg. A Norwegian says to me during Jonsi's set, "Isn't this music sentimental? It's so sentimental!" I try to explain that in British culture to call something "sentimental" is not necessarily complimentary. "But I am Norwegian!" she grins, "I am one of the poor bastards!" "Don't say that," I go, "it's great here." "Then why do you think we all party so hard and drink so much?" she asks. We look at Jonsi. His green plumed hat/head-dress is so high that when he leans forward he has to battle to maintain equilibrium.
If you're ever in Oslo with no money, and if you're there more than a day then you will be, go to Vigelandsparken. This a vast park full of more than 200 giant sculptures by Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943). It's fantastic. His sculptures are of men and women and babies in arresting, unusual poses. Keep walking through all these, jaw agape. Then climb the steps till you get to his main tower, or column. This is a sky-stroking mass of writhing bodies, sprawled across and between each other, the detail intricate. Their faces might be ecstatic, might be anguished. It's up to you whether the piece depicts a sweaty hedonistic orgy or the cold flames of Hell. It's one of the greatest free-standing works of art in Europe, no question.
LCD Soundsystem may not quite be of comparable stature but they fire out their alt.hits with infectious disco energy out-scrapping the innate irony. 'Drunk Girls' is the best version of 'Boys Keep Swinging' in decades. James Murphy really should stick with the winning black tie look though; that roadie-publican off-white t-shirt is bringing the vibe down. Yeasayer sound like summer, shedding the weight of contrivance that on occasion tethers them – they're buoyant. Pavement are possibly the highlight of a festival that lacks a clear defining moment. As ever, each song refuses to go where you expected it to, even though you know it backwards, and this is a good thing. They sound both crystalline and jagged tonight, as the Northern sky turns streakily pink and gold.
Day Three, and Field Music are straight lines and staccato purity. In flashes they sound as inspired as Wings, the band the Beatles could have been. Now I am watching a Norwegian death-metal (forgive me if I've missed a sub-category) band called Purified In Blood. For about a minute. Then my ears start to bleed and fall off. But here are Flaming Lips to save us from ourselves, as is their calling. You know the show by now: the entrance of Wayne in a bubble, boinging on the crowd, the pretty confetti guns, the Wayne carried aloft by a big black bear sketch. It's joyous, even if they don't perform The Dark Side Of The Moon in its entirety as an encore. After the set Coyne walks (in his bubble) on the water, which seems precisely the right thing to do. La Roux is another shouting haircut. The Specials moan through their usual dated black-and-white superiority complex.
Why now is there a bigger crowd at the main stage than for any other act? Why are people hanging off a nearby bridge in order to catch a glimpse? Because poplette Robyn is a Scandinavian icon, revered here. There's an atmosphere, though I don't get it myself. With her gym-bunny moves and silly rebel postures – "don't fxxxing tell me what to do!" – she's just another backing dancer with business acumen, another Madge stand-in with self-proclaimed and meaningless "empowerment", inspiring her devotees to throw their toys out of the pram. 'With Every Heartbeat' is a killer song though, and it's kind of Gary Numaned-up tonight, with sheen and an attractive heartlessness.
Day Four. Walk to the Edvard Munch Museum, through the botanical gardens and a fleamarket and another river and some guys playing beach volleyball in the road. The sun beats down like it's in a spaghetti western. Go and see the Munch paintings for a break from the intensity. The Scream, The Vampire, The Kiss, The Separation. There's even one called, in its native tongue, Angst. There's a reason teenagers find this shit incredibly moving. Then you grow up a bit, and of course declare it all a bit facile and silly. Then you come full circle and realise it's the truth, if a little too cheerful. Do not ignore his later, less famous works, the stuff he did as he was ageing and dying and a self-fired bullet lodged permanently in his finger inhibited his mad skills. During this period he painted himself, rabid dogs, and young girls on bridges.
Back to the festival, after a siesta to ponder the complexities of Munch. Here's Paul Weller, doing his meat-and-potatoes thing with some dignity, thanking Norway for having him in the country "for the first time...I think." He throws in 'A Town Called Malice' and even The Style Council's 'Shout To The Top', which goes down well in sunlight. There are Local Natives, a Williamsburg self-parody right down to the Soweto-wannabe rhythms and artful moustaches. Somewhere there is Denmark's Vinnie Who (fun-pop), Boston's Converge (grrr! roar! we are metal!) and Karpe Diem, a kind of Norwegian House Of Pain. Other applauded homeland acts include Ingrid Olava and I Was A King. Shearwater are here too, as are Marina And The Diamonds. Motorpsycho nominally close the show: they're the local Pink Floyd/Hawkwind but require more patience than any of us have left at this stage. Instead we go to watch The XX. And we really do watch them, because they're so quiet you can't hear them. In fact a firework display goes off down the road towards the end of their set and rather rudely drowns out their ubiquitous TV-soundbed hums and whispers. I'm sure they give great mood in a dark building, but in a field, their subtleties vaporise.
Oya is as pleasant an outdoor festival as you'll find anywhere. Not too big, not too small. A satisfyingly eclectic line-up of big names and local acts. Bears a close resemblance to Paradise when sunny. Bears a close resemblance to Purgatory when wet. Mediaeval ruins can be stumbled over as you traipse between stages/tents. Oslo at night is a hotbed of gigs and venues and people suggesting that the night is young even when it's middle-aged. Do it. Like the natives of Oslo, it is rich and beautiful in many ways.