A Scenic Highway To Hell: Ppartying At Norway’s Pstereo Festival
, August 24th, 2011 05:45
Wyndham ‘Dirty’ Wallace checks out the Pstereo Festival in Trondheim, Norway and emerges with an unexpectedly devilish grin…
Hell really exists. I've seen the road sign. So when I tell you that, by the time The Chef has served coffee punctually at 3pm, I've already been through Hell once, it's got nothing to do with the previous night spent drinking thirstily in two of Trondheim's most popular hangouts, BrukBar and Familien. It's got nothing to do with DJ Michael Bolton – that's not his real name, obviously – playing The Pogues and Olivia Newton-John to the delight of a crowd of Mexican dancers while sporting a garish kilt. And it's got nothing – well, maybe a little – to do with the hangover that's waging war in my skull. These are all largely irrelevant because Hell genuinely exists, and it's a small town only 40 kilometres from Trondheim on the way to the city from the airport. To get to the Pstereo Festival, I've learned, there's no way to avoid it.
That road sign didn't augur well, but nor do the contents of these china coffee cups. This is Karsk, top grade moonshine, pure enough to power a lawnmower, served in strong, black coffee with the consistency of gravel. It's quite possibly how they invented Vikings. My heart's bruising my ribs, I'm losing the feeling in my left leg and my blood's pumping so ferociously that I'm expecting my hands to fly from my wrists like fireworks. As I try to hide symptoms of hyperventilation, DJ Michael Bolton chides my lily-livered fragility to the amusement of his girlfriend - who we shall call Erica Roe, for reasons that will later become apparent - while beside us sits The Engineer, a mischievous individual with a rakish charm and a porn star's moustache. He recommends a second helping.
We're in the squatted area of Svartlamon, mere metres from an old Nazi U-boat factory whose walls are so thick that, legend has it, the dynamite required to bring them down would threaten the cathedral on the other side of the city. It's in the shadow of that more attractive construction, in the Marinen Park down by the River Nidelva, that the Pstereo Festival takes place. But first we're warming up for the occasion in the traditional manner favoured by locals. Or so The Chef assures us. Because The Chef has made a decision on our behalf. Come Hell or high water – and with flooding in the region, the latter is also possible – it's time to party like a Norwegian.
By the time our cups have been filled a third time I'm ready to clothe myself in the bloodied carcasses of wild sheep. There are, fortunately, none available on our walk to the festival grounds. Instead we orientate ourselves amidst a tidy, surprisingly small park with beers served in biodegradable cups. Kråkesølv are working their way through an earnest round of adequate, wiry alt. rock, but hotly tipped Honningbarna are far more in tune with the tumultuous state of my bloodstream. Yet to sit their Sixth Form exams, the teenagers storm through a vicious set, frontman Edward Valberg a convulsive mixture of Paul Weller and Ian Curtis. Even from behind his band's gimmick, a cello, he screams with a righteous, bug-eyed fury, his bow threatening to damage photographers' lenses. I'm going to need another drink. Another drink and a sit-down.
Fortunately Susanne Sundfør presents that opportunity, and we settle down on the gentle incline that overlooks the two main stages. She's perfect for the Later crowd, edgy enough to be intellectualised like a polite Zola Jesus, mainstream enough to require little thought, betraying an unusual fondness for Enya. There is much furling and unfurling of hands in the style of Lady Macbeth, rather too much wailing, far too little gnashing of teeth, and a song called 'The Brothel' that lasts a thousand years. But she's so beloved of her homeland that in two days time she'll perform at the memorial for the Oslo atrocities, so there's really no need for my cynicism.
That's the thing about some of these provincial Norwegian festivals. To outsiders, the bands seem to be, if not incidental, more an excuse for a few thousand people to exercise a welcome sense of community. I'm asked repeatedly what I think of Pstereo, and the truth is I think it's adequate: the setting is pleasant, but the line up doesn't especially excite me, made up as it is of a smattering of international names, from The Roots to Newham Generals, alongside a selection of up and coming or established local names, only some of which are familiar to me. But to judge the festival purely upon its booking policy is to provoke a sense of indignant pride from the locals: Pstereo – the 'P' is silent, therefore rendering it rather ppointless – isn't meant to be the kind of festival where you plot your schedule after close consultation with a complex programme. There are less than thirty bands playing across two days and four stages, and never more than two simultaneously. Pstereo, it turns out, is more about hanging out, having a party, and letting fate choose your soundtrack.
The music critic's instinct is to judge, however, so when Washed Out take to the stage it's hard not to shake off the sensation that what they're doing has been done before, and mainly by 'dance' acts signed to Creation Records in the early 1990s. They're not helped when DJ Michael Bolton conclusively proves that it's possible to sing the melody to Sting's 'An Englishman In New York' throughout 'Feel It All Around', and the Native American headgear one of them is sporting seems too small a concession to spectacle. So I float on down to Team Me, who come across as Arcade Fire's kid siblings, angst replaced by a feelgood factor that's especially welcome since two of them seem to be disguised as court jesters. They're no more or less original than Washed Out, but at least two of them took the effort to dress up.
Back on the main stage, Santigold is a revelation. Draped in an oversized T-shirt that looks like it might have been knocked together by Chicks On Speed, she's a bass-heavy Janelle Monáe without the retro shtick, the presence of twin dancers either side of her doing nothing to undermine a genuine sense of spontaneity. Her joy at the response she receives is clearly visible, but it's indicative of the crowd's general eagerness to celebrate that they're able to switch effortlessly from shaking their booty to banging their heads for local heroes Wannskrækk, essentially a reformed version of the first incarnation of Norway's rock heroes, Dum Dum Boys. They tear through a breathless set of Ramones-style punk rock with a slick, tight gusto, but elsewhere things are getting rough round the edges: heroically inebriated locals are fighting a losing battle with gravity, DJ Michael Bolton, Erica Roe and The Engineer are double-fisting beers after meeting a representative of one of the festival's more generous sponsors, and The Chef is plotting the way forward with a disconcerting twinkle in his eye.
A reunited Death From Above 1979 soundtrack his subsequent scheming. I'm somewhat baffled as to how the duo have managed to transfer their basement club ethos to an arena, though from where I'm standing there seems to be a third musician playing keyboards hidden behind a stack of amplifiers. I'm impressed, however, by the manner in which the night's biggest crowd seems to be embracing this extraordinary, primitive noise. Alcohol and volume make an undeniably potent cocktail.
As does The Chef, who reaches his decision shortly before the curfew and leads us back to Familien, where he persuades a barmaid to prepare a feisty little mix of his own, possibly spontaneous, design. He calls it the Bahamamama, and it's as grotesque as it is invigorating. It's also no doubt at least partially responsible for the fact that, when he brings us to our next destination, we last mere seconds before the barmaid – coincidentally The Chef's girlfriend – throws him out. By now, in a rare exhibition of sense, DJ Michael Bolton has craftily pulled Erica Roe in the other direction back to the hotel, but The Chef and The Engineer aren't done with me yet. Down by the nearby docks, they wave over a dishevelled, generously proportioned blonde who teeters in high-heeled clogs across the cobblestones while they address her in Norwegian. When she reaches us they introduce her to me, and, as she asks me questions about why I'm in the city, scuttle off into the shadows. She's so drunk she's in danger of spilling out of her dress, but robust enough to take my arm forcibly and drag me towards the high street.
"Come with me," she orders, zigzagging up the hill. "I'm going to Burger King."
Bewildered, I look over my shoulder for The Chef and The Engineer, but they're nowhere to be seen. I have no intention of visiting a burger establishment of any sort right now, but my hotel's in roughly the same direction, so I assume my getaway will simply depend upon her relinquishing her firm grip on me in favour of a slab of real meat. She asks if I like Norway, so I tell her I'm such a fan I wrote an article praising the country after the recent atrocities in the capital.
"I think Anders Breivik had a point," she slurs sullenly.
I stop in my tracks.
"I'm pretty sure we're not going to agree on that," I reply.
"There are too many immigrants here," she continues. "My pimp thinks the same."
"Your pimp?" I reply, even more stunned.
"My pimp, yes," she answers, staring aggressively at me and loosening her hold on my arm. "You didn't think I was going to sleep with you for free?"
"Actually," I splutter, backing away swiftly, "I had no idea we were going to sleep together. I thought you were going to have a Whopper with Cheese and I was going to my hotel…"
She staggers away in disgust. I stagger away in a rush. I didn't see that one coming. I appreciate The Chef and The Engineer's hospitality, but this was beyond the call of duty.
The Chef texts me the next afternoon. Even though I know that his one word message – 'Crab?' – is merely another invitation to experience more hearty Norwegian culture, I can't resist responding in the negative, adding that I don't have a rash either.
"There's no cocktail in the world that will make me sleep with a fat, racist, drunk prostitute," I conclude.
He responds instantly, confused. He has no recollection of anything that took place post-Bahamamama. The Engineer, however, does, and hasn't been shy of sharing the information with DJ Michael Bolton, so when I join him and Erica Roe in a taxi to Rockheim, Norway's National Museum for Rock and Pop, they're eager to hear more about how I was almost hooked by a hooker. Fortunately they're soon distracted by an impressively interactive exhibition compiling sixty years of Norwegian music. We lounge in a T-Bird while learning about early Norwegian rock & roll stars like The Monn Keys, who copied American acts with impressive precision. We discover the psychedelic rock of Dream, whose Get Dreamy album owed a predictable debt to – you guessed it right – Cream. We chuckle, perhaps patronisingly – given that they played a significant role in the development of the country's 1990s alternative rock scene – at Israelvis' name, and then stand in front of barbed wire while watching footage of churches burning, simultaneously marvelling at the fact that Count Grishnackh's pioneering black metal project Burzum really doesn't sound so terrifying after all.
Back in the festival arena, Pelbo are attempting to argue that rock needn't always be dependent upon guitars by causing a commotion with little more than a drumkit, a tuba and a female vocalist who sounds a lot like Brian Molko. 'Hey People!' leaves a substantial mark, but the novelty wears thin after a little, so we shelter under trees while The Tallest Man on Earth proves that for as long as men stand alone on stages with acoustic guitars there will always be people searching in vain for "The New Dylan". Given how much Kristian Matsson really sounds like Dylan, it's understandable he's pulled such a sizeable crowd, especially with the popular 'King Of Spain', but rather more mysterious is the appeal of Lissie, whose earthy charms and friends in high places do nothing to hide the fact that she sounds like an American version of Dido fresh from Lilith Fair. Cynicism is clearly infecting my mood again, and Jamie Woon's revisionist soul does little to change matters. Despite his ties to Burial, all I can think of is Jamiroquai, and if there's one thing I would rather never think of again it's Jamiroquai.
We give Sweden's Håkan Hellström a chance, but the real action is taking place near the entrance in a tiny tent where AutoLaser is frying socketry with his Gameboy paranoia, face hidden by a Scream mask, crowd whipped into a frenzy by two tireless, if somewhat unimaginative, prowling dancers. Given the fact that, soon afterwards, the second stage is headlined by 22, who could double for Red Hot Chili Peppers on a particularly bad-tempered day and are notably all the better for that, the festival looks likely to end on a rather aggressive note. Final act, The Roots, have other plans. The Philadelphians' combination of hip hop and soul allows me at last to see what might have happened if Donny Hathaway had looked on the bright side of life and lived another three decades, an opportunity for which I will always be grateful. But the Engineer also has plans: he's keen for me to meet a friend of his, little more than five feet tall, even in her heels, and cute as a button. Soon she's leaning on me for support, and after a while she's alternately dancing and teaching me Norwegian.
"You need to know the word 'ruff'," she informs me eventually. "It means 'to sleep'."
The Engineer grins and winks mysteriously. "Ruff, ruff!" he barks. Cute-As-A-Button does the same, then encourages me to try it, and moments later we stand there, three of us barking at the moon while The Roots compete for our attention. Still holding my arm, though in a rather more delicate fashion than my previous night's almost-companion, Cute-As-A-Button nudges me and smiles up from the shadows.
"So," she says impishly, "do you want to 'ruff' with me tonight?"
The Engineer grins once again before tactfully announcing he'll be back in a while. I'm somewhat speechless, and am still trying to work out if she was serious when her other friends prematurely insist upon tearing her away from me. Her willingness to leave suggests she was joking, but she tells me we'll meet up again, stroking my cheek rather sweetly. And then I'm on my tod, left in the dark with only The Roots for company. Under other circumstances this could be thought of as a disaster, but really, believe me, the band's so entertaining it's an unusually acceptable situation. I'm normally the kind of guy who feels self-conscious alone in a crowd, but, if truth be told, tonight I shake a leg. The Roots are irresistible.
I'm glad when The Engineer reaches out again, however. He's tracked down DJ Michael Bolton, who in turn has arranged access to Casiokids' show in town, and, though we sadly lack The Chef - and Cute-As-A-Button has apparently, disappointingly, gone home pleading exhaustion - the crew is otherwise complete. Arriving at the venue, we find it curiously empty, but, despite singer Ketil Kinden Endresen initially leading proceedings as though he's conducting a geography lesson, they turn out to be highly entertaining, their squelchy synths and disco beats providing a playful backdrop to DJ Michael Bolton's attempt to combine Scottish and Dirty Dancing. The Engineer's got news, too: having lost her own, Cute-As-A-Button is on her way back to town for a spare set of front door keys.
"Ruff, ruff," The Engineer yaps, and we scoop her up soon afterwards. An hour spent sitting on her doorstep has done wonders for her sobriety, and so we decide to end as the weekend began: with a party at BrukBar, where The Roots' ?uestlove is DJing. To Hell with hangovers: if this is the Norwegian way to bring Pstereo to a suitable close, then who are we to argue? Nothing can stop us now.
Nothing, that is, except for the queue and a burly security guard at the venue's entrance. Still, Erica Roe's got a plan. Erica Roe is about to earn her pseudonym by pulling the white bin liner that she's been sitting on through the festival out of her bag. She's going to wrap the bin liner round her body and then wriggle out of her one-piece dress. To the sheer amazement of the security guard, passers by and indeed everyone apart from DJ Michael Bolton, she now stands before us in only a pair of knickers, a hat and a transparent piece of plastic.
"You can't do that here," the security guard warns her. "You'll get arrested! That's indecent exposure!"
I've never seen a doorman more panicked. He's presumably terrified of escorting her anywhere in case he's accused of molestation. Erica Roe just laughs while DJ Michael Bolton holds her dress, then tells the bouncer there's only one solution.
"You'll have to let us in so I can get dressed again."
Cute-As-A-Button tugs my arm. She looks a little shocked.
"It's time we went home," she says.
I laugh. She's right. Erica Roe's now dancing topless in the street, a crowd is starting to gather, and frankly I've already burned such a hole in my wallet that the police could also charge me with arson. Furthermore, it's clear that, though the doorman is doing his best to shield Erica from view while persuading her to cover up, he's not such a gentleman that he's going to let us in afterwards. So yeah, it's time to go. I've been through Hell for Pstereo, and I've partied like a Norwegian long enough.
But hang on just a moment. Rewind and say that again, will you, Lady Miss Cute-As-A-Button? "It's time that we went home?" Does that mean what I hope it might?
It does? Oh, goody. I didn't dare see that one coming.
So let's go, then. Let's get out of here. I'll be heading back through Hell tomorrow, so if you don't mind I'll take the scenic route…