Things Learned At: Slottsfjell Festival

Jeremy Allen heads to the Norwegian festival to worship at the thrones of Dan Deacon and Kendrick Lamar (and feel a little ashamed about The Wombats). Photograph courtesy of Jonas Brathen

Slottsfjell – though Dutch-sounding and best said in your finest Sean Connery impression – is actually situated in Tønsberg, Norway’s oldest town. The festival is over a decade old now and goes from strength to strength thanks to unrivalled hospitality, line-ups that bring the party and more often than not ridiculously good weather, by Norwegian standards – here’s what we took away from the festival:

Put seeing Dan Deacon on your bucket list

Okay, bucket lists are for dickheads, but if you’ve not seen Dan Deacon then you’ve probably not lived. When he arrives on stage looking like Rob Reiner in This Is Spinal Tap, you might be inclined to underestimate him. What happens instead is an eruption of joy, an explosion of interactive dancing sheep, shepherded by a master of electro manipulation. We are but malleable servants, bowing to Deacon’s every request like the loyal subjects of Kim Il-sung, only we’re probably having more fun (but then Kim Il-sung didn’t have two tenacious drummers doing amazing things at his right and left hand). One wears a Future Islands T-shirt, one is a hippy called Jeremy, together they are indefatigable.

Deacon plays favourites like ‘Guilford Avenue Bridge’, and all the while the crowd adheres to his interpretive dance programme. In these recessionary times, the man should be cloned and sent to leisure centres and shopping malls the world over to cheer everybody the fuck up. Towards the end of his set, he appears to be projecting his third eye towards the crowd with the help of his hand, though everyone’s too busy doing the conga to notice.

This is the way to interact with a crowd. The way not to interact with a crowd is to do what Seasick Steve does. The septuagenarian plucks a barely pubescent blonde girl from the crowd, sits her down and sings a “ballad” to her as she goes redder and redder with embarrassment. She’s not sat on his knee, but the implication is the same. Word has it Steve’s been living for quite a while with just his wife in a wooden shack amongst the mountains and fjords of Norway with no telly, so he’ll probably have no idea how creepy this looks.

Globalisation doesn’t mean there are no surprises left

Sometimes being at a foreign festival throws up surprises. There you are watching a group you’ve never heard of slay an audience before your very eyes, and you’re suddenly taken by a disconcerting feeling that you’re a ghost gatecrashing someone else’s front room. You stand and watch everyone’s elation as though invisible. It’s encouraging to know though that there are acts all over the world that sell millions of records who you’ve never heard of.

Take the Kaizers Orchestra, a revered Norwegian six-piece who are massive in their homeland and Germany also. They ebb and flow between esoteric perversity (the pianist wears a gas mask throughout) and eye-watering commercial musical tropes, from polka to pop and back again, like the missing link between Tom Waits and Robbie Williams (we hope the pianist might unmask himself at the end like Kendo Nagasaki, though we never do find out what that’s all about – perhaps we’re not meant to).

Susanne Sundfør, who closes the festival on Sunday night also draws one of the biggest crowds of the weekend on top of the hill. Sundfør herself has balked at lazy comparisons with Kate Bush in the past and been quite vocal in her disapproval of said association, so should we say there’s something a bit Tori Amos about her with maybe a witchy element thrown in? A bit like Kate Bush really. Sundfør doesn’t help herself in this respect given that the stage is flanked by druid and medieval monk-types doing things with fire at the beginning of her set.

The US artists are a mixed bag…

After seeing Imagine Dragons I wanted to imagine anything else but dragons. They hail from Las Vegas like The Killers, though they make The Killers sounds like Black Sabbath in comparison. It’s stomach-churningly awful, like Nickelback covering Boyzone, and I hope you never have to see them like I did.

Thankfully Kendrick Lamar sends out his monstrously buff DJ and enormous bass player to give us something tangible and solid to look at for a while while we wash that mythical dragon shit out of our brains. Then Kendrick arrives, small but perfectly formed, with flow that is nothing short of immaculate. Lamar has been a massive hit across the European festival circuit this summer and it’s easy to see why (at Roskilde – see our Things Learned At: Roskilde 2013 – he was put in a tent and there were more people outside trying to get in than there were inside). Money trees might be the perfect place for shade, but right now people are risking blisters and skin cancer to lap up every moment of Mr. Duckworth and his totally hench henchmen.

The UK could do with bucking its ideas up if the line-up is indicative of anything

The UK might be the second largest exporter of music in the world, though it’s not necessarily a given that it will continue to shift huge units for all eternity. Before the 60s and the Liverpool Sound, Britain had struggled to attract interest other than domestically, even with stars like Cliff Richard, and while Adele and Mumford and Sons are big exporters, you can’t help but feel that these cases are anomalous rather than dictated by any norm.

There are huge bands and there are tiny bands and not much in between, though the in-between needs to be filled or festival line-ups will begin to look even more worryingly retro and uneven than they are right now. So this middle is being filled with artists like Tom Odell and Dan Croll and Alt-J, all too awful for words. You wonder if you have to be under 25 to understand these insipid shit-tanks, like in the way that dogs can hear whistles the rest of us can’t. Then there are The Wombats, a national embarrassment, who, given their inappropriate reaction to Joy Division, probably do star jumps while watching Schindler’s List. Internally it’s been noted that our pop stars are a laughing stock; lets hope nobody else notices.

Norway can hold its head up high though…

Truls – the big man with the voice of a Bee Gee – is a magnificent pop singer, touching and funny and impressive, while Bendik, with their dark ambient pop soundscapes, manage to stun us into submission on the main stage in the middle of Saturday afternoon. The bar has been set high by these Nordic artists and the dynamism must be intimidating for the two-bit George Formby impersonators pullulating back home. A lesson to ponder upon then…

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