Things Learned At: Oya Festival

Phil Harrison heads to Oslo, Norway where he encounters cross-dressing sax players, a giant papier mache spliff, and plenty of space to dance. Photos by Johannes Granseth, Steffen Rikenberg and Markus Thorsen.

Respect is a two way street

It’s a remarkable thing to experience when you’ve grown accustomed to festivals at which being treated like a public order incident waiting to happen by burly men in day-glo tabards is par for the course. But it seems festivals don’t have to feel like three day experiments in discomfort and low-level mutual antagonism with a bit of music thrown in as an afterthought. This year, Oya moved to a new, much larger site. But despite selling out months ago, organiser Claes Olsen decided against a significant increase in capacity on the grounds that it would be good to give people more space to enjoy themselves.

And very excellent it was too – even during the most over-subscribed sets, there was room to dance or to wander. The sound was uniformly superb – a little detail which is overlooked with surprising regularity by festival organisers. And attention to comfort didn’t stop with space – free hats and sunscreen were handed out during sunny spells and when, on the final day, the weather broke, out came free ponchos and blankets. Is it fanciful to suggest a link between these respectful and generous dealings with the paying public and the fact that the Oya Festival has never seen a single arrest? Maybe, but it would be nice to think that treating people well and discovering that even with a few beers inside them, they’re capable of responding in kind might just be an idea whose time has come.     

Amiable delinquency is alive and well in Norwegian music

Happily, this sense of restraint and politeness doesn’t translate to Norwegian music. For a start, there’s Yoguttene. Much like Josh, the Croydon raver who went viral this summer after he kept dancing despite losing a finger because "there were fit girls around and the bass was hard", these lads make you feel cautiously optimistic about the youth of today and their capacity for cheerfully unruly hi-jinks. Performing in front of a giant papier mache spliff which emitted occasional puffs of smoke, their hyperactive, schoolyard Scandi-trap is incredibly hard to dislike.

We encounter Spectral Haze at one of the after-hours Oya Nights club shows taking place around Oslo. They’re in a bar on the city’s central square and although the place has a distinct air of Wetherspoon’s about it, they’ve managed to fill their little corner with the metaphorical essence of patchouli oil and bong smoke. Robed and bearded, they tout droning stoner riffs, a theremin and a righteous sense of entirely non-ironic psychedelic mind expansion.

Spectral Haze are great. But they’re not Beglomeg. Beglomeg are an arresting sight. There’s a cross-dressing sax player who stumbles off stage to get a pint halfway through the set and knocks over a table of glasses on the way. A pair of limber and ferocious drummers – and isn’t the two drummer rule (see also The Fall and Butthole Surfers) something of a guarantee of quality? A frontman who looks like a Serbian paramilitary auditioning for the Village People. And a deep but joyful confusion over whether their primary influence is 23 Skidoo or King Crimson; Art Ensemble of Chicago or Joey Beltram. They’re daft but thrillingly so; grins are plastered on faces for the entirety of their sweatily spellbinding shambles of a show. It may be that this creative chaos doesn’t translate widely and that Beglomeg will never leave Norway. If that’s the case, that’s Norway’s gain and the rest of the world’s loss.

There’s more to headlining than meets the eye

For all of the exotic local treats on offer, Oya always rolls out plenty of heavy hitters too. This year, the big dogs were Outkast and Queens Of The Stone Age. They made for an interesting contrast. While these kind of slots are something of an open goal for Outkast (what kind of misanthropic weirdo doesn’t like ‘Hey Ya!’?) the thought emerges that Andre 3000 and Big Boi might even be slightly underrated in the grand scheme of things. Because this is some body of work and it’s presented with utter confidence. After opening with the still-startling, deliciously unstable cascade of berserk rhythm and cartwheeling rhyme that is ‘BOB’, we get at least initially, an unexpectedly pensive set. Outkast’s way with melody and atmosphere has meant they’ve always had a handle on slow jams as well as party bangers and they don’t let the headliner’s fear of energy drift stop them from revisiting the reflective likes of ‘Aquemini’ and ‘Vibrate’. Still, it must help to know that you’ve got pure pop ammunition as potent as ‘Ms Jackson’, ‘So Fresh, So Clean’ and ‘Hey Ya!’ up your sleeve and ready to deploy when necessary. And deploy it they do, to devastating effect.

For whatever reason, while they get the ball some way into the outfield, QOTSA don’t quite knock it out of the park to the same extent. Maybe it’s because Outkast have always dealt in light and shade whereas QOTSA often traded in artful but rudimentary heads-down ferocity but the latter certainly seem less comfortable with pacing and set dynamics. QOTSA’s show is about moments – the guitar drop in ‘No One Knows’, the heart-in-mouth drum surge into ‘A Song For The Dead’ – whereas Outkast sustain a flow, manipulate the peaks and troughs into a consummately satisfying whole. Maybe it’s simply a function of Outkast having been away for long enough for people to start missing them. But it’s also possible that maturity is a mixed blessing for QOTSA. At times, it’s hard not to long for Nick Oliveri and his idiot savant mania – while being in QOTSA is almost certainly a more relaxing experience for Josh Homme these days, whether watching them is as much fun as it used to be is a moot point. They’re still a fine band and this criticism is qualified and relative. But it doesn’t quite happen for them tonight and there are enough glimpses of what might have been to make it a slightly frustrating experience.

Theatricality takes many forms

Outkast had a secret weapon and a pretty powerful one too. But bringing A-Town protege Janelle Monae along as a warm-up act has obvious risks – inevitably, she’s going to get everyone in the mood but she might end up blowing you off stage in the process. Because this felt like a headline set in all but name; Monae’s so clearly a visionary pop goddess in waiting and her live show has now reached absurd heights of crowd-pleasing, hyper-choreographed lavishness. But then again, people have been predicting her ascent into the big league for years – maybe she’s still one unanswerable pop anthem away. But even if she hasn’t written her ‘Hey Ya!’ just yet, Monae is so furiously entertaining that it’s possible to imagine her winning over the world one festival at a time. Can she maintain the concepts – the Afrofuturism, the flirtations with Egyptology, the tangled extended metaphors related to race, gender and sexuality – while charming punters with crowdsurfing, impossibly elaborate stage craft, a stunning, versatile voice and performances so drilled and intense they border on military calisthenics? Who knows? But if anyone can, Janelle can. This girl can multitask. Let’s hope so because there would be something thrilling about daredevil eccentricity like hers finding a place in the heart of mainstream pop discourse.

The only hard and fast rule of theatricality in music is that the performers must buy into its essence completely. Janelle Monae does. And one glance at Mayhem’s array of porcine heads, bovine ribcages, inverted crosses and black cowls suggest that commitment to concept won’t be a problem here either. No Mayhem review is complete without a little of their remarkable backstory – so this review will have to remain incomplete because really, the gruesomeness of their early years is well enough documented by now and has mainly served to muddy the waters and distract attention from their quite astonishingly vicious and virtuosic music and presentation. Attila Csihar’s voice is easily as extraordinary and versatile an instrument as Janelle Monae’s. Hellhammer’s drumming reaches terminal velocity immediately and never lets up. And before long, the gentle denizens of Oya have succumbed to the darkside and formed the weekend’s one and only moshpit. Bathos threatens when an attempt to set fire to the pigs’ heads repeatedly fails and then finally succeeds so dramatically that the integrity of the lighting rig appears to be in doubt. But as Attila and Necrobutcher embrace and salute the crowd, the thought occurs that this hometown 30th anniversary show in front of an adoring audience at a beautiful venue has ended up as a genuinely uplifting occasion. It’s what Dead And Euronymous would have wanted. Probably.

Age ain’t nothing but a number

White PVC culottes and fluorescent trainers. An elegant cream suit. Traditional Syrian robes. There are many ways of approaching middle age gracefully and Neneh Cherry, Bill Callahan and Omar Souleyman are demonstrating just three of them. Omar’s proved the unexpected wild-card at so many festivals now that his triumph here is fairly predictable. But what he does at Oya still seems faintly remarkable; he rules in the frankly rather industrial and functional atmosphere of the Sirkus tent (maybe invest in a glitter ball for next year, Oya people?). Without even going beyond his trademark trio of stage moves – the double handclap, the palm-raise and the side-to-side wander, he induces mid-afternoon delirium.

For Bill Callahan, it’s more complicated. He retains an aspect pitched exactly between graciousness and a still-lingering truculence. He’s always been an oddly distanced figure – in equal measures, a bringer of balm and a surgically unflinching explorer of emotional tender spots. And yet these acute, traditionally cast psychodramas (George Jones does Sartre?) captivate utterly, even within the context of a large park full of sunshine and beautiful people. The apparently gentle but deeply unsettling closer ‘One Fine Morning’ sums up Callahan’s set perfectly, a darkness that’s as inexorable and implacable as rust creeping under and threatening to overwhelm the song’s tranquil surfaces.

Like Callahan, Neneh Cherry revisits her past rarely and reluctantly. That’s surely as it should be – her recent Blank Project album felt impressively forward-looking and RocketNumberNine, her tight, propulsive band give it some serious heft and momentum. And Neneh remains a wonderful performer, singing her own backing vocals and addressing the crowd in Norwegian. Finally, she offers up a radically reworked ‘Buffalo Stance’, all breakbeats and rolling, rising, unfurling melody. Who’s looking good today? Still Neneh. In the corner of the tent, a bearded man in a Mayhem shirt grooves along happily. All is well with the world.

Slowdive: Good things come to those who wait

The passing of time has been kind to Slowdive. Now they don’t look like the kind of precious little Tarquins who’d be blown away in a strong breeze, their impressive back catalogue can sail along unencumbered. It’s hard not to feel ambivalent about reformation culture. But if it can offer a second wind and a little long overdue appreciation to a band as unlucky as Slowdive, it can’t be all bad. People love this band and, on the basis of their set on Oya’s final evening, it’s easy to see why. ‘Golden Hair’ approaches MBV levels of swoon and clamour. The likes of ‘When the Sun Hits’ have sprouted muscles and now surge rather than saunter. And if the gorgeous ‘Machine Gun’ wasn’t the crowning achievement of the whole Thames Valley scene then my shoes weren’t worth gazing at in the first place (it was, and they were). As their set finishes with emotional mutual appreciation and Rachel Goswell beaming as she photographs the rapturous crowd the first of the week’s rain begins to fall and the free ponchos appear. The end is nigh but Oya has it covered.

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