Pop Playground
Live: Oya Festival 2005

teetering on the edge of a bright red Ikea lounge-chair on a Norwegian fjord, I’m hyping up for one of the best festival line-ups this side of All Tomorrow’s Parties. Sonic Youth are up in the mountains on retreat, the organisers are building a submerged bridge across the river so Polyphonic Spree can walk on water, and they keep telling us that Babyshambles are already in Norway and doing a “Middle of Nowhere” tour from Bergen to Oslo, playing gigs wherever they stop.

Things didn’t start well. I crashed into Oslo after a nightmare trip from typhoon drenched Shanghai—three hours on the runway at Pudong aiport waiting for clearance, missed my connection at Copenhagen and was relieved to arrive in Oslo—and then my bags still hadn't shown by 2am.

Next day, my bags and friends arrive and we immediately dive into the pastel-est red light district you could imagine, where the town's shadiest (not very shady) wobble by on heels.

We try on some Norwegian sweaters (the kind with lots of snowflakes and other cute patterns), check out Viking ships and hobbit houses covered in grass. We stop in at national radio station P3’s 60s home to meet up with local DJ and presenter Kristin Winsents, who proves a great contact over the next few days. But then it’s time to get serious, about music. Months worth of great gigs squeezed into four days and club night tonight features almost 100 bands playing side streets, cafes, clubs and restaurants. After watching a handful of bands, I spot Ramones-esque Beijing band Subs leaving and tail them to tiny NY-style bar Last Train. Singer Kang Mao bursts onto the stage, a five foot dervish on stage, totally nuts, her short black bob swinging around her head as she screams. On either side, two guys with big afros and bad arse black t-shirts play a heady mix of SST hardcore, rockabilly, and heavy ‘70s rock.

The hotel’s filling up with rock stars, but we stick with our own and get down to some solid music geekery with a handful of international journos. Oya’s the first festival I’ve been to that’s invited online hacks, with solid representation from Playlouder, Pitchfork, and Drowned in Sound, as well as some great print and radio journos.

TORSDAG / Thursday
The festival grounds feel like a Viking encampment, complete with marquees, roasting food, wild music and drunken (but polite) Norwegians everywhere. Local shoegazers Serena Maneesh are the first surprise. Fronted by a Nico lookalike, they not only play music that actually moves the shoegazer template forward, they rock out too. I’m hanging out for their debut, recently recorded in Steve Albini’s studio.

I’ve been looking forward to Cloroform’s set, they play a stripped down, entirely deconstructed metal that references jazz, cabaret, and even ‘80s pop. Mike Patton was so impressed by earlier shows he collaborated on an album with frontman John Erik Kaada last year. Live I can see why. Kaada is a ball of energy; I can imagine him doing the same ADD moves for his schoolmates 20 years ago.

After reading Rolling Stone’s feature on the Children of God cult last night, I find Polyphonic Spree’s cult, half musical show a little eerie. They tempt critics towards their cult-like affectations by bringing their kids up on stage (a small boy on drums and two girls in the choir), blathering on about the sun coming through (it keeps raining) and walking on water. It’s unsettling, but spectacular. Fischerspooner aspire to the same level of theatrics, but Spooner’s voice isn’t up to the festival space, it’s weak and their Human League action would have suited a club space much better. “Hello Oslo, this is our first time in Oslo,” he says, but the crowd is bored and many drift away. The band looks good in matching baseball outfits and Spooner’s Ned Flanders-esque devil outfit, and “Emerge” and new song “Just Let Go” hit a better note. But pissed off at the bored crowd, Spooner whines “Hello Oslo, this is our first time in Oslo,” four more times, before finally giving in and leaving the stage.

It’s only the first day and Dinosaur Jr. is already, unquestionably, the festival highlight. Although I’ve seen both J. Mascis and Lou Barlow on their own, it is incredible to see them together on stage, even sharing the odd grin. They were always masters of contrast, pitching perfect pop melodies against searing noise long before My Bloody Valentine and co., but seeing them on stage it’s so easy to understand why they couldn’t stay together as a band. Barlow looks like a middle-aged computer programmer, but he is a seething presence on stage, constantly moving, screaming into the microphone or twisting about to blow out his bass sound with distortion. Mascis could be Barlow’s father, he sports a tie-dyed dolphin t-shirt, long grey locks and is appropriately restrained on stage, but musically he’s anything but. He’s the kind of guitar god that I have never been into, but he does it, sparkling, screeching, soaring lines that run counter to his flat vocals. Amazing.

Norwegian prog-rock heavy-hitters Shining

At least half the festival attendees crowds in to see the Kings of Convenience play. It shouldn’t come as a surprise—they’re local heroes—even if it is a struggle to hear their intimate, quiet pop in a festival atmosphere. A smaller crowd is gathered in front of the small stage for Wolf Parade. There should be more, the Canadians tear through a set of post-punk pop that’s musically interesting, lyrically incisive, and bloody great to hear. With a new record on Sub Pop, they are set for great things.

After a brief stop at the hotel, we wind up at the afterparty. Smalltown Supersound’s Lasse Marhaug is raising a noise storm, but Maximo Park is playing upstairs. I’ve never been into their records, but I love so many of the bands they are influenced by that I need to see if I’m missing something. Turns out I’m not. The songs are taut, they have hooks and Paul Smith can do a mean rock’n’roll kick, but the room’s half full and the music is boring. Everyone is downstairs, where Lee Ranaldo is channelling a storm into a teacup on stage; bringing a series of Sonic Youth produced Super 8 film to life with cold fronts of distortion.

Wandering around Oslo we get lost, but stop after noticing the singer from Norwegian band Madrugada passed out in a gutter, it’s the P3 Radio afterparty. The singer’s girlfriend and all round champ, Kristin from P3, plies us with drink cards and plays a killer set of indie and hip hop beats. How the hell can we follow this up tomorrow?

FREDAG / Friday
Playing the early sets at the festival doesn’t faze anyone, least of all Don Juan Dracula, who touch down in a chopper, setting off fireworks and kicking out the early afternoon jams with a set of Spinal Tap via Pop Will Eat Itself rock-n-roll. You can almost hear them say, “We’re not playing last, but goddamn it, we’re gonna headline.” Pretty much every band that plays early gets a huge crowd, but Don Juan Dracula take Willy Wonka’s lift straight through the roof.

The Thing don’t hold a candle to Don Juan’s dramatics, but they do rip through their set with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’s “Art Star” kicking off proceedings. Mats Gustafsson leans back on one foot for each primal blast of his sax, his face contorted violently. He pummels away at our skulls, but surf guitars, a drummer that’s got rhythm and a double bass player who’s attempting an exorcism through his instrument all add a healthy amount to the mind-blowing set—which doesn’t even mention Thurston Moore’s appearance later on in the set.

Pete Doherty’s in London, apparently due to a strike at the airport, though we hear later that’s a pretty transparent excuse. After waiting around for him to show, we join almost 10,000 hot and sweaty Norwegians trying to squash in around the smallest stage, people are up to their knees in the water as Rick Froberg jackhammers us with uncompromising hardcore vocals over Hot Snakes’ beautifully nuanced guitar melodies. It’s a powerful straight-ahead rock gig, but I find the brute force of his voice tiring.

The antidote arrives quickly. Sure, the Magic Numbers can be a little adult-oriented, but the songs are gorgeous and filled with warm melancholy rather than self-obsessed pathos. They’ve been described as a modern Mamas and the Papas and it holds true live when they hit feel-good sing-alongs like “Mornings Eleven.” Plus they are the first band that’s bothered to learn any Norwegian, singer Romeo Stodart beams his way through a set bursting with beautiful harmonies, country twangs, and gorgeous melodies. Easily my new favourite band.

A haze of smoke hangs around the stage—is there anything Norwegians love more than an enthusiastic smoke machine?—local pop starlet Annie bounds on and, like Kings of Convenience, there is a huge equally blonde and attractive crowd waiting for her. Having done Ibiza this year, she prowls the stage with the conviction of an Idol contestant. Her sugary St. Etienne via Madonna works best on singles “Greatest Hit” and “Chewing Gum,” but when the hooks aren’t so strong, lyrics like “If we all come together / Life is going to be much better” sound a little trite.

Saul Williams is like a bomb exploding on stage, a man possessed. Out of Rick Rubin’s shadow, Williams is awesome and his MCing is far closer to hip-hop than the spoken word he’s usually associated with. MPC-manipulator Adlib (aka Thavius Beck) tears out Brooklyn/Wordsound-style junglist breakbeats and broken beats, it’s a fiery concoction that prods Williams into one of the best hip-hop performances I’ve seen this year. It’s threatening, empowering music, with subject matter ranging from black power and Sierra Leone to diamond mining.

Watching the Sonic Youth kids dancing backstage attempting to get their parents’ attention is cute, but musically the set is similar to last year’s shows. Across the festival, Babyshambles finally climb into a postponed/rescheduled timeslot and somehow make it through 30 minutes worth of songs before Doherty vomits over the stage.

LORDAG / Saturday
In line with the “We’re up first, but hell we’ll headline” ethos, Bergen beatmakers Datarock show up bright and early with half the musicians in Oslo (20 at my count). I found their eponymous album a little lacking one dimensional, but with a crowd of guests onstage from hardcore bands right through to jazz heads, they crayon into the picture a shambolic world of Happy Mondays grooviness.

A whole other crowd of Norwegian bands—Shining, the Thing, Cloroform—trained in jazz, but grew up with metal and electronic music. On stage, at various points over the weekend, they flip jazz on its head, tearing through sets that have as much to do with the Sonics, Pantera, and Squarepusher as Ornette Coleman.

Future Mercury Prize Winners (?) The Magic Numbers

The ex-Jaga Jazzist members of Shining play something that’s equally jazz and metal, with a bit of electronics, but if I’m to be honest, it’s really progressive rock. There I’ve said it, they play the much maligned sound, but it doesn’t sound fatty or over the top, when it connects, it is hot. Frontman Jorgen Munkeby says to the crowd: “This is our last show in Norway for a while, we’ll be touring Europe. And looking out at all you pretty girls, we’re sad, because it’ll just be nerdy guys in Europe.” Says it all really, but it’s also a good description of the festival, it’s hugely eclectic with no separation of musical styles: Discaholics Anonymous Trio on the same stage as Annie and the Magic Numbers right before Saul Williams.

Sons & Daughters look like the sort of kids you might see pashing down the back of an indie club, but being Franz Ferdinand’s labelmates they have attracted a huge crowd. Thankfully, they are worth it. Their loud jangly guitars have a bit of Johnny Cash, lots of Nick Cave, and a smattering of Scottish pop harmonies; the rollicking songs belie the jarring subject matter. However, it’s their label-mates that most people are here to see. And Franz Ferdinand surprised, me at least, by being fantastic. New song “Do You Want To,” “Take Me Out,” “I’m Your Villain,” it’s all fantastically lithe basslines, beautiful Scottish pop harmonies and tailor-made pop songs. The between-song banter reminds me of Crowded House. But it’s wonderfully realised pop moments, with a disarmingly shy awkward manner on stage that leave me flushed.

After that thrill, the day topples dangerously. Grasping a couple of drinks from the closest bar, we resolve to go back and see our friends at the P3 Radio broadcast despite knowing our passes won’t get us backstage. Somehow, Dutch courage probably, we get through and wind up chewing the fat with Datarock behind the public toilet block for a good hour—that’s after Datarock have dived into a table full of empty beer bottles for the benefit of P3’s listeners, of course. I can hear Roots Manuva playing in the distance, it sounds great, but I’m engrossed in my interview, I miss a triumphant set from Subs too. Damn. Still, finding my way through the 4,000 year old ruins, I wonder what the skeletons of ancient Vikings buried below the festival park think. I’m sure it’s all good things.

In a downtown office afterwards, local post-rockers Salvatore play a stellar showcase. People are squashed in everywhere you look and we keep seeing members of the band we hadn’t seen before. The sparkling melodies are coming from at least four different guitarists around the room, one of them is adding sounds from his laptop and all of them have this shamanic look to them. The drummer clutches his sticks like a child who hasn’t learnt to use cutlery yet, but still manages to beat out an intoxicatingly locked rhythm. There’s another guy hidden around the corner taking care of percussion. Ethereal voices echo and hurt my ears. In other words: it’s spectacular.

The night is young, there is plenty to do—Headman drag everyone into their twisted world at a local club, Heavy Trash rocked another one—somehow we end up at another party with Roots Manuva asking if we “Got our perv on?”

By: Matthew Levinson
Published on: 2005-09-06
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