Imagine you’re wading up to your waist in a cool, clean lake, soft sand beneath your feet, the evening sun bathing your shoulders, the joyous beats of a Finnish reggae band wafting over you and filling the nearby pine trees. This is a festival experience unlike any other… this is the Ilosaarirock Festival in Joensuu, Finland.
Finland, being the particularly heavy metal driven country it is, has many quality music festivals during the year but Ilosaarirock can’t be beat for its history (2011 will be its 40th anniversary), its gorgeous setting on the shores of a tranquil river, its somewhat isolated location (a five-hour train ride northeast of Helsinki, the land of wolves and rogue Russian traders), and its diverse line up. The 21,000 person capacity keeps things neat and orderly in that true Finnish way, even when everyone is as drunk as a skunk.
Ilosaarirock may not be one of the biggest festivals on the scene but it makes up for it with its charm. This particular charm has helped lure in such past acts such as Muse, who spent their pre-concert time on a boat fishing, just as this year’s headliner’s Faith No More spent their day at a lakeside sauna. There are unique benefits too for the concert-goers as well – a free liquor deposit outside of the venue, sumo wrestling, and bungy jumping, to name a few.
For me, the festival was going to be a meaningful experience. I had traveled to Finland to secure my newly-granted dual citizenship with the country (my mother is Finnish, my dad is a viking) and decided to journey to Joensuu to catch Imogen Heap, Biffy Clyro, and Bad Religion. Rounding out the mainly Finnish line-up was the last scheduled show of Faith No More’s reunion tour. Having caught them at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco and at Coachella, there was no way I was going to miss this send-off.
Saturday, July 17th
Who? I know. There were many Finnish bands and artists that I had never heard of either but I’m glad the festival gave me this chance. Olavi Uusivirta was described as Finland’s “pop boy” though I have to say the incredibly enigmatic young man was definitely finding his Finnish rock roots by the end of his performance. Opening on the main stage early in the day can’t be an easy feat, but Olavi was charming the crowd like no one else. I couldn’t understand a word he was singing, but the singer-songwriter’s winning smile more than made up for it. As the Finns say, he was “Ihana” (lovely).
Off I ran to the Ylex Stage, the 8,000 person capacity semi-indoor hanger where many international acts play, to catch Pariisin KevÃ¤t, a new project by Arthur Tunes, a.k.a Arto Tuunela, a Finnish singer, songwriter, producer who is pretty much the country’s version of Mike Patton. The rock outfit Pariisin KevÃ¤t, which means Paris in the Springtime, is one of Tuunela’s newest projects and this appearance at Illosaarirock was the first they ever made. Not that you could tell. The venue was packed to the brim with screaming, hyperventilating fans. You’d think they were witnessing The Beatles instead of this scruffy-haired misfit in a tight military jacket. But the tight, enigmatic performance and the overwhelming response from the crowd proved that Tuunela’s new direction was a complete success.
Imogen Heap provided one of the most moving and memorable performances of the festival. Half hidden in shadows, half bathed in eerie light and decked by delicate black feathers, she moved and sang like a fallen angel. There was darkness in the haunting, electronic sounds of her music, which was expertly balanced by her lithe and soul-searing voice.
When she wasn’t showing off her mixing skills, she was pounding away on the stately piano, accompanied by her two violin players, or dancing around the stage. It was hard at times to even describe what kind of music she produces live… one might be better off just describing it as an event. This was evident when she performed her hit “Just For Now.” She got the audience to sing along like a back-up choir and it wasn’t even until half-way through the song that I realized it was sung acapella. Her radiance just eclipsed any need for additional sounds. Her voice is everything you need, and at Ilosaarirock, in that dark, moody tent, everyone had their needs met.
One festival-goer said to me, “I’ve got chills at the back of my neck listening to her.” Funny thing was, I did too.
I wasn’t sure what to except when I knew U.N.K.L.E was playing but it certainly wasn’t what I ended up seeing. The UK band is well-known for their hypnotic and trip-hop fringed beats, so the projection of obscure moving images behind them and seizure-inducing strobe lights was certainly not out of place.
But I would have liked some additional, you know, energy? It’s hard to critique live acts sometimes, especially when they are based more on feeling than performance, but whereas Imogen Heap was able to reach me in the most intricate and intimate levels, there was something about U.N.K.L.E that left me feeling cold and disappointed. I know that there were a lot of fans who were more than happy with the performance, but as a casual listener I guess I might have been expecting too much. I wasn’t left crying uncle (sorry, I had to) but it wasn’t all that great either.
The last time I saw Bad Religion was well over 10 years ago, and maybe it’s because they were a relatively “old” band to begin with, but they haven’t aged a day. Dr. Greg Graffin’s voice and his crew were tighter than ever, pounding out energetic hit after hit. The tall Bad Religion flags in the audience waved back and forth in time to “Atomic Garden”, “Man on a Mission”, “No Direction”, and “Generator.”
Graffin engaged the audience with his personable theatrics, while guitarist Brett Gurewitz and bassist Jay Bentley stepped up to provide powerful harmonies. The political chit-chat was kept to a minimum (which Graffin explained with an aside to the lack of George W. Bush in office) which suited the crowd well – this wasn’t America, these Finns just wanted to party.
The long set was capped off with the popular “21st Century Digital Boy” and “Punk Rock Song” which frantically drew back the few concertgoers who had started to leave. As if to make the point that no one should be leaving early during a frantic Bad Religion concert, Ilosaarirock let loose a whole slew of fireworks from the side of the mainstage, filling the air with light and smoke and providing an excellent exclamation point to the first day of the festival.
Sunday, July 18th
The first band I was able to check out on the second day of the festival was the Finnish trio Lapko. I immediately felt drawn to the singer Ville Malja, though I think it was because he was singing in English and – gasp – I could finally understand it. That’s not to say a few things weren’t lost in the translation but the energy and dedication that these three Finns had evened things out. Lapko aren’t that new, they’ve been around for at least seven years on the Finnish music scene and that was apparent by the crowd they managed to draw, despite the two o’clock time slot.
Why this band is relatively unknown in North America is beyond me. I was listening to their latest (and fifth) album Only Revolutions before I came to the festival, just so I would know what to expect, and these boys ended up blowing me away. Just like Muse, whom they are frequently compared to (not because of sound – that would be the Foo Fighters – but because of the threat of instant worldwide dominance), Biffy Clyro hold on to that special niche of sounding more spectacular live than they do on the album. I’m not sure what it was about this sweaty, skinny, shirtless, Scottish band but singer Simon Neil and bassist James Johnston had held that stage in utter dominance. Even their more “pop”-ish songs were shredded to bits by screaming vocals and lacerating guitar licks.
The crowd was as captivated as much as I was and when it was all over and there was no more sweat to be flung, there was also no doubt in my mind that Biffy Clyro would soon be exploding in one hot mess across the world any day now. You heard it here first.
Faith No More
For the entire day – hell, the entire festival – there was this strange undercurrent of electricity running around the place. It became most apparent when I started to ask random festival-goers which bands they were most excited about seeing. The number one answer was Faith No More. Even during the late Sunday evening press conference, the festival promoters admitted how much they were looking to Faith No More playing. They had established a relationship with Mike Patton as he had already performed with Fantomas and Mondo Cane a few years back but Faith No More was a whole different animal. This is what they, and most of the 21,000 festival-goers had been looking forward to for the last year. And for the really hardcore fans, they might have been looking forward to this since 1997.
But if there was a lot of pressure on the band, they didn’t act like it. Because it was the last scheduled show of their infamous Second Coming reunion tour, they all had their sights set on the horizon. This was their last gig, it would go off without a hitch, and the emotional impact would only help hammer their performance home.
The haunting notes of “Midnight Cowboy” eased the band into the set, with Patton playing his melodica instrument with nervous energy, energy that outright exploded into “From Out of Nowhere” with the siren-wail of his trademark megaphone. From “Be Aggressive” to “Caffeine” to “Cuckoo for Caca”, Patton was nothing short of the most terrifying mechanical monkey ever seen.
He spit, gurgled, groaned, moaned. He crouched and screamed, bent over and shook, made several laps around the stage, giving deathly stares to his technicians. One microphone stand was tossed into the photo pit earlier on, later he kicked the camera man in the chest when he got to close. He berated the Finns for being a lackluster audience then was literally blown off his feet after their response to that song that won’t freaking die, “Epic.” I believe he said he was coming in pants thanks to the crowd’s eventual reaction, and I had no doubt everyone else there was too.
Taking the show at face value, there wasn’t anything particularly different about it when compared to other shows on their reunion tour. No new songs were played, Patton was as utterly insane as ever, Bill Gould, Roddy Bottum, Jon Hudson and Mike Bordin held down the fort with their usual determination and strength. But there was a buzz of sadness and infamy in the air, which came to light as soon as Gould announced that Finland was a fitting place “for our last show.”
“Forever,” Patton added dramatically.
Whether that remains to be true or not, you could feel the entire heart of Ilosaarirock just sink into the dusty earth. Was this really it? Did we witness history here?
By the time the encores of “This Guy’s in Love with You” and “The Real Thing” came, there really was no doubt. They started their reunion tour last year with “The Real Thing” and it was only fitting that the chose that song to end with it.
“Like your heartbeat when you realize you’re dying, but you’re trying
Like the way you cry for a happy ending, ending…”
Patton repeated the “ending” over and over, each time hitting harder and harder, to drive the point home in his brutal and penetrating way.
It was a happy ending for Faith No More. Their reunion was a success, and I know the band had an amazing time performing across the world for thousands of loyal and dedicated fans. When the last notes of “The Real Thing” died, they gave thanks to the crew for all their hard work and cracked open a bottle of champagne on stage.
But when they left, their tired, shadowy shapes disappearing into the background and leaving the stage empty and bare, the loud, but ultimately futile, chants from the crowd only showed that their fans weren’t ready to say good bye just yet.
As the song said, “You will never let it slip away.”