Watching Kanye while standing on ancient ruins: A trip to Norway’s Øya Festival

Watching Kanye while standing on ancient ruins: A trip to Norway’s Øya Festival

On my first day in Oslo for the Øya Festival, I inadvertently passed the part of town that had been blasted by a local terrorist’s bomb on July 22. The incident—which was the precursor to an even more deadly gun attack by the same perpetrator—had clearly cast a shadow across the beautiful old city. A chain-link fence was covered with flowers and candles left in tribute, and the courtyard of Oslo Cathedral—already partially cleared out—was knee-deep with remembrances and flowers. It was an eerie start, especially considering how magnificent (and sort of quaint) downtown Oslo is.

The clean, friendly city is clearly marching on, though news of the perpetrator did peek from pretty much every newspaper. The organizers of the Øya Festival—who, full disclosure, paid for my hotel and airfare—seemed determined to press on. The TV wanted to talk about the killings, but those gathered in Medieval Park in Oslo’s downtown were ready to take a break from it. There was a ton of international talent on hand to provide a diversion over the five-day festival, which ran from August 9-13.

Jetlag kept me from venturing out the first night—a.k.a. club night—which actually takes place in various venues around the city and consists almost entirely of Norwegian bands. (It should be noted that even though most people surely associate Norway with black metal, there’s clearly a lot more going on than that. And black metal, it seems, wasn’t even represented at Øya.) Instead, I walked around the city center, which features an odd mix of old and new: Look to your right, it’s the Hard Rock Café. Look straight ahead, and it’s Oslo’s amazing Royal Palace. There’s an H&M on every other block, but also an incredible, modern Opera House whose sloping, tiled roof is a popular tourist attraction.

Oh, and a quick two things to know about Oslo: First, everyone speaks English, some more clearly than many native speakers I know. Second, it’s sort of shockingly expensive, especially with the weak U.S. dollar: A burger and fries at a decent (but far from fancy) place cost about $30. A 10-minute cab ride was about $25. A bottle of water at 7-Eleven (which is also everywhere): $6-ish. Oh, but here’s a third thing: Norway is No. 1 on the Human Development Index, which means it’s basically the best place in the entire world to live. (Objectively, scientifically speaking.)

Øya, which started in a much smaller form in 1999, certainly isn’t hurting the city’s style. It gathers some truly big names from all over the world, pairs them with local and up-and-coming international bands, and plops them into a park that’s naturally broken up by a stream and the ruins of the original Oslo. (There’s a sign in Norwegian saying something to the effect of “Please don’t climb or jump on the ruins,” though they’re otherwise unprotected.) There are four stages inside the main grounds (and one just outside for smaller local bands), and the capacity is kept to an incredibly comfortable level—about 16,000 per day. That’s roughly the same as Pitchfork, but in a considerably bigger space.


What this means for festivalgoers is that when it came time for Wednesday’s headliner, Kanye West, you could walk damn near next to the stage five minutes before he walked on—if he were the kind of guy who walked on. No, Mr. West was raised on a construction lift in the middle of the crowd to start the show with “Dark Fantasy.” He made his way to the stage, which was already populated by his menagerie of dancers, to blast through hit after hit for “Act One”—“Jesus Walks,” “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” And though the bass was distractingly heavy at the front of the stage, he still killed it. And of course, he took the time to boast (that Watch The Throne was No. 1 in 23 countries, one more than Lady Gaga) and hate (“Fuck the press! They make you de-pressed.” Get it?). Yeezy, on behalf of pretty much the entire press, allow me to say: We really like your music.

But allow me to rewind: I caught bits and pieces of Grant Lee Buffalo, James Blake, and Sharon Jones prior to Kanye’s big finish, as well as a popular Norwegian band called Lukestar, which sounded a bit like Sigur Ros, but on a mission to rock. Nothing blew my mind, though I definitely liked Blake more than the last time I saw him. That might’ve been the setting rather than the music.

I had to bail on Kanye a few minutes early to catch Low at a club a short distance from the festival site. I caught opener Josh T. Pearson’s last couple of songs, which were punctuated by bad jokes and an admonition to some girls in front to stop talking. Pearson fronted a legendary band that went nowhere, Texas’ Lift To Experience, and he recently launched a sort of folky, out-there solo career. Low, as always, was excellent. The band stuck to a lot of songs from this year’s C’Mon, including the devastating “Witches,” which lifts its greatest lyric (“All you guys out there who wanna act like Al Green… You’re all weak”) from a Kool Keith song. Low finished the night with a bold but sincere choice: “Murderer,” a song that examines a character’s willingness to kill in the name of God. Singer Alan Sparhawk explained beforehand that he meant it with respect, and it seemed like the audience got it.

The next day at the main fest grounds, though, Wiz Khalifa apparently didn’t exhibit the same thoughtfulness. Though I didn’t see it, the writer covering Øya for Pitchfork told me that Khalifa pretended to spray the crowd with machine-gun fire, accompanied by DJ sound effects. If that’s true, it’s probably something he should skip next time he’s in Oslo.

Before Thursday’s festivities began, the organizers arranged a boat trip for the international attendees, out to a small island filled with vacation homes that were given to working-class families in the 1920s. It was fantastic. Apparently socialism works, people. (Oh, and discovering massive petroleum reserves in 1969 doesn’t hurt a country’s ability to keep itself clean, modern, and generous. Want 46 weeks of maternity leave? Move to Norway!)

Q-Tip was supposed to be one of the major acts on Thursday, but he cancelled his entire European tour. Quick on the draw, the festival booked and flew in Shabazz Palaces, the mysterious two-man hip-hop outfit featuring Butterfly of Digable Planets. Since the booking was so last-minute, the small-ish crowd gathered at the smallest stage didn’t seem to know who it was, but coordinated dance moves and eerie beats and loops—accompanied by live drums—seemed to convert more than a few, including me. I’m going to listen to Black Up again soon.

Guided By Voices seemed far less drunk than last time I saw them. The classic lineup—Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Kevin Fennell (whom Pollard introduced as “my ex-brother-in-law”), Mitch Mitchell, and Greg Demos—stuck to the classic material. Every other song was introduced as “This is from Bee Thousand,” which is always a good sign, and they dipped back into some Propeller and Vampire On Titus tracks as well. “Always Crush Me” was weird and great.

Next I bobbed between Fleet Foxes (a band I admire but don’t particularly love) and Janelle Monáe, who—backed by a dozen players—knew better than anyone else I’d yet seen how to work a big stage. I missed Norwegians Tog, but saw the last bit of Explosions In The Sky, a band I like a lot but that works far better in a dark theater than in a sunny field.

Aphex Twin has played exactly one U.S. gig in the last eight years, so I figured I should see what Richard D. James was up to. Same stuff, it turns out, but still incredibly powerful in small doses. He ramped up slowly to a surprisingly disco-y set that was both arty and danceable. James himself still hangs in the shadows toward the back of the stage, but he had plenty of frenetic visuals to keep it interesting, at least for the half-hour I watched.

On the bigger main stage, Norwegian band Kaizers Orchestra was playing to a massive crowd. It was described to me as the country’s answer to Coldplay, and while that wasn’t 100 percent accurate, it’s fairly close. The locals were clearly in love.

On Friday, I walked a ways from the festival site to Vigeland Sculpture Park, a massive, imposing collection of granite statues and wrought-iron gates, mostly depicting human figures, some strange, some not so strange. That part of the city, including the royal palace and lots of embassies, reminded me of the poshest parts of London. Very civilized, very wealthy.

Back at the festival grounds, a local band called Kvelertak drew a bigger crowd than Kanye did with songs that were (I’m told) all about Vikings and Norse myths. It sounded a bit like At The Drive-In. I missed the Twin Shadow set in the Klubben tent, because it was packed.

The big headliner was a reunited Pulp, back together after a nine-year absence. It stuck to the hits, many of which—particularly “Babies”—sound as good now as they did then. Jarvis Cocker still stalks the stage like a true showman, though the rest of Pulp looked a little bored. They always did, I guess.

Afterwards, the Øya folks arranged a bus trip for the international VIPs—that’s me, international VIP—to the gorgeous forest overlooking Oslo. We were promised a very special guest, who turned out to be Norway’s Mari Boine. Boine sings Sami songs, from the indigenous minority people of northern Scandinavia. To these ears, it sounded Native American. And gorgeous. And a nice break from pop music, particularly when delivered in front of a campfire next to a small lake and under an almost-full moon.

Festival fatigue set in a bit on Saturday, so I explored a neighborhood called Grünerløkka, sort of a hip, young area. Lots of strollers, secondhand stores, record stores, and the like. I tried to get to the festival in time to see Razika, the buzzing Norwegian girl group that mixes ska strokes with ’60s harmonies, but apparently they buzzed through their set so quickly that I missed it all. I did catch some Avett Brothers, whose popularity mystifies me a bit. I like them fine, but their straight-ahead country-rock doesn’t seem like the stuff to inspire incredible devotion. I also caught a few songs by Prins Thomas Orkester. Thomas was known mostly for dance-y, disco-inspired electronic music, but his Orkester jams like a ’70s space-rock band, though with a bit more attention paid to hips. I finished out the night on the balcony of the Opera Hotel, about a quarter mile from the Festival, listening to Sebadoh bang out songs from Bakesale and Harmacy. With the gorgeous Opera House and fjords in the background, it was a fitting way to end the exotic trip. 

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