“Listen to your mother, kids. Aim low. Aim so low no one will even care if you succeed.” Marge Simpson was just down on her pretzels, but I was more or less headed to Helsinki expecting nothing and open to the very real possibility of having an above-average weekend.
As good an excuse as any to visit a summery Lapland, Flow Festival boasts a smattering of the hottest international acts performing at a disused power station dipping toes in the Baltic Sea. CHIC featuring Nile Rodgers is a highlight. The denizens of disco have mastered the art of the organised hand clap; it’s good, clean fun for legitimately old-school hits ‘Everybody Dance’ & 'I want your love'. Nile intros Daft Punk track ‘Get Lucky’ with a few words about his own cancer, explaining how he threw himself into making more new music because “If I die, I wanna die living!” Cue bass. This reviewer finds herself ushered on stage with a clutch of other revellers to finish the set grooving to ‘Good Times’. It’s a gimmick the band is known for but hey, for fifteen seconds of fame I play along.
There’s a no-drinks policy at the front of the main stage & it’s a winning strategy to eliminate a heap of tension. Still, the dancing is thirsty work & the Bulleit cocktail bar has its work cut out come nightfall. We quickly decide this is the best drink option going but at €12 a pop, it’s a one-time treat. Happy Joe's is Helsinki’s cider of choice, in abundance at Flow. Add cans of Lapin Kulta beer & the very retro Hartwall Original Long Drink & you’ve got yourselves a proper Scandi party.
Flow puts on a mean spread – when stomachs rumble, it’s real corn soft tacos, bright beef phở & Pok Pok Farang, crispy palm sugar caramel pork on limey green mango salad. It’s so good we go back for seconds. There’s more veggie & vegan options than meats, too. Did I mention you’ll be broke after this weekend? Major Lazer shuts down the Friday main stage sampling Yeah Yeah Yeahs along with everything else. It’s flippant & exciting, though I’m put off when the ladies in the crowd are counselled to take their shirts off & throw them in the air. New single ‘Powerful’ is just that; everyone leaves on a high.
Saturday brings even bigger, brighter skies. Anyone doing this city festival thing right is busy picnicking, lazing at the beach or otherwise celebrating Helsinki’s historic sights & the fact it’s again cracked 20 degrees. Belle + Sebastian give new track ‘Perfect Couples’ a run, joking over a false start: "It's because we're near the magnetic pole." I’m convinced most of Flow is Finnish, young & attractive. "Is anybody old enough to remember that one?" Singer Stuart Murdoch has also noticed the teens.
O Samuli A is making the titular ‘other sound’ over on that stage & it's impossible to get within 70 foot of Reino Nordin lighting up the fantastical Bright Balloon. Marsen Jules sounds a little churchy, dark too. Like, literally. I'm not wholly sure there's even anyone on the decks.
I'll jinx it now, but everyone at Flow is out for a good time. People are calm, casual. Years & Years pack out the Blue Tent. I’m not expecting Olly Alexander’s dungaree & Harley Davidson tee combo, or his cover of Blu Cantrell’s ‘Breathe’, but the whole vibe is perfectly chill & the set is one of Flow’s best. Catchy ‘King’ comes last, Alexander dancing as he sings with a rainbow flag borrowed from the crowd.
I’m star struck by Baltimore’s Future Islands, or really lead singer Samuel T. Herring. His vocals are reminisce of Pantera at moments but interpret that as feeling & any apprehension melts away. There’s a glittery drum kit & all the guys are in patterned shirts. Herring booty-shakes like Beyoncé, beats his chest like Tarzan & sweats like, well, like a man. In front of a slower song Herring explains, "We're not s'posed to do this at a festival but we don't give a fuck." You can imagine the cheers. When finally ‘Seasons’ plays to hard applause, his roar is returned. He skips across the stage, invisible bowling ball in hand. "Thank you so much Flow, you guys are fuckin' beautiful.” We must be.
We’re in denial about Sunday. Unlike camping festivals where you're itching for a shower, actual sleep & a decent pour of coffee to head the day, it's hard to tire of sleeping late, brunching out & a spot of vintage shopping or water sports before rolling along to spot some of the world's best musical talent. We've hit peak Helsinki when Todd Terje & The Olsens grace the Black Tent with their easy 70s spy-theme dulcets. There are shirts off everywhere for their efforts, people dancing hard in the evening heat. Delorean Dynamite is unmissable, then it's like their just jamming along with a wailing sax & big samba sounds.
The most impressive kind of mass-clap is one that starts itself, uninitiated by the band; a pure & unadulterated response of sound to sound. These guys get it, a second time when the crowd tries for an encore after Inspector Norse & a final bow. Beck draws one of Flow’s biggest crowds. "Somebody threw a banana peel on stage!" Indeed. I’m not a fan but it’s hard to fault the classics and ‘Where It's At’ is one of the 90s’ better earworms. Florence + the Machine’s namesake is a fan, a vision in white peasant blouse & heavy cream flares. She’s barefoot too, throwing loose locks here and there while beating her drum (tambourine) in Ship to Wreck. She twirls everywhere & I'm sure she's going to fall, but her balance is the greater force & somehow she avoids disaster.
I haven't seen Florence since 2010 after she missed Benicàssim with vocal strain. She gives it absolutely everything at all times. For ‘Raise It Up’ she shouts, "Put your girlfriend on your shoulders, put your boyfriend on your shoulders. We want everybody to get as high as they can!" ‘Shake It Out’ gives me goosebumps & I have them again when Alt-J close the weekend. Marmite of the music world, I never got the appeal before seeing these guys live. There’s huge love for the boys from Leeds, even if nobody understands what they’re singing.
Blissing out to the country/rock/folk/blues/jazz/grime/electro weirdness of it all, it’s clear people are enjoying in very different ways. There's a real range of reactions but everyone joins to applaud what is undeniably interesting music made with heart. The Finns aren't too cool to care about their hearing either. We saw earplugs on sale from day one & should really have sprung for a couple.
Flow is undoubtedly the blondest, tallest, tastiest festival yet in a seriously fun setting. Start saving now for the next one.