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Flow Festival 2023 Blur c Konstantin Kondrukhov 9674

Flow Festival is future facing, friendly, and fantastically fun

16 August 2023, 18:00

As Finland’s ground-breaking Flow Festival hosts the penultimate edition of residency in Suvilahti, Ed Nash discovers how Flow mirrors its hometown of Helsinki.

With Helsinki being a tale of ten cities rolled into one, it’s only natural that Flow Festival also pulls off the amazing trick of being an event that caters to everyone.

Helsinki starts its days slowly and then speeds up at a blistering pace. On my first night there, the manager at the hotel recommends taking a sauna, jumping in the sea, and then going back into the sauna. When I tell him that sounds like a better idea for the morning, he laughs and says the Finnish like to ease into their day, with high energy activities ideal for the evening.

Spending time in the city, you can see what he means – making one’s way back from Flow at night couldn’t be more different to the relaxed mornings. A bar called The Old Irish Pub has hundreds of young Finns queuing around the block to get in at midnight, tempted, no doubt by €2.80 Vodka and Red Bulls.

Helsinki mirrors the culture of Flow Festival and vice versa. To understand what Flow is all about, you have to dig into the multiverse experience that Helsinki offers. You can sit in Vanha Kirkkopuisto square, a cemetery that’s been converted into one of the many verdant spaces in Helsinki and have a coffee to start the day, or visit Temppeliaukio Church in the Etu-Töölö district, which known as the “Rock Church”, a chapel buried beneath layers of stone and covered by a copper dome, where locals sit and have their lunch.

Flow Festival 2023 saturday Riikka Vaahtera

Helsinki’s archipelago has over 330 islands, many of which can be reached from the port in the city centre, where you can have the local dish Lohikeitto, a beautiful creamy salmon soup, before getting on a ferry. From there the beautiful Vallisaari Island is a 20-minute ferry ride well worth taking. Described as the most unique island in the archipelago, it has an area called The Valley of Death, where people died following an explosion in the 1930s, when tonnes of unused ammunition exploded. The Island opened for tourists in 2016, but you have to stick to the paths, because yes, there could still be unused ammo in the ground.

This year, Vallisaari is one of the locations for The Helsinki Biennale, curated by Joasia Krysa, called New Directions May Emerge. The most stunning piece is an installation located in an abandoned mine shaft by Emilija Škarnulytė called Hypoxia, which features video footage of The Baltic Sea, which is both educational and harrowing, of abandoned army tanks and bullets that lie on the seabed, mutating into the aquatic life.

The progressive and socially aware culture of Helsinki runs through Flow. Since its inception in 2004, originally in the city centre’s disused railway warehouses next to the Museum of Modern Art, the festival has tried to do things differently. Its home since 2007 has been the magnificent base of Suvilahti, a former power plant and home to a swathe of stages, DJ sites and art installations over the weekend.

This year’s festival was originally planned to be the end of Flow’s time in Suvilahti, but local resident’s complaints about the redevelopment of the site has delayed moving to a new location to be postponed until 2025. Flow’s commitment to sustainability is impressive, with red and white meat off the agenda since last year and their manifesto of recycling isn’t lip service, tins and glass bottles can be returned at deposit stalls, where you get €1 back. Flow takes its moral principles so seriously that days before this year’s edition, the organisers ended their partnership with Heineken due to the brands continued presence in Russia.

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As with Helsinki, there’s so many things to do at Flow it feels like being at several places at the same time. In the first half hour at the site on Friday, the first artist we see is at the X Garden, where FWU, the local DJ duo of SHY GRL and twenpettie, spin a delirious blend of funk and hip hop to a crowd that takes in young children to grandparents.

Five minutes later we visit The Other Sound X Sun Effects stage where Meriheini Luoto performs the violin drone of “ILO OLI ILO OLI ILO” to a seated audience and it feels like you’re in different era in time, as Luoto plays to a visual backdrop reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. At the back of the room is an art installation by Jere Suontausta and Antti Hevosmaa, called Musta olemus, described as “a kinetic piece that dances self-sufficiently in aerospace”, and instead of a balmy, sunny evening in Helsinki it feels like midnight in Paris.

Like Finnish mornings, getting your bearings at Flow takes time, which you quickly realise is part of the festival’s charm. It’s a multi-note festival, like the city that hosts it, so shortly after the high art of the Sun Effects stage a trip to the Silver Arena sees afrotrap artist Ege Zulu bring a joyous feel to the packed tent, backed by five piece band wearing identical football tops.

Suede’s show on the main stage – like Blur two nights later – is all killer/no filler. A remarkably lithe looking Brett Anderson literally throws himself into the set, knowingly crowd surfing during “Everything Will Flow” as fans of all ages take selfies. They sign off with a staggered start to “Beautiful Ones”, and as the sun comes down all is well in Helsinki.

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Brett Anderson by Riikka Vaahtera

A quick walk to The Black Stage sees Jockstrap continuing their ascent with a late-night slot featuring the bulk of I Love You Jennifer B. Seeing the songs on a live stage adds even more energy to the music, but it’s the orchestral touches on the likes of “Concrete Over Water” that really stands out, and blends Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye’s songwriting chops with experiments in sound. They end with a new song, which Ellery announces is called “Running” and points to an even more mind-bending direction for their next record.

Scheduling headaches are rare at Flow, but the reputation of the wonderous venue of the Balloon 360° stage means I only get to see a couple of songs from Wizkid, where he endlessly throws the 50 or so bottles of water lined up in front of him across the stage, which is probably not what the organisers were thinking in terms of climate efficiency, but he seems to enjoy it. Instead I see Esa’s Afro-Synth Band round off Friday night at Balloon 360° with some delightfully energetic funk.

The funk continues in the same venue on Saturday afternoon, where Arp Frique & Family deliver a brilliant festival set, with the bassist Marilonah channelling the playing of Bootsy Collins. Such is the party atmosphere that they bring to Balloon 360°, the dancing of a punter with his hair braided in Viking style - a fair few sheets to the wind - draws as much as attention as the band.

On the main stage, whilst Lorde’s starpower is undoubted – she draws the biggest crowd of the weekend – it feels as there’s a distance between the artist and everything else, with the band hidden behind the stage backdrop and the use of video an attempt to separate the performer from the performance that doesn’t quite work. It's a contrast to the joy with which Caroline Polachek attacks the main stage the next day. When Polachek opens with “Welcome To My Island” she nails what Flow is all about - inclusivity, abandon, but above all, fun, fun and more fun.

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Caroline Polachek by Riikka Vaahtera

On the final day of the festival, rather than a sense of déjà vu, we get the evolving story that is Flow. Local hero Olavi Uusivirta draws an enormous crowd, and hearing thousands of people singing along in Finnish is a reminder of the importance Flow places on including native artists and culture on the bill. A couple of minutes after his set we’re in the X Garden again, where the DJ set from Sallidoing has people stood on the DJ booth, dancing along to a 240 BPM house version of The Korgis “Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime”.

At the bar I see the Viking guy from Friday – today dressed in full Viking regalia, at 6.30pm, drinking lager faster than Thor in Avengers: Endgame – and looks, to use the local parlance, to be “Kännissä kuin käki”, which roughly translates as drunk as a cuckoo.

Another trip to The Other Sound X Sun Effects provides one of the musical highlights of the weekend from LA experimental musician Claire Rousay, who starts by saying she’d smoked too many cigarettes the day before and ends it by asking if anyone has a lighter. Rousay’s 45-minute set – sat in front of a laptop – is mesmerising from start to finish, where you forget about everything else that’s happening outside the room.

The proliferation of Blur t-shirts on Sunday makes it clear who most of the audience are here for. Their reunion has been hailed for its joyousness, despite The Ballad of Darren being one of the most moving-but-bleakest records since 13, and the mood is one of celebration. As a field of Finns shout ‘Parklife!’, Damon Albarn wanders to into the crowd and emerges wearing a yellow feather boa, that he keeps on for dramatic effect during “To The End”.

Whilst both the enduring nature of their friendship and songs is a delight, it’s Graham Coxon’s guitar playing that remains their ace card. During the solo on “This is a Low”, a group of Finnish teenagers skip around me as I dance very badly to the discordant notes. I’ve seen Blur play more times that I can count on one hand, but tonight was the best they’ve ever sounded.

Flow is an incredible bricolage of music, art and culture, a microcosm of Helsinki itself, where you start slow, increase the pace, do the right thing for the planet and make friends. Next year’s final hurrah at Suvilahti will be something else, but the 2023 edition will take some beating.

Flow Festival 2024 will be run from 9-11 August 2024; tickets are on sale now

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