It’s been 15 years since I went to a music festival, which is another way of saying that I’m probably too old to go to a music festival.
I all but proved that point last Sunday, when I attended Flow Fest, Helsinki’s urban music and art festival and Ice Bath’s favorite thing to talk about. It’s a three-day event, but we could only attend on Sunday, which was a bit disappointing since that was the line up neither of us was particularly excited about. But off we went anyway, to see the likes of Frank Ocean, Ryan Adams and a bunch of other artists that I really couldn’t care less about.
As it turns out, I don’t think the artists cared much about the audience either. Frank Ocean was the biggest offender. When he finally appeared on stage, he situated himself on the upper left quadrant. Thanks to an oddly placed A/V tent, it was the 25 percent of the stage that at least 50 percent of the audience couldn’t see.
Several songs into the set, he announced that he was about to play the keyboard.
“I hate doing this,” he added. “I don’t really know how to play.”
If that’s really the case, I’m not sure why he bothered. For one thing, no one from the audience asked him to play an instrument. And I doubt anybody would have wanted him to if they knew he was going to place the keyboard on the ground and then crouch down to pluck out a few songs completely out view.
It all led me to believe that he probably really does hate doing this. Love him or hate him, at least Frank Ocean is honest.
Perhaps it’s unfair of me not to acknowledge a few things: Frank Ocean has been battling his former record label for the past four years. The lyrics on his most recent album appear to be painfully personal. He was always a bit of an outlier in the macho world of R&B and now he’s a true outsider, having released his most recent album independently.
It all sounds exhausting, which maybe explains why he seemed so tired and fed up. Or maybe that’s just how he is; I don’t really know much about Frank Ocean’s performance style.
But I’ll say this: he was the headlining artist on the main stage – the least he could do was stand in the middle of it.
If I interpreted Frank Ocean’s performance as a one tinged with headliner’s apathy, I’m not sure what to make of Angel Olsen, a side stage performer I saw earlier in the day. She started a bit late, by which I don’t mean that her set did not begin on time, but that her band took the stage and began playing a song without her. She walked out shortly thereafter, casually sipping a bottle of water and strapping on her guitar. She never so much as acknowledged the crowd before her – not with a wave, not a smile, not even a half-hearted apology or joke about running behind.
She, too, seemed to “hate doing this” – a point she made pretty clear a few songs later when she signaled the booth and asked, “Can you turn the lights down? It’s getting a little hot up here.”
I’m sure it was. That’s the thing about music festivals: they’re uncomfortable. Everyone stands around all day, sharing space with gross sweaty people and sloshing through a mixture of mud and beer. Food is expensive and the bathrooms are disgusting and the lines for both are long. Sometimes, like on Sunday, there’s a torrential downpour and people have to walk around for the rest of the day in wet shoes and soggy jackets. It’s no picnic for me either, but I do it because I want to see some bands. So, like, forgive me if I expect the performers to remain standing and keep the lights on.
We were 30 minutes into Frank Ocean’s set when Ice Bath suggested that we check out one last side stage and then call it a night. It was there, after a long day of watching musicians mail it in to far larger crowds, that we finally saw some energy: Fatoumata Diawara & Hindi Zahra, a pair of African women who apparently aren’t even an official duo, but two independent artists who hooked up for the festival.
When Ice Bath and I walked in, one of them was spinning in a tight circle while blowing a referee’s whistle. The other was playing a tambourine and executing a series of hair whips. The band, meanwhile, was smiling – at the women, the audience, and each other. The whole group looked pleased to be there, performing for people who came to see them and trying to make a good impression for everyone else.
I didn’t care much for the music, but I appreciated the effort. And it was nice to end the day on a high note, literally.
I’m not surprised that the artists I never heard of were the ones playing the hardest. That’s often the case at these festivals – and it’s true of many of us, regardless of our profession. So often, people only want to want to make it big so that they can then take it easy. I can’t say I blame them – contentment is bliss.
Not that I’m speaking from experience. I’ve yet to be content a day in my life – and I doubt anyone else who’s still hustling to get to their respective main stage has been either.
But visiting Flow Festival this weekend has reminded me that arriving is only half the battle. if I’m ever lucky enough to earn a spot at the top, I hope I have the grace to stand up straight and the manners to wave hello to the people who helped me along the way. Otherwise, I probably won’t be there for long.