It was 8.30 on a Sunday evening when Robert Smith walked on to the main stage at Helsinki’s Flow Festival with his band, The Cure. As usual, he was in black and had his trademark pale white make-up on, with a smudged smear of red lipstick and mascara. Yet Smith, who turned 60 earlier this year, looked a bit like a caricature of his earlier public image. Like an old ghoul—he had put on weight and his curly wild mop of black hair had thinned. Would his band and he disappoint, I thought to myself as he slung his gleaming red and black custom-made Schecter guitar around his shoulder. I needn’t have worried.
The Cure opened their set with a bang, launching into their first song, Shake Dog Shake, the opener from their 1984 album, The Top. It’s a heavy song with some metal overtones, and with lyrics that are typically Cure-esque, dark and melancholic. As Smith sang the first verse (Wake up in the dark/ The after-taste of anger in the back of my mouth/ Spit it on the wall/ And cough some more/ And scrape my skin with razor blades), it seemed surreal. The ageing Goth idol sounded remarkably like he did when I heard my first Cure album, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. It was their seventh studio album and it had come out in 1987 but by the time I got to it, it was already 1990.
After that first song, there was no stopping. The Cure, who got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame this year (belatedly, I think), impeccably belted out 20 songs in a row, performing a swathe of their vast repertoire, all mainly composed by Smith, and covering a career that has spanned four decades. Shake Dog Shake was followed by Burn and then Fascination Street, and by the time the band had got into their fourth or fifth song, the main-stage crowd, which had swelled that night to at least 25,000, was in thrall.
After playing the first 20 songs, Smith and the band left the stage but, egged by the crowd, returned to play an encore— seven more songs. The audience went berserk. With reason. Smith had reserved all the popular, all-time favourites for the encore segment, including Friday I’m In Love (which had everyone singing its well-known lyrics), Lullaby, The Caterpillar, Why Can’t I Be You?, The Walk and Close To Me. The encore ended with Boys Don’t Cry. Smith put down his guitar, held his hand to heart and walked from one end of the stage to the other—his way of expressing gratitude for the tumultuous applause, shrieks and whistles.
Flow Festival is Finland’s biggest music fest, lasting three days. There are 10 stages, and, this year, 170 artists from all over the world performed. Flow drew more than 80,000 people—a feat, if you consider Finland’s tiny population of 5.5 million. But then Flow, which is into its 16th year, draws people from all across Europe.
It’s physically impossible to go from stage to stage and listen to all the bands that come to Flow, so you can either pick and choose and plan your itinerary or, like many people I saw (hipsters; ageing hippies; fashionistas; and the just plain curious), meander aimlessly and stop and watch what catches your fancy.
The Cure were the headliners this year but there were several other stellar performances. Among the stand-out acts was London’s Nubya Garcia, 28, a tenor saxophonist and jazz composer, who played a stunningly intense set at a cosy, circular stage set inside a globe. Already a recipient of several awards, Garcia is one of jazz’s newest stars to watch and track. Her no-nonsense blend of jazz, funk and neo-soul, rendered with intricate complexity, left the audience spellbound.
Before The Cure took the stage, it was Father John Misty (birth name: J. Tillman) on the main stage. With his hipster-style long, dark beard and eyeshades, and his set of ironic yet witty songs with literate lyrics about love and life’s angst, he was an apt opener for The Cure. The urbane among Flow’s audience lapped it up. Father John Misty’s 2015 album, I Love You, Honeybear, is quite a hit, and he did a few songs from it for his set.
Flow always has an eclectic array of performers. 9 August, the first day, saw the redoubtable R&B and soul singer, Erykah Badu, perform an impressive set on the main stage. Before she went on, it was Solange. Later, there was the rapper Earl Sweatshirt, and the Swedish hip hop singer Neneh Cherry. Flow featured a fair number of Finnish and Nordic bands. We heard Seinabo Sey, an astonishingly powerful Swedish-Gambian soul singer whose song Younger became a global hit in 2015; there was the veteran Finnish rocker Jukka Tapio Karjalainen, who has often been called “Finland’s Bruce Springsteen"; and the Swedish electro-pop star Robyn.
Smith and his band may have been the headliners but on 10 August, when Australia’s Tame Impala took the stage, the mood turned heady. Led by Kevin Parker, a multi-instrumentalist, Tame Impala’s rise has had much to do with their viral popularity on MySpace in the mid-2000s. On their records (they have four), their hook-laden variety of retro psychedelic guitar rock sounds spacey and infectious. Live, they sound even better.
Complemented by high-tech laser light shows, they played 16 songs, much to the delight of fans who knew their music, but also instantly converting thousands among those who didn’t.
The best music festivals are the ones where you go for the bands you love but also to discover ones that could turn you into a fan. Flow checks both those boxes.
THE LOUNGE LIST
Five tracks to bookend your week
1. ‘Disintegration’ by The Cure (1989)
2. ‘Nubya’s 5ive’ by Nubya Garcia (2017)
3. ‘I Love You, Honeybear’ by Father John Misty (2015)
4. ‘Lonerism’ by Tame Impala (2012)
5. ‘Pretend’ by Seinabo Sey (2016)
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
Twitter - @sanjoynarayan