Festival report: Eurosonic 2009
Groningen is a small student town in northern Netherlands. Normally it's pretty calm, but at the beginning of every year it becomes home to one of Europe's busiest music industry gatherings. Eurosonic - along with its only for Dutch artists younger brother, Noorderslag - offers the opportunity to see over 200 performing artists in various venues and has a total number of approximately 18,000 visitors of over 30 nationalities. Apart from the night time gigs, a music industry conference takes place during the day and offers professionals plenty of opportunities for networking and shoulder-rubbing.
The Scandinavian presence at Eurosonic is substantial. Actually there's a mini-Nordic invasion taking place! In total, 32 Scandinavian bands were performing this year (11 Swedish, 6 Danish, 6 Norwegian, 4 Finnish, 4 Icelandic and one Faroese). Furthermore, the conference was attended by various Scandinavian music export associations, ministries, festival bookers, record labels, along with several press and media representatives and other curious types like me.
The evening programme starts at 8pm and the first band I go to see are Danish act Vincent Van Go Go, playing at the Vindicat which normally houses one of Groningen's student societies and their countless piss-ups. I assume the diabolic similarities of the band's name with the famous Dutch painter must have puzzled the organisers. They play a mixture of reggae and afro-beat, combined with electronic elements. It is still the beginning of the evening and the venue is semi-empty, but the people who are here seem to be enjoying themselves with these well-presented Danes.
Immediately after the gig finishes I rush down to De Oosterpoort, the main conference venue, to see the highlight of this year's festival, the European Union's "European Boarder Breakers Awards" (EBBA). The awards show is broadcasted throughout Europe (or at least this is what the organisers told the journalists) and is presented by veteran BBC host Jools Holland, who's in good form tonight. Among the 10 awarded artists, three are Scandinavian. Not bad! The artists in question: Danish soul diva Ida Corr, pop sensation Alphabeat and emerging Swedish indiepop talent Lykke Li. Alphabeat are not here to collect their award, but Lykke Li and Ida Corr are present, modestly-dressed as the occasion requires, and they deliver professional performances. Although award ceremonies can be sometimes quite amusing, the fact that 5 of the 10 awarded artist didn't bother turning up is quite telling of their enormous popularity. I won't mention now the ridiculous amounts of confetti I had to suffer in order to take some decent pictures...
Later on I head to the USVA, a cultural student centre a couple of minutes away to see Marching Band, a Swedish indiepop pair from Link÷ping. These guys must have been listening to a lot of The Shins, Belle and Sebastian and Sufjan Stevens. Their upbeat power-pop is equipped with good harmonies and the crowd is very engaged and smiling, despite not knowing the tunes. They clearly steal the tonight's show and on the way to the next gig I just can't stop singing the melody of "Make up artist", their latest single. I hope I get to see them again soon.
Next on my list are Icelandic 'chamber-pop' (is that a genre?) HjaltalÝn, who are playing in the Stadsschouwburg, the Groningen theatre/opera house. Their large lineup which consists of, apart from the usual instruments, a piano, accordion, bassoon, clarinet, cello and a violin is perfectly suited for this type of venue. The crowd is mesmerised by their melodies and their Icelandic chart-topping song "Ů˙ komst vi hjarta Ý mÚr" (Icelandic for "You touched my heart") is the strongest moment of their set. And the singer is insisting that it doesn't sound that cheesy in Icelandic...
Final band for today are playing in the Magic Mirror, a tent on the main square, they are from Malm÷, and are called Billie the Vision & the Dancers. Such an unusual name and such an unusual lot! They're definitely not easy to forget, dressed-up like a travelling gypsy circus, and with a drag queen for a singer. But it's not just the looks; their music is profound and leaves you with a strange and beautiful bittersweet taste. Nice!
Back again at the USVA, I am chuffed to see at last the Danes Our Broken Garden who are signed by US label Bella Union (Explosions In The Sky, Fleet Foxes, The Dears). They are slow-tempoed and have a vintage feel, with the soft voice and strong presence of Anna Br°nsted. A lot of interesting elements here: the guitar is channelled through some sort of an analog synth and is making weird noises, they are using an e-bow and an original Fender Rhodes keyboard; but most interestingly they have a Hammond organ on stage, complete with a not-so-portable Leslie rotating speaker. It's very rare and cool to see bands playing with such vintage instruments, when they could always opt for a digital and much more compact and reliable option.
Folksy First Aid Kit are playing next in the Grand Theatre. Although from a Stockholm suburb, these checker-shirted girls play convincing Americana and their harmonies are perfectly in tune. Despite their young age they prove to be very comfortable on stage. It remains to be seen to what extent a stripped-down, back-to-basics show of just voice/keyboard/acoustic guitar can be interesting for a full-length gig. These girls have got huge potential, especially if they were properly backed-up by a full band.
Next stop is the jazz bar De Spieghel. If this is the first time you're reading about The Asteroids Galaxy Tour, I assure you, it's definitely not going to be the last. Even before these Danes released their first single, Apple chose their song to support the iPod Touch campaign. This band has all the elements it takes to make it big, let alone the attitude, a stunning female singer and good tunes. Musically they remind me of Morcheeba, with a couple of afro-reggae elements, along with some saxophone and trumpet support. I am in the first row and dancing non-stop. What a show!
Young shoe-gazing Icelanders For A Minor Reflection are a good follow-up to the poppy Danes. Their Mogwai-influenced postrock is very sincere and energetic. Unfortunately, it's only me who is getting really tired at this stage!
The last band for tonight, again in De Spieghel, are Norwegians Casiokids, and they are having immense fun on stage. They come with lots of synths and funky dance moves and a deal with British label Moshi Moshi in their back pockets. The fact that they sing in Norwegian alienates the crowd a bit at the beginning, but slowly people start engaging with their na´ve electropop. Ones to watch.
I am now knackered and head back to my hotel. Eurosonic was great fun, and although it's an extremely tight schedule involved lots of running between venues and negotiating with Dutch bouncers, it was definitely more than worth the mid-winter hassle. I am already looking forward to next year.
Words and pictures by Vasilis Panagiotopoulos