Where the Action Is

Despite a long weekend of rain, tens of thousands turned out Friday and Saturday for the Where The Action Is music festival in Stockholm.

The rain was punishing and relentless. Sometimes heavy, sometimes cold, sometimes sideways. More than one person asked me if I was enjoying the Swedish summer and if I was having any second thoughts about coming here. I’ll stick with my original story that when the weather here is nice, it is astonishingly stunning. This weekend’s consistently rainy weather was unusual, though, because lately every day has included every type of weather.

Waiting to see if the rain would let up and holding out for a change, we missed the first few bands on Friday. Before eventually diving in and deciding to brave the rain, we enjoyed some drinks in the city at Iida’s new favorite bar, the Vampire Lounge (more not-so-subtle proof that all Swedish people are vampires).

Many people would consider the lineup of bands to be spectacular, but I think there may have only been a couple of them that I would have gone to see had they been playing a show on their own.

As you may know, I am an old sourpuss who only really loves about six bands, but believe it or not, I do enjoy seeing other bands sometimes, especially those who are legendary, popular or influential.

Erik was nice enough to get some free VIP passes for Therese, Iida and myself. This was fantastic because I was on the fence about laying down the 1400 kronors (more than $180) for the weekend pass. I knew the weekend would be entertaining, a great spectacle to see, a fun social event and a really Swedish experience, so I really can’t thank Erik enough for the pass. Since I expect he might read this, I can say it again: Tack sÃ¥ mycket, kompis!

I would have liked to have seen The (International) Noise Conspiracy, but we got there just after their set time was over. Back in 1999, I did a solo tour opening for them all around Sweden, from which I have some fond memories. Unfortunately, our paths have only crossed briefly in the ten years since, including once when I was living in Los Angeles. Dennis and Lars recorded a really cool version of a song I wrote back then for the Metroschifter Encapsulated album. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch them again soon since I’m in their part of the world now.

Not seeing The Pretenders was something I couldn’t have planned better if I had tried. This is one of those bands that I just don’t get. I never have. They are just not for me. Whooooo caaares!

The Pixies were playing when we arrived. The festival was held on the grounds of Stockholm University and it was truly surreal to walk up to the festival gates through the school campus, hearing them playing songs like “Head On” and “Gouge Away.” I felt like I was walking back in time.

I guess I never realized just how many familiar and memorable songs The Pixies have. Like almost every band I saw over the weekend, I’m not a huge fan of The Pixies, but they were really great and I’m so glad I saw them. Kim Deal even messed up the bass line at the beginning of one of the songs. That was one of my favorite parts, not because I like seeing people make mistakes, but, yeah, I guess it is because I like seeing people make mistakes. It’s refreshing when there are ten thousand people watching and you’re like, “Uhhh, whoops. Those were the wrong notes. Let’s try that again.” I’m paraphrasing her thoughts, of course. I don’t know exactly what anyone else is thinking.

Neil Young ended the festivities Friday night with a phenomenal performance. He opened the set alone, playing several songs with just a guitar and harmonica, without his band. The rain paused softly and a hush literally fell over the crowd when he took the stage.

I caught myself thinking about how insane it was to be seeing a legend like him – whose music seems so inseparable from the outdoors – in this beautiful setting, surrounded by the silhouette of the treelines and blanketed by the dramatic Swedish sky.

The audience’s quiet and respectful response was just as breathtaking. I couldn’t believe how many thousands of people I was seeing, reverently listening, still and muted, captivated by one man playing a song.

It goes without saying that the harmonica is the most annoying instrument in the world, but Neil Young seems to use it in a way that doesn’t wail or blast or destroy the rest of the song. When his band joined him onstage, the worship service instantly morphed into a rock concert, for which he had a list of countless, timeless anthems – okay, maybe they can be counted.

The festival had a policy of not allowing umbrellas for safety reasons and to ensure that everyone could see the bands. Because of this, the fences around the entrance to the festival grounds were decorated with hundreds of umbrellas that people hung there when they were told they couldn’t bring them in.

Our friend Therese unknowingly brought an umbrella and was forced to leave it behind at the gate. When we left the festival late that night, her umbrella and, it seems, all the others, were waiting outside, right where they were left earlier in the day.

This reminded me of a short story from the winter about how Swedes have a habit of hanging lost gloves, scarves and jackets in adjacent tree branches or bushes. If the owner passes by the same place again they can easily spot their lost clothing. Nearby statues are also dressed up with lost items.

As I told Therese, I think if people hung their umbrellas up like this at a festival in America, some assholes would come by and take all of them. If it was still raining later, they would probably try to sell the umbrellas to people leaving the festival. (U-S-A-! U-S-A-!)

It was just after midnight, so of course it was almost daylight out. To beat the crowd, we skipped the end of Neil Young’s set – which I can only imagine included “Keep On Rocking In the Free World.” We avoided the Stockholm University Tunnelbana station where everyone would be going. Instead, we walked toward Ropsten, a nearby neighborhood where Iida and Erik used to live. This backroad route took us a little closer to nature than we expected. We happened upon a field full of sleeping cows and later crossed a shaky footbridge over a creek, before reaching Ropsten.

A warm Volvo wagon with Erik’s parents in it was waiting to collect us in Ropsten and deliver us south to the homestead. On the way home, Erik’s mom jokingly asked me if I used to drive a Hummer in America. Nice people, and funny, too!

We began the Saturday show with Tiger Lou, the band Erik plays bass with. They seemed to be having a good time despite the conditions, and I think it translates to the audience when band members are enjoying what they’re doing. It would be very easy to phone it in if you were playing in such a tough venue… outdoors… at a festival… in the afternoon… when it’s raining. The crowd can feel it if the band members are on the same page with the audience and it becomes more of a shared experience instead of a “performance” with a wall between the stage and the audience.

Tiger Lou was accompanied by a minor downpour that I actually think enhanced the ambience of their set. The band’s fans actually are pretty fanatical about them which is always fun to see. It seems that most of the people who come to see them know the words to all their songs. This appeared to be true even at a festival event like this, where people are there to see any number of bands. It doesn’t hurt that the songs Rasmus Kellerman writes are the type that get stuck in your head for days on end.

Because we expected a lot more rain and a much longer day, we were a little more prepared. There was, of course, a wide variety of rain gear on hand. Some people were in serious head-to-toe rainsuits. I tried to shop some boots and a raincoat in advance of the festival at some secondhand stores, but returned empty-handed.

Without any proper rain gear, I had to resort to purchasing this “emergency poncho” from a street vendor outside the Tunnelbana station (seen here with Johanna). “Quick! How much is this?! I need a poncho immediately! This is an emergency! I can’t get wet!”

I think this guy had the coolest emergency poncho of the whole festival, one from the Legoland theme park in Denmark.

These Swedes combined their blue and yellow emergency ponchos into a perfectly Swedish scene.

For some of the day we hung out in the VIP area, where you could get rained on just as much as anywhere else, but alongside famous Swedes. And, yes, several famous wet Swedes were on hand to supply such an experience for us. I mean, nobody really famous like Björn Borg or Liv Ullmann, but famous in the Generation X sense.

Some of our friends were not super-exclusive VIPs like us (Viktigt Imponerande Personer?), so we kindly mingled with the common folk in order to accommodate them.

While Moneybrother was playing, Iida invaded my emergency poncho, using the arm hole as another hood. I presume it was an emergency.

I could not have been more excited about seeing Annika Norlin’s band Hello Saferide. Last year, my friend Emma introduced me to an album of Norlin’s previous band Säkert. That band’s songs were all in Swedish and I fell in love with them without really understanding what all of the songs were about.

Since then, Säkert has kind of become a barometer of my comprehension of the Swedish language. Over the past year, as I’ve heard the songs over and over, they have unfolded more and more in front of me. As I have begun to understand some of the words, I began putting the stories together, piece by piece, in my head.

I recently looked up some of the lyrics online, just to be sure she was saying what I thought she was saying. I can’t think of another artist whose songs are as painfully honest as hers. Some of the songs, while having almost a slightly fun quality to them, are still heart-wrenchingly sad. This is true of both her bands. I would hate to use the words sarcastic or ironic to describe it, because I think that would discount how sincere her songs are… but just because I can’t think of any better words doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about.

I like Hello Saferide almost as much Säkert, but Hello Saferide is sometimes hard for me to listen to. I think this is probably because the songs are in English and there’s no mystery or language barrier to filter the lyrics for me. Everything is laid out so bare and her truthfulness is brutal.

Sure, not every single song of hers is going to tear your heart out, but she has many that are agonizing enough, and I kind of have to look away sometimes. It’s not always entertaining or fun to listen to something that is so traumatic, but I suppose that’s what – for me – makes her such an admirable artist. She is willing to go there.

Seeing them live was a highlight of the weekend. It was like riding a roller coaster – as soon as it ended I wanted to go again. Finding something I really like this much shouldn’t be such a unique and isolated experience!

Right when Hello Saferide was beginning, I met up with some more friends, including the gang Johanna hooked me up with for the A Camp concert back in April.

Here are Kajsa and one of the 2 million people in Sweden named Anna. Kajsa enjoys forcing me to speak Swedish. I can’t tell if she’s doing it to help me or only to be entertained by my awful pronunciation and sentence structures. Maybe a little of both. Either way is fine with me. I think I owe her some laughs because I could not get enough of how funny I thought it looked as she was multi-purposing the hood of her emergency poncho as a hands-and-beer hole.

Almost as priceless is the look on the guy’s face in the back – not the least bit amused by my camera. Sorry, dude! What you can’t see in the photo is that Duffy was playing, so this guy was getting drenched in rain while being crowded by people and surrounded by the sound of a baby-voiced girl singing retro sixties numbers. Double sorry, dude!

The Telia telephone company had an inflatable tent on hand with a ping-pong table and DJs inside. Here we see Johanna and Kajsa’s sister Marja taking a round of circular ping pong. I don’t remember what this is called, but the game starts with dozens of people walking in a circle around the table. Each person hits the ball once. If you miss, you’re out, and the game continues until it’s just down to two opposing players. Marja is a ping-pong enthusiast and writes an entertaining blog about it called Mitt Pingis (“My Ping-Pong”). Don’t get hooked on it, though, because I’ve been told she is a serial blog starter who may soon abandon it for another hilarious idea.

Erik, Therese and Iida

Erik and Iida

Fever Ray, a band I had never heard of before, totally blew me away. I don’t remember any of their songs and I’m not sure I could even describe what kind of music they play, but it was filled with the kind of insanely loud and deep sounds that move your clothes.

As you can see in this image, their light show included everything from lasers to house lamps. I could continue on for a while about them, but I simply don’t know what I saw or heard. I do know that it seemed like the fog machines they were using were presented in 5.1-surround. Yes, they had smoke machines behind the audience, too. Crazy.

The weekend ended with Nick Cave, another artist who is fanatically admired by seemingly everyone I know, except me. I don’t dis-like him, I just think I’m missing whatever it is he’s doing that everyone else is getting.

Kind of unrelated to this, Iida was telling me about how she had to ask for someone’s ID when working in the post office the other day. The person presented an old ID card that was no longer valid and Iida said she couldn’t accept it as legitimate identification. The customer became furious and said that the card works everywhere else. Iida explained that it shouldn’t work everywhere else. It only works everywhere else because nobody else is following the rules. She said basically, “Everybody is wrong except me,” a priceless quote.

Nick Cave sounded pretty fantastic Saturday, so it occurred to me that this might be an opposite case to the ID situation in the post office. Maybe everybody is right except me. It’s possible. But then again, the music I like is just my personal taste and preference, there’s no right or wrong. I don’t have to like it just because it’s loud and exciting and ten thousand Swedes are having a great time.

Sure, maybe I think too much and I should loosen up. I’m here for new adventures and such, right? Maybe I am in complete control of what I enjoy. Is it possible that I can just flick a switch and suddenly like Nick Cave or The Police or Bad Brains or anything else that everyone likes except me?

As much as it would allow me to have more fun more often, I don’t think it’s possible. Believe me, I’ve tried. Maybe I’ll just be reassured in knowing that when I go into a record store, there’s nothing I think is worth the money, so I can leave without spending a dime – or a kronor. Of course, every time I’m in a record or book store, I am also overwhelmed with the feeling that I’m wasting my life and my contributions should be represented on the shelves… but that’s an entirely separate bucketful of words.

Let’s just leave it with the feeling that I had a great weekend and I got to share it with some wonderful people. Even though it was raining the whole time, I think that added a lot of character to the experience. As I’m looking back at these pictures from the weekend, I couldn’t help but think that Sweden is still beautiful and fun even when the sun is not out.

And that reminds me of another great Iida quote: “This is really nice weather, if you’re a fish.”