Festival Review: Gefle Gas, Sweden – An anatomy of an indoor independent music festival 21-22 April, 2017

During the last year or so I’ve twice been to Sweden, once to write about ‘an anatomy of an album release show’ and then to review a gig. So I thought it might be time to take in a festival, but not just any old festival. So let’s call this ‘anatomy of an indoor Independent music festival’.

Gefle Gas is a newcomer in 2017 and was pressed into service with less than two months notice. It is probably the first genuine festival to showcase wholly independent artists in the country and took place over Friday and Saturday, 21-22 April. The location is the town of Gävle (or Gefle as it was originally known); about 75 miles north of Stockholm on the Baltic Sea coast.

I have mentioned Gävle in previous reviews; it is a musical town par excellence with far more bands and soloists than the average city of 100,000 souls, anywhere, and can justifiably claim to be at least on a musical par with the much bigger capital, Stockholm, and Gothenburg.

I may also have mentioned that I have a thing about this indie ‘third level’ of Swedish musical production. Representing the Premier League there of course is Abba, while the First Division has comprised luminaries (amongst many) such as Roxette, Ace of Base, Neneh Cherry, and Cat Stevens (whose mother was from Gävle) and latterly the likes of The Tallest Man on Earth and Little Dragon, who can draw crowds to fill venues the size of Manchester’s Albert Hall. I have always held that the Second Division, the mainstay of this event, largely merits a chance on the world stage. Gefle Gas would prove to me one way or the other whether or not the 50 bands selected to perform have the capability to make their mark as recorded and live acts in the UK.

Why Gefle Gas? The town is blessed with an extraordinary conversion of what was Gasklockorna – the local gasworks – several administrative buildings and two gasholders. Pitched at the edge of town close to the coast it is a conglomeration of redundant buildings that could have been knocked down if not for the determination of the local council to make something useful out of them. All three buildings – Retorten (the main admin centre), Stora Gasklockan (the big gasholder) and Lilla Gasklockan (the small gasholder) make for excellent stages while at other events there have been external stages in the large car park as well. Apart from musical events Gasklockorna hosts everything from conferences to flea markets.

The most impressive is probably Stora Gasklockan, reminiscent in some ways of Manchester’s Albert Hall with its lighting, while all the venues have top class sound. Walking between them takes around 30 seconds so taking in multiple bands by venue hopping is made easy.

Stora Gasklockan with Lilla Gasklockan in the background

The festival was set up partly as an award ceremony themed around a local musical hero, Joe Hill, on the first evening, then a conference (late morning and afternoon of the second day) followed by non-stop performances on three stages from 5pm through to 2am on Sunday morning.

Joe Hill requires some explanation. He isn’t even that well known in Sweden though he really should be and is Gävle’s most famous son, fittingly with a musical bent. Hill, born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, and also known as Joseph Hillström, emigrated to the USA in 1902, making his way across the country and becoming a labour activist through membership of the Industrial Workers of the World movement. He became a songwriter and cartoonist for the IWW, releasing popular songs such as ‘The Rebel Girl’ and ‘The Preacher and the Slave’, in which he coined the phrase ‘pie in the sky’ in the line “you’ll get pie in the sky when you die”. He has come to be regarded as an icon of the workers movement in the US, the father of protest music and the Bob Dylan of his day.

In 1915 he was executed following a controversial trial for murder (some say he was ‘fitted up’ by bosses and even by one of the unions) despite local and international appeals for clemency, two of which came from the then-President Woodrow Wilson (the powers of Presidents were limited even then). Joan Baez released her song about Hill, who has recently been described as “the last Swedish hero”, in 1970. In it, Hill replies to her statement, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”, with “I never died”, and in a way he didn’t. His life and death have also inspired books and poetry.

The award ceremony, with Hill’s life as its backdrop, was a fitting opener to the weekend, and featured performances from Gävle’s electronic experimentalist Anna-Karin Berglund (or AKB), rockers Desertorerna, the snappy Anna Frank and Johanna Brun (more about her later) amongst others.

The late morning of the second day and the afternoon were taken up by a conference which featured two sessions on the prospects for the Swedish indie music business in which your reporter took part, a discussion with multi-instrumentalist Ulf Ivarsson, and with representatives of Swedish media and Strumlive, the Stockholm-based live music digital venue that streamed the event and by courtesy of which many of the performances can be viewed today (see the links in this post).

The final session was a ‘blind song’ taster in which sections of six tracks by bands that were performing that night were played, the four-man panel being asked to comment on their appeal. The idea was that in the Spotify age (another Swedish invention) most listeners make up their minds about a song in half the time we were given and how hard it can be to convince a listener that he or she should stay the course. The general consensus was, get your hook out there quickly. If you don’t, they’ll be gone.

Festival founder Claes Olson in discussion with TMB’s David Bentley on opportunities for Swedish indie bands in the UK

The festival proper started at 5pm. I can only write about those performances I saw, most of which were in the large gasholder and Retorten; I saw hardly any in the smaller one which mainly featured heavy rockers, apart from the last minute (literally) of the impressive Northern Ladies. In reviewing them all I was mindful of how they might fare in the UK, as that is essentially what I was there to do.

The first acts were impacted by the local ice hockey team playing a critical national championship match that was televised. So there was something of an unanticipated graveyard slot for the opening shows in each of the two gasholders around 5pm. The delightful local girl who takes the name Resmiranda opened in the larger one to about 10 people though I am fortunate to have been one of them.

Resmiranda isn’t her name; rather it is one of a character in Swedish folklore. She is in reality Åsa Larsson, who specialises in meditational music. Barefoot and clad in a hippy-like green floral dress that wouldn’t have looked out of place at Woodstock her first song was a flute accompaniment to ambient electronic keyboards that sounded like it might evolve at any moment into Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme). By the time she was on her third song she’d progressed to a jazzy little number, (Hiding) Lilith in the Wardrobe, which deals with the Hebrew legend that Adam had a wife before Eve who was named Lilith (a.k.a. the demon monster Lillywhite Lilith, referred to by Genesis on their mysterious Lamb Lies Down on Broadway album). You get the idea straight away. Things are different here. Resmiranda has an album that will be released soon.

Having not eaten since breakfast I, unfortunately, missed Melby but the next act was already performing when I got back. SoLBLoMMa (Sara Solblomma Viola Hedin) – her name means sunflower – makes me tear my hair out. Not because she isn’t talented – she oozes it – but because of a superfluous stage act. Think Clare Grogan (Altered Images) meets Shirley Temple meets Vanessa Paradis on a personal level, while the band is more Black Lace singing Agadoo or The Tweets performing Birdie Song.

SoLBLoMMa, born in Gävle, is full of energy, her quirky, theatrical techno-pop songs are good and her band is pretty good too, especially the bassist. But for some mystifying reason, that band (the Sheep Army) dress up in chicken heads and wear tights to look like chicken legs. To top it off there is an asexual mannequin called Miriam placed stage left, which is dressed and undressed throughout the show, presumably according to the whims of the song being performed.

SoLBLoMMa, Miriam and the Sheep Army

She also suffers from not having a proper drummer as some songs are ratcheted up as they progress and really require a strong beat. So, 9/10 for musical content but 4/10 for the visuals. They simply aren’t required and actually detract from her very watchable performance, which doesn’t come across as well on the video here.

SoLBLoMMa

http://www.strumlive.com/video/188

Next up, and making for quite a contrast, was the Uppsala-based Konradzs. They’re a garage band with a heavy rocking/R ‘n B feel that is tight across all instruments, and a vocalist, Martin, who does a more than passable imitation of Joe Cocker. He was grilling me earlier about performing in the UK so we could be seeing them soon.

Konradzs

http://www.strumlive.com/video/189

Over at Retorten I checked out a pleasant traditional folk band, Different Cups, and some of the Helges All Stars, who perform (sing) individually but under a collective banner. More of them later, when I tell you about the incredible Ingrid Fröderberg.

Märtha Frans sings soft ballads, mainly in Swedish, to an electronic keyboard accompaniment with a cleverly co-ordinated light display, while Fami plays traditional Country and Western.

Märtha Frans

http://www.strumlive.com/video/190

Fami

http://www.strumlive.com/video/192

This was the folk zone because Ryggrad was of the same ilk. Featuring the same drummer as did Anna Frank later, and who looks and plays like the Go-Go’s Gina Schock, they conjure up a danceable beat in every song, the singer has a strong rock voice and the guitarist can deliver a mean lick or two. They finished with their version of a Joe Hill song, to the appreciation of the audience.

Ryggrad

http://www.strumlive.com/video/191

A switch back towards electronica saw powerful performances from Anna Frank and from the northern Swedish town of Sundsvall (where it is dark) -based duo Red Mecca, whose Ambient Dark Wave/post Punk show featured some subtle visual images and an animated vocal performance from vocalist Frida Madeleine, who has something of Natasha Kahn (Bat for Lashes) about her.

Anna Frank

Red Mecca (no show video available)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7QORaXbID8

The rumbustious, sometimes foul-mouthed Comminor from Västerås, north of Stockholm, can best be described as NeoPunk meets hillbilly rock as purple-haired singer Johanna Berndtsson chases her band mates around the stage (and off it) in her hot pants. Not exactly subtle but as she sings, it ‘gets you every f***ing time.’

Comminor (incorrectly identified as no-show Hillary Trump as this is written).

http://www.strumlive.com/video/195

One of the most interesting events ran for three hours non-stop from 11pm to 2am in Retorten and featured a collective from local (Gävle) record label Lamour, which specialises in experimental, improvised electronica, delivered through a range of gizmos and wires that made the stage look like an early sci-fi movie. Each of eight musicians had a 20-minute slot with co-ordinated visuals which segued (usually) pretty seamlessly.

Numbered amongst them were musicians previously featured in Too Many Blogs such as the afore-mentioned Anna-Karin Berglund, or AKB, (Twiggy Frostbite and tour support for the Deer Tracks), and David Lehnberg (the Deer Tracks), along with Emma Sörensen, who has played with several local bands, including a stint as a flautist in a folk band but who has only recently made the switch into electronica.

Emma Sörensen (Lamour Non-Stop)

Photo credit: Anders Thyr

Rånda, who played the big gasholder at the same time, are completely different. They hail from Rätvik, a town about 70 miles to the west which has an outdoor auditorium called Dalhalla which is built in a disused quarry. I was fortunate to see Arcade Fire play there in 2010, an experience I’ll never forget. But it’s even better known as the ‘Nashville of Sweden.’ Rånda could be described as Mumford and Sons meets (Norway’s) Katzenjammer, with violin and banjo prominent and even offered up a violin solo.

Rånda (incorrectly identified as Comminor at time of writing)

http://www.strumlive.com/video/196

So, briefly to the highlights of the festival’s second day.

Firstly, a lady I have reviewed on at least one occasion before now but had never seen live previously.

Ida Long has been forging a path as one of the most innovative singer-songwriters in Sweden and northern Europe for several years now and appears to be taking a deeper tone with new work she is recording now, such as her set opener ‘Perhaps (Was Too Proud to Love You)’.

Bereft of her usual backing band for the evening she opened with an acoustic version of ‘Perhaps’ and was unfazed by the breakdown of the projecting equipment on which the entire performance hung. One of Ida Long’s great innovations is her use of dancers in videos (she is a professional dancer herself) and one of them appeared in second song ‘(I Get So) Dramatic’ – in which she was also joined by rapper Frida Scarr – (see below), who had just finished her own set, followed by a complement of four dancers for final song ‘Body n Soul’.

Frida Scarr performing her solo set

Photo credit: Anders Thyr

The transition from video to live production was flawless. Dance interpretation is a USP for Ida Long that really works and adds so much to her songs.

Then, her voice is such more expressive live than any amount of recording can reproduce.

Ida Long full performance

http://www.strumlive.com/video/197

Secondly, the 18-year singer-songwriter Johanna Brun. She was a prize winner on the first evening and performed one stunning song to the audience then. I’m not sure how well it comes across in this (separate) video of the song she performed on the night (begins at 3:15) but she commanded the room with her voice alone. The song is not about domestic abuse as it might appear to be, but rather just fleeing oppression generally.

I have often written about Aurora Aksnes and the effect she has on me, on recordings and particularly during live performances, often sending a tingle down my spine. Johanna Brun did exactly the same with just one song.

She drops her debut EP soon. Remember the name, you saw it here first.

Finally, Ingrid Fröderberg, the most junior member of a group of singers called ‘Helges All-Stars’ who I thought at first might be a dancing troupe. They sang on three separate occasions in the Retorten building. Helges All-Stars are the descendants of a social project started several decades ago by the founder of Gefle Gas, Claes Olson.

All of Helges All-Stars are very good but in their midst is a superstar, the 12-year old Ingrid, the Eighth Wonder of the World. Less than 5ft tall, but with a voice you would not believe could possibly emanate from such a slight figure if you didn’t hear it with your own ears. She performed three or four songs intermittently as did her colleagues but the only one I was able to catch (and only courtesy of the buzz that was going around the event – “you MUST see this girl”-) was Beyoncé’s Listen. It’s not just a case of the power; it’s the breathing, the phrasing, like she’s a seasoned opera singer. It isn’t an easy song and she turned Beyoncé’s suddenly anaemic version into one that could have been Edith Piaf at her zenith. I kid you not that there were adults around the room openly weeping.

Ingrid Fröderberg (centre)

Apparently, there was only ever one series of The Voice in Sweden before it was dropped. Someone must have seen her coming and taken pity on the other contestants. It is with huge disappointment that I can’t find a recording of this young lady singing that Beyoncé song to share but here is her first known performance at the age of 11 with the classic song cover, Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You. She’s already twice as good as this.

Again, remember the name. She will undoubtedly be well protected but you can’t hide talent like this for long. It will be interesting to see what happens if and when she starts writing songs as well.

That pretty well wraps things up. Much of the event is now up on Strumlive for those that want to check out individual bands that have not featured in this post.

I’m not sure if Gefle Gas will become ‘international’ in 2018 or 2019 (this was a brand-building ‘domestic’ first year and that decision is yet to be made) but British indie bands looking for something a bit different might want to keep it in mind. It’s likely to be held in April again next year. The best recommendation I can give is that I did not hear a single ‘average’ band, let alone a bad one. There was a very high standard throughout, including the organisation.

Considering that one of the reasons I was asked to participate was to help confirm or deny that Swedish indie bands can cut the mustard on foreign stages (especially the UK), well with very few exceptions I believe they can.

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