Guided By Voices and the Possibility of an Island

In which Guided By Voices entices me to attend Øyafestivalen for the first time.

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I had not attended Oslo’s Øyafestivalen until this year. In my defense, the festival has clashed with my magazine deadline the past few years and before that I was probably washing my hair or something. I was speaking to an acquaintance the other day who told me he was boycotting it because “people bought passes before even knowing who was playing”, implying that it was more about doing the cool thing than enjoying the music. I don’t subscribe to this view myself, as most people know that buying tickets is a fairly safe proposition, seeing that the festival usually gets a very good line-up in place. Also, it’s summer and a rock festival. What more justification do you need?

What prompted me to head off this year was 1) I had the opportunity and 2) indie heroes Guided by Voices had chosen Øya as the sole European venue in which to jangle away a summer afternoon. I decided to get my inner music fashionista on and picked up a day pass. Had I known Pulp were performing, I’d have splurged on a Friday pass too, but it probably would have been difficult to make out the band behind the queue of music writers lined up to fellate Jarvis Cocker.

Thankfully, Thursday saw a much welcome break from the premature autumn rain that has kept bothering Oslo since I returned from the great abroad. As I arrived I found that Guided by Voices had just gone onstage. At least I assumed it was them; I was, after all, one of “those people” my acquaintance so witheringly put down. The crowd wasn’t exactly as massive as I’d expected, but the songs sounded appropriately jangly and the band looked about right. It was a thoroughly enjoyable set, though how many new converts they ended up with, I can’t say. They were definitely the most indie band I’ve ever seen, except for some alt-post-rock thing in a San Francisco club years ago that even my indie-rocking roommate had to admit was a pile of dogshit. Many before me have speculated about longevity in rock music, and there’s definitely something curious about watching aging rockers keep at it; unless they’re big, it’s sorta like watching your cool uncle’s garage band. Having said that, I feel pretty confident they would’ve killed in a smaller, indoors venue. Some music works better inside. Granted, I saw them mostly out of curiosity, but I dug the “hey, let’s just do this” ethos on display. (Incidentally, I haven’t seen anyone smoke quite as much on stage since Echo & The Bunnymen a few years ago.)

I walked around the festival area after that, trying to find my bearings while sipping a watered-down beer, feeling woefully uncool and regretting shaving my ironic handlebar mustache from my vacation. Still. Fleet Foxes were scheduled to come on soon, so after catching half a set from Sweden’s Säkert!, which was very enjoyable and perfect on a summer day, I made my way back to the main stage. Fleet Foxes were clearly a bigger draw than Guided by Voices (duh) and it was pretty packed in front of the stage. As the foxes came on, an appreciative roar emanated from the crowd, and with nary a grin (though who could tell under the beards?) they started playing, sounding … well, exactly like they do on record. I listened to a couple of songs and thought better of it, moving to the smaller stage to watch Janelle Monáe tear it up instead. Don’t get me wrong: Fleet Foxes were very good. They sounded beautiful; all carefully plucked instruments and heavenly harmonies, but they’re a bunch of bearded and earnest vegans in skinny jeans trying their damndest to channel The Band and Gram Parsons. They are cool for not trying to appear cool and are probably the sort of band I’d end up playing in, except successful and cool.

Janelle Monáe, on the other hand, is an unashamedly ambitious up-and-comer. I’m not a huge fan of soul or R n’ B, but it’s a hard heart indeed that fails to achieve at least a modicum of ass-shaking when Stevie Wonder rips into, say, Superstition. Having quite enjoyed her 2010 album, The ArchAndroid, the decision to give Fleet Foxes a miss was an easy one. And boy, did I ever make the right choice. I got there just as the band started playing; all were dressed in black and white and looked impossibly cool. Monáe herself was a powerhouse of a performer, tirelessly jumping around the stage, her voice constantly moving from a playful coo to a powerful yawp within the space of a few notes. She had the audience at her fingertips, and every couple of bars would smile the beatific smile of someone feeding off the energy of the crow, having the time time of their life. The act ended with a furiously intense rendition of the already intense Come Alive, and at one point, she coaxed the entire audience to lie down the ground, while her band “fell asleep” on stage.

As for the two gentlemen behind me who had a loud conversation they just had to share with the rest of us rather than moving to the back: I sincerely hope somebody puked on your shoes.

Waiting for Kaizers Orkestra, I once again meandered around the area before I remembered that Texan guitar combo Explosions in the Sky were playing. A friend I ran into said they were supposed to be really good, but he’s a professional musician, so experience has taught me my own mileage may vary. Wikipedia refers to their elaborate, cinematic guitar work and also mentions that they refer to their own stuff as “cathartic mini-symphonies”, which may or may not be a turn-on for you. On the other hand, I had nothing better to do, so I watched half the set before losing interest and heading off to find a urinal and a new beer. Listening to their stuff on Spotify a few days later, I enjoyed it a lot more, but as with Guided By Voices, I think I’d prefer to see them at an indoor venue, and definitely not following Janelle Monáe.

Homegrown heroes Kaizers Orkestra was the main event that evening, and had decided to perform its yet-to-be-released album in its entirety. A risky gamble, but as one of the best live bands in Norway, and with an ever-loyal fan base, one they could allow themselves. They were typically brilliant, and while the new material sounded less “Kaizers-y” than expected, it was still solid.

The crowd, not surprisingly, loved them; how could they not? Even detractors have to admit that Janove Ottesen is a ridiculously self-assured and charismatic front man. I wandered off mid-set to take a peak at Aphex Twin too, but lasted less than four minutes. Guitars seem to work better in an outdoor setting than sequencers, but that’s just me. As far as I could tell, there was a man in there somewhere, obscured by lasers and smoke. The music was bone-crunchingly loud, and the crowd just sort of stood there, so I returned to the periphery of the Kaizers show instead.

Aphex Twin was still playing when Kaizers Orkestra bade us a good night, but from what I could tell, few bothered to stop and gawk and, like me, headed straight for the exit instead. Then I went home and we all agreed I’d had a great time. The end.