It’s been a tough year for festivals. Aside from the fiascos at Y Not and Hope & Glory, who can forget the schadenfreude of watching the disaster that was Fyre Festival – “first class culinary experiences and a luxury atmosphere” – unfold on social media? Add sluggish sales for all but a handful of marquee events to the sense that the market for summer musical events is well past saturation point, and it’s a surprise that anyone would want to start a new one. To paraphrase an old joke: How do you make a small fortune from a festival? Start with a large one.
But then Haven Festivalen is no ordinary event. The founding ethos is to “merge experiments in art, music, food, and beer”, and for a start, they have world-renowned experts in charge; The National’s Dessner brothers for music, Noma co-founder Claus Meyer for food, and Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, a cult figure in craft brewing circles, for drinks. Their idea is brilliantly simple (if devilishly difficult to pull off) – five-star food & drinks in a repurposed industrial setting, overlooking the city and the harbor, while some of the most iconic bands and artists do their thing.
The choices are certainly bewildering; as well as a dedicated stout bar, I count over 25 different types of ale and IPA available, alongside all manner of wines, spirits, and soft drinks. One food stall is roasting an entire pig over an open pit, while another has a portable, wood-fired clay oven to make huge, sourdough calzone. There’s ramen, fresh fish, tacos, barbecue, Indian curries, fusion hotdogs – don’t ask – paella, and falafel. Some genuinely world-class chefs, such as Guy Rawlings, Johnny Spero, and Sergi de Meia, have brought a signature dish to Haven, and there’s not one but two coffee stalls, both roasting beans and fermenting kombucha on-site.
None of this is particularly cheap of course, but then nothing is in Denmark. In fact, for what you get, it’s remarkably good value; nothing is less than delicious, and despite a shortage of proper places to sit and eat, and some lengthy, early evening queues, there are few issues, proving it’s not that difficult to offer proper alternatives to bland, greasy fare and weak, warm “lager”. Supping a smoked porter and munching slow-roasted, Texas BBQ ribs while watching Band Of Horses run through the grandiose, heart-on-sleeve pomp of ‘The Funeral’ provides one of many moments of genuine satisfaction that even an early Autumnal chill and intermittent drizzle can’t spoil.
If all of the above seems tinged with “middle-class smugness”, well, yeah; the toilets are clean and people take care to sort their rubbish into the correct recycling bin. The near sell-out crowd is full of families and the stylish, creative types that Scandinavia has in abundance – there’s plenty of Wood Wood, Won Hundred, and Norse Projects on display. But so what? There are also Goth kids and punks and leather-clad teenagers, all mingling with Danish good manners and reserve; why bemoan the absence of loutish, flag waving, big-bag-of-cans-carrying #ladz being obnoxious? If you’re going to spend two days standing outside watching bands, some decent sustenance and a pleasant environment in which to do so are hardly the marks of the idle bourgeoisie.
Besides, the music is far from the Home Counties, Radio 2 vibe you might get at a similar UK event. Iceage eviscerate the Mindfield stage early on Friday, playing like they’ve got something to prove (this is their hometown, so perhaps they have). Dressed in dark, baggy trousers and frilly, light-pink shirt, singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt looks like a post-punk Byron, casually smoking a fag and dragging his mic stand back and forth across the stage. Occasionally petulant and aloof live, today they’re focused and sharp, not a note or moment wasted as they burn through songs from all three of their acclaimed albums.
Such intensity is shared by When Saints Go Machine – another band on home turf – who open the main stage, the Meadow, on Saturday. Their electropop veers in more soulful directions, although they still have a few brash house and techno indebted tunes which they hammer away at diligently. Nikolaj Manuel Vonsild sports a mile-wild grin between songs, profusely thanking us for coming along; serendipity responds by bathing the festival in glorious sunshine, one of the few times the clouds part all weekend.
The lineup is carefully curated, and the eclectic – not to mention educated – taste of the Dessners shines through. There’s the thrusting, punkish Nelson Can whose mission statement is a simple “no guitars”, the soft indie of Conor Oberst, and Kwamie Liv’s dark soul. SBTRKT is given a 1am DJ slot to keep the Friday night party going while This Is The Kit’s gentle, pastoral folk is the perfect way to ease into Saturday for those who took full advantage of the former’s late-night rave-up. One of the boldest choices – Tuareg protest band Tinariwen – give one of the weekend’s most mesmerizing performances; an hour of hypnotic, swaying desert “rock” that is by turns haunting, soulful, and groove-rich. They channel a free-flowing spirit, the songs mutating and unfurling, backed by some serious musicianship. “Spellbinding” is a word I hear a lot afterwards as people file back towards the main stage and a date with Beach House.
It’s a word easily associated with the Baltimore duo too – few bands have enjoyed as acclaimed a run of releases as they have from 2008’s Devotion to 2015’s Depression Cherry. But their lush, graceful music is not best suited to the witching hour, and more than once I’ve watched them fall flat instead of soar. Tonight, sadly, it’s more of the former. ‘Wishes’, ‘Myth’, and ‘Wild’ all provide natural highs, and ‘Elegy To The Void’ burns with menace, but the rest fails to spark. Their shimmering synths and sunbeam guitars are over-powered by the inky, northern night and rough winds, failing to break free from the stage (and an admittedly incredible light show). Regardless of stature, the feeling persists that they’re better suited to a sunset slot, when afternoon revellery – and the effect of several 6% IPAs – reaches an emotional peak.
A slot like that given to Bon Iver, say, who walks on stage a little after 8pm on Saturday just as the light starts to fade. But Justin Vernon fails to take advantage of it, electing instead to play new album 22, A Million in its entirety, in order, from ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’ all the way through to ‘00000 Million’. While there’s plenty of artistry in his new material, there are very few tunes, and by the time we get ‘Perth’, ‘Minnesota, WI’, and ‘Holoscene’, many people have lost interest or simply wandered off, a little dazed by the experience. There’s no doubting his ambition, and moments of beauty do shine through – parts of ’33 “GOD”’ are sublime, and ‘8 (circle) turns into a sweet little ballad. But there’s nothing as moving or graceful as ‘Skinny Love’ or ‘Flume’, and his set – not to mention his recent material – suffers as a result.
There are no such esoteric concerns when it comes to Iggy Pop, who bounds on stage, naked from the waist up, like an ageless Pied Piper of Punk. “Imagine being able to start your set with ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’,” says a colleague, and he’s not wrong. Imagine then running through ‘The Passenger’, ‘Gimme Danger’, and ‘Lust For Life’ – the “Here comes Johnny Yen again / With the liquor and drugs” opening gets the weekend’s heartiest singalong – being only four songs in, and still having ‘Search And Destroy’, ‘Real Wild Child (Wild One)’, and ‘No Fun’ in your locker. Iggy is as bonkers as he’s magnificent, and spends a considerable amount of time in the pit, cavorting with fans, running back and forth, wiggling his arse, and flailing his limbs in time to the music.
Perhaps sensibly, ‘Gardenia’ is the only track from Post Pop Depression to get an airing; the rest is a masterclass of old hits and Stooges songs, which is exactly what you’d expect. His band are rock solid and metronomic, barreling through the tunes just like Iggy barrels across the stage, a one-man hurricane on the hunt for trouble. “Well, would you look at that? Hi everybody! Thanks for coming out to see us,” he says, almost surprised that the entire festival has come to watch a bona fide living legend turn back the years.
And so to The National, the main headliners, who close the festival on Saturday night. Enthusiasm is dampened – literally – by torrential rain for nearly two hours before they’re due on stage, sending people scurrying for cover wherever the can find it. It’s cold too, so much so that the merch stall sells out of not just ponchos but sweaters and hoodies, prompting hordes of people to buy several t-shirts in different sizes, just to have a few layers of clean, dry clothing with which to face the night. But eventually, the rain eases up, the band shamble on stage, and the opening chords of ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’ are greeted with huge cheers.
Despite being labeled as miserabilists, there’s something euphoric about The National, particularly live. Their songs seem to soar even higher than on record, possessed of an extra friction that burns away the melancholy. Perhaps it’s the way they concoct such grand, sweeping songs about intimate details and quiet moments that connect in such a universal way, or just the looser nature of new album Sleep Well Beast, allowing each member to musically stretch their legs a little more. And then there’s Matt Berninger, a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He shuffles instead of struts, at times looking positively morose, and despite being elegantly dressed in fashionably dark shades of black and grey, looks like a slightly confused, ageing professor. His drink – a pint of white wine on the rocks that he refers to as “Cincinnati sangria” – is frequently tossed into the crowd; each time, a new one magically appears by his side a few seconds later.
They’re on good form, and while the highs – ‘England’, ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, ‘Fake Empire’ – are stunning, there’s a sense that they can’t quite slip into top gear. It’s not helped by a middle section that turns into an extended cabaret show – they are joined by, in order, Bon Iver, This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables, and Kwamie Liv – or the fact that eight of tonight’s songs are drawn from an album that the 20,000 present have yet to hear. A rendition of ‘De Smukke Unge Mennesker’ – an old Kim Larsen track – with Ragnar Kjartansson on vocals is sweetly dedicated to Aaron’s father-in-law but comes dangerously close to parody. Berninger parks himself at the side of the stage watching the madness unfold, an expression that’s part amusement, part horror only abating when he’s cajoled into providing some backing whistles.
It’s criminal that we get 80s Danish pop but no ‘Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks’ or ‘I Should Live In Salt’, but I guess if you can’t indulge your playful side at what is essentially your own festival, when can you? What we do get is a storming ‘Mr. November’ and a bittersweet ‘Terrible Love’ to finish, the band – Aaron Dessner in particular – sounding emotionally and physically spent. This is his hometown now, and setting up an event as big as this, in the midst of recording and releasing your band’s most anticipated album to date, was a bold move. The National are, of course, big enough to weather just about any storm now, but a festival in its infancy is a fragile thing. That Haven festival was sufficiently successful to all but guarantee a second year is triumph enough for a group who have famously taken their time in getting to the top.
Photo Credit: Amanda Farah