Can the cost and effort of attending a foreign festival be justified? After all, there are more than enough of them in the United Kingdom. As I’ve recently discovered, the answer is a resounding YES. Firstly, the cost can be surprisingly low as airlines realise the pulling power of some events and package them accordingly. Secondly, there’s a very good chance you’ll discover new favourite sounds and artists that you’re unlikely to see in the UK. And the third reason applies in particular to Gefle Gas, the only one in Sweden to cater solely to the needs of independent bands and artists, and one that is quite different in its organisation to anything else I’ve experienced. I made my first visit in 2017 and made a return visit this year. Gefle Gas is held in the unpretentious but pleasant town of Gävle, north of Stockholm, in a converted gas works that give the festival its name.
Gävle is a hotbed of indie music production in what is the world’s third biggest music producing country. It attracts artists in every genre from all over the nation. The first of two nights is heavily themed around Joe Hill (Joel Emmanuel Hägglund), a local man who left the town for the U.S.A. in 1902. He is credited with kickstarting the organisation of workers into trades unions there and remains revered for it globally. As a musician he became known as the father of protest music, with songs like ‘The Rebel Girl’ and ‘The Preacher and the Slave’, and latterly as “the last Swedish hero”.
Videos were played of ‘The Ballad of Joe Hill’ being performed by Joan Baez (at Woodstock) and by Bruce Springsteen (below). Paul Robeson also recorded the song. The guy is a true icon who coined the phrase “pie in the sky”.
The evening was completed by various awards and a wide variety of performers including a local duo Le Lac Long 814, (poet Bengt Söderhäll and singer and musician Daniel Östersjö), teenage prodigy Ingrid Fröderberg and a series of shows by young immigrants from countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan sponsored by the organisation Songlines, to which Sting donated the 1 million Krona prize money from his 2017 Polar Music Prize so that events like this can take place.
Their performances were eye-openers. A shy Afghan teenager who never sung before arriving in Sweden rattled off Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and even Frank Sinatra (‘My Way’) with ease. A Matt Damon lookalike poet read the Swedish ‘Desiderata’. There was a skilful high-speed ‘battle of the Ouds’ and a teenage Syrian with long red hair played classical piano like a seasoned professional. The evening wrapped up with a performance from a metal band Xinombra that came into being that very same day and featured unenclosed flames reminiscent of one of the Martian machines in War of the Worlds and a singer who grappled with a heap of metal junk as if he were Sigourney Weaver battling The Alien, managing to lose his mic lead in it in the process.
Day two saw over 60 performers concentrated into eight hours across three venues that are located a mere 50 yards apart. Once more, it was a journey of discovery of sights and voices you’re unlikely to hear back home. Helges Allstars is a local youth singing project credited with discovering and nurturing Zara Larsson. The new Larsson is the 13-year old Ingrid Fröderberg. Forget all the TV talent show programmes you’ve ever seen. This is an artist whose voice has the range, the phrasing, and the emotion that surges into a tremendous power she can summon up from nowhere in an instant. Her performance of Beyoncé’s ‘Listen’ – not an easy number to say the least – would have had the global superstar on her knees. It felt like Edith Piaf resurrected. The most impressive teenage prodigy I’ve ever heard. Remember the name. You heard it here first.
Similar accolades are merited by another startling talent, Johanna Brun, who was featured in GIITTV ‘Introducing’ earlier this year. She is close to re-releasing her debut single, ‘Ur Funktion’ in English (roughly ‘Out of Order’),with an album in the works. It was one of four of her own songs she performed and deals inspirationally with her debilitating medical condition and how she handles it. Another was ‘Bird’, about childhood bullying. In the 13 months since I last saw her she has turned 21 and brings the maturity of adulthood to her keyboard arrangements in live performances to supplement her incredible singing voice and breathtaking ability to generate emotion. Another name to watch out for, and if the opportunity materialises to see her live, take it.
Photo from artist’s Facebook page
Rånda impressed me when I reviewed them for the Nordic Music Scene section of GIITTV recently. The six-piece from central Sweden combine violin, banjo and accordion in a way that actually transcends Mumford & Sons, a band they are often compared with. The singer’s voice fits their style perfectly, their harmonies are divine, the drummer inventive, they can raise the tempo explosively and the entire band “lives” each song when performed on stage. One that should be playing British festivals – and on a big stage.
For a country that produces few rappers several were in evidence at Gefle Gas, headed by Frida Scar, a seasoned performer who knows how to work a crowd. At the other end of the scale was Rommish, a Croatian-born student of Luleå University in the frozen north, the first in the country to convince academics that hip hop is a suitable subject for a postgraduate thesis and whose next project is to record a hip hop album with singers from all the main musical genres participating. While Frida represents the industrial face of rap, Rommish is from a new school which offers the genre in almost an effervescent dance format. I’d have loved to see them doing a duet.
Several Russians played the stages. Mikhail Borzynski, a noted dissident now resettled in Sweden put in a powerful anti-Putin routine, almost as a warm-up man for the event’s star turn, Pussy Riot, who made their debut Swedish performance. I should explain. Pussy Riot is now a movement and the original ‘band’ have split up, four of them (including the ones jailed for the Moscow Cathedral ‘Punk Prayer’ protest in 2012) have emigrated to the U.S. Alexey Knedlyakovsky, the only male band member and his partner Lusine Djanyan, fled Russia for Sweden last year and are awaiting the outcome of their immigration application. They were part of the small group famously battered senseless by Cossacks at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 when they tried to film ‘Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland’.
Knedlyakovsky and a heavily pregnant Djanyan are promoting themselves as an art collective and on the first evening invited volunteers to play the part of dissidents currently jailed for little good reason. On the second one they joined local and national art-rock/punk heroes The Pillisnorks on stage for their final song, donning their traditional balaclavas (which I have to say look slightly threatening in real life), with Knedlyakovsky taking the mic to ask national governments to boycott the World Cup. What he was saying to the Kremlin was “we’ve not gone away, and we will bring you down.” A remarkable act of courage.
This was one of the key defining moments of any event I’ve ever attended and the crowd knew it too, surging forward to take photos and generating wild applause. Quite apart from the nightmare potential for their asylum claim to be rejected, Knedlyakovsky and Djanyan’s lives – and those of their son and unborn child – are still very much threatened, especially as things stand just now.
Photo credit: Kjersti Jannerborn
The Pillisnorks (slogan “Fuck You, I’m Art”) are quite a handful in their own right, as you can judge from the titles of some of their songs – ‘Belfast’, ‘Nice ’67’, and ‘MAGA’. They fall loosely somewhere between The Sex Pistols and Chas & Dave, but singer/guitarist Fredric Ceson in particular is held in high regard; he has worked closely with renowned Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović. The other ‘big name’ on the bill that night was national heart throb Thomas Di Leva, originally a Pillisnork’s band member but regarded widely as Sweden’s David Bowie (though he reminded me more of Donovan with an extravagant costume). Several Bowie songs formed part of his routine, all delivered respectfully.
Di Leva brought an element of high class to the event, which ended with, on separate stages at 2 am, the band Ryggrad joined by the festival’s founder (himself a veteran of many groups); a death metal band; and the first live performance as a duo of two artists who have featured in GIITTV this year, the art-pop Ida Long and electronic whizz-kid David Lehnberg. They jointly produced a sound I’ve never heard before; Ida Long’s almost Kate Bush-like inflections and fast dance routines gelling perfectly with Lehnberg’s electronic creations on speed. I look forward to their album, which is approaching completion.
Unfortunately, there isn’t space for much more but I must quickly mention the delightful Femme Equation – locally born Lina Westin and a four-piece formed mainly of locals now living in Berlin and who took to the stage all in white like The Osmonds. Her ‘transcendental pop’ has a dreamy quality while her willowy stature and vocal delivery somehow reminded me of Nico. In fact, she was named ‘Nicolina’ at birth. Something must be written in the stars.
Also the ultra quirky but charming 7 Billion Hera, the pseudonym of Leigh Fitzjames, a New Zealand millennial who plies her trade (video production) around the world as a no fixed abode and who has inhabited New York, Brighton and Stockholm already this year. Somehow she finds time to write songs and they are actually pretty good. Her stage act is energetic and inventive, conjuring up an image of a Kiwi St Vincent. And like Annie Clark she’s super confident, fiercely intelligent and engaging.
Not everything ran smoothly of course; it rarely does. On a day that The Fast Show’s Poula would genuinely have described as “scorchio” (Sweden has had almost a month of unremitting sunshine) some bands drew hardly any crowd at all while many people sat outside frying and enjoying their beers. And having only a vegetarian cuisine on demand might be revisited in the future. I don’t want to see another veggie burger ever again.
The future direction of Gefle Gas is uncertain at the time of writing. There is a possibility it will progress to ‘international’ status next year, meaning international indie bands will be invited, and it could stretch to a third day accordingly. The outstanding attraction of this event lies in its novelty and there is no knowing which artists will make the cut next year, or what surprises lie in store. If you have the time and the wallet (Sweden isn’t cheap but a decent hotel room should cost no more than £60/night if booked in advance) I’d recommend you sample the experience. As Carter USM’s Jim Bob sang, “It’s a Gas, Man”. They (a band that would suit the festival perfectly if they were to re-form) were singing about suicide, but that irony perfectly fits the event and its outlook.