Recap: Denmark’s SPOT Festival

You may not have come across Aarhus before, but this curiously unsung location is one of 2017’s European Capitals of Culture, and with good reason. Denmark’s second city boasts a burgeoning arts scene, and that’s never more apparent than in springtime at the annual SPOT festival. Here Scandinavia’s music industry elite — and a lot of enthusiastic fans — gather to discover the new breed of Nordic talent. It’s a terrifically mixed bag, in some memorable locations.

The Venue: AROS
Aarhus’ landmark sight is the dramatic doughnut-shaped walkway that sits atop the globally-acclaimed art museum. Your Rainbow Panorama is a permanent installation by the Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, and the setting for a memorable SPOT show in 2014, by sound x Anders Stockholm. In the actual gallery there are works by Warhol, Gauguin, Gilbert and George, and a basement of audio-visual wonder.

The Highlight: On Thursday there’s a Norway-themed evening, the highlight being the lovely Lowly, who are from Aarhus and joined the fine UK label Bella Union after being spotted at SPOT a few years back. But the most memorable listen here is Jacob Kirkegaard’s aural exhibition, “All and Nothing,” and particularly “Black Metal Square 1-3,” which is just that: the sound of three suspended metal squares, swaying. Surprisingly moving.

The Venue: VOXHALL
One of Scandinavia’s best rock venues, VoxHall is a 700-capacity hangout with everything in the right places. It’s a solid no-nonsense rectangle, all the way back to the seated-bit behind the bar where you can stare right through for a pretty sweet view of the stage, or out at the river that runs round to VoxHall’s sister venue, Atlas. Savvy Danish design.

The Highlight: Draw your own conclusions about how ‘Sløtface’ is pronounced (they changed it from the more explicit spelling last year), and that might be their only barrier to global fame. This driven Norwegian quartet play catchy punk-pop with a spiky undercarriage. “I’d never shave my head for you!” yelps front-woman Haley Shea, as they barrel along to a splendidly bombastic conclusion.

You walk a lot at SPOT, even though most of the venues are a stones’ throw from each other (quite a throw, sometimes, but the point stands) so occasional breathers are welcome. SPOT long-standing centrepiece venue, the Musikhuset concert complex encompasses eight stages, some of which are plush-seated and perfect for recuperating, whoever’s playing.

The Highlight: And some of them aren’t. At Musikhuset’s no-seats Kammer studio on Saturday there’s another festival showcase, for Way Up North, in Aalborg, which is an hour away from Aarhus and producing some excellent bands right now. Kogekunst – careful how you say that too — probably won’t be massive though: this uncompromising duo looks like a damaged version of eighties pop-rockers Tears for Fears, and make admirably uncompromising art-noise. Try before you buy.

Not far from DOKK 1, a little further around Aarhus’ waterfront, is Dome of Visions, a “sensual meeting place” which is hard to miss on Pier Two: it’s a sort of greenhouse, but nurturing new bands this weekend.

The Highlight: Shiny Darkly could refer to the moonlit water lapping around the distinctive dome on Saturday night, which is dark enough to almost lure in bewildered map-readers, but it’s also one of Denmark’s best bands, jagged psych riffs here framed by plants and a pretty view through the glass.

photo Steffen Jørgensen

The Venue:SCC
A new addition to this festival’s venue list a few years back, the 4000-capacity Scandinavian Congress Centre is usually a space for major conferences and exhibitions, but turn the lights down and it allows SPOT to stage gigs that feel like the headline acts of big outdoor festivals, from daytime rock to sundown dance.

The Highlight: Two very different outfits from nearby Aalborg fill the room with sound and colour: Get Your Gun are an extraordinary rock howl, ripped from the souls of tortured Vikings (now with added synth atmospherics), and Farveblind are two friendly young guys who become a dance-rock behemoth onstage, epic beats, live drums, and a South African guest singer flown in specially for this show. The prodigies.

The Venue: DOKK 1
A hugely impressive new development down at the city’s ever-evolving waterfront, DOKK 1 looks like a vessel from outer space went looking for intelligent life and decided to dock here, as indeed it probably would, what with the whole capital of culture thing. In fact, this is essentially a cutting-edge library. Cool place, Aarhus.

The Highlight: We only manage to get along there early one morning, but it’s the most fun you’ll see an audience have all weekend — well, apart from that Farveblind show — because this audience is mainly tiny kids. HipSomHap are a child-friendly rap duo: imagine a block party where the blocks are Lego. Fun times.

Behind the epic Aros and SCC, you’ll find the grittier spaces of Godsbanen. This area was once one of Denmark’s biggest rail freight yards, now transformed into a busy arts complex full of studios, bars and stages, plus a fertile space outside for local street artists.

The Highlight: Also outside is a new stage this year, Volume, where another excellent Scandinavian fest showcases their local talent on Saturday afternoon. Sorveiv happens in October in Norway’s burgeoning south-coast city of Kristiansand, and it’s a balmy smorgasbord here: chilled sunny-day songs from Simen Lyngroth, upbeat country from Oakland Rain’s twin sisters, and between them, Sgrow, experimental but thoroughly accessible electronica (plus guitar).

photo Bjørn Giesenbauer

The Venue: SWAY
Aarhus’ more touristy nightspots line the river along Åboulevarden, “the most expensive beers in town,” one local dismissively tells us — but not the best ones. Still, there are cool venues nestling near those traps, such as Sway, which pleasingly describes itself as “just a plain bar,” but is a quirky mix of fussball tournaments, indie DJs and bands playing in its kitchen.

The Highlight: Every year Sway is home to a SPOT institution: the afterparty curated by one of Scandinavia’s finest labels, Crunchy Frog. And arriving for their only gig of the festival in that kitchen at 2am, like a drunk dude crashing a party, are Nelson Can, a guitar-eschewing bass-and-drums power-girl trio with killer tunes (and a tremendous forthcoming EP). Yes, watching this show may require you to squeeze tightly and painfully against the knob of a fussball table, but it’s worth it.

photo by: Steffen Jørgensen; Si Hawkins