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REVIEW: Hultsfred Festival, Sweden (14-16 June) – The Stone Roses, The Cure, Garbage… and more

So you like festivals… You’re thinking Leeds/Reading for the metal heads and the exploding toilets, but you’ve seen it all before. How about V? Too commercial? Isle of Wight?...

So you like festivals… You’re thinking Leeds/Reading for the metal heads and the exploding toilets, but you’ve seen it all before. How about V? Too commercial? Isle of Wight? Too wet. How about you go to Europe? How about Sweden? Ok – Sweden it is: Hultsfred, to be exact – a town of approx. 5,000 people, in the Smaland region, about 400 miles south of Stockholm. Basically in the middle of nowhere. Can’t get much more alternative than that…

We decided on the charter train option – overnight in a cabin from Stockholm and you get to sleep on the train for the duration of the festival. Showers, toilets, no leaking tents, over-flowing portaloos or screaming teenagers at 4am (unless you invite them back). It was all very civilised… for about an hour – when the train made one of its many unscheduled smoke-breaks and we met some of the other residents – Welsh and Finnish. We’re soon running amok on the train, much to the amusement of the well-behaved Swedish teenagers and the disapproval of the two stewardesses… ‘You can’t smoke on here,’ one says. ‘I can smell it.’ We hang our old-enough-to-know-better heads in shame. A sock over the smoke detector and a towel under the door soon solves the problem; Gareth and Gavin wonder the next day why all their clothes reek.

In the morning, we have a look round the town. There’s nothing but weird corrugated houses and a few people sleeping in gardens. We order a pizza which comes laden with prawns – NOT the best thing for a hangover. The Swedish, it seems, have a thing for prawns. We make it to the festival at around 2pm on the first day, after an hour’s walk from the town which was advertised as ’10 minutes’ and we notice straightaway that things are still being set up. But the second we make it though the pat-down security we are accosted by someone trying to sell us earplugs. She is horrified when we decline. ‘But you’ll get tinnitus forever!’ she wails, her face concerned, incredulous and disappointed at losing what she thought was a dead cert sale. We’re as incredulous as she is: What’s the point of coming to a festival and blocking out the sound?!

First stop: buy alcohol. Beer, pear cider, wine. Cider it is then. We manage to avoid all dodgy sounding warm-up bands while chatting to a couple of English blokes who are as happy as we are to have met other people over the age of 20 (ok, almost double that, in fact). One of them was affronted that the taxi who brought them in asked if they were dropping their kids off. Then we start chatting to a bunch of locals who’ve been coming for 27 years – one of them asks sweetly, ‘Who is the best band in the world?’ – much head scratching and uhm-ing – we’d never have guessed the answer: ‘The Waterboys!’ (followed by an ear-irritating rendition of ‘Whole of the Moon’). They tell us that everyone in the town has been involved in the festival at some stage over the years and it used to drawn in crowds of 40,000; all the big bands played here, including an infamous performance by Pete Doherty who fell off the stage in a failed attempt at crowd-surfing (which incidentally, is very much banned – the Swedes appear to be very health and safety conscious – the ratio of security to punters is about 1:50). They told us that the numbers dropped to 5,000, then the 2010 festival was cancelled – but now with the funding of a German events company, they’ve got it back up to 15,000 but still it may not continue for another year. It’s been big business for town that lost its flat-pack trade to Ikea, hopefully it’ll survive.

Finally, we make it to a stage – we catch the last few tracks from Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators. It’s a good GnR medley, but Myles is no Axl. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Then it’s time for the day’s main event: The Stone Roses. I’m not going to lie here and say I don’t like them – I do. It’s just that I liked them 20 years ago and I’d rather it stayed that way. I don’t want them to come back for their so called ‘Third Coming’ and ruin my memories. They’re skint though, so back they come (which is good, as we’ve been hearing rumours all day about them apparently pulling out).

Monkey-faced Brown comes strutting onto the stage in a polka dot hoody last seen in New Look’s spring sale, wielding maracas and a look that says ‘If I can believe that I’m not nearly 50, then you can believe it too.’ He’s bold. His singing’s not that bad… until he comes in too early with the chorus in Made of Stone, and Mani, looking like he’s just dropped in from his real job of laying bricks, shakes his head and laughs as Brown keeps going to the end, despite the assault on our ears. Starting to wish we’d bought those earplugs now. A blindfold would also be handy, as John Squire’s Rod Stewart-esque mane is actually quite disturbing. At least Reni looks normal… oh no, wait… he’s wearing a hat with dreadlocks attached. So far, so average, until the Fools Gold endless instrumental, when they start to look vaguely like a band again and not just 4 old Mancs who’ve fallen behind on their mortgage payments. Ian Brown smiles. They’re no longer the little boys who’ve been squabbling on a long car journey – they actually look like maybe, just maybe, they don’t hate each other after all. They play a Waterfall/Don’t Stop combo that the crowd seem to like. This is the One and She Bangs the Drums start the build up to the finale: I am the Resurrection… the lyrics are oddly appropriate: ‘I couldn’t ever bring myself to hate you as I’d like’. Musically, they’ve still got it. They’re still working on their chemistry, and Ian Brown needs to look a bit more like he’s not just going through the motions. Get that right, and there might just be a gig worth watching at Heaton Park next week.

Despite all that, it’s French electro-rock outfit, Justice, with their huge amps and giant flashing crucifix that drew the real crowd of the night, playing into the early hours with a seemingly endless dance set that looked like it needed drugs to enjoy. Shame that Hultsfred is a hugely anti-drugs festival then, but the writhing throng of kids seemed to enjoy it anyway.

Day 2 brings the Finnish ‘mini-bar’ on the steps of our train and Gavin’s 8% forest fruit cider, which is apparently the ‘gayest drink in the world’. I disagree – surely nothing 8% can be classed as ‘gay’. Pink or not. We then hear that Gareth and Gavin have been on a pre-festival diet of carrot flavoured water (Gavin) and Slim-fast (Gareth: ‘I passed out at work a few times, but it’s the BBC, no one really cared’). I provide the suncream – both Gareth and I are sad victims of the celtic sun-hating complexion. So then it’s into the arena for sunshine and beers by the lake – the best thing is that you can still watch the bands on the main stage without having to leave your seat (we’re old, remember). Luckily we’re too far away to listen to Swedish ‘rockers’ The Soundtrack of our Lives, who sound like a bad mix of Status Quo, Van Halen and Spinal Tap, but with a screaming old monk as their lead singer. The crowd seem to like it though; young Swedish lads who all look like Ricky from the Kaiser Chiefs and tattooed blonde girls with short shorts (even if they don’t have the legs for it, they’re not afraid to show them off).

We watch Kasabian from afar, as they explode onto the stage like the rock stars they are. They get the crowd going despite the early slot and they seem like they actually want to be there. I’m on Fire has everyone running towards the stage, bouncing like excited puppies, We sip our pear cider and nod our heads. We meet a young Swede who’s chosen Hultsfred to pop his festival cherry… ‘I wasn’t sure if I’d like the camping or the toilets, but actually they’re both pretty good,’ he says. He rocks to Kasabian with us, without leaving his seat. Good gig.

After the England-Sweden game takes over one of the stages, resulting in a lot of good natured banter, it’s time for The Cardigans, who treat us to the whole of Gran Turismo. Then at 00:45, The Cure appear and surprise everyone with an uplifting jangly set which included a lot of the classics, Without You got the crowd dancing early on and Robert Smith even seemed to be enjoying himself. Played a 2hr 45 min set covering almost their whole back catalogue and would’ve played 30 min more but organisers pulled the plug at 3am… We didn’t make it that long though; the beer might’ve been weak but it still had a cumulative effect.

The final day is the highlight, musically, kicking off for us with The Vaccines who play a rip-roaring set and let everyone know what a band are supposed to do. If you don’t know them, and you’re a fan of The Ramones, The Buzzcocks, The Strokes, Psychadelic Furs, and The Killers and you’re into catchy sub-3 min pop rock, then you won’t find a more appropriate band to watch. New tracks Teenage Icon has hints of Tom Petty, while Weirdo took a solemn Radiohead-esque edge before they picked up the crowd right back up with If You Wanna, before finishing with the shortest song ever. A perfect set that re-ignited everyone’s festival mojo.

Next stop: Garbage. An older but no less striking Shirley Manson looking over-skinny but still perfectly formed burst on to the stage in little red hot pants and didn’t stop skipping and gyrating for an hour. Despite having no amps apart from festival system, they were louder than any other band we saw. Stupid Girl started off with a flirty homage to Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby and lots of batting of eyelashes. The band seemed genuinely happy to be back, finishing with I’m Only Happy When it Rains, just as the rain started to fall…

Marina and the diamonds and Bat for Lashes provided a trippy and chilled soundtrack to the rain, watched from under cover at the oddly named ‘Opera’ tent but thankfully the rain stopped just in time for Magic Numbers, the last minute replacement for Mumford and Sons after Marcus Mumford had to pull out due to a broken hand. I’ve seen this band a few times; they are perfect for a festival afternoon, with the Fleetwood Mac/Beach Boys jangly pop harmonies and genuine affection towards each other – there are other bands who could learn from this lot. Who can’t love a band who left their London recording studio at final production stages of their 3rd album to fly out to Sweden just to make everyone smile? Classics such as Forever Lost and She Don’t Love me Like You were mixed with some great new material and even a bit of Neil Young. I was just gutted not to hear Morning’s Eleven, but you can’t have it all.

The penultimate ‘big’ act is Noel Gallagher and his High Flying Birds, who give us the good stuff from their album mixed in with Talk Tonight, Half a World Away, Little by Little and a cracking final rendition of Don’t look back in Anger (dedicated to the Swedish football team) – this has the whole crowd singing and waving pints and even the hard Finnish lads like it, despite their previous protestations that Noel is a twat.

Finally, Gorillaz Sound System end it all with a non-stop medley of dance and cartoons, but sadly, no Damon Albarn.

To sum up: if you’re partial to a 3-day diet of cider and Gaviscon and you like your festivals chilled and friendly, this could be one for you… You might even meet some friends for life: as Gavin said on leaving – ‘Come and visit us in Cardiff, but don’t bring those Finnish lads… I don’t want to have a brain haemorrhage before my 43rd birthday.’

Words: SJI Holliday
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