Pictures: Maciej Sobociński for Finland Today
Once a year, Oulu, the capital of Northern Scandinavia that certainly did not earn the title because of its vibrant life and atmosphere, steps up to its name and turns into the one and only place to go: A summer full of festivals across the whole country would never dare to spare its north. Since 2002, QStock, Oulu’s very own festival sponsored by Oulu’s very own newspaper (and others), happens every late summer, and for the fourth year in a row, it is completely sold out! Let’s have a closer look at the 2016 edition through the eyes – and the lens – of foreigners residing in this special little city up north.
It is a group of half-islands in the middle of the city center where the event is happening. What ingredients does a festival need to play in the high league? People. Great atmosphere. A beach would be nice. Cheapskates (or latecomers) in front of the gates catching the sound without the visuals. Friends getting together, old acquaintances meeting, a whole city coming together to celebrate. Food. Drinks. Well, it’s all there! Nothing can go wrong! On six stages over two days more than 30,000 visitors with music taste that could not be more diverse meet and party together with their idols and the idols of other visitors.
We dive right in and let the festival mood take over. We have been to festivals before. We have been to festivals in Finland before, too. The atmosphere usually depends on the target (age) group and their music preferences, so we are not too concerned when everyone is watching Children of Bodom with an earnest face and a non-moving hip on the main stage. Maybe it’s the QStock people that are just a bit more serious than other festival visitors? Or maybe this is just a Finnish thing?
This year, the organizers brought a wide range of various national and international artists to the north. Hell, they even dug out early-2000s-starlet Anastacia somewhere! And the audience is thus just as broadly mixed as the genres the artists count themselves to. On Friday, the main stage surprises with a mix of electropop (Sanni), death metal (Children of Bodom), rock (The Cardigans) and – well, Cheek.
Cheek, the Finnish rapper with the remarkable raspy voice, has the privilege to end the evening, and the audience’s reaction shows that this was well-picked: Visitors from 12 to 60 or beyond party hard to his mix of rap, pop and special effects. Besides pyro-technique that would make Rammstein jealous, and the obligatory fireworks above the festival area in sync with his beats in the end of the show, Cheek even brought four skinny cheerleaders that twerk and wave for more support. Whoever has watched the Eurovision Song Contest 2016 and the “How to win the Eurovision Song Contest” literal version performed by the hosts can see that Cheek knows his bag of tricks well. All he is missing is a burning piano and a man in a hamster wheel.
But the mass is on fire (not literally despite all the fire on stage, fortunately), and the mob begins to evolve into a happy ragtag; the harder-sounding lines, even though backed up and smoothened by support from various other artists, like Diandra and Sanni, seem to motivate people to let the inner redneck out. It is obvious that Cheek hits the mainstream nerve hard in the most efficient way. Happy festival visitors and even some dancing happening during this “party for everybody” are a great success.
The Cardigans from Sweden play a flawless set with amazing vocal achievements by Nina Persson, but can only score excitement when singing “Itämaista rakkautta.” The remaining performance is sparsely but steadily supported by those fans who know the lyrics of even more than “Lovefool,” but not many more people.
Children of Bodom and also Amorphis have their own circles of supporters which deviate a bit from what one would call mainstream – yes, even in Finland, the mothership of metal bands. But also they receive only selective acknowledgment just as well. The pop-mainstream-Finnish-homemade-performance seems to attract people regardless of the stage and time of the day, be it Ellinoora or Olavi Uusivirta, while other acts attract mainly their sworn in fans.
This seems to look a lot different on day two already, but soon it becomes clear that it is a matter of space (or lack thereof) that drives the people into the main-stage-area. Robin is a bit too early for most festival visitors, starting the day on the main stage with a show full of costume changes and an energy a Duracell-bunny would be jealous of. Despite his junior-state both age-wise and career-wise, when compared to other artists that day, he performs like a pro and does not mind doing his backflips in the heat of the midday sun. Also, Elastinen, who invites Robin for a song on stage, belongs to the sunny-boy category that day and impresses with an entire horn section and booty-shaking-atmosphere. For JVG, Anastacia and Chisu it seems as if most people just hang out there because there is no space in the other areas. The crowds in front of the other stages seem more honest. Steve’n’Seagulls play their cover songs in country-style and down-to-earth attitude, and Stam1na satisfies the Finnish crave for metal once again.
Fact is, Oulu has never seen this many people at once, both inside and outside the festival, and visiting every band for a little bit or even only the ones you want to see for the whole gig becomes a full-time job, while fighting against unusual summer heat and even more unusual crowds along the way. Food trucks offer a variety of international cuisines. Unfortunately, there are not too many Oulu-inhabited businesses present. When not being busy listening to a gig or walking from one to the other, visitors can bungee-jump their alcohol off, shop for sunglasses, random shirts or even sex toys (yes, we need that on a festival! Even if just to throw a rubber boob filled with water across the crowd to see whom it hits!), or get themselves a hole punched into the face. No violence, just speaking piercing equipment here! A good alternative is always to just hang out by the water on the beach. By the way, who takes care that the people on the boats are charged their entrance fee?
While the main stage area is both mainstream and crowded, the gems of the festival can definitely be found on the other stages. Sonata Arctica for example surprise with an ‘acoustic summer show’ that melts also the hearts of not-so-much-into-metal Finns (yes, there are those, too!) and makes it difficult to take pictures close enough. The hardest job, however, has by far Anna Abreu: When the majority of the 32,000 visitors at the end of the festival tries to squeeze to become ‘my Prodigy people’, as Maxim calls us all, Anna Abreu is performing nearby on the beach stage, holding against extra-amplified sound with her ballads. She has a more romantic atmosphere for sure, and she definitely cannot complain about a lack of fans. Neither can The Prodigy, and all this even though it seems as if thousands of people are leaving right before the last gig already. It makes you wonder where they all came from, as Finland only has a handful of inhabitants anyways.
And then it is all over, clearly indicated by the last fireworks of the festival around 1 am. For a bit more than 34 hours, Oulu was a vibrant, lively, atmospheric city with a frequency of people on the streets that would make any Pokémon-Go-release-country look lame. What remains is only their leftovers: in the festival area on the beaches, bike roads and (poor football kids) the stadium grass that served as the mainstage area, in front of the gates along the river and throughout the entire city center there are empty cups, cans, food leftovers, paper, cigarettes, and things we do not want to explore further. A total crowd of 32,000 came, QStock happened, everyone was happy, drunk (maybe a bit too much, but again, Finnish peculiarity), and partying – now the zombie-like crowd crawls happily and intoxicated back to their dens. Until next year.