Best gig of 2011…

As you can probably imagine, I attend a massive amount of live shows and festivals over a 12 month period and see a load of great, and not so great bands, play in a myriad of different settings. Some gigs are soulful and impassioned events with artists showcasing their innate talent and offering up a unique performance never to be seen again… whereas some are soulless affairs with career rockers hawking their latest wares, in the vain chance of making an articulated lorry-load of cash by fleecing their loyal fanbase.

There seem to be many variables at work in order to make a truly awesome gig. You need a talented artist for a start. A dedicated, enthusiastic audience is also near essential. A worthy PA system usually helps. And an impressive or unusual setting adds to the vibe, wherever possible. If you get a combination of all of these, you’re laughing, and most probably dancing and cheering too.

I tend to prefer smaller venues nowadays. Much as I enjoy large festivals and the occasional spectacle set in an enormo-dome, give me a sweaty club, local community centre or back-room in a pub any day. I like seeing bands when they’re hungry and have everything to prove; when they have total and utter belief in what they’re doing, and will not be swayed by public opinion or indifference. If, over time, you watch bands scale the dizzy heights of mass popularity and STILL keep that naive innocence and self-determination, it’s a rare, beautiful and heart-warming thing. Many artists get tired, staid and blasé about their art after they get that initial vindication from audiences and the media.

This year I’ve seen some inspirational shows in Scotland across Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness, Stirling and further flung fields such as Ullapool. I’ve also witnessed bands tread the boards in London and Cardiff, and even had the pleasure of attending many festivals across the UK, Scandinavia and the USA. It’s hard to beat my annual pilgrimage to Austin, Texas and the awe-inspiring SXSW ‘South by South West’ for atmosphere and sheer quantity of quality bands, and therefore extremely tough to whittle down a single show as my favourite.

But after all that, and being a contrary bastard, I’ve not singled out a single show or even something particularly intimate… but a festival! A bit of a cop-out I know, but hey… I have to be truthful and boundlessly enthuse about my absolute favourite live experience of the year. Was it the raucous sing-along of T in the Park? The DIY diversity of the Fence Records Homegame? My debut visits to the excellent SWN or Iceland Airwaves festivals? Erm, no… it was the Slottsfjell festival in Tunsberg, Norway.

Not the largest, hippest or most glamorous of the summer’s weekenders, but what an absolute blast it was… Over the 3 days, I managed to see a somewhat eclectic selection including Mogwai, Deerhunter, Mudhoney, Grinderman, Cerebral Ballzy, Biffy Clyro, Anthrax, Erasure, The Go! Team and Norwegian Punks, Honningbarna. YAAAAS… total madness!

It may not be win any prizes for being the most cutting-edge, chin-stroking, post-glitch-step line-up of all time, but when you’re with the most wonderful of company (old friends and new) in the most stunning of settings (Slottsfjell apparently means Castle-Hill and is slap bang in the centre of the charming town of Tunsberg, next to the fjord!) alongside the most relaxed (but fun-loving) crowd, and under a blazing sun… it makes for a rockin’ good time!

OK, for those on a tight budget or unable to take much time off work, it may not seem like the most obvious or easy choice for letting your hair down. However, if you fancy an alternative city-break with some high-octane rock’n’roll entertainment and only a very small amount of mud on your shoes… you’re more than likely to have a most enjoyable time at Slottsfjell.

Flights go from the UK to Torp airport, which is really nearby; the Norwegians are incredibly affable and friendly; the scenery is gorgeous and the festival organisation second to none. Stage times rarely if ever clash, security is never overbearing (if visible at all) and the PA systems impeccable on the whole. The bars and eateries serve up good, tasty locally sourced booze and grub at admittedly pricey rates (for us, not the Norwegians!) and there’s that blessed opportunity to get back to a B&B, Hotel, Hostel or civilised campsite at the end of the day.

To me it’s about the right size at the 10,000-12,000 mark, where an atmosphere can be created but where you never feel part of the herd. You’re always fairly close to the acts and the music happens over a selection of only 4 stages of differing size. This means you can easily walk between stages and not continue to catch the undeniably annoying ‘Thank you… Good night!’ at the end of every set. There’s even a separate night event with DJ’s, should you want to keep dancing and quaffing ale into the wee small hours. And to top it all off… there were no neds! That’s right, NO NEDS ANYWHERE!

This was actually my second time at Slottsfjell as I’d been the previous year in DJ mode, spinning retro 50’s and 60’s dancefloor fillers with my pal Craig Jamieson in our Modern Lovers guise. We were both back again to drop the ‘platters that matter’, but on this occasion our entourage of friends and fellow UK journalists, promoters, bloggers and general musos helped us get the party started. We took to the decks with Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai as special guest, and had a total laugh!

As if that weren’t enough, I was lucky enough to stay on an island about 30 minutes along the aforementioned fjord in a comfy, wee ex-army billet with barbecue and beer always at hand. At the start and end of each day, my friends and I took a boat to and from the festival!!

All in all, it was most definitely my best gig and favourite weekend of 2011.

All photos courtesy of Carina Jirsch

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