Notes From Denmark: Four Days at Roskilde Festival
Day One, July 4
ROSKILDE, Denmark — The gates to Roskilde, one of Europe’s biggest and most anticipated music festivals, were open at 5 p.m. on Thursday. I made my way over to the Arena entrance, which is adjacent to the East Campground, at 20 minutes to the hour and was actually disappointed at the crowd I encountered. The excitement was palpable, but I was expecting more people. But as 5 p.m. neared, the group swelled from dozens to hundreds, to what by the end was more than a thousand. When the guards finally opened the gate, people came streaming in from every direction, but strangely, the chaos was orderly. There was sprinting and yelling, but nearly no one fell, the shoving was minimal, and when either of those things did happen, the apologies came in effusive bursts.
The festival’s main site, Orange Stage, was opened by Danish disco revivalists Vinnie Who. Roskilde traditionally likes to have an up-and-coming Danish act open Orange, but that’s not who Vinnie Who are. As I was told by many of the locals, they’re an odd choice — the band that has plateaued, people said, and they’re hard to get excited about.
It was not a very strong night for the main stage. While a portion of the crowd was excited to see the night’s headliner, Slipknot, I couldn’t have cared less. Besides not being into sludge metal, I think their shtick — horror movie masks, jump suits, steel can drummers on rising platforms — is corny. It seems like the sort of thing an angsty teen with no taste would be into. But at least Slipknot had energy, something you can’t say for Swedish indie pop super-group Ingrid. Counting Lykke Li, Peter Bjorn and John, and Miike Snow among its members, you’d expect something that was fun and catchy, but this was just bland. The surprise appearance by Chrissy Hynde was nice, but also highlighted how boring everything else was.
Fortunately, Kendrick Lamar was there to rescue the night. The rapper has experienced a meteoric rise in the U.S. over the last year, but I wasn’t ready for the reception he would receive on the other side of the Atlantic. He played the Arena Stage, which can fit a crowd of 17,000, but even that couldn’t contain everyone who showed up. The thousands unable to squeeze under the stage’s tent weren’t dissuaded from trying to get a glimpse of the rapper, though, and some even took to the fragile trees surrounding the area to get a better view. The MC kicked things off with a five minute-long Euro dance medley to pump up the crowd, and then delved into songs from last year’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city.” I like Lamar’s music but have never been able to really connect to it. That wasn’t the case on Thursday — his performance was easily one of the most visceral of the festival. Lamar is on his way to being a star, and that’s exactly how he carried himself.
Day Two, July 5
Bands started playing at noon, but I wasn’t interested in any shows until an early evening set from Toronto-based punk act Metz. I caught them in a dank Brooklyn club last year, and though that set was stuffed with all the chaos and aggression I’ve come to expect from the band, this performance was better. For just over a half hour they thrashed through a dozen songs that got the crowd gesticulating unpredictably, despite the heat and the audience’s lack of familiarity with the tunes. If I seem surprised, it’s mainly because part of what makes Metz so good is how deafeningly loud they can get, something outdoor festivals aren’t really conducive to. But they played the Pavilion Stage, which had a tent covering and offered the dingy charms of a cramped club (a.k.a. the perfect setting for scuzzy rock).
The big deal on Friday, though no one would admit it without some prodding, was the headliner: Rihanna. Roskilde, traditionally, is a rock and metal festival, but as the fans at the previous evening’s Lamar show could tell you, the music landscape has changed — even in Metal-loving Scandinavia.
While no one would own up to wanting to see Rihanna, the massive area surrounding the Orange Stage was jammed with people. A decent view was impossible to find, even two hours before the set. The crowd seemed a little annoyed that the 25-year-old took the stage a half hour after she was set to, but the wait felt worth it. Like all the other performers at the festival, the singer was sure to thank the crowd repeatedly. But as she regally commanded the stage, it was clear this performance was for her, not us. Her refusal to immediately dive into hits was a fascinating move to see a pop star pull off, even though it must have been grating to some in the crowd. Also, she snuck the chorus from Ginuwine’s “Pony” into a medley of her hits, which was awesome.
Day Three, July 6
As tired as everyone may have been after the first two days of music (and a week into the actual festival), no one was about to let up on Saturday, Roskilde’s unofficial main day. And it made sense, considering the last addition to the line-up and the night’s headliner: Metallica.
To say that the legendary thrash metal band was the act the festival was most excited about would be an understatement (the group’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, grew up in Denmark). A few people started queuing up for RiRi the morning of her performance, but people were camped out for Metallica, spending their entire day drinking in the sun waiting for a chance to slip into the pit. A third, at best, actually made it in. And when the band finally took the stage the 60,000 plus fans gathered, filling up the Orange Stage area like no other time during the weekend, and completely lost their minds. The set was shockingly loud; another member of the foreign press, who left after the band played “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” told me that at his hostel, quite a distance from the grounds, he could still hear the band clearly.
Fortunately for the select few not wanting to watch James Hetfield yell for two hours, there were plenty of other options that night. After a half hour I set off for the Pavilion Stage to take in the slightly quieter but just as combative Pissed Jeans. The sloppy Philadelphia group play bleak everyman punk — think songs about office- and suburbia-induced boredom — but the band’s delirious live show is entrancing. It’s impossible to turn away from singer Matt Korvette, especially once he starts stumbling around the stage and nuzzling with bandmates, berating the crowd for skipping Metallica, and joking about the stupidity of crowd surfing. I don’t think the primarily Scandinavian crowd really got what he was going on about, but they stayed put until the end.
After a quick detour by a desert rave out near the campgrounds, I set forth to the Arena Stage, where Sigur Rós, who could have been the headliner any other night, was playing. The show was about as good of a translation of a band’s music to the stage as I’ve ever seen — it was packed with beauty (their A.V. component was the best of the festival), intense build-ups, and celestial crescendos. Despite their competition on the Orange Stage, the crowd was thousands deep. A billion people have already written about what an experience Sigur Rós is live, and I’m kind of bummed so many people had to miss out on it because of scheduling.
Day Four, July 7
By Sunday, the week-long party had finally started to catch up with everyone. The few brave souls who’d managed to raise themselves from their campsites were looking rough by the time I reached the grounds.
It was almost as if the programmers knew this, starting things off with more restrained acts like the sleepy James Blake, who opened up the day at the Orange Stage. Of course, the always excellent Queens of the Stone Age are anything but subdued, but they were an aberration on Sunday. The charisma of frontman Josh Homme and their aggressive but still melodic hard rock was the right thing to wake the crowd from their hungover stupor. But that was undone just an hour later, as Kraftwerk closed the main stage down that night. The Germans’ set was fine, but as with Blake, the music is more suited for listening to alone in your room, rather than at a major rock festival. I heard from a number of people that it seemed like an oddly flat note to close out the Orange Stage on.
So again it was up to a performer on the Arena Stage to carry the night, a task R&B singer Miguel was more than up to (though on this night he seemed more interested in being a rock star than anything else). Taking the stage in black suede jacket adorned with fringe —which he’d soon discard — the singer and his backing band produced an incredibly sleazy performance filled with preening, sneering, and shirtlessness. I still don’t buy the whole Miguel as a heartbreaker thing, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work in the right circumstances, and his Sunday night performance hit it. Even as it crashed into the beginning of the night’s headline set, the crowd didn’t thin; if anything, it grew more and more rabid, especially when he got to Mariah Carey’s “#Beautiful.” It was over-the-top and genuinely weird, but it also felt like something special and the right way to finish off the weekend.