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Bands and Booze and the end of summer at a Finnish distillery

To mark the end of summer, Kyr distillery in Finland holds a fest that is a blend of blues music, food and craft cocktails

Relax Trio at the festival at the Kyrö Distillery (below), which is located in the rural municipality of Isokyrö in Finland. Photo: Sanjoy Narayan.
Relax Trio at the festival at the Kyrö Distillery (below), which is located in the rural municipality of Isokyrö in Finland. Photo: Sanjoy Narayan.

It’s Saturday night and I’m standing in the queue for a beer when a man walks up and asks me: “Oletko jonossa (Are you in the line)?" I muster together the smattering of Finnish that I think I know to try and say more than just “Kyllä", or yes, when he senses my struggle and slips into English, as most Finns mercifully do. I’m probably the only non-Finn at the Kyrö Distillery’s end-of-summer village festival, a delightful day-long blend of cocktails and beer; gigs by local bands; and food in the tiny rural municipality of Isokyrö (population 4,766) in western Finland. The line is long-ish, by Finnish standards at least, and we get talking, first about the weather (it is cloudy and rainy); then a bit about India (he’s actually been to Mumbai and says with trademark Finnish understatement that he found it “a bit different"); and then about the wanton act of terrorism the day before in Turku, a city that’s a 4-hour drive from where we are.

Although right-wingers in Finnish politics want to make it harder for immigrants and asylum seekers, just like my acquaintance in the beer line, most people I spoke to hoped that the recent incident where a Moroccan suspect went on a stabbing spree in the city wouldn’t spur a backlash against immigrants, and that it wouldn’t be a shot in the arm for right-wingers. I got my beer and walked back to where my companions, two talkative Finnish women, were splitting hairs about who in the crowd was a hipster and who wasn’t. Their chatter, fuelled by cocktails of the distillery’s excellent Napue gin blended with sea-buckthorn juice, liquorice, chillies and so on, along with the attendant people watching, made the wait for the band I’d come to see pleasant and amusing.

Kyrö Distillery. Photo: Courtesy Kyrö Distillery

A number of bands had already played on the stage, set in the middle of a field, with the audience, a motley crowd, milling about in front of it, drinks in hand, bodies swaying—middle-aged hippies, bearded bikers in leather, farmers in cowboy boots, denim and Stetsons, sprightly old ladies dancing wildly right up in front of the stage, and, of course, a few drunks staggering blindly in the middle of it all. Earlier, SAKIA, a band from another rural Finnish town, Jalasjärvi, were up with their set of brooding songs that start slowly but quickly gather momentum. A six-member band, SAKIA self-released their first single a couple of years ago, and last year a couple more, including Parallel Universe, a song that turned up on Finland’s viral charts.

Then there was another band, Relax Trio—Linda Teränen (vocals and double bass); Oskari Nieminen (guitar, harmonica and vocals) and Vilho Voutilainen (drums)—who, in the middle of rural Finland, treated us to their brand of rockabilly, fast-paced and bursting with exuberance. Veterans on the tour circuit, with three CD releases and an EP under their belt, the trio launched into You Drive Me Nuts, and the crowd complied by going bananas—dancing, shaking and making the most of a whimsical summer that was soon going to come to an end.

Finland’s summers are notoriously short and this year the temperature has rarely crossed 20 degrees Celsius. By the middle of August, the days were already getting shorter. So, by the time the four middle-aged guys who call themselves Blue Stone came on stage, it was past 10.30pm and quite dark. These guys are one of Finland’s leading blues bands and have been around for a while, providing what they call “good roots music that has the ability to move even grumpy old men". Their playlist drew heavily from their newly released full-length album, Blues To My Soul, which I had heard and liked. So I didn’t want to miss a chance to see them live. Blue Stone began as a power-blues trio but are now a quartet, and their sound demonstrates influences of Texas blues, Jimi Hendrix and British pub rock of the 1970s. Long-haired Jyrki Lepistö on the lead guitar and vocals sounds strikingly like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Johnny Winter. The leader of the band, Jukka Oravainen, is on keyboards and vocals; Esa Kivimäki is on drums; and Timo Mäkelä on bass. Like the other two bands before them, the lyrics of Blue Stone’s songs are in English and some of the standouts that they performed included Kansas City, a composition by Oravainen. It was evident why they’re considered to be at the forefront of Finland’s blues scene.

Later on, while getting a moose burger on rye bread, I bumped into lead guitarist Lepistö after their set and was floored by his humility when he thanked me profusely for coming to the gig and enjoying it. Blues musicians have a raw deal the world over and Finland is no different. Blue Stone’s bassist Mäkelä has a day job: He is in charge of barrelling at the Kyrö Distillery.

I took an hour-long tour of the distillery too and learnt how five young men and an idea led to the creation of one of the most lauded small-batch gins in the world. The tour guide was one of the founders, the unassuming Miko Heinilä, who filled us in on the travails, delights and other curiosities of achieving something unlikely: a world-class, stylishly marketed rye-based gin from Finland.

The night ended late after the last band, Pirulainen (it means “devilish" in Finnish), a folk band, did their boisterous set with singer Esa Alanko’s infectious charisma, fiddles, accordions, guitars and drums. They sang in Finnish but it didn’t matter because I, like everybody else, was on my feet dancing till we had to get to the last bus that would take us home.


The Lounge list

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Light As A Bird’ by Blue Stone from ‘Blues To My Soul’

2. ‘You Drive Me Nuts’ by Relax Trio from ‘III’

3. ‘Tavallinen Tarina’ by Pirulainen (single)

4. ‘Pain’ By The War On Drugs from ‘A Deeper Understanding’

5. ‘Brooklyn Baby’ by Lana Del Rey from ‘Ultraviolence’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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