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Finland’s sizzling jazz festival where the stars played

Pori jazz festival's headliners included Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Alanis Morissette and Mavis Staples

Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds performing at the Finnish open air festival Pori Jazz. Photo: Alamy
Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds performing at the Finnish open air festival Pori Jazz. Photo: Alamy

Last week there was a small debate going on in the Nordics. An unusually scorching heat wave had engulfed most parts of the region, Finland included, and men were quick to shed their shirts and go about with their torsos bared. The debate, mainly in social media cliques in the famously gender-equal region, was about whether women should also be allowed to do the same. But although temperatures soared—in Sweden, Norway and Finland, where summers rarely get warmer than 15-20 degrees Celsius, last week they touched 33 or more—that debate remained inconclusive. So in Pori, a municipality on the west coast of Finland, where an international jazz festival has been held every year in July since 1966, it was only the men//buff, flabby, or otherwise//who took off their shirts as the sun blazed.

Pori Jazz has always been a music festival where the headliners are swell. Since it began, Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana, Miles Davis, Van Morrison, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Fats Domino, Shakti, and many, many others have played gigs in Pori. This year, in what is being described in the local media as the hottest summer since 1914, the festival’s headliners included Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Alanis Morissette and Mavis Staples. Not jazz musicians those. But then Pori has always been an eclectic music festival. Plenty of jazz but also a few other genres thrown in. Cave got on stage with his band at 10.15pm on a Thursday. The sun was still high in a land where it is reluctant to set during summer and he asked us rhetorically why there was so much light still.

Cave’s songs are famously dark and on stage his skinny frame was in a trim black suit. He kicked off his set with Jesus Alone: You fell from the sky/Crash landed in a field/Near the river Adur/Flowers spring from the ground/Lambs burst from the wombs of their mothers/In a hole beneath the bridge/You convalesced, you fashioned masks of twigs and clay/You cried beneath the dripping trees/Ghost song lodged in the throat of a mermaid. It’s a song from Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds’ most recent album, Skeleton Tree, and one on which most of the songs were written before Cave’s teenaged son died in a tragic accident. But when that noir album came out in the aftermath of the trauma he obviously went through, it was poignant and eerily befitting.

Cave is an exceptional live performer who effortlessly sizzles on the stage and in Pori his gig was no exception. The crowd had thronged long before he got on to the main stage (there are three stages at the festival, which is held in a picturesque setting beside a river) and the mood was electric from the very beginning. His band, their sound tight as ever, and including the genius multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis, complemented Cave’s singular, part-spoken, part-sung vocal style as he belted out 15 songs—digging into his repertoire for the favourites such as Red Right Hand, Loverman (from the 1994 album, Let Love In, and one that even Metallica has recorded a version of), Jubilee Street, Push The Sky Away, and Tupelo (first released in 1985).

Cave closed out Pori Jazz’s first day, and what a day it had been. A few hours before him, R&B and gospel queen Mavis Staples, who at 79 can outshine performers half her age, took the stage with a feisty set of songs that got the crowd roaring. She did several Staple Singers’ songs but also a Little Milton cover (We’re Gonna Make It), and a Buffalo Springfield cover (For What It’s Worth). The legendary Burt Bacharach (he turned 90 this May) too showed up for a set and crooned to a somewhat older audience’s delight.

Yet, as it often is, it was the bands that you’ve probably never heard of that played the best sets. Those were the jazz ensembles: the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio from Seattle with their deep, soul-inflected jazz; the veteran Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal, 70, whose storied five-decade-long career has seen him play with legends such as saxophonist Jan Garbarek in the 1960s and 1970s; the Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, 77, who performed with Rypdal’s band and who is considered to be one of northern Europe’s most prominent jazz musicians; and Finland’s own jazz guitarist Jarmo Saari, whose music straddles genres, fuses new sounds (think theremin; think vocal chants and Afro-beats). There was also America’s hugely awarded and widely acclaimed pianist Vijay Iyer, who performed with his sextet and played a set list of cerebral, intelligent tunes that the jazz purists—many of whom were also bare-torsoed in the searing sunny day—lapped up fervently.

Pori’s three stages offer a unique buffet for music lovers. There are gigs that can get you transported to another world, such as the one Rypdal and his group took me to; there are ones where you get to see someone such as Cave, whose performance has a magnetism so strong that it can seem incredible; and then there is that rare and blessed chance to actually see a veteran such as Staples sing—right there in front of you.


The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Jubilee Street’ by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds from ‘Push The Sky Away’

2. ‘If All I Was Was Black’ by Mavis Staples from ‘If All I Was Was Black’

3. ‘Waves’ by Terje Rydal Conspiracy (featuring Palle Mikkelborg)

4. ‘Wake’ by Vijay Iyer Sextet from ‘Far From Over’

5. ‘The Jungle’ by the Jarmo Saari Republic from ‘Jarmo Saari Republic’

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

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