Bergenfest 2018 – intimate but epic, in a world of its own

When it rains, it pours...

“Could this be any more melodramatic?” drawls Father John Misty as the rain hammers down from the heavens – gazing out over the heads of soaked but dedicated fans towards the blackened clouds crawling across the Norwegian North Sea sky to envelop the Bergen mountains. Yeah, it’s pretty intense; and Sir Joshua Tillman isn’t even laying it on as thick as usual. It’s wet, really wet. The biblical downpour has forced FJM to play on one of Bergenfest’s smaller stages and strip his production down to just himself and piano accompaniment. There’s something both personal and epic about proceedings, and that’s a sentence that sums up this Bergen event.

Set in the Bergenhus Fortress on the coast surrounded by mountains, the picturesque festival welcomes headliners Queens Of The Stone Age, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, James Bay and more – but playing to just a fraction of what they’re used to with a capacity of just 9,000. The international acts clearly revel in the intimate intensity of it all. The glitter-goth pop of Pale Waves has landed them worthy attention overseas as their youthful yearning and summer-y bounce threatens to burst the seams of the tiny tent they’re placed in, while J Hus brings a decadence of Brit-rap bangers as he shirtlessly commands a modest but amped up crowd eager to pass him sailing over their heads.

Pale Waves live at Bergenfest 2018. Credit: Jarle H Moe

Tom Grennan’s doing the rounds too, oozing with a cocky charisma and everyman charm to see his alt-tinged neo-soul land as well in Bergen as it does in Bedford, before the humility and grace of Little Simz and her genre-hopping artful rap leaves one of the biggest impressions of the whole weekend. We need to see her again. The same goes for the liquid-smooth delivery of Parcels as they showcase why they’re destined to seize the disco rock throne of Daft Punk, and the endless exuberance and Euro-pomp of Phoenix makes for the most bat-shit fun you’ll see on the festival circuit this summer. This is all swell but we came here to get a sample taste of something local.

Born and raised up the coast in Ålesund before finding fame in Bergen and topping every “ones to watch” list worth reading, the Sound Of 2018 Sigrid’s main stage performance is not only a heartening homecoming but a triumphant victory lap. Pulling the biggest crowd of the weekend, the 21-year-old’s humbled charisma is elevated by the bombastic performance of her elastic arena pop. The way she can command so many with the artfully infectious ‘Plot Twist’ and ‘Strangers’ responds to the hype that worldwide festival headline status awaits her in the future. She’s already sold out Somerset House next month. Watch this space.

The crowd for Sigrid at Bergenfest 2018. Credit: Jarle H Moe

Fellow Nords Shikoswe and Great News leave us blissfully hypnotised from two very different ends of the psych-rock spectrum, but we’re soon awoken by the totally unexpected: local lad MachoMayne. With an explosive trap-infused sound, the 13-year-old tyke plays three times across the week to an increasingly more feral crowd. His biggest hit is about fidget spinners, and his other influences are drawn from “mocking rich kids in the mountains” and “whatever’s going down in the playground”. It sounds proper crap on paper, but he must be seen to be believed.

Same goes for the power-pop balladry of Halie. She’s only 17, but has already worked with the producers behind the likes of Sam Smith and Sigrid. Not many new acts could pull of a main stage set like with just a few gigs under their belt, but Halie seems to be bred for greatness. Astrid S meanwhile, goes at it like she’s already there. A social media and streaming phenomenon without even a word whispered of when to expect her debut album, the former Norwegian Idol runner up fires out slick and sultry electro-pop bangers like its a greatest hits set. She’s pretty fucking great.

She may be rapping in Norwegian, but there’s something universal and immediate about the summer-y R&B bounce of Myra that transcends language. A good time is a good time no matter how you say it. Another word synonymous with a party round these parts is ‘Sløtface’. They won over critics and the DIY rock faithful with onslaught on feminist party punk on acclaimed debut album ‘Try Not To Freak Out’ last year, but freak out and go absolutely ape-shit is the only option as tear through the packed-out Magic Mirror tent with total abandon and without a shred of concern for their own safety. Album No.2 can’t come soon enough.

Backstage, I ask them what it is about Bergen that harbours such a vibrant music community.

Sløtface live at Bergenfest 2018. Credit: Jarle H Moe

“There’s patriotism that keeps people in Bergen. When we see Sigrid on a billboard in Times Square in New York, it feels like we all succeed,” Sløtface singer Haley Shea tells us. Guitarist Tor-Arne Vikingstad agrees: “They are world champions in talking each other upwards, being supportive and creating a communal feeling. I wish the rest of the rock scene was like that.”

If only it was. Here there’s a music scene open to all but where no two artists sound the same, a dramatic clash of sounds in perfect harmony. It’s a pretty idyllic festival location with a sea of local talent to boot. In Bergen when it rains, it pours.