Nordsjøfestivalen translates as 'North Sea festival'. Now in its 19th year, the festival showcases artists from the countries bordering the North Sea, this year drawing musicians from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Scotland and England. Based in the small town of Farsund on the southern tip of Norway, various venues around the town host concerts, both ticketed and free entry.
Arriving late on the Friday, the festival had already been running for two days. I was here with English duo Ninebarrow, who were playing three shows over the Saturday and Sunday. A traumatic start to the weekend when a baggage handling system meltdown at Oslo airport caused the band's precious harmonium to go missing overnight, happily it arrived intact on Saturday afternoon.
After a rousing Saturday morning wake up call from a bagpiper on the shores of the fjord, a wander round the town found the main square set up with stalls and, basking in glorious sunshine, a free music showcase running on the terrace of the Brygghuset bar featuring acts from the upcoming evening's concerts. There was also a full programme of concerts and ceilidhs running in the festival tent next to the main festival venue in the school hall.
Saturday evening's Nordsjøkonserten in the Eilert Sundehallen was standing room only. The school hall transformed into the main festival venue, impressively staged with superb sound and lighting. In singaround style format, the evening opened with singing percussionist Birger Mistereggen drumming three individual fiddlers on to the stage - Vegar Vårdal, Kristian Bugge and Patrik Andersson - who had the audience clapping along to their crazily dextrous arrangements of traditional Scandinavian tunes. I discovered later that, despite appearances, these four were not actually a long standing Scandi fiddle group but had only met for the first time on the Thursday evening. Great stuff.
Next up was a two song showcase from Ninebarrow, a sort of trailer for their main concerts the following day. They smashed it, playing Birdsong and festival favourite Bold Sir Rylas to a rapturous reception. The compere's comment was translated for me as 'nearly improperly beautiful'. Indeed. In a festival of largely traditional and instrumental tunes their gorgeous vocal harmonies really made an impression.
Favourite new discovery of the festival were Symbio, a Swedish duo playing what can only be described as acoustic electronic dance music on the unlikely combination of hurdy gurdy and accordion. Interesting rhythms and time signatures combined with pretty, intricate melodies, structured over 4/4 stomp boxed beats like trance tunes with big build ups and break downs and even some of the sounds you hear in dance music replicated on the hurdy gurdy. Very clever. They played a couple of their own original compositions before collaborating with the fiddle/percussion ensemble to play a couple of highly percussive modern arrangements of traditional tunes with some high energy shredding from lead fiddlist Vegar Vårdal. Electrifying stuff.
Final band of the concert was Scottish singer Kim Carnie and her band. She sings largely traditional Gaelic songs, very wistful and gentle with a breathy Kate Rusbyesque quality to her voice. All acts now on stage, the concert rose to a triumphant finale with collaborations from the full ensemble. The audience were on their feet absolutely loving this, and it perfectly summed up the philosophy of this festival, bringing musicians from the countries bordering the North Sea together to share and collaborate on each other's music.
The evening concluded with a second concert in the Sundehallen. Spindsgudan are a local duo playing guitar and accordion. They play traditional Norwegian folk songs, many apparently having been passed down from one of their grandfathers who was a sailor. They were clearly having a fantastic time playing to their home crowd; the accordionist had a massive grin on his face the whole set. They had the audience singing and laughing along; either they were comedic songs, else very bawdy. Headliners Habadekuk are a dynamic eight piece lead by fiddler Kristian Bugge. A sort of Danish Bellowhead, with less singing and more jazz. Brass section, jazz piano and rhythm section, accordion and fiddle. Traditional tunes played with lots of energy and great showmanship. We'd caught the very end of their set from a distance at the afternoon showcase at the Brygghuset in town and felt terrible fomo so it was fantastic to hear a full length show this evening.
Sunday brought more brilliant sunshine and a short ride out to Loshavn Bedehus, location of Ninebarrow's first show of the day. A truly stunning spot, a white painted 19th century prayer house nestling in a little hamlet on the glistening water's edge down a winding grassy footpath on the edge of the fjord. There's a wonderful cleanliness and clarity to the light in Norway that brings out the blues and greens of the landscape. A lengthy queue had already formed before we arrived, the small 90 seater venue was absolutely packed for this concert. Another singaround style set up with Kim Carnie band and Swedish trio Sanden, Nygårds and Carr also on the bill. Lined up on a narrow stage at the front of the Bedehus each band played one or two songs in turn with no applause from the audience between songs. Apparently various formats have been tried for this concert and this is what the festival organisers feel works best in this venue. And indeed in this intimate setting it allowed for a closer appreciation of the nuances of the music, particularly the vocal harmonies, Megan Robertson Henderson providing some absolutely lovely harmonies for Kim Carnie. And once again Ninebarrow shone, playing a selection of accompanied and a cappella songs; Row On was the stand out here and became the earworm of the weekend.
And then onwards, a quick dash to the final show of the weekend at Nordberg Fort, a WW2 fort nestled in the countryside above Farsund with wide reaching views over the landscape to the sea. Another well supported concert in an exhibition hall surrounded by display cases of medieval weaponry and jewellery discovered in the region. The last of a set of three individual concerts, Ninebarrow played the final set of the festival and did themselves proud, tailoring their set to the venue, with For a Time, about Dorset's abandoned village Tyneham, appropriated by the MoD during WW2, and The Sea, inspired by Hardknott Fort in the Lake District.
In all an absolutely brilliant weekend! Norway is quite possibly the most beautiful country in the world, the landscape is absolutely stunning. I was really impressed with everything about this festival. I really liked the format, with lots of shorter concerts, the singaround set up of some, and the bringing together of interesting combinations of musicians, many collaborating together. This and the emphasis on traditional and instrumental tunes rather than singer songwriters held the interest for a non-Norwegian speaker. The organisation was slick and professional, the sound and lighting was superb. And the standard of musicianship was top notch across the bill. I've heard from a number of people in the UK how well supported live music is in Scandinavia and this was very evident here; pages of business sponsors thanked in the programme and pretty much capacity audiences at every concert. This is very much a local festival but the set up and the quality of the artists booked compares with much larger festivals here in the UK. Add to that the magnificent scenery and friendly, welcoming people of Norway, what more could you ask of a fantastic weekend's folk festivalling?
Words & Photos: Jo Elkington
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