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Way Out West: a wondrous weekend at Scandi festival wonderland

10 Aug – 12 Aug 2023, Gothenburg. World-renowned acts and homegrown world-beating heroes unite for a truly unique festival experience.

4.0 rating

By Cal Hudson & Sophie Porter

Way Out West (Picture: Nathalie Ulinder Cuti)

Descending over the dense green forests and idyllic Archipelagos, it’s easy to see why Sweden has such an ancient connection to the Earth. The city – named 6 times most sustainable on the planet – is introduced to us by our guide as the more chilled out, relaxed little sister of cool, contemporary Copenhagen. It’s a cutesy notion, but one evident in the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra that’s woven into the city’s culture, from beautifully curated second hand stores and repurposed spaces in which you can enjoy a traditional Fika, to local infrastructures committed to altering its environmental impact. It makes sense then that Way Out West, now in its 16th year, continues to push its sustainable practices, environmentally, socially and economically, living up to their mantle as being the first festival worldwide to be ISO registered.

The festival site itself is a city central, self-contained haven located in the beautiful park of Slottsskogen.  With its designated smoking and drinking areas and an almost litter-free site, the festival etiquette is somewhat more considerate to that of those in the UK – the lake at the heart of the festival, for one thing, was free of bucket hats and beer cans, and ducks swam undisturbed by festival-goers. Brand activations, for the most part, felt well curated and were balanced with platforms for local businesses and grassroots organisations. Short walks between each of the stages and an incredibly efficient schedule meant that we were able to take in a hearty mix of genres and settings without fear of any major clashes.

Thursday: Devo and Caroline Polachek

Arriving later on Thursday afternoon, we headed straight for Devo who, despite having been a band for 50 years, played with all the energy of a band just starting out. It’s all delightfully ramshackle, as they work their way backwards through the more synth-heavy cuts of latter and mid-career Devo to the primal guitar assault of their early material. Devolution in motion. The set mostly pulls from their two breakout albums, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo and Freedom Of Choice, with songs like ‘Uncontrollable Urge’ and ‘Jocko Homo’ bubbling with more punk snark than any of the current glut of post-post-punk bands that clog up most festival line-ups. Luckily Way Out West is not that sort of festival, and although their are a few younger members of the audience that trickle out mid-set in bemusement, most are clearly overjoyed to have such an important band kick off their weekend. It’s a difficult line to walk, especially as older men (Jerry Casale recently turned 75), but Devo do deft archness and satirical mocking like no other and feel just as relevant as ever.

Devo perform live (Picture: Hanna Brunlof Windell)

Caroline Polachek is the polar opposite of the robotic clash of Devo, preferring to deal in enormous washes of pure emotion and she does just that closing the Linne Stage on Thursday Evening. The set is front-loaded with the more club-ready cuts from Desire, I Want To Turn Into You and feels truly celabratory as she announces it is her first time playing in Sweden. Her vast, ebbing soundscapes seem tailor made for the country but some of the more expansive moments are a little lost to a very quiet sound mix. This is luckily fixed in time for the triumphant one-two closer of ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’ and ‘Door’ from 2019’s Pang.

Friday: Christine and the Queens and Blur

We started Friday at a different pace with a five-course vegetarian tasting menu by celebrity chef Louise Johansson. Having gone completely vegetarian in 2012 in one of its many efforts to platform a more sustainable way of living, food is an important pillar of Way Out West. Putting to shame the usual festival fare of Walkers multipacks and soggy, salty noodles, the meal was, in every way possible, delicious. I’ve never really understood ‘food words’ until now – delicate, balanced, earthy –  but it happened to be every single one of them. Eating off of ceramic plates, metal cutlery and drinking out of cut glass in the middle of the festival was a very alien experience, but a most welcome one.

Christine & The Queens (Picture: Timothy Gottlieb)

Contentedly full, we headed  over to catch Christine and the Queens on the Flamingo Stage which was dressed coldly with marble figures and church pews. Chris himself strode through the dry-ice blanket, sinewy and strong but with a vulnerable tilt that wasn’t so present in his previous incarnations. Gone is the 80’s inflected synth-pop of his early albums, replaced with steely trip-hop and swirling Baroque-strings (quite literally in the Pachelbel’s Canon-sampling Full Of Life). The setlist is pulled entirely from latest album, Paranoïa, Angels, True Love, which at points feels at odds with the mid-afternoon sun but Chris delivers every line like it’s tearing them in two and soon wins over anyone expecting the breezy hits of ‘Chaleur Humaine’ & ‘Chris’. It’s an assured, powerful performance from an artist mining a wholly different palate of emotions to your usual main stage fodder.

Blur (Picture: Timothy Gottlieb)

Headlining the same stage that night, British icons Blur proved once again why their return has been something special with a set that boasted the very best of what they’re about. From the disco-tinged commentary of ‘Girls & Boys’ and the swelling intensity of ‘Beetlebum’, to the goofy, creeping guitars of recent single St Charles Square, the band play with an unbottled energy that belies their decade-spanning career. The set was dotted with brand new album tracks Barbaric, The Ballad and Goodbye Albert which received a more sedate crowd response, but the contemplative lean and faltering self-assurance at play in new album The Ballad of Darren held strong the audience’s attention. Even with a few fumbled lines, slipped timings, and a do-over of set-closer The Universal, which saw some on-stage banter and jovial blame shifting between band and audience (“It really doesn’t matter who’s fault it was…”), all the side-smiles and shared laughs are signifiers of a band truly happy to be there doing what they’re doing. This kind of fallibility feels just as valid as their legendary status, serving as a reminder of what music should be about and exactly why Blur have a special knack for making even their biggest shows feel like a night down the pub with your mates.

Saturday: Sam Fender, Viagra Boys + Boygenius

Festival day 3s are usually a slower affair, but an afternoon with Viagra Boys doesn’t really allow for that. “This is such a stupid fucking band” says frontman Sebastian Murphy in a tone of disbelief at the sheer size and reception of their Saturday afternoon audience. It’s this kind of acknowledgement that really endears me to certain bands. Having enjoyed Viagra Boys twice already this year at UK festivals, it was a treat to see them play in their home country and speak to the audience in its mother tongue. The language barrier wasn’t an issue at any point, though, as a beer-belch down the mic is a global signifier of a good time. Stand-out single ‘Sports’ sees Murphy’s usual pained on-stage press-ups, and a raucous crowd for the likes of ‘Troglodyte’ and ‘ADD’, but the winning track for me is the disconcerting swagger of ‘Worms’. The display of sonic restraint and hefty dose of gritty lyrical realism within a set of party-inflected, barroom punk really champions the five-piece’s musicianship. At a time of post-punk landfill which sits hand in hand with on-stage severity, Viagra Boys inflect some much needed satire into the genre without compromising on their ability. This is a band in firm control of their chaos.

Over on the Flamingo stage Sam Fender introduces himself and his band of “all my best mates”. Despite being unwell and operating on prescribed steroids (“I’m feeling fucking nutty”), Fender’s set was drenched in warmth and Geordie charm. Where perhaps some of his reference points and colloquialisms may have fallen a little short on a predominantly Swedish crowd, tales about shopping in Aldi during the pandemic, having a pop at the Tories in a drum-led chant, and the dedication to his “old man” during Spit Of You, makes him a relatable and down-to-earth performer. A gorgeous acoustic cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’ preluded 2021’s heartbreakingly incisive ‘Seventeen Going Under’, at which point Fender made an admission about his wavering mental health which, whilst sitting backstage ahead of the set, was softened upon hearing the crowd singing the track in anticipation of his set. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of Fender’s music or not, his live shows are a necessary lesson in gratitude and authenticity.

Sam Fender (Picture: Timothy Gottlieb)

We ended our weekend at the festival as the clouds began to darken overhead. With their devastatingly beautiful brand of indie-rock, it seemed fitting for the undisputed queens of sad, boygenius, to play under skies fit to burst – a feeling palpable throughout the crowd. 

As a group more famous for it’s component parts, with only one record to their name, it could be a tough sell as one of the closing sets of the festival but Boygenius feel completely and authentically their own thing; an actual band of friends operating as a cohesive whole. As with any of the great purveyors of sad songs, all that sadness needs to come with a healthy slab of knowing humour and as Boygenius step out to the sounds of Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’ to an industrial backdrop that screams metal band more than it does wistful 3 part harmonies, it’s clear that the band has a deft touch for this. Witty one-liners are paired with crushing punchlines across jaunty indie-rock (Satanist, $20) and lulling folk (Cool About It, Leonard Cohen) that help maintain a momentum that belies the band’s limited recorded output.

It’s hard to sit idle at Way Out West, which serves to explain why, even after three nights surrounded by the creature comforts of a hotel due to its city-centre location, we were exhausted. With broad musical diversity (an ideal also demonstrated in its largely 50/50 gender split lineup and partnership with West Pride), a separate programming of socially conscious films and premieres, as well as its own climate summit and gourmet vegetarian dining experiences, there is something for everyone. For those over 18, the festival also boasts a late night programme of music (Stay Out West) which allows festival-goers the opportunity to watch fringe genres, breakthrough bands and more established artists alike to be experienced in the city’s independent venues. However, after learning the hard way, it’s a good idea to start queuing ahead of the set you want to catch due to the smaller capacity venues. For such an intimate feeling event, Way Out West successfully exercises a plethora of progressive approaches and ideas, firmly cementing themselves as a prime example of how festivals, and the wider music industry, can exist in and truly influence a more sustainable, eco-conscious world.

With Gothenburg’s luscious landscape and innately relaxed culture as an added bonus, Way Out West could very well be the perfect contender for your next European city break.

Way Out West returns to Slottsskogen on 8-10th August 2024. Buy tickets here: