Far From A Festival

Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev performs valiantly at Bergenfest 2016
Kaitlyn Huss
Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev performs valiantly at Bergenfest 2016

There are so many reasons to hit up music festivals in the United States, besides hearing your favorite bands: meeting amazing people, escaping from the responsibilities of society, great food, interesting wares, and over indulgence, if you are so inclined. Recently I attended Bergenfest in Bergen, Norway and was surprised at the stark contrast it held from other festivals I’ve hit up in the US. There was almost no dancing, smiles were late, security was tight, and the food was strange to say the least.

Back in 2008 and 2009, I spent most of my time at an annual festival that always coincided with my birthday. In 2008 I celebrated my 19th year of existence while I watched as Wayne Coyne crowd surfed in a human sized hamster ball at The Ten-Thousand Lakes festival. There was excellent and diverse food, none of which I could afford, so I lived on two dollar hotdogs. That didn’t matter, however; food was not high on list of loves at the time.  After the shows had ended my cohorts and I would disappear into the crowed camp sites looking to have a good time to share with anyone who wanted to get lost with us. Most of the time, I could walk into anyone’s camp site, sit with them at their fire and share stories, laughs, and other wonderful things. Bonds and memories were made there that I hold close to my heart and that I will remember late into my years. It was almost like magic, and I felt at the time that I could live in that world forever.

I had none of these feelings at Bergenfest, initially. We arrived later than we had hoped on Wednesday, but confident that it didn’t matter much, we headed to the accreditation booth to pick up our credentials. Turned out, we only had press passes for a Thursday, so on Wednesday we bought tickets anyway to scope out our feast. I expected that getting our press passes wouldn’t be a walk in the park, but I never thought I would feel down right shamed about it. Everywhere I walked after we got our credentials on Thursday, I felt hard eyes on me. I felt like I didn’t belong, and therefore, was not welcome. It hurt my soul to feel this way at a “festival”.  I had been so excited to take a peek into my past.

My first thought was that this event felt more like a clean carnival; not cheap, but not heartfelt. There were various tents at the beer-garden and like the food court, it seemed like it was one large business with multiple outlets. I thought of all the food vendors at The Ten-Thousand Lakes festival who owned their own craft, and I suddenly craved sweet corn on the cob. At Bergenfest, everything and everyone operated as if they were cogs in a huge machine. There were three main venues, Plenen Stage, Bastionen Stage and Magic Mirrors. Plenen Stage was the largest venue, Bastionen was about a third the the size of Plenen and Magic Mirrors was the smallest. The two largest venues would rotate time and shows because of their close proximity.

The first show that we caught was Wilco and with their laid back melodies, maybe I shouldn’t have been as surprised at the crowd’s frozen demeanor. The fashion was fairly subdued at this scene; tie-dye has apparently gone out of style. The most exotic style was worn on a few women with fairly contemporary hair styles, but nothing more. The most outrageous dress I witnessed all night were nun costumes worn by three Ghost fans. At festivals back home people commonly wore their best and most interesting clothes if they wore any at all.

The second show we caught was reminiscent of The Flaming Lips. Mercury Rev had all the style and strange graces that I was used to from performers at US festivals. I thought, yes, it’s coming now. I shot the allotted three songs from the pit and then stood to take in the rest for myself. I was told to have fun, you know. After a while I turned around and witnessed more motionless humans. With the way Mercury Rev had played and performed for the crowd, I had assumed that the audience would play back. I was wrong and disappointed again. I wondered how this band could stand baring their soul to a horde of zombies. Not once did Mercury Rev retreat, they played at full force until the end. I wasn’t aware at the time, but it was the closest I would come to an American festival all night.

As the shows passed and the other photographers got used to seeing me, they approached me. It was a such a slow process, that I thought it would never happen. At first I met a blonde, wild-haired woman name Tove who remarked that it was nice to see another female at the event. I agreed and we chatted until it was time to rush into the pit to photograph Wilco. In between shows I thought that if I saw one of them walking around, I would covertly tail one and get a look at this in their shadow. The opportunity never came but I was I presented with a wonderful gift when the last performers came to to grace us all with their arrogance.

Late to their own show by two songs, Sigur Ros made it almost impossible to get shot from more than one angle. The photographers were split into two group and cornered at the ends of the stage; and the lucky ducks on my end of the stage were placed behind a huge rig. Absolutely no one was allowed to shoot from right under the lead performer. Being a bit late to their gig, was their thing I guess. Another photographer had mentioned that little factoid after I asked about lighting for the show that he’d said he had seen before. He took the opportunity to sit down while I reached for a crap shot of his set. I heard someone in the crowd scream, “Come on stage!” and I snapped photo of an absolutely placid front row.

I couldn’t wait to leave. We were ushered out and think we were all kind of relieved. Personally, I felt trapped. I could have gotten better shots from the crowd. The lead singer wasn’t much fun to photograph, and made the same face for the whole three songs that we were able to shoot. After we managed to escape, I sat down to get my things in order before heading for one last beer. Tove, the photographer I had met earlier, approached me and my verbal displeasure overflowed. Thankfully, I was not alone in it and I was invited to go have beers with the gang. It was like the clouds had parted. I had finally found the comrades I had been searching for at this festival. We drank, bitched, laughed and exchanged contact information. As I walked out the festival gates I felt lighter and eager to visit Bergen again; if for nothing more than to visit my new friends.