In the nineteen years since its inception, Flow has become a festival transformed. Emerging from the hazy jazz and techno clubs of Helsinki in 2004, its first home was an abandoned railway warehouse, with early crowds made up of just a few thousand revellers dancing into the endless Nordic summer nights.
Almost two decades on, the Finnish capital’s annual August festival is a slick operation. Hosting some of the biggest names in the industry, from Afrobeats to alt-pop and some of the buzziest DJs in the world – this year’s headliners were Wizkid, Lorde and Blur – it is a staple stop on the European festival tour.
With a daily capacity of 30,000, nothing ever felt overcrowded – there was plenty of space to weave in and out of sets, and food and drink queues were never longer than a few minutes. Arriving and leaving the festival is also straightforward, even if you’ve had a few too many of Hartwall’s Original Long Drink – an immensely popular local can of gin and juice – the site is only a 20-minute bus or tram ride to the central station.
But, unlike some of the continent’s other musical offerings, Flow has still managed to retain the avant-garde origins which set it apart from the pack. Set in a defunct power plant in the centre of the city, there was a distinct Scandi industrial grunge feel (also aided by the fact that everyone dressed like they’ve just stepped off the runway at Copenhagen Fashion Week).
And, while its backdrop may be concrete, Flow is actually one of the greenest festivals in the world. Completely carbon-neutral, it uses green electricity, 100 per cent reused materials and has completely dropped red meat and poultry from its catering. And for any plant-based sceptics: there is no sacrifice on quality – the food was up there with the best you’re likely to experience at a festival.
When it comes to the musical offerings for 2023, Flow also refused to be pigeon-holed.
The party on Friday kicked off in the X Garden with Club U-Haul, a sensational brown and black queer DJ collective blasting some of the biggest dancehall and ballroom infused bangers to warm up the crowds before the first of the main acts hit the stage.
Heading on over to the Black Tent, American R&B and trip-hop sensation Kelela flitted in and out of the shadows with her typical meditative and minimalist flare. A change of pace came with neo-jazz artist Nala Sinephro who took the stage at the Balloon 360 stage, the most unique of Flow’s offerings – an enchanting, seated amphitheatre, where ambient musicians performed all weekend below a giant illuminated balloon.
Then it was time for the main event, not just of the evening, but, it transpired, for the whole weekend. Afrobeats superstar Wizkid burst onto the main stage to his hit single Joro, working the stage with energy and ease. “Welcome to the big Wiz party tonight!”, he shouted to a rapturous audience – and that was exactly what he delivered. It was his third festival headline spot in as many days, but if he was tired, it was impossible to tell. Behind a wall of pyrotechnics and an endless stream of water bottles with which he doused the crowd (slightly at odds with the sustainability theme), the Nigerian superstar bounced his way through his myriad hits, with giant collaborations One Dance and Essence compelling even the notoriously quiet Finns to dance along. He was on top of the world, and he knew it.
Saturday was a vibe shift to the ethereal, with the Kiwi queen of alt-pop herself taking to the main stage. Despite a false start with some technical difficulties, once Lorde got going it was impossible to take your eyes off her. A stripped back version of Royals from backstage blended into the full heady energy of Solar Power without a pause for breath. The track interpolation became a theme, with new versions of classic hits like Tennis Court energising the packed stage. After debuting two new untitled tracks at Boardmasters the night before, the Finnish fans were hoping for the same, and she didn’t disappoint. “Allow me to set the scene,” one new song began, “When I met you, I’d never done ecstasy”. Perhaps not, but there was certainly ecstasy in the air, reaching euphoric fever pitch by the time Lorde closed out her 1.5 hour set with a thumping rendition of Green Light.
As the crowds funneled into the Silver Arena for Swedish pop princess Tove Lo, the energy was already electric, and hits like Talking Body, Stay High and Cool Girl were a perfect pre-cursor to the Saturday night afterparty.
If there was any doubt that Flow is a case study in genre-spanning, Sunday’s lineup was proof positive. A clock counted down the seconds to Caroline Polachek’s arrival, and we heard her before we saw her, emerging in a signature wispy black fairy-like outfit. “Welcome to my island”, began her staccato opener, and she was right – the stage was hers and the crowd were in the palm of her hands, hanging onto her every spirit-like howl and otherworldly dance move.
After a spellbinding and emotional performance from Christine and the Queens, Blur took to the main stage. The Britpop icons seemed genuinely pleased to be back in the Finnish capital, having headlined the year before, easing into the closing set with some new material, before thrilling crowds with renditions of Parklife and Girls & Boys.
While Blur were the last act on the main stage, South Korean rap collective Balming Tiger – the self-proclaimed “dark side of KPop” – brought the party to a close at a packed-out Balloon 360 stage. Queues snaked around the tents, prompting shants of “we want more!” which echoed across the festival site as other revellers filed out into the night for the final time.
Much like Helsinki itself, Flow oozes a quiet confidence. The understated jewel in the European festival crown, it lets its stellar lineup and unique, avant-garde appeal speak for itself. If there is a festival of the future, Flow is it.
Flow Festival 2024 will be held at Helsinki’s Suvilahti on August 9–11, 2024. For tickets and more, head to https://www.flowfestival.com/