There’s a sanguine cliché about music festivals: They are, more than the songs themselves, about gathering the masses, independent of backgrounds, together to worship at a universal sonic temple. In the storied history of festivals, we’d like to believe the adage holds true – that even in the age of bigger and better, communal campgrounds deliver on a promise to electrify the collective unconscious. Our reality is much more bleak. Today, these functions have become a dime a dozen. Less a Dionysian playground and more an Influencer’s ticket to scoring those coveted Instagram points. In this degradation, it seems, we’ve lost the plot. Which has, on more than one occasion, begged this writer to wonder whether the music died along with that dastardly modern Moloch, consumerism.
Of course, it’s easy to criticize from behind the keyboard. Rather than be an Internet Vigilante fighting for the message in the music, I put my money where my mouth is. I set my sights on a festival that demanded my attention in an especially twisted way only a seasoned millennial memelord with a dusty old soul could be gripped, with just four words: “Bob Dylan” and “Cardi B.” While the irony of this matchup was never lost on me in the course of four days at Roskilde 2019, the end result was much less a cosmic joke dripping in incongruity, and more an effervescent example of what music festivals today need to aim for — inclusive environments striving to make a difference, built with artistic expression and, yes, music at their cores.
In 2019, Roskilde announced they’d partnered with Freemuse, an independent international organization working to defend artistic expression, to launch Artistic Freedom Defenders. With this new initiative, Roskilde and Freemuse seek to create a network of access for artists, activists, professionals, students, and everyone in between. This message, I’d soon find out, was imbued in every corner of Roskilde.
The Calm Before the Storm: Walking into the festival ghost town on Wednesday, a light chill whipped around Denmark’s fourth largest city (if only for one week). The wind’s bite seemed to wake up a festival whose party had already started. Hordes of young people fill Roskilde’s campsites days prior to the big day to hear national acts, feel a sense of community, and, of course, have a damn good time. I’d heard it said that Roskilde is Europe’s best kept party secret. Well, secret’s out.
Heeding the advice of an old Roskilde pro, I positioned myself behind the main festival gate to watch as people amassed, waiting ever so patiently for the clock to strike, the gate to open, and the games to begin. Sure enough, they did — into a triumphant flood of diehards and pearl divers aching for that special something they’d hopefully discover in the days to come.
Things Have Changed: As the first hours ticked by, Maggie Rogers, draped in fringe, began the day as she is wont to do — inciting a pop-perfect dance party punctuated by spotless renditions of her debut album’s standouts, like “Light On” and “Fallingwater”. It was walking away from this crowd, listening to the excited chatter among festival goers that a Roskilde truism struck me: Here, despite my initial revelry in a lineup all too good to be true, no two acts are pitted against each other in the hearts and minds of listeners. You are not either a Bob Dylan or Cardi B fan. Roskilde gave us a pass to be unabashedly both, together. Unless, of course, you were Bob Dylan, who wasn’t quite taking the bait.
Perhaps it was the hundreds flippantly chanting his name to the tune of Bob the Builder, but the charms of the festival circuit seem to have been lost on one of folk’s greatest heroes. The result? A stoic entrance trailed by the thunderous piano of “Things Have Changed”. A fitting sentiment. Without so much as a breath, Mr. Tambourine Man himself launched into a howling rendition of “It Ain’t Me Babe”, only to weave a tangled web of back catalog tunes and classic jams that may as well have come off a Rolling Thunder bootleg. Seven songs in, Dylan had seemingly shed his awkward shroud with a poignant performance of “Make You Feel My Love” festivalgoers would continue to talk about in the days to come.
As the sun set on Dylan’s Orange Stage residency, the crowd quickly began to ready themselves for Cardi B despite the hours wait. Fresh off a small run of canceled tour dates, Cardi B served as the ideal foil to Dylan not only in ethos but in performance. The rapper of the moment delivered the type of high-energy set one would expect. Cardi came to entertain, and entertain she did. Flanked by Cardi clones, the rapper delivered a vivacious slew of rhymes from “Get Up 10″ and “Money Bag” to “Bodak Yellow” and “I Like It”. What the Invasion of Privacy mastermind lacked at times in delivery, she more than compensated for with energy. Hell, we even loved that she repeatedly referred to Denmark as Denver with that signature Bardigang charm.
A Different Kind of July 4th Spark: Being an American abroad is a merry-go-round of pathetic and schmaltzy emotion. Straddle the glimmering porcelain saddle, let the carnie music begin, and realize all too suddenly that you’re perched on nothing more than cheap plastic. Shame and sheepishness meet you at the lows, ephemeral exhilaration and tawdry elitism at the highs. Being an American abroad on the Fourth of July? Slightly more morose. This sentiment was echoed in the sets of stateside citizens who used their platform to speak out in full force. Julien Baker denounced the holiday as an egregious celebration of imperialism before swaddling my dejected soul in her signature sorrowful soundwaves. Sharon Van Etten, for her part went one further.
Stepping out to a full crowd at the Avalon stage, the indie rock legend dellivered a harrowing run down of hits soaked in a sticky, viscous melancholy she’d run through her fingertips for all 50 minutes. Yet it wasn’t the force with which she delivered “Jupiter 4”, “Comeback Kid”, or even Song of the Year “Seventeen” that stood ahead of all the rest, but the pause Van Etten took in the middle of her set to sit behind the ivories, denounce Donald Trump, and surrender completely to a cover of Sinead O’Connor’s “Black Boys on Mopeds” that saw her seldomly look up from the instrument. You see, when Sharon Van Etten looks you in the eye, it stops you in your tracks — an utterly intoxicating transfer of mind, body, and soul that refuses to let you look away until the note has finished. When Sharon Van Eetten refuses to give you even momentary glance, it is all the more paralyzing.
Carbon Copy: To the surprise of absolutely no one, Vampire Weekend gifted fans an indulgent roster of new and old classics (“Harmony Hall’, “Diane Young”, “Cousins”, and “A-Punk”, anyone?). Ezra Koenig seamlessly nailed every note and Messainic hand gesture along the way. To some, this ease with which these living legends espouse their teaching could simply be written off as another lackadaisical notch on the belt of seasoned veterans. That is, unless you completely miss Brian Robert Jones slice into the very fiber of your being with the face-melting, speaker-razzing guitar on “Sunflower” and “Sympathy”. In the end, Koenig and co. hit the nail on the head with their spare, soul-stirring “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin”. What does existence as part of an entity larger than oneself mean? Ask Ezra, or maybe attend Roskilde 2020.
Not Exactly Dancing on My Own: At music festivals as in everyday life, once Friday rolls around, we’ve just about had enough. Oh, and we’re ready to dance. As such, Robyn ascending onto the Orange Stage at the apex of the evening was a textbook case of “right place, right time”. What’s more, Sweden’s most revered dance-hit darling exceeded the already supremely lofty expectations of audience and (especially this) critic alike. Cloaked in ethereal smoke and encircled by thick, snowy, white sculptures, Robyn stared straight down the barrel at some 130,000 people to deliver renditions of “Send to Robyn Immediately” and “Honey” that left us all in awe. As quickly as she had taken up the persona of an imposing pop monolith, she let it go, the euphoria set in, and her more club-leaning classics like “Dancing on My Own” and “Call Your Girlfriend” reminded us we were among family. The standout here? A resounding sing-along to “Dancing on My Own” that left even the most skeptical of us dumbstruck.
Best of the Tiny Fonts: Love Note to Gloria: The general consensus among Roskilde veterans is when in doubt, go to Gloria. A stage with a singular reputation for a rotation of cutting-edge talent you need to know. Not a single set at the festivals only indoor venue disappointed, from Consequence of Sound favorite Stella Donnelly’s acerbic yet charming middle finger in the face of toxic masculinity to Madame Ghandi’s sensational and immersive feminist lyricism. Hmmm, we see a trend here…
It’s Saturday, I’m Still in Love: While Roskilde’s 49th installment would continue until early hours of the morning, The Cure’s glorious 27-song set was endgame. There are fleeting moments in life that give you the sense you’re living history. Robert Smith’s triumphant return to Roskilde is one of those. Forever married to his melancholy but selling it like hot cakes, these not-so-merry purveyors of goth-rock wrapped, riff by riff, an icy, white claw around our hearts, squeezing ever so slowly with each tune until our blood had run dry. From “A Forest” to “Pictures of You” to “Close to Me”, The Cure let us in on a secret: There is no twilight to their career. By the time these legends rolled around to “Friday, I’m in Love” the body count had skyrocketed. We all sat at Robert Smith’s feet in a saccharine, sorrowful surrender.
Leaving the Festival: By the time the festival’s curtain had closed, despite the exhaustion and raw feet, there was, in true Roskilde fashion, a lingering “orange feeling.” If Roskilde 2019 is remembered for one thing, let it be this: An art-first (oft female-first) safe space for speaking out about injustice on every level in word or in song that unites us all in thinking that maybe there’s hope for a brighter (oranger?) tomorrow.