Tønder 2019: Nordic Americana Makes Denmark Great Again
“You don’t hear much about depression or racism on Tønder stages,” says the young man charged with introducing Trio Svin. He’s standing there half-naked, having just stripped off his shirt to reveal the band’s pig’s head tattoo, then pulled what looked like mince and bacon out of his pants. You don’t get that on these stages often, either.
Tønder might just be the friendliest festival in the Western world, you see, although there is an interesting subplot this year. This famously folky, Americana-fuelled event happens the same week that Denmark fell out with the US, after Danish PM Mette Frederiksen brusquely rebuffed Trump’s “absurd” request to buy Greenland. The peeved Prez called her “nasty” (actually Denmark’s anti-immigration stance has radically softened recently), and cancelled his planned visit. If only we’d tried that; dangled Guernsey at him, maybe.
There’s certainly a mighty US influence here, though; indeed, a whole Wild West street has been erected since we last came, and you half expect to see ham actors tumbling off rooves, stetsons flying. Our first act of the weekend appears on its Front Porch stage, although this is no banjo-and-blunderbuss-toting redneck, thankfully: Danish singer The Victim sounds a lot like Ryan Adams and mentions Frank Lloyd Wright in his first song. Good architectural beginnings.
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Numerous North Americans are on the bill, but it’s the distinctive Nordic talents we warm to. On the Spot stage at Klubscenen the aforementioned Trio Svin do indeed tackle various weighty issues – via vocal audio samples, in Danish – and this is a punky, shouty treat. Then their bearded, be-suited associate pours out free rum from a cardboard box: no wonder everyone lined the front row. Good strategy.
We Brits are hardly exempt from controversy, of course: last time we visited Tønder it was just after the Brexit referendum, and, er… “What about Boris then?” asks an incredulous Irish guy behind the Klubscenen bar. Over a beer we solve the backstop issue – cancel Brexit, basically. Simple really.
Speaking of outdated cabinets, one excellent thing about Tønder is the upcycling – every other seat is made from leftover wood, or pallets, or cleverly converted flight cases, and the food paraphernalia is all compostable. Eco issues do get an onstage mention over in Tent 2. “We’ve left our young ones with quite a mess to clear up,” says the headbanded dude from US/Canadian duo Birds of Chicago, so subtly that initially you ponder quite how frantic their packing was. This fest, and scene, clearly isn’t a canvas for contentious issues, usually.
Backstage, however, Trump chat is rife among the industry folk. We did wonder if some MAGA-hatted country types might be knocking about, but it’s all very liberal, if occasionally awkward. “The news is so exciting these days, you never know what’s going to happen!” says one presumably apolitical dude, on the coach to a Saturday lunch event. Eventually an American delegate breaks the awkward silence. “I’m not sure ‘exciting’ is the word I’d use…”
At that lunch we’re treated to a performance from one of Denmark’s biggest young rock stars right now. “Fuck, it’s early to be hitting those notes,” says Jacob Dinesen, who hits them all the same. He’s actually a Tønder lad made good, growing up right next door to the festival site.
One of Tønder’s plus points is the location: it’s a big mainly-outdoor event, but stretches to accommodate some splendidly unique buildings as venues too. We catch a couple of pleasingly diverse acts at Visemøllen, a centuries-old mill that was apparently the festival’s first venue, back in 1974/5 (histories vary). First up, Edinburgh’s Adam Holmes and The Embers have a nice whiff of John Martyn, although he’s a lot cleaner-cut, and probably cleaner-living.
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Then on Saturday it’s the remarkable Maija Kauhanen. “My father made these instruments in his garage,” she says, while strumming a sort of scarlet zither. “Still does actually.” She’s a Finnish one-woman band, banging cymbals and bells on strings and – at one point – shrieking. It’s not the last shriek we’ll hear this weekend.
Much gruffer, and less distinctively-named, is John Smith. The Somerset-based singer-songwriter performs late on Friday in the Pumpehuset, an old pumphouse attached to what is now a rather nice museum, with epic views. “This is my cover of a John Smith song,” says Smith, introducing Coming Home, which he wrote with Gabrielle Aplin: the latter then got it on the radio. “Hearing that was… strange,” he sighs. Still, this is a strong set from a gifted guitar-and-growl merchant.
Higher-pitched vocals back at Klubscenen, from the fascinating Viik, who mix Norwegian folk with a Balkan, even Arabic vibe: frontwoman Elisabeth Vik’s shrieks turn out to be the way Danish cowpeople attract their herds. Turns out it’s also a good way to attract more people to the tent. Savvy festival wrangling.
Two other acts in Klubscenen boast a more graceful gimmick: traditional dancers. The Danish band Phønix work with a dance troupe called Embla, which is nicely reminiscent of hungover New Year mornings watching that big classical/ballet thing from Vienna, while Breton electrofolk act Plantec utilise their own families, who do something like the Hokey Cokey. It is tres bizarre.
Say what you like about folky stuff, though; it plays an important role in keeping cultures alive. “I grew up on a little island, with its own language,” says Ditte Fromseier, of the duo Fromseier Hockings, “but not many people know it now. So we’ll put that right.” And they do, guitar-and-fiddle style. They also run a cider company, Øksendrup – classic folk move - but the biggest cheer comes when Sigurd Hockings mentions his John Deer lawnmower. Honestly, you’d think Dylan had just turned up.
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Actually the Swedish Dylan does appear on Sunday afternoon, and he’s marvellous. Daniel Norgren looks like a scruffy trucker but plays like a man possessed - not that he’s chatty. Indeed, he actively keeps playing between tracks to avoid awkward bants. You can see the band straining to figure out when the next song will start; good training if Bob ever comes calling.
Speaking of folk legends, over in the lovely Bolero spiegeltent, the Ben Folds-like Old Man Luedecke recalls driving for many, many hours to see the legendary Pete Seeger, but only catching nine minutes. Which got him thinking about carbon footprints. “I wrote a singalong environmental ballad,” says the banjo man, at which a couple of tipsy dudes jokily wave a cigarette lighter. It’s the most rebellious thing we see all festival.
Well, apart from Trio Svin, who sign off with a grin, and some pointing. “Thank you,” says the wild-eyed lead singer, picking out random punters. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And fuck the rest of you.”
And off they pop. One to ponder, Tønder.
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Words: Si Hawkins
Photos: Si Hawkins and HazelGee