Walking through the gates of Gothenburg’s Way Out West festival, the first thing you notice are hashtags. There are hashtags #everywhere. In fact, in between all the #fun #brand #activities, whether it’s posing in an ASOS photobooth, trying out Samsung VR, drinking dairy-free milk samples, or getting a Maybelline makeover, it can sometimes feel as if you won’t see any music at all. On the main thoroughfare, a smiling woman hands out branded transfer tattoos, turning people’s forearms into roaming adverts. Next to a main stage, packets of crisps regularly fly through the air, fired from a nearby Doritos cannon – a spectacle that, at one point during the weekend, draws a bigger crowd than Julia Holter.
This is one grim version of the future of music festivals, as independent and sponsorship-free events become a dying breed. Way Out West, held in the city that dubs itself Sweden’s music capital, boasts an eye-wateringly good lineup. Morrissey’s only festival appearance, Massive Attack, Sia, Anohni, PJ Harvey, Skepta, Grace Jones, De La Soul – the list goes on and on. Yet these are expensive names and, surveying the site, the volume of deals struck with the corporate devil to pay their fees and get them to Gothenburg is jarring.
Yet once you’ve navigated your way through the corporate quagmire, this is also a weekend of stellar shows – albeit ones often scheduled at strange times. On Thursday, no one is surprised when the Libertines postpone their set (their first in Sweden since 2004), having been a last-minute booking to replace Avalanches. So it is left to Morrissey to pick up the mood as the first drops of the weekend’s unrelenting rain begin to fall. He is in his element here; Way Out West is a purely vegetarian – and save for a bit of halloumi, mostly vegan – festival. “It’s a great delight to be at a festival which is vegan,” Morrissey tells the sodden crowds. “The rest of the world take note. No death for sale, no pain for sale, no torture for sale.” He pauses. “Except for me.”
Whether it’s middle age, or the lack of dairy and meat in a five-mile radius, Morrissey’s voice is better than ever, and he seems in exceptionally good spirits. The set opens with a faultless rendition of Suedehead, and goes from strength to strength, peaking in energy with last year’s single Kiss Me a Lot. Morrissey reaches up to the heavens as he wails the chorus of You Have Killed Me and even plays Ouija Board, a live rarity. When someone from the crowd leaps on to the stage, he clutches them in a lengthy tender embrace.
In these turbulent times, Morrissey’s set feels more pointedly political than ever. He dedicates Throwing My Arms Around Paris to the victims of the attacks in Nice and Paris and screens footage of US police shootings as he sings World Peace Is None of Your Business. Yet 2016’s tragedies have taken their toll even on misery-monger Morrissey. “Don’t you find that the television news drags you down and pressurises and tries to kill you and drag you down?,” he asks dramatically. “Well STOP watching.”
The “by night” part of the festival, which happens across four venues in the city from midnight till 4am, is also a curious beast, mainly due to programming that seems to have no coherent vision driving it. Post-midnight, Thursday’s best offering is jazz virtuoso and Kendrick collaborator Thundercat, but his set, filled more with lengthy improvised jams than his upbeat, funk-infused tracks, feels like hard work at this hour.
It’s also hard to understand why artists such as Paula Temple are put on during the afternoon, her brutal but brilliant techno set wasted on a crowd of 20 people looking confused, while bands Whitney and Fidlar are among those playing in the early hours of the morning. The Internet are given a 3am slot on Saturday night and, though starting out electric, by the end are evidently knackered. “This is way past our bedtime,” says frontwoman Syd sweetly.
Over the weekend there are, however, some moments of late-night brilliance. Julianna Barwick’s set in a Gothenburg church elevates her vocals to new angelic levels, and Peaches’s gorgeously ostentatious show features at least 16 costume changes and sees her get into a giant inflatable penis.
Friday brings an indisputable weekend highlight in the form of rapper Anderson Paak, who sprints across the sodden stage with a magnetic energy. Mainly featuring songs from his recent release Malibu, it’s a soulful set that proves comparisons to Kendrick Lamar are much deserved. Equally soulful is Kamasi Washington, who, resplendent in red robes, weaves musical magic with his saxophone, while Jessy Lanza and Grace Jones both provide joyous escapism in the midst of hour 10 of non-stop rain.
The afternoon brings the news that Ahnoni has cancelled due to illness, and she is replaced by the Libertines, who – after finally showing up – play an evening set that is as shambolic as it is depressing. The much-mythologised chemistry between Pete and Carl has long dissolved. Far from being the antithesis to the hashtag mentality of Way Out West, the Libertines just become a part of it – they’re here for the money, and it’s never been more evident.
Surprisingly, the most raw and energised moment of the whole festival comes mid-afternoon on Saturday with Stormzy’s set. Grime has apparently gripped Sweden in a big way, and he draws the biggest crowd of the weekend who are chanting “Merky 2016” before he comes on stage (though who knows how that translates into Swedish?). No one is more surprised than Stormzy – last time he played in Sweden it was to a crowd of just a few hundred.
Stormzy is so enthralled that he chooses to debut his new track Cold, and by the end of the sweaty set, has the 3,000-strong crowd attempting a record-breaking moshpit. If ever there was a sign that grime is going global, this is it.
Massive Attack play a tight, high-octane set, injected with new levels of energy thanks to the presence of Young Fathers with them on stage, but the festival grand finale belongs to secretive songstress Sia. Hidden behind a black and white wig and a giant bow on her head, she treats the crowds to massive hit after massive hit: Elastic Heart, Chandelier, Titanium, then Diamonds, the track she wrote for Rihanna. Her voice is powerful and flawless, and visually the set resembles a piece of performance art – but, much like the festival atmosphere over the weekend, is a little lacking in soul.