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by:Larm 2009: Hot Music from the Frost-Bitten North

Despite the cold conditions and snow-filled streets, Scandinavia’s premier music festival was a warm and welcoming affair, affording time to not only see some top notch music, but also explore Oslo as well.

I am looking for Stratos; no, it’s not a long lost Greek god or a forgotten Musketeer, but a venue in Oslo, Norway, one of the 32 that is playing host to the annual by:Larm festival (pronounced by the locals as “bee larm”). According to my map, it should be right here in front of me, but all I see, through a slew of snowflakes, is an empty shopping mall. I ask someone, a kind Norwegian gentleman, who not only tells me where Stratos is, but actually takes me there. And guess what? It was right in front of me all along: Albeit inside the shopping mall, up 11 floors on a rickety elevator, through a strangely barren bar, and up a narrow, winding staircase. It is one of the festival’s most interesting venues as it allows panoramic views of the snow-covered city sitting below. And as I stand outside on the building’s balcony, shivering in the cold, I think to myself –- how could a city, let alone a music festival, exist in such conditions?


Icicle Removal at Mono

These conditions include ice and snow, slush and mush, slippery sidewalks, and kamikaze icicles that drop from the roofs of buildings as the days warm up. On the festival’s first night my entrance into Mono -- one of by:Larm’s best venues -- is hindered by a team utilizing a mechanical ladder to remove these sharp objects from above the doorway. In fact, everywhere I go during my three-day stay -- from the pedestrianized shopping areas in the center of town, to the deserted harbor, to the upscale neighborhood of Grünerløkka -- icicle removal is taking place. Whole streets are cordoned off as workmen chip the offending appendages off gutters before gravity turns them into projectile weaponry. (Surprisingly, all my research -- well, a quick gallivant around Google -- brought up no recent icicle related deaths in Norway. I am shocked.)

Not only does a city of 500,000 inhabitants exist in these extreme conditions (though I am told by many locals that this is Oslo’s worst winter in many years and not indicative of the season), it actually thrives. Which is maybe why, after eleven years as an itinerant festival wandering around Norway without a permanent home, the organizers of by:Larm have put down roots in Oslo, utilizing it as a permanent base for the area’s premier music festival. It seems like a solid choice. While Sweden and Iceland proffer a well-known (yet slightly stereotyped) sound, thus exporting more bands to the US and UK, Oslo is actually Scandinavia’s music capital, hosting, on average, as many shows as New York or London.

Take a quick walk around Youngstorget, a set of side streets flowing out from a central square in downtown Oslo, and you soon understand why. In five minutes I walk past at least 10 venues. Sure, some of them, like the Dagbladet tent, set up in the central square specifically for by:Larm, are not permanent musical homes, but the majority of them -- Rockefeller, Sentrum Scene, and Mono –- host music on a regular basis. Of course, in order to host such a festival, one with 50-plus bands from five different countries, by:Larm takes advantage of all of Oslo’s venues. From small, crowded and claustrophobic bars, to lecture-like auditoriums, to tents that smell of pine and melting snow, Oslo offers up a variety of places for people to play. Folks who attended last year’s festival talked about having to hop taxis to make it to certain shows, but this year, with four additional stages of varied size located in the conveniently placed Oslo Kongressenter, show-hopping has been made much easier, which is all well and good given the wintery conditions.

Dagbladet tent by day

But it isn’t just the geographical conveniences that make by:Larm such an enjoyable experience, it is the people in attendance as well. To really get the most out of a city, you have to get into the mindset of a local. And in order to live like a local, you have to think like a local, and to think like a local you have to talk to locals, and fortunately for me, Norwegians are amongst the most affable people I have had the pleasure to meet. The Norwegians I met not only pointed me in the right direction, they actually took me by the hand and led me there. The friendly guy who took me to Stratos on my first evening in Oslo spotted me two nights later in a different bar, walked over and offered to by me a drink. (My British reticence made me decline.) While waiting in line for fish and chips that same evening, another Norwegian fellow, upon learning I was reviewing the festival, thought it was high time I saw some Scandinavian metal and led me directly to the demonic onslaught of Monolithic. At one particularly crowded show, as I struggled to take photos that didn’t predominantly feature the backs of people’s heads, a taller Nordic concertgoer kindly lent a hand, taking my camera from me and returning with several decent to great shots.

Walking to Grunerlokka

And so it continued… During my first evening, while sitting in a VIP area (well, a cordoned off area for artists and press people with access to tee pees and roaring fires) I was plied with free drinks -- no, not because I am important, but because the local folks who befriended me knew people. At the same table I started talking to a member of local band, the Shitsez, who pointed me to a part of town called Grunerlokka, describing it as Oslo’s version of Soho. It wasn’t, but it was still cool enough that I ended up spending an afternoon wandering around the neighborhood. What made these people stand out was the gregarious manner in which they grabbed my map and drew routes, marked places to get drinks, told me about record labels to check out, and venues to visit. One kind gent even gave me the cell phone number of one of the festival’s artists. “Call him,” he said. “He knows everyone.” (My British reticence kicked in again and I never did.) But through reaching out I reaped the benefits of insider knowledge.

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