On August 11th, 2006 I woke up all alone in my tiny tent that was pitched in a campground that itself was perched on a cliff high above Norway’s capital city.
I hopped on my bicycle and coasted down down down to Oslo’s city centre, squeezing my brakes the whole time. I spent the afternoon doing anything touristy that I could find for free – which was plenty – and had a great time exploring a truly amazing city. I’m telling you, the astounding number of remarkable street sculptures in Oslo could keep you busy all day, but don’t miss the National Gallery or a stroll down Karl Johannsgate either! Europe is just so darn Europe-y, and I marvelled.
I hit up a grocery store for some groceries and a six-pack, loaded it all onto my clunky bike and sweated out the low-gear slow-pumping karmic elevation payback all way back up to my campground. Over dinner and a beer I tried my best to decipher the Øyafestivalen program (which had no English in it whatsoever) and mapped out my strategy for night two of Oslo’s big outdoor summertime music extravaganza.
Though the fest sported some notables like Morrissey, Beck, and Yoko Ono, the only band I recognized on this particular evening was Jaga Jazzist, a Norwegian contemporary electro-acoustic jam-improv collective that I had seen – and loved – at the Ottawa Bluesfest a year or two earlier. Oh well (thought I over a second beer), I might find something down there worth writing home about. Having formulated no real plan at all I crushed the can, mounted my steed, and coasted back down to the city.
(Which was ridiculously fun, every time. I mean it was about seven or eight kilometres of nothing but gravity. In those rare moments when I could convince myself to forget that I was going to have to ride back up again later it was sheer biking bliss. Heavenly even.)
Onsite I took time to explore the entire venue, which was arranged on an island in the city harbour just feet from solid ground. It was old and pretty, chock-a-block with stony outcrops that were the ruins of ancient buildings and were very, very easy to trip over. I’m sure they kept the first aid tent busy.
In addition to food, drink, and merchandise booths, the site was filled with large corporate installations that were fun, creative, and free. There was a tent that offered one-on-one custom DJing, Ikea had a large tent full of tables laden with hors d’oeuvres and comfy couches, and there was another tent full of big-screen TV’s hooked up to Playstations. It’s was great idea that I’d love to see spread to festivals worldwide.
At one of the merch stands I saw a t-shirt that blew me away. The shirt was one we’ve all seen a thousand times: it sported the classic Beatles logo – the one from Ringo’s kick drum – except “The Beatles” had been crossed out with what look like a fat Sharpie, and the name “The Cheaters” had been scrawled along the bottom.
Oh, I loved it! If it had been any other band, no…but The Cheaters? Oh man! It was everything I could do to not blow my budget on one. I don’t regret much in my life, but as I sit here typing this more than a decade later I very much regret not owning one of those t-shirts.
But I also hate that t-shirt. Why? Because as I stood there marvelling I noticed that The Cheaters were onstage at that very moment so I ran to catch the rest of their set, which was pretty okay. And that is why I only ambled over to the main stage for the last half of Black Debbath, and as I sit here typing this more than a decade later I can confirm to one and all that missing the first half of Black Debbath’s set remains one of the biggest regrets of my short life.
When I arrived at the packed main stage I found four or five musicians onstage in elaborate, Gwar-esque costumes (were they wearing wigs or was that their real hair?) and they were screaming out Spinal Tap-like heavy metal with remarkable dexterity and extensive pyrotechnics. We’re talking feet on the monitors, guitar headstocks shoved through walls of flying sparks, tongues hanging out and wagging, wind machines on Poison-inspired hairstyles, the works, and all of it sung in Norwegian. It was so unbelievably over-the-top that it had to be parody. But at the same time they played with such obvious conviction that I really couldn’t decide.
For example: Featured prominently on the stage sat a mound of dirt and a tombstone bearing the name of Norway’s great poet, Henrik Ibsen. The mock gravesite was completely ignored until the last song of the set, when Black Debbath’s lead singer unzipped his fly, pulled out a large fake penis and urinated all over the grave while his band heavy metaled out behind him.
(I find it especially amusing to note that the singer had to endure the entire set running around the stage with a dildo connected to a bladder of water tucked away under his costume.)
Soon, to the crowd’s delight, an older, rotund gentleman sporting very convincing rotting-zombie makeup rose from the mound of dirt (again, funny to think he had been lying there the whole time) and, clamouring to his feet he chased the cowering singer away and paced the front of the stage glowering fiercely at the crowd. And still the band played on.
After a couple of menacing minutes the fake Ibsen ran off the stage and quickly emerged wearing a sousaphone! Stopping centre-stage, the band abruptly stopped with him. And after a one more exaggerated ogle at the crowd old Henrik Ibsen put his embouchure to the mouthpiece of his giant instrument and broke the silence with an absolutely devastating eighth-note bass line. The crowd roared. Right on cue the band picked it up and we were off on a prog-rock metal-tinged sonic adventure centred around a chubby century-dead poet wielding fifty pounds of brass.
Dear lord, it was such an unholy amount of gloriousity. I felt childhood glee in my heart the whole time. Though frankly I still didn’t really know if they were serious or not*.
And I will forever curse The Cheaters for cheating me out of the first half of Black Debbath’s set (though I gotta say, touché). Oh the wonders I surely missed!
The Cramps were on next. I stayed for a couple of tunes but they weren’t my thing so I went to the Sjosiden Stage to check out another American band, The Twilight Singers. Again, meh, but they were better than The Cramps. I broke down and decided to blow my daily budget on a $22 beer. I was almost halfway through it when my hand slipped and I dropped my cup on the ground, spilling my bounty. I must have looked like a very sad puppy because the fellow standing next to me immediately gave me a sympathetic pat on the shoulder and the rest of his own beer. I accepted both gladly.
Finally it was time for Jaga Jazzist, and I was excited. With ten multi-instrumentalists onstage utilizing an unimaginable amount of musical equipment to create subtly aggressive upbeat modern improv I could only gape in continuous joy throughout their set.
There was a Canadian band called Black Mountain on the Vika stage afterwards so I checked out a song or two before going to the mainstage (called Enga) to see a very popular Norwegian band with the unfortunate name of The Dumdum Boys. They were obviously a big draw ’round those parts and I was reminded a bit of The Tragically Hip both in the musical style and the audience response.
They were fun and all but their name just bugged me so I left and went home to my tent.
*I discovered the next day that they were not serious. But that’s another story.