The Danes have a distinctive, peculiar way of applauding. To show their appreciation for a particularly good performance, rather than the ripple of unsynchronised clapping we (Brits and possibly the rest of the world) break out in, theirs is a chant-like clap in unison. It’s a sound I got used to with over four days of stunning and surprising performances at Denmark’s Tønder Festival.
I’d first heard about the festival by periodically (OK, obsessively) checking to see whether John Moreland added any European dates. And there it was – Denmark. Not quite the UK, but closer than Oklahoma. So I messaged former honorary ‘Brit in Boots’ Ditte, who’d since moved home to Denmark, booked for four days of music and mayhem together, and even let her convince me to camp. I was gutted when Moreland ultimately had to cancel his appearance, but I’m now grateful to him for inadvertently introducing me to something rather special.
Tønder felt like the older sibling of The Long Road Festival (which launched in the UK just last year and returns 6th September 2019). Like The Long Road, this too had distinct themed zones (America’s Wild West and Ireland’s County Clare) and also a cute ‘front porch’ stage. This too had lifestyle activities like whiskey tasting, dance lessons and campsite yoga.
It’s been running for 45 years, in which time they’d honed the perfect intergenerational festival vibe. Repeat after me: No queues for the (clean) portaloos; hardly any wait time for the abundance of bars (this being Scandanavia it was about £6 for a pint); and enough space at the various stages to see everyone we wanted to.
The disguised blessing of both Moreland and then John Prine cancelling (John Prine was replaced by a touching tribute to him by the other artists) was that I could use this as a chance to forage for new music. So, I set myself the task of picking out just five of the 70ish artists playing there to preach about. Choosing just five was harder than expected as I don’t think I saw a bad set. To help narrow things down, I wasn’t allowed to include Tyler Childers because you probably already know about him and, yes, of course he was still brilliant despite losing his signature long hair and beard. He was on my list of must-sees which also included flawless multi-instrumentalist duo Mandolin Orange, Ruston Kelly (with whom we ended up having a passionate singalong of Teenage Dirtbag) and country legend Patty Griffin.
No, these special five needed to be ones I didn’t have preconceived ideas of. Instead, they won me over by the strength of their Tønder sets alone.
I saw Irish (at least I saw her hat over the tops of the crowd of Danish giants) on our first day and finally understood the political power and inspiring nature of folk music at its very best. If you ever get the chance to see her in person do not hesitate. Buy tickets for the belting voice that defies her size (“my voice and lungs think I’m 8ft tall”), hilarious tales between sets (like why she received a cease & desist order from the Australian government), and to leave with confidence that we can definitely, maybe fix the world.
Personal favourite song: Tullamore Blues (another addition for my whisky themed playlist)
Quote of the show: “So, we’ve done Brexit, we’ve done the refugees, let’s scooch on over to America.” (This got an extra loud laugh since Trump had just cancelled his Denmark trip after the Danish prime minister had called his comment about buying Greenland absurd).
Paul hadn’t been on my list but after several recommendations from tent neighbours I popped in for what would be a high octane show from a born entertainer. His strong, low voice sat somewhere between Johnny Cash & Elvis (as did his stage presence) singing country tinged with dirty gospel. He’s one to watch to for a guaranteed fun live show and I’d especially recommended him for fans of Jace Everett or Tyminski.
Personal favourite song: Freak (which brought out Paul’s post-watershed dance moves and will be on his new album out 6th September.)
Quote of the show: “It’s hotter than three mice making sweet love in a wet sock out here.”
BIRDS OF CHICAGO
This husband and wife’s contrasting vocals (his a bit Springsteen, hers a bit 1920s jazz bar on the French side of heaven) combine to make something magical. I was so rapt by their offering of emotive folk that I was hardly even distracted when the guy next to me pointed out the third person on stage (incredible guitarist Steve Dawson) looked like Jason Isbell had gone 88 mph in a Delorean and ended up here.
From addressing the slave trade to combatting the ‘Trump effect’ with song American Flowers, their set delivered a gig first for me… a double encore. Theirs was the band people were still enthusing about in bars days later. If you fancy trying some folk music, they’ll be touring the UK in October and I look forward to delving into to front woman Allison Russell’s new project with Rhiannon Giddens and other talented African American Americana performers, Our Native Daughters.
Personal favourite song: Baton Rouge, possibly because it was easy for me to sing along with.
I missed Dan’s main solo show’s but heard three songs as part of Gentleman’s Circle, a songwriters’ round (FYI, there was a women’s circle too). I’ve not been able to get this Australian’s songs off my mind since. With his heart-wrenching ballads delivered by a rich, multi-layered voice, creaking with emotion; I’d filled my John Moreland gap. Listening to his albums post-festival, some of the music out there is a little indie-rocky for me, but give that gent an acoustic guitar and I’m in.
Personal favourite song: Dirty Ground, though you should also check out his cover of Look at Miss Ohio
Quote of the Show: Not a direct quote, but the story behind his song Kimberly Calling – a tale of indigenous Aussies and his mother’s ancestry – had me in tears.
After a weekend of mainly folk (because of who I’d chosen to see) I was ready for something a little more decidedly country. So on the last night when I walked through the “outlaw village” area of the fest, into the ‘Bolero’ tent which was decked out like an old saloon bar complete with red-velvet fringed canopy, and was greeted but 5 pairs of cowboy boots on the stage… it felt like home home. One pair of boots belonged to doe-eyed, Texan hot-stepper Charley who was kitted out in red Nudie-style suit and white Stetson, ready to give the room his all. He’s one I think you need to see live to fully appreciate which is handy because he’s currently touring the UK. Expect some very nimble knees and funked up riffs; I’m hoping the Brits are willing to two-step.
Personal favourite song: His version of Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues (despite loving his more upbeat songs in person)
Quote of the Show: “Some people get into the music business through the back door. Other people, like me, we dig holes through the basement.”
Now, if I was the cheating kind, I’d break my self-imposed rule of only picking five artists. Maybe I’d mention Max Gomez who reminded me of a folky Charlie Worsham, or tell you how well John Smith represented the UK with his serene set in the Pumpehuset indoor venue. Perhaps I’d rave about the incredible voice and charm of local singer-songwriter Jacob Dinesen, or tell you the amazing personal story behind Danish contemporary folk band Jonah Blacksmith‘s latest album. But I’m not the cheating kind.
Besides, it was more than the quality musical curation that’s got me rearranging my diary to get back to Tønder next year. There was music to be found at ANYTIME, from someone playing in the campsite canteen at 07 a.m. to the big-name gigs kicking off at 01:00 (like The Ghost Of Paul Revere which was apparently one of the best shows, but I was snoozing in the tenthouse by then) or a spine-tingling one-to-one gig on a shed thanks to Folk in a Box. And there is plenty to keep gig fatigue at bay, from a game of ‘cornhole’ which wounded our pride but earned us new friends, to joining in with impromptu jam sessions in pockets around the campsite.
Outside of the festival the whole small town (conveniently 2-minute walk from the festival site) becomes a music city. Having met some local Tønder regulars, we found ourselves off-site dancing in the wee hours to an excellent covers trio in Hagges Musik Pub, Tønder’s equivalent of Robert’s Western World. They introduced us to the local delicacy of Solaeg (pickled hard-boiled egg with a condiment concoction) served with a shot of schnapps. Around the corner, the town square was heaving with a street party.
For all my fears of not having the stamina for four full days at a festival and for my aversion to camping (cured by the heatwave), the Tønder festival slogan sums up what kept me going: “Hand-made Music”.
And this is why I hope to see you in a tiny ‘tenthouse’ near mine when Tønder Festival returns August 27th-30th 2020.
P.s. Check out more Tønder Festival photos over on our Instagram page.