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Photos: The 2019 John Smith Rock Festival

From Helsinki, take a train and head North for almost 4 hours.

Get out of the train station in a tiny city and follow the flow of long-haired black-dressed people walking steadily in the same direction. There, nested behind an ugly building, you will find a dozen buses with a single sign on their windshield. “JOHN SMITH.” Get in one of those, and 40 minutes later you will be dropped in one of those magical locations you find only in Finland, on the shore of a lake, in the forest.

The John Smith festival is one of the main rock and metal festivals in central Finland every year, and 2019 is the first year that it lasted 3 whole days. And what it lacks in size, compared to the main European ones, it makes up for in fun and energy. Artists and audience can really properly interact. Here, away from the city, among Finns, the bands (mostly Finnish) are really letting their hair down. Literally.

Let’s start with the basic needs. Yes, of course, the nearest “city” is 40 minutes of bus away. But that won’t stop you from getting everything you need, from classic hamburgers to a cup of ice cream in vodka, you won’t die of hunger here. And all the merch is available next to the Meet&Greet tent, too. You have to be 18 to get a ticket, so the atmosphere is quite relaxed (some might even say “drunk”), but always comfortable. A platform provides wheelchairs a good view on both stages, and everyone just sits on the grass, in the sun or in the shades of the many trees, eating fruits from the bushes that grow wildly around the place.

The festival started off as a bartender having fun, playing rock’n’roll with some friends. Nowadays, you could say it has gone quite some distance, seeing that the headliners are Arch Enemy and Amorphis. The programme includes all kind of music, from glam-punk Hanoi Rocks’ Michael Monroe to death-doom metal Swallow the Sun, and many others. There really is something for everyone, whether you like gothic-styled The 69 Eyes, folk Cellar Darlin, or epic fantasy Gloryhammer.

Some bands are veterans of Finnish gigs (Stam1na, Turisas, Wintersun…), some are young foreigners fighting for the place of “band who will interact the most with the crowd” (H.E.A.T, Gloryhammer, Jinjer…). The photographers’ favourites were indubitably H.E.A.T and Michael Monroe. The former is a Swedish power-glam metal band, and the singer was one of the most energetic performers ever, running and jumping into the audience, humping his microphone and generally speaking setting up an incredible display of vitality under the warm afternoon sun. The latter is a Finnish veteran of glam-punk, having created and performed with Hanoi Rocks. At the age of 57, he puts the likes of Bruce Dickinson and Mick Jagger to shame, jumping and landing in perfect splits or even climbing up the stage rigging, 7 meters above the ground, while two technicians run after him to detangle the mic cable.

The audience is relaxed, chatting, drinking, kissing and laughing, but always enjoying and respecting the performers’ work. Rarely have I seen such a smiling crowd in Finland. And when the moment comes to listen to the headliners, everyone gathers around the main stage, right by the shore, and shouts the lyrics of old standards (The Varangian Way, for example) as well as enjoys newer songs (The Bee).

Overall, the festival draws a crowd of about 15 000 people over 3 days, a few hundreds of which sleep in the hotel or the campsite. If you choose to go there, I can only recommend doing arrangements for it as soon as possible. And you should definitely go there.

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