A picturesque lake view, lush trees, and bushes filled with delicious red berries on a grassy green slope, with slightly sunny, tropically humid weather, and a spa. To most people this sounds like a perfect place for a yoga retreat but in Finland, we call it the perfect place to arrange a metal music festival! The first ever John Smith Rock Festival in Laukaa was one man’s dream to bring a rock festival to his home town and finally on July 22-24th, 2016, it came true. The list of bands in this festival brought together the hottest Finnish metal names, spiced with AMARANTHE [Sweden], SPARZANZA [Sweden], and HELLOWEEN [Germany]. The first two days were K18 and the last (free) day was a family day with only one band, HEVISAURUS. So, let’s review what happened on that beautiful summer weekend in the middle of Finland when, amazingly, it did not rain at all! Check out the festival gallery here.
We arrived just in time to see the first band, TO/DIE/FOR. With a glance around the area, we saw the crowd dressed in black gathering up and heading towards the music. Apparently most people did as we did and did not arrive until the first act, even though the gates had been open for some time already. Therefore TO/DIE/FOR suffered a bit, not having too many listeners but the band kicked the party off with power and people started to get into the festival mood! There was also some melancholy in the air as it was TO/DIE/FOR’s farewell gig, as the band’s 17-year career came to an end. Wishing all the best to the band members and waiting for future projects, you couldn’t have picked a more beautiful place for the last show!
The VON HERTZEN BROTHERS continued where TO/DIE/FOR had left, raising the festival spirit, and KOTITEOLLISUUS set sounded better than they have in a long time. Maybe it was the Laukaa spirit that brought out the best in everyone? After the first three bands it was time for AMORPHIS to put on their show. Clearly this was a band that everyone had anticipated! The grassy slope in front the stage was packed full and the energy was high. This was my first experience at a gig where the fences could hardly contain the people in the crowd! I wouldn’t have expected to experience it in Laukaa, of all places! AMORPHIS pleased the audience with a bold combination of both old and new, and as the final song, “Black Winter’s Day,” started, people were ecstatic! The band was clearly happy with the warm welcome and promised to come back to Laukaa if John Smith happens next year again.
After AMORPHIS, it was time for STAM1NA. These guys, celebrating their 20-year anniversary this year, have become hugely popular in Finland and are known for their high energy, mosh pit -spinning shows. Having seen the band many times before and knowing that they are a band that simply can’t let you down, I still wondered how they could beat the frenzy that was AMORPHIS! Fans had reserved their spots by the fence long beforehand and the feeling in the audience just before the show was happy and ready to explode into raised fists and roaring pits. The band delivered the goods, playing songs from the new album, “Elokuutio,” along with some older productions, the pit spun, and the fans got their money’s worth from these guys! It was good and I was left with nothing but happiness after their set. But still, I had the feeling AMORPHIS had still won the day…
AMARANTHE was the first foreign band at JS and had the crowd packed in to see them. By then, night had fallen and the stage’s lights lit the area beautifully. Although I’m not the biggest fan of the band and don’t know their songs, there was a great feeling in the audience and I enjoyed watching the show. The day ended with SONATA ARCTICA playing an acoustic set (which was a surprise) and there could not have been a more beautiful ending to a great day! The SONATA tracks sounded absolutely amazing acoustically and songs like “Tallulah” and “Tonight I Dance Alone” painted an ethereal picture, which fitted the soft, warm night perfectly. Expectations grew exponentially for the next day after I went over all that I had experienced already!
The day started quite early, or at least it felt like it (14:00), and people were clearly not yet in full festival spirits as the first band, LOST SOCIETY, started to play. Having LOST SOCIETY as the first band of the day instead of RED ELEVEN, which was the original plan, was a clever decision, as they are a band with enough energy to raise the dead! By the end of the gig, the crowd had mostly arrived and awoken with the aid of the band’s high-voltage energy. After RED ELEVEN‘s set, folk metal band KORPIKLAANI got everyone into a nice drinking mood and THE FRANCINE had the crowd dancing, it was time for a small break before the second half of the day. And it was good to fuel up because the seven-band finale took energy to watch with no breaks in between, but it was absolutely worth it!
The first of the seven was TURMION KÄTILÖT. There’s something about this band that makes me move no matter how much my feet hurt! TK’s industrial metal performance did not leave anyone cold – the pit was spinning and the band’s jokes had people laughing. Actually, they were not all jokes – Spellgoth shared intimate and painful sounding details about his hemorrhoids, for instance, and I sure hope he’s feeling better now! “Hyvissä höyryissä” and “Pyhä maa” were on the setlist and singalongs were guaranteed as such!
By this point (18:00), the slope was full and even the heavy party-goers had woken up and found their way back to the area. The vocalist of MAJ KARMA, Herra Ylppö, was the only one during the whole festival who jumped off the stage and approached the audience. This would have been an even better idea if the microphone cord had been a bit longer…
SPARZANZA was the first foreign band of the day and was again clearly highly anticipated, as the slope in front of the stage was packed. SPARZANZA gave a strong performance and the crowd was visibly pleased with the show. The band seemed to be very happy to be at JS thanks to the enthusiastic welcome; also the spa accommodation seemed to be to their liking. BATTLE BEAST continued the Finnish metal fest, giving me chills as the vocalist, Noora Louhimo, opened her vocal chords! What an amazing singer she is! Apart from some of their hit songs, I didn’t really know about the band before I saw them live in South Park festival in Tampere this summer, but now they look like another band I’m more than happy to pay for a ticket to see. Songs like “Black Ninja” and “Into the Heart of Danger” made many people, including me, sing along (which I rarely do)!
HELLOWEEN was the next monster of rock to perform. The show sounded almost identical to one I saw at South Park in Tampere last year. Andi Deris seemed very happy to be in Finland, although he wanted to share his worries about the horrible things happening in the world today, the same way he did last year when I saw them. So no surprises, but as strong and solid a performance as expected from a band that has decades of music behind them. As with all these high-caliber bands, the older classics like “Eagle Fly Free” and “I Want Out” were the ones that fired people up into singing along. It was a good hour-and-a-half-long show, but I was already eager to hear the next band.
After HELLOWEEN‘s set there was nice firework display, which was a pleasant surprise. As we got to the other stage, the area was almost full – dedicated MOKOMA fans had reserved their spots by the fence long beforehand, waiting with high anticipation yet again. The band stormed the stage and performed songs from the latest album, “Elävien kirjoihin” and of course, “Hei hei heinäkuu” has to be played in July. Nice singalongs and mosh pits were seen and good times were assured. The whole band gave 100% of themselves and it was quite clear why this band is so popular in Finland!
Then it was suddenly time for the last band, STRATOVARIUS. Being the last band of the day (and the whole festival if you didn’t plan to see HEVISAURUS on Sunday), the crowd was packed full to the last metalhead to see them. As day 1 had ended in soft, acoustic tunes with SONATA ARCTICA, day 2 ended with power! People gave their everything dancing and singing as Timo Kotipelto led the show. He even managed to film live footage onto Facebook from the stage. It was classic performance from the band and some the older members in the audience could sense the nostalgia. “Hunting High and Low” had people singing (re: shouting) their lungs out and once the show was over, those who could still speak wandered out of the area saying this was a festival worth the money invested.
The area had two stages, the John stage and yes, you guessed it, the Smith stage. The bigger John stage was located right next to the lake shore with an amazing view of the lake. The grassy slope in front of it for the audience was perfect to provide a clear view of the stage even when sitting down, and many people had picnic blankets with them to set up a base camp for the festival. The Smith stage higher up was more intimate, as you could get a bit closer to the bands there. The sets were scheduled in such a way that there was no overlap, so it was possible to see all the bands if you wanted. There was even a small eating (and drinking, of course) break in the middle of the both main days so that you really didn’t have to sacrifice any of the gigs! How cool is that? The restaurant area was quite small but adequate and the specialty food was “Rock Pig” – the rare summer pig roasted whole on a spittle! The pig was delicious (yes, I’m a meat lover) but vegans were unfortunately completely left out of the menu. There were also VIP areas with their own catering, but to my view they were mostly empty.
The festival was arranged in the Peurunka spa area in Laukaa which, as mentioned before, was an excellent place for it in every sense except accommodation and transportation. The spa has a hotel which had sold out quite quickly. It is also pretty much the only hotel in the town so most people had to find hotels outside Laukaa, mainly in Jyväskylä, and it meant having to arrange transportation to and from the festival area. Besides the lack of vegan food, the lack of transportation was one small minus for the festival. But, points to the organizers as the number of buses to Jyväskylä was, to my understanding, increased on the second day due to the feedback from people.
Overall, there was a really positive feeling at the festival during the whole weekend. There were many local people in the audience smiling pleasantly as they had finally gotten a festival in their town. The artists seemed also to be in particularly positive moods, which probably had a great deal to do with the fact that the bands know each other so well and the long list of bands per day created a real gathering of musician friends in Laukaa. Also, the arrangements seemed to work very well for the artists. Many of the bands praised the organization on the stage and hoped that the event would return in the future. And so do I.
John Smith, you did well! It was a pleasure and I hope see you next year!
Written by Virpi S.
Photos by Miia Collander