Sotkamon Syke is a newish festival, a mere 5 years old, held in the small sport-central hamlet of Vuokatti in the Kainuu region of Finland. Host to a surprising number of well-known Finnish bands, Syke has been tempting us for a few years now and finally the stars aligned to make it happen and we were able to check it out at long last!
I happen to have family up in Vuokatti, so I’ve been meaning to come to Syke for as long as I’ve known about it. The short two-day festival takes place in the parking lot of the Break by Sokos Hotel, right next to the big sport center that Vuokatti is so well known for. Syke has been able to pull in some awesome bands in the last few years in spite of its small-town location, which might have something to do with Ewo Pohjola being one of the gents leading the charge. I’ve missed years with Nightwish, Amorphis, and so many other bands I know so well, but this year had something a bit different to offer me – I knew of almost every band on the program, but have only seen two of the eight live before. This was the perfect opportunity to test out some bands in a live setting!
We showed up in good time on Friday to have a look around. The festival area itself was pretty cool – it had a few food stalls, and the bar had really impressively good selection – everything from regular Koff and lonkero up to Fresita, Sherwood cider, tall Jäger shots, a few wines, and some pretty potent moonshine served in shots. Weirdly though, the merch booth was in the bar area. I suppose their shirts wouldn’t fit many people who couldn’t get into the bar, but it was still a bit weird that it wasn’t available for everyone.
The northerners were out at 17:00, already with a few drinks in their systems. Though the weather was a bit grey for a nice holiday in the north, it was warm enough to be comfortable and the sky broke up in the evening to let us to have a good time and not worry about getting pissed on. The MC welcomed the festival-goers of all ages, and all ages were surely there, from six years up to sixty. After checking who had been at the festival in 2014, she called for a warm, warm welcome to the first band!
Lauri Tähkä was the first to kick off Sotkamon Syke. I recognized him as one of the judges from The Voice of Finland back in 2012-2013. He’s one of those iskelmä singers, which is synonymous with “schlager music,” or that general pop-rock/easy-listening hit music sound. The stage was host to a few acoustic guitars, as well as an acoustic piano, which was a nice change. Tähkä came on stage in a grey suit with a big smile and the band promptly interrupted the gospel-y intro track with some good old rock music. He’s pretty fun to watch – he has the Mick Jagger cock strut down perfectly and he’s full of energy, even going so far as to prop himself up on the mic stand and slide down – never seen a frontman do that before! The songs were so lively and energetic, I’m sure they must have been sped up for the live performance, and they benefited from it. He introduced two band members who were from Kainuu, which naturally elicited some big cheers. It was also pretty cute to see all the middle-aged ladies shaking it to his songs. It was a pretty fun gig, and he’s certainly charming with his big goofy smile!
Juha Tapio was next, with a bit more of an 80s rock sound, maybe mixed with a hint of country. The pyrotechnics were already rocking in the first song with a huge burst of sparks and all the hands were in the air. Visually, these guys were a little more rock ‘n’ roll with the jeans and leather with less strut and more focus on musicianship. Most of the songs kept the music going long after the lyrics stopped, which reminded me a bit of 70s southern rock in spirit, though not sound (think Allman Brothers -era music). The music itself, however, hovered between rock and pop. Funnily enough, I had just heard “Kaksi vanha puuta” for the first time earlier in the day on the radio, so I recognized it immediately, and it seemed like a crowd favorite because everyone was screaming and singing along. Of course, Juha Tapio himself had to continue Lauri Tähkä’s trend and mentioned that the bass player was from Lahti, but his underwear said Kainuu on it! It was a pretty good show for all ages, made even better with generous pyrotechnics.
Of course, one of the main reasons to go to Syke was to get another chance to see Santa Cruz, marking this as the third time Musicalypse has seen them during the summer festival season, and we’re still happy to be there! This was their first time playing up in Sotkamo (surprise, surprise) and they were introduced with the “Rocky theme song” before cracking into “Bonafide Heroes.” As expected from a band with only two albums, they played pretty much the best of what they’ve got, including “My Remedy,” “Bye Bye Babylon,” and the two new singles, which you should’ve really heard by now. It was nice to see a band that’s selling out Nosturi in a more small-scale festival so you can really get a proper look at them. For example, I really got a kick out of Archie Cruz’ orgasm-faces when he was shredding. Some show highlights were Archie coming up to the barrier to do a solo, and of course, Johnny Cruz running off stage to do a loop around the festival area and stop to do a solo in the middle of the crowd before returning to the stage. They finished the night with “Aiming High” and really, it was a great show. I haven’t rocked out that hard since In Flames back in November, and I was sore the next day for it!
(Thanks to Lauri Pääkkö for filling in as photographer for Santa Cruz!)
The last band of the night was Kotiteollisuus, one of those that I’ve been meaning to see for years and years but haven’t gotten around to just yet. I was a little skeptical of this show because I find their music a bit repetitive, and the gig didn’t really do much to make me think otherwise. Ok, well, I was impressed that the drummer was wearing a Boston Bruins shirt, because that’s totally my team. Their stage setup was a bit more extravagant than anyone coming before them, with big rows of vertical lights. One thing we noticed was that the sound quality up front near the stage (this was true for everyone, not just Kotiteollisuus) was pretty bad when compared to the sound booth, or even the bar. It was almost not in your best interests to be up close to the stage, so we went back to the bar to watch the set after a few songs. “Helvetistä itään” is a cool song and was fun to see live, as was “Minä olen.” Really, my general opinion of these guys is that they pretty much have one song, and it’s a decent song, but it’s not a good enough sound or a high enough energy song really to warrant a position as a headliner, even in a small festival. I always say, you want to leave the night on a high note, waiting to come back, and this was not the band to achieve that. I’d have even put Santa Cruz at the end just because of their energy, even if they’re not as widely known. It was nice to finally get a chance to see these guys and for what it’s worth, I enjoyed the show, but I wouldn’t bother seeing them in a club setting.
Saturday again greeted us with a bit of doom and gloom, we hoped with all our hopes that the rain would end before the festival started, and fortunately, it did. We headed over to the hotel again, a bit late, but in time to see Jenni Vartiainen. She’s another on the list of live shows I’ve been meaning to see for ages. She was just about to play “Nettiin” when we made our way up front and we were pleased to note that the sound quality was a lot better close to the stage (and louder) the second day. Again, all ages were present, but unlike Lauri Tähkä, where maybe some kids had been dragged along with their parents, here everyone was excited. Her stage was set up in a very pretty manner, with white sheer sheets draped all over and a tassel-y mic stand that matched her outfit (which included a nice almost- WWF championship belt). What I liked most about her was how warm and sweet she seemed. After watching Vain Elämää, I started to think she might be cold and distant, but she was really fun, chatting with the crowd and getting everyone involved by telling them to cuddle up for a romantic song and things like that. And she really, really sounded great. Her voice was fantastic. I began to think that she would be best listened to live during a nice sunset.
Perhaps the funniest part of the show was when she asked who had been swimming yet this year and as the cheers of “oon” (I have) went up, some guy threw his boxers on stage. She hung them in the place of honor on the keyboards, and then threw a plastic raincoat into the crowd in case it starts to rain again. She also made a cute joke that doesn’t translate well to English that related banking to the lyrics of “Ihmisten edessä,” which I was also excited to hear live. She really is a great frontman, getting personal with the crowd and having a good time, like she really loves what she does. I would actually go see her again in a club setting!
Tuure Kipeläinen & Kaihon karavaani was the one band on the program that I had actually never heard about before the festival, and we decided to grab a bite to eat and have a wander around instead of watching the show. The muikku (fried vendace) were greasy and delicious, and having them with fried onions was a nice change on a standard recipe. We were shocked to notice that there was a tattoo booth set up next to the first aid station and trinket shop that we had missed on Friday, and even more surprising, someone was actually there getting a tattoo! That needle was roaring every time we walked by – I’d love to see what the tattoos they made looked like. We also poked our heads into the VIP area. It looked like they had some sort of gaming area, but I couldn’t tell for sure what it was. At least they got access to a different bar, a buffet, a sitting area, and a cool pass for a souvenir!
Stratovarius, continuing their program of just-about-every-Finnish-festival was second-to-last on Saturday. They kept their steady pace of solid performing going, and it makes you wonder a bit how these guys manage to perform so consistently and so well so often. Kotipelto announced that they heard the weather would be bad so they had been sent to warm us up! I was hoping for a set more like they had at South Park than Tuska, and my wish was granted – it was just about the exact same set, complete with “Eagleheart,” “Black Diamond,” and “Hunting High and Low!” I have to say that “Unbreakable” is quickly becoming one of my favorite live tracks of theirs; it’s got awesome energy and it’s really catchy! We watched largely from the bar area and the sky started misting down on us, making the lights look speckled and sparkly, adding a little kick to the ambiance to make up for the cold. One of the unfortunate points of the gig was when they played “Dragons” – the backing vocals were way too loud and started to sound really weird, overpowering Kotipelto’s voice (I didn’t know that was possible even). They had a bit of fun with the crowd at the end as well – when playing “Hunting High and Low,” Kotipelto mentioned South Park and wondered if Sotkamo could scream louder than Tampere. After the first round, he mentioned Tuska, and wondered if we could top Helsinki. Lastly, he mentioned that they’re heading off to Wacken in a while, and did we think we could best the Germans? I have to say, I’m not sure how many people were at the festival, but the shout from the crowd was pretty impressive. They’ve earned it though – I haven’t intentionally been at all of their festival gigs this year, but they’ve made sure I haven’t been sorry for being there!
Closing out the night and the festival was Apulanta, who like to dance the line between punk and rock. There was a late evening chill for the last band and we made our way back into the crowd so we could warm up and rock out. They were a bit late getting started, but the cheers turned to screams when Toni Wirtanen came out on stage. They had a really odd stage set up, and not just due to Wirtanen’s monster mic-stand decoration. The drums were on the right side of the stage on a platform, Wirtanen was in the middle on another platform, and the bassist was on the left, again, on a platform. This left the other guitarist behind the fog in the back between the bass and vocal platforms. It was a really unusual thing, but it made a bit more sense when we realized that Sipe Santapukki (drums) spent a good portion of the show bantering back-and-forth with Wirtanen, and again when the bassist, Ville Mäkinen, pulled out a stand-up bass and rocked it for three tracks. They focused a bit more on their older songs from back when they became popular in the 90s, when they played on a music TV program called Jyrki. For those who were bigger fans of their newer material, they might’ve been disappointed. Admittedly, I’m more a fan of their rock than their punk, but I was still really pleased to hear songs like “Vasten mun kasvojani,” “Mitä kuuluu,” and “Koneeseen kadonnut,” and of course, “Sata kesä, tuhat yötä,” a Paula Koivuniemi cover from Vain Elämää, in the encore. It was also pretty funny to hear him change the words to one song to be about Kainuu factories spewing shit. It was a really fun show to watch, even if it wasn’t their best setlist.
One thing I loved about it was seeing so many people who were probably teenagers or in their early 20s in the 90s when Apulanta started, rocking out to the music at the show. I began to realize how great it is that people in their 40s and 50s and so on still rock out to music in Finland. It seems like, in Canada, you are either so into it that you’re a “dirty old rocker” or you outgrow music you loved in your youth. You can’t just casually go enjoy a rock concert. It’s fantastic how fun and casual and natural the feeling is in Finland, and that really makes the concerts here special. The only thing the show was really missing was pyrotechnics.
So how was our first experience at Sotkamon Syke? We might have hoped for a bit nicer weather, you know, something a little higher above 10 degrees, but we didn’t get totally dumped on, which was nice. The band selection was really solid across both days and the quality of the concerts was awesome. Maybe the jokes about the weather got old, but the energy and enthusiasm from the bands kept us warm no matter what. We hope to be back again next year to see what else this small-town festival has to offer!
Photos: Timo Määttä; Photo editing: Bear W. | Santa Cruz photos: Lauri Pääkkö (Idea Media)