Tallinn Music Week was bigger than ever in 2016, meaning more gigs to cover than ever before. I tried to see and hear as much as possible - here's what I thought.
I Wear* Experiment
I'd gone crazy for this band when I heard 'Patience' for the first time, but only hearing that song live meant I wasn't able to get a proper scope of the band's capabilities. This time, I had the chance to give the trio the proper appraisal they deserved, and the sonic assault in Kultuurikatel was controlled aggression at its best. In particular, the foreboding motorik of 'Driving Alone at Night' was outstanding.
If the Chemical Brothers started out now, they'd probably just be one Chemical, and he'd probably have a drum pad, a processor and an Apple Mac. Andres Kõpper makes the kind of breezy, party-friendly dance music that is perfect for the opening night of a showcase. Another artist I felt I knew better after seeing him in a dedicated gig venue.
The three boys from Tartu showed what all the fuss was about. It's the kind of music - melodic, anthemic power-chord synth-rock - that we haven't heard much of since U2 and Simple Minds had a rivalry. This fact might mean that the band's music isn't as commercial as it should be, but I have hope for them based on this performance. The important thing is to be able to write a song with a chorus the crowd can hum on first listen; Flank have this nailed.
I was either feeling adventurous or foolhardy, but I decided I wanted to go straight from Flank in Rock Cafe, on the airport side of Tallinn, to see two performances in Black-Heads' House, on Pikk street in the Old Town. It's the kind of journey that is only possible because Tallinn is roughly the size of Brighton & Hove Actually, and because the tram network, though held together by wishes and sticky-tape, runs faultlessly. Eeter make experimental, dense electronic music, which fitted the basement of this old building really well.
It was the fourth time I'd heard Maarja Nuut at TMW, and each time the buzz around her has grown. In 2013, she was in the second room at No.99, with a few interested listeners sat on cushions. 2014 saw Maarja graduate to the larger room in that 19th Century theatre. 2015 was a jam-packed Vaba Lava theatre. This year, the violinist who has toured America and been praised by Simon le Bon of Duran Duran was performing in two gigs. Somehow, amid the maelstrom, she's remained the same artist she always has been - captivating her audience with folk tales told using beautiful playing, and technology that amplifies, rather than hides, her talent.
Back to Rock Cafe, and it was a very different young Estonian female artist ruling the stage. Elina Born seems to have grown a foot taller as a result of her Eurovision experience - she now looks, sounds and dominates like a frontwoman. Elina's band is heavier and rockier, as is her voice, which has real gravitas that I didn't hear in 2014 when I first heard her. Fan familiarity with the songs helped - the album has been out for some time, and there were enough up-tempo tunes with singalong choruses to make this showcase set a pleasure.
Karl-Erik Taukar Band
A lot of people like Karl-Erik Taukar, and I'm prepared to concede that my Estonian isn't good enough yet (I am learning) to derive the kind of meaning from his songs that his many fans obviously do. That said, he's always struck me as a chiselled boyband singer who happens to play the guitar well. Even though he has a rock band for backing, Taukar's music reminds me of Gerry & the Pacemakers - not that that's a bad thing, necessarily.
I'd been recommended this band, and they were pretty good, but as it was my first time hearing them, I couldn't identify any memorable choruses or hooks, and so struggled to relate to the music. Not all music has to have hooks - it's just how my mind works, and Avoid Dave are musically-proficient, I just wasn't keen on what they performed.
Performing songs from their multi-award-winning album 'Ah!', which the band must have done several hundred times in different countries around the world by now, Trad. Attack! pulled the trick of making their modern, dance-inspired take on a folk shindig sound completely fresh. It's what you need to do at a showcase set - and Jooks Bike Shop in Telliskivi Loomelinnak was a fun, unconventional venue in which to hear this group that seems to have put a youthful spring back into traditional music.
Every year, it seems I go to Soprus Kino on a spontaneous whim, breaking from my planned schedule, and come out having heard a new favourite. Joste comes from Latvia and plays piano and guitar sometimes with her eyes to the sky, sometimes with her eyes down, and sometimes with them closed. It was a deeply personal set, that felt a bit like reading a private diary - it was as if the young singer had put her whole soul on display in gently-crafted, wispy ballads of torment and self-doubt. I found myself in my own world during the set, and will go to future gigs she puts on.
If there was a prize for most improved band, Würffel would win hands-down. I heard their song 'Coffee' in 2014, and was underwhelmed. With hindsight, their first album 'Beats and Bubbles' was okay - certainly not a bad debut - but 'I'm Facing North', the new release, is so good that the live set caught me by surprise. Rosanna Lints danced around the stage in a tutu, her asymmetric haircut suggesting La Roux's Elly Jackson, if the 'Bulletproof' singer were more fun. Her voice was part of a cut-glass wall of sound created by banks of synths, with both of the male keyboardists looking immaculate in designer overcoats. 'I'm Facing North' is now on repeat in my flat.
The Estonian singer who lives in Switzerland has always thought boldly, but her latest album 'Demimonde' is her bravest step. Suffice to say Twisted Dance Company were integrated fully into the act this time, and this felt like the realisation of Lukas's vision, shedding LED light on what she called her "universe."
My friend from Vilnius was in Rock Cafe especially to hear this Afrobeat-hip-hop band, who certainly broke the template of the evening. There was aggression, joviality and a sense of irreverence - and though this isn't really my kind of music, I appreciated the way the band pretty much forced the audience to have a good time, before carrying them along in a frenzy.
I plead the fifth - I didn't enjoy this set, from the Estonian-language rapper who is at least much better than Põhja-Tallinn, but it seemed it wasn't intended for me, and I don't think Reket's scrum of fans care one bit what I think, nor should they.
A moment I'd waited five years for - the chance to see Kerli perform in Tallinn, the last time I'd done so being the 20th anniversary of restoration of independence, and we are the lucky ones. She's one of that small clutch of artists who are genuine survivors, and who can explain what they've been through in songs that also mean something personal to each person who listens to them.
My friend, who is possibly Kerli's biggest fan, said she cried, and though my eyes remained dry, there was something spellbinding about this set, even taking into account the large number of new songs, many of which the crowd and I had not heard before. Kerli reinvents herself like Bowie - and as with the Duke, there's nothing fake about any of her reinventions. This is Kerli, what you see is what you get, and we're glad to have her back in Estonia.