After an accidental overnight stay in Frankfurt discussing the complexities of Brexit with drunk businessmen, Clash with bleary eyes returned to the scenic beauty of the Three Ponds Valley, Poland for a weekend of unbeatable musical variety and restorative atmosphere. Now enjoying its twelfth year of existence, OFF has grown into something of an oasis for those sick and tired of standard hierarchal line ups, crap food, and profit over passion gatherings.
The key to its high acclaim in the industry is creative director Artur Rojek’s vision for showcasing thought producing artists from every corner of the world. This ensures that despite its relatively small size it’s an impossibility to ever feel less than intrigued, amazed, or happily baffled at all times. If you’ve ever want to hear Lo-Fi madness, free styling Jazz and a dash of Afrobeat all before you’ve finished your second beer, then boy is this the festival for you.
Friday sets the tone confidently, the snot faced snarl of London’s Shame on the Forest Stage perfectly counter balanced by Polish composer and guitarist Raphael Roginski’s virtuoso playing at the other end of the site. Brooklyn’s The Men proved a band of two sides; bouncing between No Wave styled wig outs and more singer-songwriter fair, further adding to the festival’s atmosphere of unpredictability. However, it was Bristol boys IDLES who really kick things into gear, their incendiary set of pissed off anthems filling the Trojka tent to over spilling. It’s a beautiful thing to see many rightfully enraged music fans kick out against their conservative governments, no matter the language barrier.
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Refreshing vodka and cider in hand, your correspondent took some time to admire the offer of bull testicles, peruse the first-rate vinyl stalls, and test the outside beds the organizers had kindly supplied. All this was a brief respite before Shellac took to the main stage to perform a no nonsense slab of DIY guitar music Steve Albini style. The songs regularly bounced between menace and humour, only helping solidify why the 90s was such a special time for those who headbang.
"This is the song where you look into the eyes of the person you want to go home with tonight." Ever the champ, Feist is helping people get laid in addition to enchanting all with material from this year’s ‘Pleasure’. Easily her most subdued work, a more stripped back line up than previously seen boldly plays half the new record before any past hits are seen. Not that there was any reason to worry, she manages to pull off this risky maneuver while building a rare intimate connection with the audience as opposed to turning them off. "I talked to other artists who’ve played here, and they said just to trust you guys." They weren’t wrong. As ever OFF’s attendees show an eager politeness for any material thrown there way be it death metal or a folky smash hit.
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Saturday got its weird on in quick speed with Japan’s Kikagaku Moyo and their first class psychedelia warming up attendees before Richard Dawson packed out the experimental tent with his unclassifiable and mystifying songwriting. Sheer Mag's main stage set brought things back to earth with their retro no frills rock 'n' roll, singer Tina Halladay keeping the spirit of Bon Scott alive over some righteous riffs. Later Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali was a real point of interest for many, her traditional nomadic tales of the Sahara mixed with contemporary influences to produce a uniquely captivating performance.
An early set for the festival's biggest name, PJ Harvey made a commanding presence backed by her large somber and suited band. Right-hand man John Parish in addition to Mick Harvey and Alain Johannes helped weave a textured sound that's evolved drastically from her early days, numbers from 'The Hope Six Demolition Project’ and 'Let England Shake' filling up the majority of the set. More likely to be rocking a saxophone over a guitar of late, the increased number of touring musicians allowed Harvey to deliver a more physical performance than usual, her strange motions and feather dress helping complete her image as the reigning queen of alternate music. An outing of the ferocious '50 Foot Queenie' also helped remind everyone who's boss.
A surprising highlight considering what came before were OFF regulars Mitch & Mitch. The big band's mix of lounge music, jazz and pop should have proven a step too normal for the sea of black t-shirts in the crowd, but frontman Macio Morettii’s infectious energy and banter couldn’t help but win you over. At the end of the night Talib Kweli’s more relaxed and ruckus approach created a nice contrast to the rest of the day's introspection. Some great mash ups of 'Eleanor Rigby' and The Jacksons in addition to a few Big Star classics creating the loudest sing-alongs of the day.
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On to Sunday and Warsaw hardcore outfit Bastard Disco shook off the cobwebs for what promised to be one last day of unbeatable variety. Japanese duo Group A brought their brand of batshit avant-garde to the smaller tent, words only going some way to describing the experience. Luckily words such as brooding and immersive go well with Circuit Des Yeux’s performance, her arresting voice and penetrating manner fighting against the sunny sky.
Conor Oberst and band brought some sweet Americana to Katowice, a fiery rendition of 'Roosevelt Room' dedicated to 'That fucking orange monkey and his rat fucking kids’ blowing everyone away. Come nightfall Thee Oh Sees quite possibly stole the whole festival. The San Franciscan’s hour-long assault on the senses never fell into predictability, their tripped out garage rock melting the faces of all present with ease. Still, for those suffering last day fatigue Post Rock peddlers Wreckmeister Harmonies offered refuge, the Chicago outfit's hypnotic melodies building a twilight realm to get lost in. An absolute gift for audiophiles.
After a truly mind/ear altering set a few years ago, it was up to Swans to close the main stage Sunday. Anticipation is high, and Michael Gira and co. reliably create a wall of noise there's no escape from. For something slightly less intense, but just as interesting, British cellist Oliver Coates unique brand of experimental dance got the people moving or smiling perplexed. By 2am the majority is leaving, smiles slapped on faces and ears most likely ringing.
For a festival that thrives off esoteric eclecticism, the most beautifully rare thing you notice about OFF is the crowd. You can’t help but admire how every performance is watched with respect, how not one disco casualty or bad drunk is to be seen, or rubbish for that matter. They clearly understand that this local gem is a special breed and should be treated so. They're not wrong. Here’s to a mind bending 2018.
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Words: Sam Walker-Smart