The connecting flight is overbooked. Airport staff look around anxiously, then send out a tannoy message asking if anyone would be willing to catch the next flight to Katowice, in exchange for the princely recompense of €250. No one seems to be stepping forward, and my mind begins to wander. What kind of afternoon could I have? Would it be unforgivable to take the money and blow it all on Jack Daniel’s and Toblerone? By the time I arrive at OFF Festival, whiskeyless but bathed in sunshine, I feel I’ve made the right call.
For one thing, it means I finally get to catch Shortparis live. The Russian band have made an epic journey to make it to Poland today, and the crowd are more than appreciative; if nothing else, singer Nikolay Komiagin is dressed to the nines in an unseasonable red jacket. What’s more impressive is the power of his voice, and though the band’s convulsive rhythms are somewhat lost on a big festival stage, it’s a solid start to the weekend.
I’m sure there’s a word in Polish for ‘sweltering’, but disappointingly, my phrase book doesn’t carry it. In spite of the heat, enough people are packed into a giant tent for the festival’s experimental stage, a twilight zone that produces equal parts intrigue and mayhem. Leeds post-punk act Housewives provide moments of weird brilliance, though the thin line between free-form expression and aimless bedroom jams soon grows thinner. (Like several acts on the Friday, the band seems to include one member primarily employed to dance half-naked. It’s unclear whether this is a new contractual obligation for 2018.)
Sure enough, Bishop Nehru spends his entire set running around shirtless, but to considerably greater effect. Regardless of whether you enjoy his brand of trap-heavy rap – and I most definitely do – it’s impossible not to be thrilled to see a crowd go absolutely nuts for an artist. Every track goes off, and everyone leave with the feeling that they’ve witnessed a star in ascent. Elsewhere, The Brian Jonestown Massacre are the first major international act to grace the main stage this weekend, but not the last to heavily divide opinion. Their set falls decidedly flat, though Anton Newcombe at least manages to watch his mouth this time. Thank heavens for small mercies.
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And then, well… then there’s M.I.A. Perhaps the mood has already dipped, but the crowd are slow to warm up to a lively set, and it soon seems like the artist isn’t having the best time up there either: there’s mention of sound issues, and her energetic MC is doing her best to lift spirits, but something’s off. It’s an M.I.A. set, ultimately, and it’s hard to have a bad time dancing to live renditions of ‘Bad Girls’ and ‘Paper Planes’, but lots of people I speak to afterwards seem to have left unimpressed. Finally seeing her live for the first time, though, she remains a joy to behold. Wrapping up Friday night on the forest stage, Jon Hopkins is an unqualified success, bringing his mix of the cerebral and the ecstatic together for one of those festival sets that you never want to end. Lamentably it does, and every sweaty departure lounge is expelled from memory.
After a 320m trip down into the depths of Katowice’s historic coal mine early Saturday afternoon, the sun feels hotter than ever – if there’s a Polish word for ‘sweltering’, it’s sadly absent from my pocket phrase book. Sure enough, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever match the sunshine for sheer joy, pleasure and ferocity, blasting through the feel-good indie rock that permeates their first two EPs and this year’s ‘Hope Downs’ with aplomb. Punk rock veterans Turbonegro keep the party going with one of the most entertaining sets I’ve witnessed at any festival. In lesser hands, covering the first section of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and finishing with a lap of honour to ‘Simply The Best’ might come across a little crass, but the band are so much fun that it’s hard not to love them more for it. In spite of a brief and wholly unexpected downpour, there’s little to dampen anyone’s spirits.
Polish favourites Skalpel provide an unusually mellow Saturday evening addition to the main stage, combining jazz, folk and ambient explorations to a rapturous reception from the crowd. Aurora delivers a breathtaking set on the forest stage, and while the songs may be a little too polished for some (“It’s just Radio 2 music,” one attendee muses), it’s undeniably accomplished. Charlotte Gainsbourg proves to be a fantastic choice of headliner, delivering an effortlessly stylish and pleasurable performance, culminating with a cover of Kanye West’s ‘Runaway’ that pretty much brings the house down.
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But Saturday night belongs to Wednesday Campanella. Having recently collaborated on a single with CHVRCHES, the Japanese act – represented by the sole figure of singer KOM_I on stage – are on a sharp upward trajectory, and on tonight’s evidence, it’s easy to see why. After rinsing a succession of smart, electronic pop, KOM_I does something fairly unusual: she steps into the crowd. Then, as she reaches the back of the venue, she does something utterly remarkable: she keeps walking. In a brilliantly bizarre spectacle, half the audience remain in the tent as the last song finishes, while half follow the artist – still clutching her microphone – up past the main stage, a procession of new acolytes curious to find out what happens next. As the music comes to an end in the distance, she turns around, now a long way from the experiment stage, and says thank you. What a star.
After what feels like a few hours’ sleep, Sunday greets us with a blinding set from Marlon Williams, who you may already know as the guy who hasn’t quite worked out whether he’s Jeff Buckley, Elvis, or Screaming Jay Hawkins. Whatever he puts his hand to seems to find success, but it’s his belting cover of the latter to close the set that leaves jaws gaping, each perfect, raw note more astonishing than the last. Posnan’s Asia i Koty provide elegant respite on the new Dr. Martens Stage, though heavy sound bleeding from bigger stages nearby means their delicate aesthetic is a little lost in the racket around us.
I’m sure you already have an opinion on Ariel Pink. In an interview, Julian Casablancas recently said he felt that Ariel would be remembered – in his opinion – as a David Bowie figure for this generation. If his performance at OFF is anything to go by, that’s a pretty damning indictment on Bowie. The less said the better.
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New Orleans party queen Big Freedia’s popularity in Poland is announced by one stall’s inclusion of a tribute dish: the delightfully named ‘Big Freedia’s booty-poppin’ potatoes’. Clash were sadly unable to establish the potency of said snack, but the artist herself certainly puts on a hell of a show, ending with a recording of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’. Because why not? It does mean that Grizzly Bear’s closing headline set on the main stage feels a little staid in comparison, though ‘Two Weeks’ still sounds as great as ever.
In between we have Zola Jesus, and if anyone’s proving themselves worthy of being remembered by future generations, it’s yung zeej down at the forest stage. Having recently spoken out on social media about the pressures placed upon major label artists to change themselves into something marketable, it’s a pleasure to see an artist doing exactly what she wants to do, and pulling it off. Early track ‘Night’ will forever be a highlight, but in truth the whole set sparkles. Keep doing you, ZJ.
For first time visitors, it’s only as OFF Festival draws to a close that you realise it’s not like many other festivals. No one’s visibly wasted, no one’s starting fights. And yet there’s no shortage of passion: watching the crowd lose their mind to some of the weekend’s highlights is a joy to behold in itself. Sincerely, this is a music lover’s audience, and I’m coming back next year to get lost within it once more. If you don’t see me till late evening, though, it’s only because I’m still working my way through €250’s worth of Swiss chocolate.
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Words: Matthew Neale
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