With Arcade Fire, TV On The Radio, The Streets

It’s a splendidly sunny weekday lunchtime in a picturesque Zagreb square and five well-scrubbed young people in traditional costume are grinning their way through some thoroughly pleasant period folk. Croatia is celebrating 20 years as an independent nation this week and a small clutch of locals merrily stop and snap pictures before going about their regular Balkan business.

Jump forward 30 hours or so and a very different live spectacle unfolds, as a more outgoing native starts getting naked at a crucial point in one of The Streets’ last ever gigs. “Two minutes!” gestures Mike Skinner at the chap he’s now sharing the stage with, and the slightly scary-looking dude thinks about it, eventually nods and returns to his patient vigil. Soon his tackle will be unshackled.

For any big-name bands currently feeling a bit unloved, INmusic is the place to play next year: if you’re any good the Zagreb hordes will welcome you with open arms, and sometimes even open trousers. They do like to get involved over here.

Day One

There are some impressive names on the 2011 bill but the first bit of notable audience participation occurs during an afternoon set by a Slovenian ska-punk outfit called Elvis Jackson. INmusic is based on a man-made island resort so you can swim your way to the site if you feel like it, and one girl in the front row is still armed with a lilo. It suits the holiday mood rather well so the beachwear-clad singer persuades her to crowd-surf on it. Precarious hi-jinks ensue.

Elvis and Jackson were indisposed this year but almost as eye-popping on the bill – they aren’t even headlining – are Arcade Fire, who have been dying to play Zagreb for years apparently and arrived a few days early to get the full flavour of Dalmatia (the sun-blessed Adriatic region in which Zagreb sits).

Regine and the Butlers are in garrulous, energetic, carefree form, so much so that Win gets a bit carried away, wades into the crowd, suddenly stops singing, staggers back to the stage with his shirt ripped open, slowly buttons it back up again and eventually explains all on his return to the microphone: apparently he’d managed to mildly electrocute himself on the crash barrier. It looked more like an unexpected nipple-revealing wardrobe malfunction, in truth.

Over on the ‘world’ stage Portugese afro-techno types Buraka Som Systema create even more audience mayhem with their booty-shaking sub-bass dance anthems, but back on stage one the slightly odd headliner Jamiroquai then immediately dampens all that goodwill. There are numerous wearers of his T-shirts knocking around but even they look nonplussed when he kicks off with a couple of obscure newer songs, and we can’t help harking back to the classic

Ralph McTell sketch from Simon Pegg old sketch show Big Train (Google it once you’re finished here) by screeching ‘Streets of London!’ at him every few seconds, to the confusion of everyone nearby. Then he does ‘Canned Heat’ in a different key, which is just annoying.

Day Two

What are the kids in Croatia listening to when these infuriating Western outfits aren’t around? They’re listening to Elemental, a Zagreb-based hip-hop crew who get a full 90-minute set in mid-afternoon, which is good going. But then they’re big throughout the whole of the former Yugoslavia, from “Slovenia to Macedonia,” according to frontwoman Remi - even Belgrade. The Balkan war was 20 years ago now and while some older Croatian artists still refuse to play in Serbia, the new generation are building bridges.

“The whole region, the former Yugoslavia, everyone who understands our language, they can relate to the songs,” says Remi’s MC partner Shot, backstage after their show. “It’s not difficult to be big in this region,” Remi agrees. “People in Serbia, they have the same issues, the same politicians with different names.”

The idea of an eastern European hip-hop act may not sound too appealing but Elemental are anything but a watered-down version of Western outfits: they rap entirely in Croatian and have had videos banned by TV here due to their uncompromising MP-baiting. It’s all thoroughly watchable, even if we haven’t a clue what they’re on about.

Over on the ‘hidden’ stage Icelandic good-time teens Retro Stefson are more nakedly feelgood indie-pop, even finishing off with a splash of cheesy techno and euro house before parting the crowd down the middle so their bare-torsoed ‘vibes’ man can leap in and perform some energetic moves. He then positions himself at the back of the divided audience and tries to peg it back to the stage before the two sides crash back together, like an Icelandic interpretive dancer doing The Prince of Egypt.

Minutes later the Stefson boys join Clash for an invigorating set from TV on the Radio, who are on impressively upbeat form despite the death of their popular bassist Gerard Smith just a few weeks ago. TVOTR’s earlier albums weren’t always the easiest of listens but the New Yorkers have evolved into a compelling live band, and Tunde Adebimpe boasts one of rock’s most distinctive and affecting voices. ‘Staring at the Sun’ sends a shiver down the spine even in this balmy weather.

It’s all about the other arenas tonight. On the main stage Cypress Hill seem to go down well enough with the locals (who love their hip-hop because it “was the only music after the war that was new,” Elemental’s MC Shot explained earlier) but then the Zagreb massive are heavily into the heavy stuff too. For many punters – those wearing bloody great black boots despite it being open-toed sandals weather – this year’s must-see act are the mighty Mastodon.

Croatia’s love for these Georgians – the American Georgia, not the Soviet republic - became apparent the night before when our long and sweaty cab ride from the site was soundtracked by several of the band’s ominous epics – the DJ had almost certainly nipped off for a comfort break – and they don’t disappoint in the flesh. Such is the copse-like leafy splendour of the hidden stage that it’s a bit like watching Metallica headline a village fete, and, let’s face it, we’d all like to see that.

Back on the big stage Grinderman are the closing act, which, again, is a slightly curious bit of scheduling – perhaps nobody wanted to follow Cave – and much more fun is to be had next door, with that Streets show. Skinner and co avoid a Jay Kay-like false start by ploughing straight into ‘Don’t Mug Yourself’ and despite peppering the set with new songs there’s no point us giving them the ‘Streets of London!’ treatment as (a) it’d sound like we were just drunkenly namechecking the band (b) the new album is really rather good.

Skinner also looks delighted to be here and works the crowd incessantly, rabbiting away (“I love your corporate balloons”), forming man-made moshpits and, yes, encouraging everyone to get naked. Eventually he narrows it down and asks for just one male volunteer to go pantless, but unfortunately said chap is a bit over-eager and jumps onstage halfway through their one slow song, ‘Dry Your Eyes.’ Mike sizes him up, calms him down, and - once the clothes are all off – sends him surfing out over the audience.

Well, a modern festival isn’t complete until you’ve had a Croatian chap’s arse bobbing up and down above you. Er, right?

Words by Si Hawkins
Photos by Hazel Gumble

View a full accompanying photo gallery from the T-Mobile INmusic festival 2011 on ClashMusic.com HERE.

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