Off Festival 2016, Brodka, Willis Earl Beal, Liima, Jenny Hval, RYSY, Lush, Jaga Jazzist, Jambinai, GusGus, Kero Kero Bonito, Kiasmos
OFF Festival 2016, August 7th, 2016
Thanks to the Facebook Memories function, I know that exactly six years ago—at my first OFF Festival. (Writing styles change considerably, and the internet never forgets, so I’ll refrain from linking to my earlier coverage.) Since then, the event,and Poland as a whole, has become a sentimental favorite.
It’s that emotion that has me painting this year’s edition (the eleventh in all) as another success—even though the festival wasn’t smooth sailing in many regards. The trouble started the day before when The Kills, a headliner, unexpectedly canceled due to an ill-timed bout of pneumonia. (Of course, having once spent two months in bed with a similar ailment, can tell you there is no such thing as well-timed respiratory disease.) The final night’s headliner ANOHNI made it as far as the hotel before she too canceled out due to illness. Rappers GZA and Wiley went AWOL. And Thundercat received a serious eye injury forcing him to postpone his set. (He would recover and go on to fill in for ANOHNI as a headliner—so at least one musician got happy ending to his story.)
But OFF Festival has always positioned itself as a source of music discovery. And as disruptive as all these schedule changes were, it did take the festival back to its roots. Friends tell me that the price for the earliest 2-day editions was 20 zl—roughly six dollars. They would buy a ticket, not because they wanted to see their favorite band, but because they wanted to discover their new favorite band.
In the words of my patron saint Liz Lemon: I want to go to there.
And I kinda did. Here’s a rundown of how the weekend went, in all its muddy, musical glory.
This was perhaps the most experiment-heavy day of the festival. (Which is saying something since they had a whole stage dedicated to the non-genre.) While some of it I simply didn’t get. (My deepest apologies to Adam Gołębiewski—I know you’ve collaborated with Yoko Ono and Thurston Moore, but that still doesn’t make me want to sit in a tent and hear you bang drums with PVC pipes for 45 minutes.). But there were also plenty of enjoyable surprises and familiar faces.
Willis Earl Beal began his set by taking off his shoes and doing a series of yoga moves before pressing play on the iPod mini that held his backing tracks. “I used to have a mannequins on stage but they left me,” he told the audience—many who were not sure how seriously they should take the troubadour’s off-the-cuff remarks. (“No clapping!” he shouted after another song. “I want it to feel like I'm alone. People don't clap for you in real life so don't clap for me.”) As eccentric as he might appear, there was nothing joy to his lithe dance moves and classic soul voice.
Efterklang off-shoot Liima are no stranger to experimentalism—but the Danish collective get certainly gets the prize for making easy to listen to pop. Their debut ii is percussive and melancholy, the exact kind of thing that wouldn’t go over well at a fest, if it wasn’t for their afternoon slot and sheer charisma. I’m a particular fan of their Finnish drummer Tatu Rönkkö, who spent the majority of the set whacking a series of orange mixing bowls.
I’ve been told by several friends that Jenny Hval’s “soft dick rock” is meandering and hard to get into. I’ve been told by several friends that Jenny Hval is the savior of modern music. I found her set to be neither of these things. But I did think it was important. Entering in a cheap blond wig to skittering electronic beats, she proceeded to read a statement about making music festivals—and the world at large—a safe place. (“If someone touches you inapproachably, tell them to fuck off. If you can’t, ask someone else to tell them to fuck off. It’s not your fault, your sexuality is not for others to take.”) She ended the speech by chanting “safe” over and over. It was simple, mesmerizing, and as many can sadly tell you, a much needed reminder.
Of all the Polish artists to perform at the festival, no one feels more ready for international stage than Brodka. The reality show darling turned experimental pop princess presented songs from her fourth album (and first in English) Clashes, backed by a full band and string section. She’s a bit like the Polish Madonna—a musical figurehead willing to break social norms with a wink and guitar covered in sticks of incense. (Seriously y’all: RIYL St. Vincent and Susanne Sundfør.) It didn’t matter that her set included a cover of Devendra Banhart’s “Taurobolium.” It didn’t matter that after six years of visits, I still don’t speak a lick of Polish. Everything she did felt full of personality and 100% hers. The exporting of Polish music is inevitable, and if it begins with her spiky pop, I wouldn’t be upset in the least.
We arrived to discover that the fest site contained notably more mud than the night before. Even though I was wearing white Converse (#FestivalFail) and even though the event is held in a place called Dolina Trzech Stawow (translation: Valley of Three ponds) this was significantly less of an issue than one might have thought. Sacrifices must be made in the name of throwing one’s hands in the air and waving them as though you’re moderately carefree. (Here would be a good place to pause and admit the wine was 2 dollars a glass.)
Starting off my day with Polish electro duo RYSY. Even though vocalist Justyna Święs was absent, The xx leaning vibe was enough to draw a notable crowd. Sure, it wasn’t much to look at (Seriously, are dudes twiddling knobs and frowning at laptops EVER compelling?) but as far as chill-out vibes go, they were right on target.
The big legacy act this year was Under the Radar favorite Lush—so a rave review here probably wouldn’t surprise you much, would it? Miki Berenyi hasn’t resurrected her red locks (#HairGoals) but their appearance at the fest is a case of the more things change, the more things stay the same. That and that shoegazy guitars will never go completely out of fashion. I would have been happy if they played Split from start to finish, but hearing material from last year’s EP Blind Spot made me hopeful that the band can/will avoid becoming another reunion cautionary tale.
Okay what’s the deal with Jaga Jazzist? If you’re a musician in Norway are their like, required stints with the group? The band’s twitter places the body count at eight, but given the crowded stage and lighting patterns (There were bars of flashing lights. Lots of ‘em.) my personal count hovered between 20 and 200. Their free-form jazz was incredibly easy to enjoy. Both psychedelic and a bit weird, the music kept making me lose track of time and place. Which I guess is kinda the point.
With the absence The Kills, Jambina was moved to the headlining slot on the main stage. To be honest, the South Korean band had me cringing at first. (I blame seeing Frog Eyes at an impressionable age for my aversion to noise rock.) But slowly the noise subsided into something more delicate and interesting. Plus the fact they traditional Korean instruments? All the cooler. Here’s hoping Jaga Jazzist was watching—I’d be so down to see a collaboration go down between the two.
My night ended with GusGus, mainly because I’m an unrepentant fan of both Pet Shop Boys and Iceland, and frontman Birgir Þórarinsson reps incredibly well for both those things. Plus on stage he looks like he’s living his best life now—and who am I to argue? I didn’t stay long but I didn’t have to. Hearing them perform unrepentant love song “Crossface” was enough to make my night.
Hello exhaustion. Which is why my day started with Kero Kero Bonito. The group, fronted by human cupcake Sarah, is a powerful bad mood eradicator. Dare you to embrace cynicism when a sweet-voiced pop singer is cooing about “doing your homework so you’ll make lots of money” and beating boys and video game. Sure, it’s kitsch of the highest form—but can you argue with a sea of smiling faces?
And then there was Lightning Bolt. Remember how I said I didn’t like noise rock? Yeah, that. Although made props to the drummer who performed while wearing a terrifying cloth mask. “I didn’t put my face on tight enough!” he told the audience after playing the first grating, high-energy song. “Imagine meeting someone and your face falls of!”
After the announcement that AHONI would not be playing the headlining set that evening the crowds thinned out notably, and we were left with some time on our hands. Which Patha Du Prince Presents The Triad filled nicely. With these “presenting” slots, you never know exactly what you’ll get. Is it a vanity project? Or something they genuinely believe in? Thankfully it was a set worth believing in. Three musicians sat at laptops and drums droning, banging, and occasionally whisper-singing. On their heads were three large silver bowls that reflected the light and actually created some pretty stunning mini-visuals. It was understated, stunning, and like the running theme of the festival, a pretty great way to lose yourself for a bit.
My evening and festival ended with Kiasmos, an Icelandic electronic duo who actually make laptops look kinda fun. (It should be noted that in addition to being a piano savant, Olafur Arnalds is ace when it comes to pointing at the sky.) With not an iPad in sight, the two men managed a show that managed to somehow improve upon the already standout disco groves, ambient synth drones, and throbbing, post-pop swirl of their self-titled debut. It might not have been a headliner set—but it was good enough for me.
So that brings us to our final summation. The paragraph when writers bring it all back home, make some long point about the overall theme of the festival, and if we’re lucky, life as a whole. But I’m not going to do that. The best thing about OFF is that it’s a choose your own adventure. Like electro? Hate noise rock? Wanna sit in the food tent and drink Polish craft beer? Totally doable. The only person you can blame for not having a good time is yourself.
As it should be.
Check out a gallery of photos from the weekend here.
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