Yaga Gathering 2020, Lithuania, 6-10 August | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Friday, December 4th, 2020  

Yaga Gathering 2020, Lithuania, 6-10 August,

Aug 18, 2020 Web Exclusive Photography by Lempaphoto Bookmark and Share


The tragedy that's unfolded this year due to Covid-19 - in terms of health and financial fall out - is unprecedented and sickening. It's tough to put it in words without sounding cold. It's a once in a generation disaster that has ripped through so much of society. 


Narrowing the focus, I think it's important to acknowledge the damning impact of it on live music. Not because it's more important than any other casualty of this situation, but because it's relevant to Under the Radar.

Back when SXSW got cancelled in March, making the headlines all over the world, I don't think any of us thought the situation would escalate to the extent it has. It just felt bizarre then. An anomaly where everything would soon work itself out. But "festival cancelled" headlines eventually became so numerous, publications stopped writing them. This Yaga Gathering review, being only the third 'live section' article to make it to Under the Radar in 2020, is a reminder of the desert we've been in. The first few festivals to actually be re-announced in recent weeks have been so few, that even the more obscure festivals in Europe have graced the pages of NME, and other major publications, for returning to action.

To put some numbers on this slowdown, there's been a study made (by EY.com) for the French market. For 2020, it's forecast 43 percent loss of revenue for the entire music industry there (4.5 billion).Subsequently emphasising how much of a chunk "live" is - not just in France - but in every music market.

Lithuania has acted relatively swiftly in the situation, doing what it can with rational, staggered loosening of restrictions. For context, Lithuania, like neighbours Latvia and Estonia, has (although there's no such thing as a good pandemic; obviously) dealt with it quite well. It's a success story with low case rates and case numbers.

As a result, Lithuania was one of the first countries affected by Covid-19 to go back to hosting outdoor gatherings, putting on a drive-in concert back as early as April. It later announced that from 16 July, it would be allowed for 1,000 tickets to be sold for outdoor events.

Yaga Gathering acted on this. To offer safe distance, Yaga uses the sprawling, remote site usually capped at 3,000 ticket holders and sells it out at the allowed 1,000. It's a comfortable transition back into mass gatherings for me in this situation and as a first timer there, getting to know the site. A well-kept secret, Yaga sells mostly to people who've been coming year-after-year; to sworn disciples of its absurd brilliance.

"Niche," is how Anton Shoom, the founder, describes his own festival when I meet him in his wood cabin office during the festival.

Everyone involved in organising it has a second occupation and this is a festival that treats the experience above corporate expansion. There is absolutely no advertising on site, either, which is a beautiful touch. I get a bit irked when I'm getting transcendental on the dancefloor and then look up and see 58 brand signs around me, like I'm on a high street.

Beyond no advertising - and the ability to allow every structure to tuck into the landscape beautifully, built as it is out of rustic wood and other natural materials - the festival grounds are ridiculously pretty. I don't think I've ever been to a better festival location in Europe. Yes, it helps that it's a heatwave weekend; but it's more than that: it's just stunning to be under an hour from Vilnius, the nation's capital, and feel so remote.

The ethnographic region is Dzūkija and the forest Yaga Gathering calls home forms part of Spengla Hydrological reserve - somewhere I count myself lucky to be. There's a clearing at the lakeside for the main stage, but it's pretty much dense forest throughout. You camp between trees on a ground overflowing with blueberries, wild mushrooms and dragonflies. The small, sandy 4x4 track you use to navigate from stage-to-stage, or chai yurt-to-gong bath, depending which way you are inclined to spend your festival, is beautifully lit up at night with lanterns. Everyone around is really laid back, too. Oh, and get this: the only water tap people go to is a natural spring, which feeds into a crystal clear stream so pretty it evokes the tranquillity of a French impressionist painting. The festival is blessed to have a generous length of the stream's course as part of the site. It allows revellers so many swimming spots. Neatly perched just above the stream, is a well-hidden psy-trance stage. The stage isn't officially programmed for the first time in Yaga history, partly due to the downsizing of the event because of the pandemic. And, as I'm informed by the founder, it's partly due to wanting to place emphasis on the gathering aspect as opposed to musical genre. The troupe have none of that, though, and cover their own costs, making it irresistible for Yaga to say no, leaving everyone happy in the end.

Yaga from space
Yaga Gathering festival site from space


And just quickly before I get to the music, I have to mention the lake: It's warm for swimming as it's shallow and marshy. There's a marsh island floating around the lake on its own accord, detached from any anchor. So each time you head down to the shore you get a different view. It even crashes into the jetty when I'm standing at one point, cracking the wooden ladder.

The lake is a great focal point at the festival. It feels like the town centre with two of the three officially programmed rigs there, a pop-up DJ-only Soundsystem put on last minute by Lithuanian radio station LRT Opus and the main stage. The main stage, "The Valley", squeezes three different curators' styles into one stage for an eclectic mash up this year. If there wasn't Covid, they'd each have their own pitch. Nevertheless, it's really spacious. It doesn't once feel crushed.

The first music I see at the Valley is the artist who got me into the festival as her plus one: Latvia's Elizabete Balcus. I've seen her set plenty of times as we've travelled around the world together with her music recently so I can't be impartial. The next act I see come bounding on straight after Elizabete and is a bonkers duo (usually a three-piece, dealing well without one member tonight) from Blackpool and South Korea called Tirikilatops. Emitting an exuberant, playful electronic beat they offer a fantastical escape and party vibe. It's somewhat maniacal, in a good way, like going on an amphetamine-riddled trip through a massive games arcade in Tokyo.

Stage costumes are next level, too: To match some fish-themed songs they're dressed in what you'd imagine Jack Sparrow would look like if he had a knit from his nan who'd had too many e numbers. And their droll, northern English humour between songs works a treat to get the crowd loose. Truly the most theatrical act of the festival.

The Valley arena holds my attention for the rest of the evening. There's decent cumbia from Lithuania's Planeta Polar. They're a hit with the locals and the singer, touchingly, proclaiming it's been his lifelong dream to perform at Yaga appears genuine. To finish the night, I'm awed by Boikafe and Marek Voida. I catch only the final cut of Boikafe, who registers his sole interest in life on Facebook as "hard syncopated polyrhythmic drums" is mind-blowing. Mono focus and dedication clearly paying off. Voida, meanwhile, takes the reigns and has a big act to follow but manages supremely well, with some hypnotic, thought provoking compositions and a big club sound.

Sleeping at Yaga festival is doable because you're walking a lot and hit the ground like a ton of bricks by the time you want to sleep. But in any usual circumstance you wouldn't sleep from where we are. Our tent is pitched quite close to the second stage, "Pinegrove chill", which pumps out ambient music around the clock at impressive volume. I end up quite liking the effect of the music not stopping, though. I don't think I've ever been to a festival which has music around the clock without a single bit of rest. It offers a certain hypnotic immersion into this parallel world you've been invited into. I catch myself feeling every moment all that bit more dramatic and it renders my bluetooth speak thankfully irrelevant for the weekend.

The next morning it's off to check the Chill area properly. And it's really well kitted out: There's hammocks just about everywhere; the pines are slightly sparser than camp so you can dance but trees still decorate every few yards. There's the usual esoteric amusements, such as drum workshop, ritualistic standing on nails, chai, curries, crystals. And the music is often ambient but never generic. It offers captivating aural accompaniment without fail.

The standout performer on this stage for me is Jausme. Playing the kanklės, a traditional Lithuanian zither-harp, with other layered sounds, she has everyone so blissed out and so appreciative for how she makes them feel. There's real synergy at work.

Come the evening, it's off back to the Valley to catch neo krautrockers Klinke, for whom it must be strange performing and watching some of the crowd - me included - standing in a sandpit playing with a huge block of clay. Nice installation, though. It's truly complementary to the music to express your creativity in a way that isn't dancing. 

Anyway, the band is actually my favourite new band at the moment. Krautrock revivalists up there with the likes of Föllakzoid and Camera. On top of an astute sonic output and tight jams, their stage presence is strong. The bass player has an air of Rhys Webb from The Horrors about him as he roams the stage giving it some. Can imagine this band doing really well in the long run. Ones to watch, lads.

The rest of the night I don't return to the Valley. Instead it's spent soaking in the "vibes" in the Chill arena. Meeting people, playing drums, crystal shopping. Big on the lifestyle side of this festival, some punters don't even leave the Chill area the whole event. It is really magical place, and fun enough to see the night out there.

Sunday is my last day of the festival and it's still ridiculously hot like the other days so it's spent in the water, admiring this weird moving island I was on about earlier, for the most part. And eating breakfast and taking it all in.

Yaga woods

I suppose, if there's one thing to feel even slightly aggrieved about is perhaps there's this "Absurdistan" theme which they set for the year doesn't come off that well visually among punters because I don't see a great deal of outlandish costumes. I think it's been good for marketing the festival and it's helped create a precedent for accepting everyone for who they are. I guess it's too hot for it, too. Most people are in swimming clothes the whole weekend. So, whatever. Barely a scratch to complain about. And providing there's no escalation in virus cases, Yaga 2021 is definitely on my radar whatever the line-up. It's just got so many other things than music going for it and the music it does put on are picks from the heart by promoters who really know their stuff. I think this is a powerful contender for best small festival in Europe for it's all round attributes. Supreme taste on every level and total and utter respect for the land, and the well-being of people on site. Yaga Gathering is legendary.

 




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