OFF Festival Katowice, Poland, August 3-5 2018 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Harry Merry

OFF Festival 2018

OFF Festival,

Aug 21, 2018 Web Exclusive
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The saturation of the European festival market is such that you might think that every potential money-spinning niche has long since been plundered, from increasingly mainstream-aping line-ups to calculated focuses on non-musical elements, from cuisine to comedy to fashion. The boldest, nay even most foolhardy, move of all is for your prize asset to be the experimental audacity of your booking policy, and yet nestled in the Southern Polish region of Silesia is OFF Festival, the long-established center of adventure for curious European music heads. With its thirteenth instalment, all of the flair and local focus that made it great is still on show, still elegantly disproving the idea that quality doesn’t sell.

The four-stage setup is easily navigated, even in this weekend’s wall-to-wall searing sunshine. The crowds, which grow steadily until reaching their peak on Friday evening, are friendly, jovial and above all respectful of the music on offer, restlessly curious and hungry for their expectations to be subverted. Ambient house, dusty retro hip-hop, Bulgarian folk, Japanese psych, it doesn’t matter to them, they are ready to meet the artist half way. Regular festival travellers will know this is not a given.

Gdansk’s Nanook of the North hit the Experimental Stage early on Friday. The duo of Stefan Wesolowski and Piotr Kalinski both have enviable reputations individually, but their first collaborative album was released early this year on the great Denovali Records. It is, in essence, a conceptual soundtrack to the 1922 silent documentary film of the same name, a project that they undertook at the behest of a Polish film festival. Their ambient electronic setting gives the images that play behind the stage a timelessness that any 1920s score could never conjure. If anything, it calls to mind the retro-futurist score work of Maurice Jarre or John Carpenter, with Wesolowski’s violin and keyboard contributions lending the set the same organic urgency upon which Robert J. Flaherty’s film depends. The crowd’s impeccable silence and patience is an early signpost that there is something in the air in Katowice.

At the other end of the energy spectrum is Bishop Nehru, fresh off the release of his debut solo record, Elevators: Act I and II. The New York rapper’s uncertainty of his place here is soon assuaged; within minutes, flailing arms reach for the roof of the Trojka Stage tent, creating a bed of hands onto which Nehru cannot help but launch himself. He spends most of the set’s second half crowdsurfing, sometimes maintaining his flow, sometimes content to let the crowd take care of that whilst he attempts the craft the perfect selfie. In a touching moment, he clambers back on stage and allows himself a moment to process what is happening to him, a gauntlet of emotions flashing across his face. It is a strikingly energized set in which unreleased tracks are welcomed as loudly as his most established bangers. Every festival needs a launching pad early on its first day, and this is it.

Few bands epitomise the OFF ethos better than Oxbow, the three-decade-tenured kings of the San Francisco underground. They have the Experimental Stage well over-populated and over-heated, their set ranging from earthen stoned jams to preaching, pounding art rock calls to arms. Eugene S. Robinson has a fervent, revolutionary charisma as the bandleader, provoking without sermonizing. The band are pure protein, all fakery and fat liposuctioned out of them. This is real music and OFF loves it. After the climax of their most dizzily time-signatured track “The Finished Line” from last year’s superlative Thin White Duke, they depart, only to find the crowd stomping their feet on the wooden floor in demand of more. At OFF, they even stomp their feet in rhythm.

The momentum of a festival day coalesces at the main stage headliner, or so that’s the idea. Tonight, M.I.A. has that honor, but she wears it like a burden. Seemingly unfocused and sluggish throughout, she relies disproportionately on the energy of sidekick DJ Emerald, whose professionalism and commitment only casts shade on the rest of the stage. “Who knows the words to this one,” exclaims M.I.A. at one stage, a perfectly acceptable buzz line to launch a new track, only this time it sounded more like a genuine inquiry. She later launches into a discourse on how she has been silenced by Facebook, a trademark anti-establishment tirade, but this time it is barely intelligible and consequently the crowd, whether she has a good point or not, doesn’t seem too concerned. The set finally picks up speed with “P.O.W.A.” and “Paper Planes,” but it’s all a little late. The set time is filled, the pre-programmed tracks are played, but in the end there is a feeling that nothing really has happened.

No accusation of the sort could be levelled at Jon Hopkins’ set as the night deepens. A truly monstrous sound emits from the Forest Stage’s stacks of speakers as Hopkins takes his sweet time sauntering through his most recent record Singularity. The ridiculous simplicity of a slowly revealed four-to-the-floor bass synth pulse at this volume defies any satisfying description, as he devilishly manipulates and withholds the drop, playing with our Pavlovian anticipations. As with anything, the real psychological action takes place during the waiting, the hovering on the edge of the precipice before the great jump. Hopkins appears to take a sadistic pleasure in holding us in that bubble, the velvet pound of the subwoofer growing imperceptibly at first, and then far outreaching its apparent limits. You’ve never heard your heartbeat played so loudly, nor felt it suddenly jolt so arrhythmically. It sends the people back to their tents with a contented exhaustion, ready to recoup and fight another day.

Saturday allows for an exploration of the food court, an integral and impressive dimension to the OFF experience that ranges from pierogi, the Polish dumpling delicacy, to a steak stall that peaks with a 42oz tomahawk steak that goes for a mere $40. It would perhaps not be advisable to so indulge before ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead’s set on the Forest Stage though, which sees them playing their heralded 2002 album Source Tags & Codes in full. There are rosy, nostalgic faces all around, and after 16 years the band still have enough verve to make these angsty songs zing. Full album shows always ask questions about pacing-the two formats have entirely different demands-and the memories of the album’s back end seem to have acquired some dust for this audience. The band don’t pack the punch of old, how could they, but they raise to a blazing finish nevertheless.

There are Polish acts up and down the OFF line-up, and as Saturday evening draws in the Main Stage greets the Skalpel Big Band, the newest project of the Ninja Tune-signed nu-jazz duo from nearby Wroclaw. Their collaboration has expanded to include a 15-piece jazz orchestra, conducted by Patryk Pilasiewicz, and the intricacies and interlocking rhythms of Skalpel’s compositions are now fully realized on stage. They find bliss in the midst of mayhem, an ornate, electronically-centred version of a historical cool jazz style that sounds like a new evolution of a form of music that has lain dormant for too long. They resist the temptation to use their headcount to simply flatten the audience’s ears with thunderous power, finding more joy in the patter between trumpet and vibraphone.

It all sets the stage for the arrival of headliner Charlotte Gainsbourg, a similarly gently-meaning artist that is more interesting in tickling your senses than battering them. Her presence is a touch of class; she possesses a swirling, self-assured state of composed relaxation on stage that is beguiling. The most emotionally affecting section of the show sees her playing her 2017 track “Kate,” her ode to her late half-sister, back to back with “Charlotte For Ever,” her 1986 duet with her father, the great Serge Gainsbourg. “Deadly Valentine” features a second half that sees Gainsbourg’s band letting their hair down and cutting a lounge-ready freestyle. In the context of this festival, it is a set light in challenging musical exploration, but it is impossible to take against Gainsbourg and her music.

Sunday begins in beautiful fashion on the Experimental Stage with ambient house producer Woyciech Bakowski, a set perfectly crafted to steer you gingerly through those sticky early hours should your Saturday night have taken a life of its own. For those capable of tuning into them though, there are depths to Bakowski’s sound designs. His pieces are alive with unforeseeable left turns and surprising sonic textures and changes in environment, with the most memorable passage featuring a frankly distressing sample of the strangulated cries of, well, was it a child? Or an animal? It’s that stage of Sunday lunchtime when things blur together all too easily.

The talk of Sunday is Ariel Pink, who has been entrusted to curate most of the day’s line up on the Experimental Stage, as well as playing a set himself on the Main Stage. “I’m in a bad mood,” are the very first words out of his mouth as he hits that stage. “Shut up,” are the next, in response to his wingman’s attempts to diffuse the already-awkward atmosphere. Pink fans are used to his demeanour being legendarily off-key, a fame-resistant barrier he surrounds himself with that more or less ensures that no matter how many crystalline pop melodies he creates, he will never crack the big time. The aura on stage does genuinely appear to be frosty, although such is the method commitment to this bristly persona, it could all be an elaborate situationist act.

Pink strolls around the stage, finding all the dustiest corners at the very back, turning his back to the crowd for long periods, invoking the late Mark E. Smith’s aggressively alienating stage presence. The set itself morphs around him, the band battling on bravely, the songs being held aloft by the quality of the writing above all. “Time to Meet Your God,” “Feels like Heaven,” and “Another Weekend” all rise above the surreal conditions, although microphones cut out at inopportune moments. With Pink though, technical issues also might be inbuilt to the performance. Either way, the crowd struggles to engage, with only the diehards visibly enjoying the absurdity. “Tune up guys, you don’t sound dynamic,” he accuses, before launching into final track “Baby,” the one genuinely beautiful, touching moment of the set. It won’t have won him any new fans, but few who experienced this set will soon forget it.

Far more crowd pleasing on Sunday night is one of Pink’s hand-selected acts, Harry Merry. The single most enchanting, uplifting experience of the weekend, there are Cheshire cat grins in every corner of an increasingly crowded tent as his set runs its course. For the uninitiated, he is an outsider artist from Rotterdam, resplendent in an overgrown mop top haircut, an array of gurning, amplified facial expressions and jerky, wonky, entry level commedia dell’arte dance moves. He stands rooted behind his beloved Roland E70 keyboard, which is tuned so that no two notes make a predictable combination, but he has it mastered. There is a sense that everything he does is an accident, like the comedy magician that miraculously pulls off the trick at the last second. His songs are heroically mundane: one tells the story of a time that a moody bus driver was a little curt with him on the way to Cologne, for example.

Punters arrive into the tent and after a brief moment of confusion, they quickly fall into a sort of delirious joy, glancing around the room just to check that everybody else is in on the joke too. “Sharki Supermachine” is another highlight, featuring some of the most unique sing-along moments ever accomplished, one of which consisted of several hundred people singing “k.” That’s the phonetic sound, not the letter. Maybe you had to be there. The ovation he receives when he tells us that we’ve reached the end is pound-for-pound the loudest of the weekend, finishing as he does with a melodramatic torch song that finally sees him stepping out from behind the keyboard. Whatever the truth of the character behind Harry Merry, and there is something to be said for keeping that elusive, he deserves to be heard by far greater audiences.

It brings the curtain down on OFF Festival, a true hidden gem in the European festival calendar. The organizers have taken the admirable gamble that they can survive without bending to the tastes of the mainstream majority, relying on the hope that there will always be audiences that will seek out a challenge. For now, the gamble is paying off.

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August 26th 2018

Can’t wait for Festival 2018!!

October 20th 2018

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Alex Der
May 19th 2019

Great article with an excellent idea! Thank you for such a valuable article. I really appreciate for this great information.