THE BEGINNING

Andrew Anderson finally found a festival he can fully enjoy. He just had to go to Poland for it.

devendra

I don’t like festivals. Or at least, I’m not the sort of person that normally attends them. For a start, I’m not a fan of crowds, which is a problem given a festival’s premise involves packing as many people into one place as possible. Then there’s the fact I don’t like feeling unclean, whereas attending a festival means being doused in a sticky mixture of beer and burly-man back-sweat for days on end. Further, the idea of having my alcohol-infused brain gently boiled overnight inside a baking hot tent doesn’t hold a great deal of appeal.

I’ll admit my festival experience to date has been somewhat limited, based as it is on attending three consecutive Leeds festivals about fifteen years ago. Although I generally enjoyed the music, my main memories are of feeling sick after smoking shitty weed, having awkward experiences with girls, followed by even more awkward bowel movements in the filthy festival toilets (which the Leeds luddites then burned down). Oh, I also went to Lowlands festival one year, but don’t remember that at all (thanks to smoking not-so-shitty weed).

I live in Manchester, so every June I’m treated to hoards of welly-clad Parklife wankers swelling the city streets in their quest for total mental incapacitation. Yes, I know it isn’t fair to judge all festivals by the standards set by the Parklife crowd, but you can understand why they make me rather wary.

Finally, I’ve always had this overarching and somewhat-snobbish sense that festivals aren’t really about the music at all. To me they look like another latter-day capitalistic trick to make you cough up a ton of cash for something you don’t even really want (namely crap bands and even crapper beer).

It was therefore with not a little trepidation that I got on a plane and headed to Katowice (pronounced kat-oh-vitz-eh) in Poland for OFF Festival, a gathering that promised a mix of pop, Polish, indie and experimental music.

off

So, was this bitter cynic converted?

Well, sort of… kinda… okay, I admit it – I’m now officially a festival fanboy.

What changed my mind? Firstly, the bands. Normally festivals that advertise an eclectic line-up are anything but. Instead, there will be about 100 all-white all-male guitar groups, a similar number of DJs (who look the same except with decks instead of drums) and perhaps a handful of other artists. But OFF Festival actually had a whole host of odd, obscure and interesting acts. The very first thing I witnessed on arrival was Adam Gołębiewski, a Polish drummer whose bio described him as falling between jazz, free improv and contemporary music. What his set actually consisted of was him wailing on a drum kit with two bits of metal for the best part of half an hour, without once changing the beat. It was hypnotic, idiotic, and utterly amazing, the audience either grinning (like me) or going (like almost everyone else).

ata_kak

At the other end of the scale was Ata Kak [above], a Ghanaian artist picked out of obscurity by American music collector Brian Shimkovitz. Shimkovitz came across a tape Ata Kak had released in 1994 and then spent the next 20 years trying to track him down. His boisterous, joyful songs had the whole crowd singing, pogoing and generally having a bloody brilliant time.

Which brings me to the crowds themselves, who were a generous and gregarious bunch. It didn’t matter whether it was the first act in the experimental tent or the main stage headliners; each artist was received with a cacophony of cheers, chants and clapping… lots of clapping, in fact (Polish music fans will clap at the drop of a hat, let alone the drop of a beat).

Furthermore, in three days of booze and music I didn’t see one person who was any worse off than merry, and there wasn’t a single gurn in sight. Even better, the culture of filming everything through a phone instead of actually experiencing it doesn’t seem have reached this far east just yet ­– the OFF crowd were smart enough to keep their smartphones in their pockets.

Perhaps the reason the crowds were so kind is because they’re actually eating and drinking decent stuff without having their bank-balances decimated. Usually on trips like this a vegetarian like me is reduced to eating nothing but chips for days on end (with inevitable unpleasant colonic complications), but there were lots of vegan and gluten free options on top of the obligatory piles of meat (this is Poland, after all). All of it is affordable – a quid for a beer, a few pounds for a decent meal.

lush

You’re not allowed to take food or drinks outside the eating areas, which at first is annoying but you get used to it pretty quickly and even come to appreciate the fact that there isn’t rubbish everywhere. Then, once your body is done turning all that pleasant food and drink into not-so-pleasant waste products, you get to use toilets which – by portable toilet standards at least – are pretty palatable.

Another benefit of Poland being cheap is that if you don’t want to camp (and I didn’t) you can get a hotel nearby for next to nothing (my room in a four star hotel worked out at around £35 a night, with far cheaper options also available). In the post-Brexit world where the pound is now worth a pittance Poland is an attractive option for the purse-conscious festival punter.

One slight sour note came in the form of cancellations, with the festival’s four biggest acts – Anohni, Wiley, The Kills and GZA – all pulling out due to illness. To lose one or two is understandable, but to lose four seems to suggest something more serious than illness might have been going on under the surface. That said, the big names that did appear, like Lush, Clutch, Mudhoney, Pantha Du Prince [below] and Devendra Banhart [top of the page] all delivered, and it didn’t seem to have much impact on the general mood.

pantha

I guess what the cynic in me missed is the fact that a festival is, at its most basic level, nothing more than a gathering of people who have come together to share in a collective experience. If the people are nice – and the crowds at OFF Festival were dead nice – then there’s a good chance you’re going to have a great time. Throw in interesting music, tasty food and affordable alcohol and that good chance becomes a guarantee. I’d definitely go to OFF again, and maybe I’ll even try some other festivals next year – just don’t expect to see me at Parklife anytime soon.