No matter how great the rest of a festival may be, having five major acts cancel either just before or during the festivities will become the leading news. There’s a reason the OFF Festival organizers called this “the most unlucky edition to date” on their site. The dominoes fell quickly, too. Three days before the festival began, the Wu Tang Clan’s GZA was the first to cancel (a statement on OFF’s site blamed his agent). He was to be replaced by UK grime star Wiley — except Wiley too would be a no-show. Two days later, The Kills called off their performance after Alison Mosshart came down with pneumonia. The next day, British electronic musician Zomby was announced as a cancellation. Finally, Anohni came down with the flu while in Katowice and was unable to perform.
All of that turnover at the top of the festival bill was a shame, especially because the OFF Festival offered perfect conditions for catching unforgettable sets. For one, there was no alcohol or food allowed inside the field; as such, the grounds were clear of the typical mess of earth-destroying festival trash, and you didn’t have to worry about being pelted by a beer in the mosh pit. The downside, though, was that the sets occasionally felt a bit under-attended, people sometimes flocking to the cordoned-off drinking areas instead of to the stages. But in the end, those at the stages were definitely there for the music rather than the party — and where in the world can you experience that? Answer: POLAND. More specifically, the city of Katowice.
Musically, the festival did a brilliant job of blending eccentric styles. African music stood shoulder-to-shoulder with electronic beats, K-pop, and metal. You could melt into Norwegian jazz collective Jaga Jazzist, the noise rock of American legends Lightning Bolt, or the cheesy Polish rap of Kaliber 44, all without losing a moment. Those traveling to Katowice from other countries were treated to more than a fair share of highlights from the host country, as well. Though some dissatisfaction stemmed from the cancellations, it didn’t stop the reverie entirely, the crowd still happy to have an unforgettable weekend out in the park.
10. Willis Earl Beal
“Don’t clap. Don’t you dare clap!” roared Willis Earl Beal from beneath a black cape, something I’d not heard from a festival performer before. “I want to feel alone. Because we are all alone.” And that wasn’t even the beginning of Beal’s unusual banter, including shout-outs to Chris Farley (“Wherever you are, I love you, you fat motherfucker”), using fecal matter as a philosophical construct (“tonight we are not going to be constipated anymore! Tonight we are going to take a shit and let it go”), and comparing himself to Barbra Streisand (“I am basically Barbra Streisand”). But then Beal’s connection with the audience has always come from an unexpected angle, powering tunes from last year’s Noctunes with raw passion and a charismatic core. Whether you like his music and persona or not, Willis Earl Beal put on one of the most eccentric, engaging festival performances I’ve ever seen.
Not to be confused with the masked Swedish band of the same name, Japan’s Goat nonetheless spend their time developing layered, frenetic grooves. Drummer Tetsushi Nishikawa skittered and popped, and saxophonist Akihiko Ando did his own fair share to contribute to the percussive focus, likely aided by the half-full Coke bottle jammed into the bell of his instrument. The Osaka outfit are fresh off the release of their debut, New Games, and their entire set sounded fueled by the energy of fresh material, doled out in extreme intensity for the festival crowds.
08. Beach Slang
“I still feel like we’re a bunch of friends playing songs together,” said Beach Slang’s James Alex. Though only a few years into their career, the Philadelphia indie punk outfit have risen in the ranks considerably, all while keeping that genial connection alive with their audience. “Thank you for letting me live this dumb life,” he smiled, as if the sea of faces inspired an epiphany. Later in the set, he’d stop a song midway through, as if the words were stuck in his head. “Sorry, I needed a mint,” he grinned before reaching into the inside pocket of his velvet “Harry Potter” jacket. But the unexpected highlight came when Alex busted out his best impression of Robert Smith. “Is the Cure popular down here?” he asked, before the signature drum flourish of “Just Like Heaven” kicked them in. Ruben Gallego’s mercurial guitar and Ed McNulty’s rubbery bass pushed things along, completing the sweetest cover of the festival.
“I don’t speak a word of Polish, so hi!” smiled Miki Berenyi, as she and the rest of Lush took the stage. Still fresh off their reunion after nearly a decade apart, there seemed to be a genuine glow among the English musicians, a real sense of pride. That was highlighted by the shirt bassist Phil King wore for the performance, the word shoegaze printed in plump yellow lettering across his chest; while the genre name may have been considered a bit of a pejorative upon its inception, times have changed such that Lush are now a legendary band on a much-anticipated reunion tour, and the genre they helped shape is an institution. The crowd wasn’t as big as you might expect for a legacy band like this, but then the festival had some inconsistencies in attendance throughout. Lovelife single “Ladykillers” felt fresh, charged by eye rolls and frustration anew. “This is our last song, and then I can get drunk,” Berenyi shrugged. “That’s the way it works.” The ensuing “Sweetness and Light” was the easy highlight of the set, surprisingly loud and thrilling.
If anyone was going to get the Polish audience to start crowd-surfing, of course it would be FIDLAR, and of course they’d do so by starting with a cover of Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”. Throughout the California skate punks’ set, you’d see the same kids passed over the rail by the mass of fans at the stage, only to then run back to start the process over again. Though the majority of the crowd might not identify with being “born and raised in the USA,” the rip-roaring “40oz. on Repeat” made things feel as hospitable and welcoming as any American festival set. Frontman Zac Carper plays with the wonder and raw enthusiasm of a teen but the precision and talent of an older, experienced musician, his voice occasionally verging on that of a swaggery radio host. Ending with a roaring take on FIDLAR’s “Cocaine”, the California boys brought their own slash of punk sunshine to Katowice.
05. Devendra Banhart
“I’m not religious, but I will bow down to the goddess Brodka,” smiled Devendra Banhart, clearly as impressed by the Polish pop star as the massive crowds that remained at the stage. But there’s no sloganeering here; his genuine love, enraptured and sophisticated, was contagious and drove his own set, carrying over into an extra warm take on songs like slinky Mala highlight “Mi Negrita” and the smooth, breezy “Baby”. The lanky, bearded Banhart commanded the audience, having refined his once rougher freak-folk style into that of a slick crooner — though still able to get into the old wildness for the absolutely classic “Long Haired Child”. Although smooth as silk, dismissing the newly returned Banhart as easy listening would be a mistake. He’s a great fusion of songwriting prowess, superb performance, and honest production.
04. Minor Victories
The idea of Minor Victories having a lot of chemistry on their record seemed like a difficult proposition. Composed of members of Mogwai, Slowdive, and Editors, they produced their self-titled debut over email. But it lived and breathed as one of the most organic and engaging records of the year. The transcendental work was malleable enough to accommodate cinematic, hymn-like songs that fray into lugubrious harmonies, then straddle the borders of frenetic rock. To be honest, it’s so beautifully rendered it makes no difference where the sounds fit in the realm of genre tags. But it’s one thing to do that on record and another to do it live. At OFF Festival, they achieved those same heights and more. The highlight of the set was “Out to Sea”, a song I’ve listened to dozens of times, and yet I never wanted to leave this particular performance, Rachel Goswell’s calming yet magnetic presence driving things perfectly. A sense of honesty rang throughout the set, massive-sounding and yet personal, purposefully complex without being pretentious.
There seems to be a real love affair going on between Korean post-rock band Jambinai and the nation of Poland. “In an interview, I was asked which country is the best, and I said Poland is the best,” smiled guitarist Lee Il-woo. And, having seen them now in multiple countries, I can confirm that this isn’t just some banter that they repeat to each city they play for. Whatever the reason, their set seemed fueled by a genuine desire to fulfill that love with music. The concussive “They Keep Silence” proved a real stunner, the closer to this year’s Hermitage bouncing between meditative drones from traditional Korean instruments and onslaughts of charred metal guitar. Throughout, Sim Eun-yong sat on the stage, hands fluttering over the strings of her bassy, zither-like geomungo, like she was soothing a wild beast. The juxtaposition of their epic, often harsh music and the group’s smiling appreciation was a true wonder. “I want to connect you with us forever,” Il-woo said, before they tore into “Connection”. And, of course, the members of Jambinai could be spotted taking photos and signing autographs with many eager fans just moments later, making that connection on the individual level.
Though she’s yet to make a major splash outside of her native Poland, Brodka has the kind of voice and style that would charm audiences worldwide once she’s made that crossover — as validated by her Polish double-platinum record, Granda, and the massive crowd that turned out for her OFF performance. The Polish Pop Idol winner has developed her own blend of electronic-tinged indie pop in the vein of Niki & the Dove. The fluttering “K.O.” and choppy acoustics of “Granda” got feet moving and hearts thumping, but the broken-clockworks electronics of the stunning “Haiti” got the deservedly largest reaction from the crowd. Brodka can reach thousands at a festival and deserves a shot to do so on the international stage.
01. Jenny Hval
After two startlingly powerful songs, Jenny Hval began the boldest move of both her set and the entire festival: reading aloud a two-page manifesto about harassment and rape at festivals. This isn’t a new conversation, but the Norwegian art-pop warrior is all too aware that it sadly remains a necessary one. Hval has often explored the bearings of self-identity through her music, delving deep into examining sexuality and gender. But unlike her existential musings in between whispers of “Soft Dick Rock” and lounging across a yoga ball, this dismantling crushed the crowd. Over slow-burning, ambient electronic pop, she detailed ways to stop harassment, change the culture, and empower the preyed upon. “We’re all in this together, don’t be afraid, scream, it’s okay, you’re the loudest ones here,” she read, walking a steady circle on the stage until the word “safe” unfurled around the clangs of synth, churning in the heady momentum.
Hval has always gambled in a world of blatant feeling, but now she wants to crack apart our individual cages — not just as women, but as people. She wants to chip away the layers that make us act like monsters and prove that living a life in the muck of raw emotional awareness is the only way to move forward. Surrounding that hyper-emotional core, the Norwegian singer delivered plenty of equally layered, challenging, heart-wrenching tunes. The unreleased “Drive” proved a particular highlight. “Sometimes I cry,” she reached at the song’s apex, seeming to break into genuine tears herself. Looking around the crowd, she certainly wasn’t the only one.
Click ahead to see an exclusive gallery from OFF Festival 2016.