Gigwise travels to Slovakia to discover festival utopia
Anastasia Connor
14:45 24th July 2017

This year Pohoda festival in Western Slovakia turns 21. In festival terms, this kind of age is a formidable achievement in itself. What's more impressive, however, is Pohoda's reputation for being one of the most welcoming events in Europe.

The clue perhaps lies the name. The word “pohoda” means “comfort” or “wellbeing”, a concept that doesn't have a direct correlation in English. According to our Pohoda guides, the curious festival logo depicting two embracing babies is an illustration of this ideal of care, unity and safety. At first, it seems like an odd choice but after a couple of days, it all begins to make sense. By the end of our stay, we're feeling so comfortable and safe, we don't want to leave.

Pohoda started in 1997 and at first was held at a local stadium, but after a few years, it moved to its current site at Trencin airport. Since then, the line ups have been getting more impressive with every edition. Most of the big names of the last 10-15 years have played Pohoda and this year's bill included M.I.A., Benjamine Clementine, Slowdive, Jesus and Mary Chain, Ho99o9, alt J, Beak>, Solange, Mark Lanegan, Austra and Slaves.

Gigwise went to Slovakia to investigate what it is that makes Pohoda so special. Before too long we fell under its spell. And here's why...

Magnificent scenery

A festival set on an airfield may not sound like an enticing proposition but wait till you get there. Only a short drive away from Trencin, Pohoda is a sight to behold. Embraced by the West Carpathian mountains and set in the valley of the river Váh, it fills you with a dizzying feeling of space and calm. As the fiery heat of central European summer gives way to the balmy evening breeze, the sun disappear against the backdrop of the mountains, providing a spectacle worthy of its own billing. Trencin itself is a relaxed, small place with elegant baroque architecture in the centre dominated by the impressive medieval castle nestled on a rock above the city. In short, it's an idyllic setting.

(Photo by Martina Mlčúchová)

They care about everyone

30000 is a reasonable mid-size festival capacity but the site never feels overcrowded. No queues. No signs of any party casualties. No scary metal fences and sniffer dogs. And definitely no plans to expand capacity to sell more tickets. What you do get is eco-friendly waste disposal, solar energy powered lights, locally-sourced food, special assistants and wheelchair platforms for disabled guests, friendly and efficient security, exceptional organisation and catering, free festival programme, free tickets for children under 12...The list of Pohoda's superlative qualities is truly endless. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that it is this caring ethos that has ensured its longevity and secured its 5-star reputation with audiences and artists.

There's no such thing as bad weather...

only bad organisation, which is something that Pohoda can't be accused of. If you like your festivals sunny and hot, Pohoda is definitely the one for you. For the majority of the time the temperatures rarely drop below 28C but when the storm arrives, everyone is informed (in Slovak and English) what to expect; all stage gear is covered within seconds of the most spectacular downpour and, just as quickly, the shows are back on when the rain subsides. The fact that the site is an old airfield also means that most of the main walkways are tarmac runways that don't disintegrate into sludge at the first sign of rain.

(Photo by Martina Mlčúchová)

Diversity

Far too often the subject of diversity at festivals comes up in a negative light: lack of female artists, genre limitations, the predominance of white performers or middle-class audiences. None of these things seemed to apply to Pohoda, where punters include families with young kids, couples and groups of people of all ages. It also very quickly becomes apparent that we're not the only foreign visitors on the site. Saturday alone presents post-Soviet anti-aesthetics rapper Tommy Cash, hip-hop provocateur Mykki Blanco, pop diva Solange, synthpop sensation Austra and a true guitar legend Thurston Moore. Plenty of opportunities to expand your musical horizons; and if there is something not to your taste, there is always something else.

New music from Slovakia

Big international names aside, the real value of heading to a festival outside of your own country is seeing local bands you might not otherwise see at home. For the festival itself, it's an opportunity to showcase its homegrown talent. For us, a chance to avoid homogeneous line ups of the UK festival circuit. With Slowdive and JAMC amongst this year's big guns, it seems fitting that one of the local standout acts is also a band with shoegaze leanings. The Ills, whose debut LP “Ornamental or mental” came out earlier this year, bring together elements of sprawling post rock darkness, lightness of jazz and floating shoegaze. 52 Hertz Whale exist at the intersection of towering post-rock, introspective shoegaze and more fiery heavier outbursts of post punk. Katarína Máliková's already made a mark in Slovakia with her mix of electronically-enhanced traditional Slovak folk and classical music. Her debut is expected to win a number of music prizes and, given what we see of her afternoon main stage set at Pohoda, it's likely to be crossing borders very soon.

Benjamine Clementine

“I'm sending my condolence, I'm sending my condolence to fear...” Tears in their eyes, entranced by the heart-stopping sincerity and humanity of the performance, thousands of people are singing along to Benjamin Clementine in the post-storm serenity of Pohoda's Saturday night. Perhaps it is the preceding storm that makes it so poignant. Or the grand piano on stage. Or Clementine's confessional vocals. Or the monochrome images of the backdrop against the darkness of the night. Whatever it is, Benjamine steals the glory of the ultimate Pohoda festival moment, the point in time that everyone feels at one with everyone else. This is pure magic.

(photo by Tomas Tkacik)

IDLES

With a current UK political landscape looking desperately bleak and anti-Tory rage reaching a bursting point, it's hardly surprising that IDLES are fast becoming one of Brexit Britain's hottest numbers. IDLES are angry and they make no apologies for it. If you want to know about Britain in 2017, listen to IDLES. Fuck it, we'd have them represent the UK at Eurovision. Arriving on stage in the mind-melting afternoon heat, they prove decisively that their live show is as savage as the name of their recent debut “Brutalism” suggests. It doesn't matter whether local audiences get their references to Bake Off celebrities or their more absurdist lyrics, the crowd fully engage with the surreal comedy antics and frontman Joseph Talbot's commentary. It's rare to see such intense connection with an audience and such blazing, purifying rage mixed with bawdy humour.

Future Islands

It's hardly surprising that Future Islands attract a sizeable crowd around the Orange stage well before their set time. This Baltimore synthpop band is truly loved and they deserve to be loved. Uninhibited joy and emotional openness are the qualities that make them special. They sing about rejection, about cutting losses in relationships, about getting old...about all the things we all live through. Their story of perseverance and eventual success gives us all something to believe in. Samuel T Herring's hoarse growls and impassioned moves come from a place of lived experience. He paces, he pounces and he prowls...This is a man who lives every song and everything he does is utterly compelling. We dance to “A Dream of You and Me” and we dance to “Run”, to “Cave” and to “Fall from Grace”. When we hear the first few chords of “Seasons (waiting on you)” the entire field gets up on their feet. All around people dancing and hugging. A real communion experience.

(photo by Martina Mlčúchová)

 

Alt-J

Unlike Future Islands, Alt-J's rise to the top can easily be described as meteoric. Last time we checked they were playing big venues, but with their current album and world tour, the Leeds lads are getting into the arena territory. At Pohoda the three-piece win a big Sunday headliner slot, showcasing material from their latest LP “Relaxer” as well as more familiar tunes from the Mercury-winning “An Awesome Wave”. Predictably, older songs like “Breezeblocks” and “Matilda” get the biggest reaction but the new show looks and sounds impressive. The elegant, geometrically-themed monochrome lighting set mirrors the music providing yet another confirmation Alt-J's apparent fascination with shapes.

Best audiences

If European Festival Awards had the Best Audience category, then Pohoda would surely be a hands-down winner. It's not even the fact that during our 3-day stay we don't encounter anything that can be remotely described as “rowdy” or “intimidating”. It's more about the wholehearted appreciation of all musical dimensions on offer. They lose themselves in the revelry of Baloji's Congolese rhythms, they sing along to alt-J's “Matilda”, they brave the afternoon sun and flock to see C Duncan's lilting honeyed melodies, and they appear entranced by Rachel Goswell’s shimmering vocals. Even the youngest festival goers and the occasional little dog on the lead are on their best behaviour. And get this – nobody talks over music or tries to smoke in the crowd. This is full-on festival utopia.

The 22nd edition Pohoda Festival will take place 5th - 7th July 2018. Check the festival website for ticket details.


Photo: Michal Augustini