A truly progressive line-up and strong sense of community make this top festival one to treasure for life
Vic Galloway
22:44 11th July 2018

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Diversity and community are buzzwords these days. Sometimes it seems as if the internet was specifically designed to enable shameless virtue-signalling. Words such as these are often brandished and bragged about, when there is little sign of them in reality. Pohoda Festival genuinely delivers however. My third time there, I’ve seen it improve and develop although it has actually been growing in reputation and stature for 22 years now. Flippantly I once described it as the Glastonbury of Eastern Europe; but on a smaller scale with a more manageable 30,000 people, Pohoda boasts spectacular green credentials and a spotless, easily navigable site. I can honestly proclaim it to be one of the best outdoor festivals in the world.

Organiser Michal Kascak has enabled an annual gathering that crosses genres, styles, generations, gender, creed and race over three days. To me it’s like the best of modern Europe at work. Efficient, exciting and inspirational; polite, friendly and welcoming; not to mention healthy and full of attractive, attentive people. There’s a huge range of stages and tents in differing sizes – approximately 20 at my count – showcasing LIVE music, discussions, seminars, literary and children’s events. Where else could you go to see hardcore punk, join a roller disco, watch silent cinema or take part in talks on subjects such as diabetes, stress, depression and even organ donation? I helped chair a debate with Russian protest troupe Pussy Riot, and the tent was crammed with an audience willing to ask questions on topics such as the former Soviet Union and the modern world of political correctness. This is NOT ‘V Festival’ I assure you!

"Musically, if you want a parade of lad-rock guitar-slingers of yesteryear, look elsewhere."

While stages run on time, sound-systems are loud and clear and with no noticeable ground litter; festival goers can peruse the generous site at Trencin airfield without any feeling of pressure or over-crowding. The food is tasty and wholesome with the usual kebabs, curries, noodles and falafel on offer; as well as Hungarian langosh (a deep-fried dough!) and Slovak favourites such as grilled cheese and strudel. With better ingredients, cooking techniques and presentation, most dishes are super-healthy and retail at 3Euro with (good quality) beer at 2Euro. To see fruit stalls selling baskets of cherries, berries and peaches to queues of people is also a delight. Pohoda only sells beer and wine onsite though. This may seem a little tame, and a few people do sneak in a little vodka or Slivovitz to perk up their day. But with visible lack of drunken idiocy, fighting or slumped casualties soiling themselves; it’s a revelation compared to most UK crowds. People have fun, jump around and cut loose, without the need for out and out debauchery.

Musically, if you want a parade of lad-rock guitar-slingers of yesteryear, look elsewhere. Well, RIDE play… but they’re still really good. Indie, electronica, reggae, rock, classical and global flavours all vie for your attention throughout the weekend, and often stage time clashes determine some tough decision making. Questionable bookings of Jamie Cullum and Scouting for Girls aside, the bill has to be one of the strongest and most unique of the summer. Thursday is a half-day warm up and Ziggy Marley is my first experience of the main Urpiner stage. Probably the closest I’ll get to seeing his father Bob; he expertly interspersed a handful of his Dad’s classics throughout his own back catalogue and new ‘Rebellion Rises’ album. Headliners the Chemical Brothers then nailed it with a career-spanning hits set, sprinkling a couple of new songs into the mix. Exquisite lightshow, gigantic Spinal Tap-esque stage robots and accompanying video extravaganza perfectly augment their acid-drenched, techno-frazzled, block-rockin’ beats. They are now a true stadium dance act.

"St. Vincent audience is ever-so-slightly baffled by her eccentric costumes and multi-sensory overload of visuals and guitar histrionics."

Friday’s selection of local Slovak acts is both surprising and reassuring. Prog-pop soul-boys Nvmeri impress with a sound somewhere roughly between ‘Synchronicity’-era Police and Hall & Oates. The trio pull a sizeable crowd and fill the festival stage. Tolstoys offer up dream-pop, Diego play a form of Celtic stadium-rock and the laptop-abusing Isama Zing could be culled from the Planet Mu, Warp or Hyperdub rosters with his glitchy, post-industrial soundscapes. If it’s a party you’re after, then Australian acts Confidence Man and Donny Benet provide the action. The former’s choreographed moves, deadpan expressions and baggy hyper-funk get the Arena Slovenskej Sporitelne shaking their collective booty. Self-proclaimed ‘adult entertainer’, balding moustachioed Benet crooned his way through a set of post-modern, 80’s-influenced bangers such as ‘Sophisticated Lover’ and ‘Konichiwa’ – imagine a smoother, classier Har Mar Superstar.

St Vincent as a mainstage headliner is simultaneously astonishing and rather confusing however. The audience is ever-so-slightly baffled by her eccentric costumes and multi-sensory overload of visuals and guitar histrionics; but with few hummable, well-known tunes it’s more performance-art than singalong. Toronto pioneers BADBADNOTGOOD however take jazz to a hipster audience and really electrify the Budis Stage; before my eclectic late night stage-hopping antics lead me through uncompromising Swiss math-rock from Schnellertollermeier, Lebanese pop by Yasmin Hamdan and the US rap of Danny Brown. Pour in some local organic wine and a very fine evening was had!

"Calexico created an atmosphere like no other, sending desert-scape instrumentals and Cumbia into the night sky."

Saturday’s adventure was equally wide-ranging in terms of global representation. The complex falsetto-pop of Manchester’s Everything Everything set the tone on the mainstage, before the guitars were set to stun by Slovak metalcore punks Cad. Loud, proud and distinctly uncompromising, their take on Motorhead meets Hatebreed had the local hoards punching the air in a packed Mazagrande Tent. Needing something slightly more refined, Ukranian pop mistress Onuka mesmerised and a superb dub-drenched display by Sweden’s Little Dragon was certainly one of my weekend highlights. Next call was 60’s-loving French psyche ensemble La Femme whose dynamic performance led the Orange Stage crowd into a dance. And as night descended, Tuscon legends Calexico created an atmosphere like no other, sending desert-scape instrumentals and Cumbia into the night sky. My final triumvirate of classical San Franciscans Kronos Quartet, Slovak punks The Wilderness and Scottish electro wunderkind SOPHIE showed the sheer scope of artistic innovation on tap - a veritable feast for mind for body, soul and mind.

As with any festival with this breadth and depth of content, everyone has a completely different festival experience. Traversing the underground and mainstream with ease though, Pohoda shows that with expert curation, risk-taking, enthusiasm and open-mindedness; genuine diversity and community ARE available to music and art lovers who make the effort. In 2019, I’d advise you to do exactly that.

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Photo: Martina Mlčúchová