Poland's coolest festival is well worth the jaunt
Cai Trefor
15:15 12th August 2019

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Consider the little nags you get at most festivals: it’s a long distance to the next stage, you can’t get anywhere near the band, the beer is expensive, the crowd too passive aggressive.

OFF festival in Katowice, Poland, however, doesn't suffer that. It isn’t most festivals; it’s among a handful of meticulously organised festivals that don’t just clumsily plonk you in a field and think some trendy and big names can do the work. Their execution of a great idea is done gracefully and shows lessons learned from the mistakes and frustrations of attending other fests. Subsequently, it feels like a music festival by fans for the fans where there’s next to no noise spill nor congestion. Punters can focus on what matters: showing appreciation for the bands they love most.

And they pulled off some miracles with their cheque book this year: Jarv Is, Suede, Aldous Harding, Gaslamp Killer being among the best.

With all the above in mind, it’s evident we think OFF can only be of a positive influence. Yet there’s plenty more to consider: our aim here is merely to encourage more like-minded people to join us next year in this most accepting of environments to watch convention-smashing music. That is, of course, if you’re not already one of the many people who go year-after-year.

The forest park location is stunning

Vibrant Katowice’s disjointed architecture and lack of an old town is a reminder that this city was bombed heavily in the war. But what it lacks in awe-inspiring buildings, which its prettier neighbour 80km away Krakow has a wealth of, it makes up for in with its pulsating nightlife and with its proximity to some pretty spectacular stretches of nature.

Benefitting from the latter are us here at OFF. Though most people stay in the city centre – some camp 500m from the site – Katowice Forest Park, where OFF is held, is wild and is merely 5km from downtown, so it’s a quick cab ride or a decent walk to the gates. After walking down a concrete lane and through the branded entrance, we finds its five stages erected in a clearing which backs on to a mixed woodland; mainly oak, birch and pine. The woods are part of the largest and one of the most beautiful green space in Katowice.

Nearby, in plain sight, is the recreational Katowice-Muchowiec airport runway. Spotting light aircraft glide overhead becomes part of the stimulus when watching bands. However, the airport manager is threatening to fell much of this forest, so let’s hope OFF’s location can stay the way it is. To make the most of the surrounds, we’d recommend going outside the perimeter fence and finding the footpath in the park that cuts through the aqueous Valley of Three Ponds where you can embrace some wildlife during your visit, or sit in one of the idyllic waterfront bars.

The crowd listen attentively

Over on the Tauron Stage on Friday night (2 August), after a barnstorming, radical show from slowthai where the Londoner gloriously shouts, “Fuck the United Kingdom,” in the wake of Boris becoming PM, Aldous Harding comes on. Now, Harding has the opposite stage presence to slowthai: she’s not a performer, but a singer where the music does the talking.

Potentially fearing restlessness from the hyper set before, the crowd greet Harding, who is performing quietly with just an acoustic guitar for the first few numbers, with the grace ‘The Barrell’ hitmaker deserves; it’s pin drop quiet. Absolute respect for this gifted 4AD-singee from New Zealand continues when the backing band, which includes Welsh indie hero H Hawkline on bass, come on to bring more dynamics. It’s behaviour indicative of how much the OFF crowd are here to listen to music and give each festival set the kind of attention they would had they paid for a ticket to go to a headline tour show.

Lager generally doesn’t get thrown

Some of you are possibly already thinking this is a negative thing, ‘What? I love dropkicking a pint into the crowd.’ Thing is at OFF, you can’t freely walk through every part of the site with an alcoholic drink in hand. Drink is mainly consumed in the central bar and food area; with the stages, like arteries coming off this hub, guarded by stewards. At first it’s a bit frustrating, but when you are down the front on the barrier, you appreciate being able to get into the music and not get soaked.

The band most worth getting to the barrier for during the weekend are The Comet Is Coming. The three-piece's maelstrom of synths, drums and sax beguiles as they elicit a monumental response from the Forest Stage crowd on Friday. Not sure who is better to watch on stage: the meditation-loving saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings? Or the rabble-rousing electronica guru Dan Leavers? The former appears to turn his back, sit upright and cross legged and re-focus his energy numerous times throughout the set. The latter has a wide-ranging number of sonic references at his disposal and is a natural at addressing the crowd – his shout-out to his late, great hero Ras G of Brainfeeder is perhaps most memorable. Entertainingly, he plays like he’s been to festivals since he was a kid and absorbed that free-spirited energy. Leavers and Hutchings seem to bounce off each other: any time it feels like Leavers is boisterously turning his amp up, Hutchings is able to reach into his reserve tank of air and rise above him in the mix against the odds. Meanwhile, drummer Max Hallett holds it all together and waits for his moment to shine with a drum solo towards the end.

You’ll find a new favourite band

The programming features big names, but sometimes at festivals it’s the ones tucked lower down the bill that take you by surprise and become a highlight. For me, Tanzanian act Bamba Pana & Makaveli from the Nyege Nyege Tapes label take to the experimental stage like a duck to water and are an electrifying burst of energy – energy well needed on the Saturday night. Heroes of the Tanzanian underground, the MC and decks combo perform uptempo beat music and defy what I consider physically plausible in terms of quick-fire lyricism. They also have a truly great level of engagement with the audience, who are full endeared with the MC, and pull off some of the silliest and most life-affirming dance moves of the weekend. In fact they’re so good, the next day when BBC Sound Of winner Octavian cancels his set, the organisers give the spare slot to Bamba Pana & Makaveli to do a second set. Except it rains and isn’t as fun. Nevertheless, can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this music. And chances are next year we’ll find a plethora of new acts to love we didn’t expect. The discovery element is really strong here, which brings me onto my point below.

The Polish music at OFF Fest is great

In a festival landscape where many line-ups are similar to one another, OFF is a bit of a maverick and is somewhere you’re guaranteed to see things you won’t see that easily elsewhere. With this in mind, its close following of the best emerging, and strong relationship with established Polish acts, makes discovery of great Polish music one of its strongest features. 

The best of the bunch for me this year is a guitar band inspired by shoegaze, post-punk and psychedelia called Trupa Trupa. Known to me prior to the festival, thanks to a string of great recent single releases in the lead up to their upcoming LP, their Forest stage set at OFF on Sunday night is the first chance I get to see the four-piece, fronted by poet Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, live. And they don’t disappoint. Their tuneful, hypnotic, cathartic, gloomy English language lyricism – words informed by and a visceral reaction to human catastrophe throughout history – is woven with dreamy reverb-laden dual guitars. Underpinned by pounding drums and melodic bass lines, the four-piece are incredibly tight; spell-binding even. Can imagine this set working on a much bigger scale than even the two thousand or so people who’ve gathered before them at OFF. Perhaps one of the main stages at Glastonbury if that festival would be willing to take a punt on these increasingly relevant outsiders.

Another great Polish band I see is the experimental jazz four-piece Polmuz, who are led by saxophonist Michal Fetler, who has for our enjoyment just bought a baritone sax. The bands’ virtuoso ability, synthesis of Polish folk melodies with inventive, chaotic, modern, more abstract soundscapes is impressive.

In terms of spectacle, however, nothing beats the surprise Sunday highlight: the gripping Śląsk Song and Dance Ensemble, one of the largest Polish folk ensembles. Now, there's a special atmosphere surrounding what is their debut appearance at OFF because the group formed in this region here before going onto export traditional Polish culture all around the world. Śląsk is Polish for Silesia and Katowice is the capital of this distinctive region. On stage, they don’t leave any space on the unturned and are a dizzying smack to the senses with explosions of colour, movement and melody. Plus, it's great seeing an acts like this outside of a formal seated amphitheatre where you'd normally expect to find such an act.

The closing sets

After the headliner it’s easy to make the electronic-driven closing sets an after-thought. They often are at festivals. But not at OFF. On Friday, I finish watching Jarv Is – Jarvis Cocker’s incredible new band whose single ‘Must I Evolve?’ is still stuck in my head; and ‘His & Hers' from the Pulp back catalogue is a great crowd0pleasing touch – and am able to finish the night off with The Gaslamp Killer. Echoing The Comet Is Coming’s earlier comments, The Gaslamp Killer plays a set in honour of the late, great Brainfeeder co-founder Ras G. And in honour of the vibrant LA beat scene in general. The night’s selector loves telling the audience how 90 percent of his set is unreleased and the new Nosaj Thing cut stands out. He also seems particularly inspired by Turkish music at present and champions the Istanbul underground, giving a contemporary Eastern flavour to his eclectic set. Hearing cuts that barely anyone else plays and jumping between styles may seem dizzying but the thing that holds it together is his charismatic enthusiasm and genuine love for everything the DJ plays. At OFF, people definitely understand that visceral devotion and feeling for music and The Gaslamp Killers gets a hero's reception. Other late night highlights ofer the weekend include the mesmerising – best digitally created visual show of the week – Lotic on the experimental stage after Suede.

It’s cheap!

I get that a lot of festivals don’t want to encourage binge drinkers to come and make the most of rock bottom beer prices, so this point isn’t meant as a rallying call for louts. On a practical level, however, if you’re to fly out to Katowice or Krakow to go to OFF Festival, then you may want to know how much to spend.  You can get an Ibis hotel room from approximately 139 zloty (£30 a night). Or, even cheaper, camp at the festival.

Beverages and food on site are more than in town but still not a lot: a beer is 8 zloty (£1.71) and a main dish starts at around 36 zloty (£7.70). If it’s still there next year, we’d recommend the giant cabbage roll by the only Hungarian food stall as it’s filling and cheap.

In town – you’re looking close to the pound mark for a pint in some places. It's way cheaper than Warsaw or Krakow in Katowice.

You're close to the amazing Nikiszowiec

Since the gates to the festival don’t open until 4pm, at least a couple of hours is worth spent in Nikiszowiec. Nikiszowiec is 8km in a taxi from the city centre and a world away: it's a beautiful, well-kept red-brick workmen’s residential estate built at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries by a local mine owner. With coal now too deep in the ground to be profitable, there’s a generational divide between those who grafted with their hands and millennials – a bit like we have in parts of Britain.

The good thing about Nikiszowiec is it doesn’t try to pander to the past too much and have an open air museum-y feel; it is very much a place you can get a feel for the local way of life today – the sense of community is rife, especially if you wonder off from the main estate centre. But back in the centre is where you’ll find the best place to hang out: Śląska Prohibicja. Here you can marvel at the decadent interior and slurp on the local speciality, Silesian sour soup. For meat eaters it’s marvellous: heavy amounts of garlic, different types of sausage, vegetable stock and potatoes, among other ingredients. British or Irish stew is incomparable; there’s particular taste to this and you can’t knock it. Plus, it’s a great way to give you energy to set you up for a big night at the festival – a festival I hand on heart stand by as one of the great summer events in Europe. 2020, you must.

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Photo: Press