Enjoying it's 20th anniversary in 2016, Slovakia's Pohoda Festival has many other reasons to celebrate as the sparkling jewel in the festival crown of Central and Eastern Europe. Comparable to Latitude and Glastonbury in outlook, it showcases a dizzying array of diverse world-class music, art, literature, theatre, discussion and debate with an open-minded, inclusive approach that flies in the face of blatant commercialism and divisive, right-wing politics.
Every year it boasts a genuinely progressive line-up of acts, high production values, beautiful weather, scenic views, affordable ticket prices and (that all important) cheap, tasty beer! Having attended last year for the first time I witnessed superb sets by Bjork, Manu Chao, FFS, Die Antwoord, OFF!, Young Fathers, Hudson Mohawke and many more across its spotless site on the edges of the historic town of Trencin.
A sell-out in 2016, Pohoda played host to 30,000 friendly music lovers under the warm Slovak sun and once again showed me how different, and in many ways superior, a European festival experience can be. Pohoda may not be a household name in the UK as yet, but if you're looking for something unique and of real quality next Summer, I'd highly recommend it. Here are 10 of my highlights from this year's festival...
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Constantly reinventing herself, Polly Jean Harvey returned earlier this year with her 'Hope Six Demolition Project' album. Her Thursday night headline set on the main Urpiner stage contained songs from that as well as her impressive back catalogue. Collecting legendary underground figures such as John Parrish, Mick Harvey, James Johnston and Terry Edwards in her 10-strong onstage ensemble; the new stage show is intimate, primitive and extremely intense in sound and visual presentation.
Dressed in black, chanting chain-gang, unison vocals and using repetitive, rhythmic instrumentation akin to the (beloved) Bad Seeds; they played stand-out new tracks such as 'The Wheel' and 'The Ministry Of Social Affairs' as well as a mesmerising 'To Bring You My Love' and a rocking '50ft Queenie'. Hardly a festival knees-up to be honest, but most definitely an enthralling and captivating performance. PJ Harvey is a great artist with a unique and personal vision.
After countless TV soundtrack appearances and a slew of idiosyncratic albums across their 22 year lifespan, the music of Iceland's favourite sons Sigur Ros has never been more popular and omnipresent. They now command huge LIVE audiences, and as a band who were once the darlings of the underground, they are almost a mainstream proposition. What's more astonishing is that their music has never bowed to any commercial pressure or attempted to follow trends.
Taking to Pohoda's Urpiner mainstage in front of a capacity crowd, their low-key start as an almost invisible trio out of the spotlight led to an explosive step forward to a rapturous roar of applause. Accompanied by a stunning light-show and breath-taking digital visuals, they played their epic signature tunes with an emotional rush and attention to detail. Jonsi's angelic lead vocals soared above the Slovak masses and the band have never sounded better to my ears. They're on the summer festival circuit this year, so do catch them if you possibly can.
'From Kinshasa' was one of my favourite albums of 2015, but having never had a chance to see the band LIVE until now, I hotfooted it to Pohoda's second largest Orange stage for what was a truly life-affirming set. Mbongwana Star are unlikely heroes from the Democratic Republic of Congo who splice afro-beat, psychedelic rock, electronica and traditional Congolese dance music to wondrous effect. On record the electronic flavours are more pronounced, but LIVE they take the classic bass, guitar, drums format and breath new energy into it. However it's their euphoric, harmonies and chanted 'call & response' sections that really lift spirits atop relentless, high tempos and irresistible guitar hooks.
With founding members Coco Ngabali and Theo Nzonza up-front and wheelchair bound, their sheer onstage joy and energy soothed every single soul watching, whilst ensuring the masses shook their collective booty. A perfect summer festival act.
Recent recipient of the Scottish Album of the Year award for the outstanding 'Varmints', Anna Meredith may be rooted in the contemporary classical scene and yet is taking the indie world by storm with her 'pop' debut. I use the word pop in the loosest possible way however as the album itself, and her hugely powerful LIVE set, manage to fuse aforementioned classical motifs, banging electronica, prog-rock and indie textures. The outcome is probably unlike anything you've heard before, and the braver festivals such as Latitude, The Great Escape, Lowlands, End of the Road and Pohoda have been quick to jump on board to book her.
Onstage with a five-piece group she uses drums, guitars, banks of electronics, cello and, that all important tuba... There simply isn't enough tuba in rock'n'roll! Her LIVE Slovak initiation was in the packed Europa Stage big-top, for an audience who immediately welcomed her imaginative, off-kilter music into their hearts. The show was a total triumph, and speaking to her afterwards it was lovely to see humility and surprise at such a brilliant reaction. Well deserved of course.
At a festival it's great to be challenged, to discover new acts, to enjoy some surprises and to be reminded of heritage acts. However you also occasionally just need some damn good vibes! As a serious reggae fan, watching Hollie Cook and her excellent band provided me with that very experience. Taking to the Nay stage at midnight on Friday, her tropical brew of rocksteady, roots, lovers-rock and unadulterated pop charmed the skankin' Slovaks and had us all on our feet. With two official albums and a dub long-player released so far, as well as various collaborations and even a stint in The Slits; Hollie has become a great singer, songwriter and consummate show-woman with sass and sex-appeal. Set to authentic and pitch-perfect backing from General Roots, Hollie's songs shone; and it was a pleasure to spend some time in her company.
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Returning soon with a new album and a global tour to coincide, Edinburgh/Glasgow duo Honeyblood made Pohoda their only European summer festival appearance in 2016 (aside from Electric Fields in Scotland in August), giving a long-term supporter such as myself a chance to see them again and hear some new material. A guitar and drums duo can often get lost on a festival stage in front or a large crowd, but hearing Stina Tweedale's fuzz-laden guitar and increasingly confident vocals spar with powerhouse drummer Cat Myers; there's no danger of that happening.
The blazing sunshine and a stunning mountainous backdrop simply added to the band's bittersweet power-pop, making them the ideal soundtrack to a mid afternoon slot on the Budis stage. The audience loved it so much they demanded an encore, which doesn't (or shouldn't) happen very often at a festival. Perhaps getting rotational play on Bratislava's new-music station Radio FM had them well prepared for Honeyblood.
Max Bazowski (and other Slovak Acts)
Pohoda has a peerless international booking policy, as you can tell by looking up previous bills, but the festival also heavily supports local music... and for good reason. Slovakia may not yet be famous for its outstanding musical exports, but after seeing the standard on display across genres that may be about to change. Amongst many others, B Complex is a successful and truly compelling drum'n'bass and breaks producer; Stroon combines glitchy electronics with top-line Xylophone and Vibraphone melody lines; and Jana Kirschner is an ethereal sing-songwriter who also weaves electronics and traditional Slovak influences into her songs.
A young band that caught my ear was five-piece indie-rock band intriguingly named Max Bazowski... apparently after a mad, local character in their home-town! Coming on like an early incarnation of The Verve, their brooding, luscious psychedelia slowly smoldered in the sunshine on the Budis stage, impressing all in attendance. They've only been a band for a short time, and if this performance is anything to go by, they may have the potential to cross over to an international audience sometime soon.
Another Slovak act that warrant their own personal inclusion on this list is Bratislava quartet, The Ills. Obviously building up a sizeable fan-base at home, and soon to play Iceland Airwaves which should open them up internationally; the band channel post-rock, metal, shoegaze and psychedelia. Initial comparisons with Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky and Red Sparrowes are there; but with deft musicianship, interplay and melodic ideas all of their own, they pack an emotional punch in the world of instrumental rock. Playing the biggest show of their lives so far on the Budis stage, the band looked relaxed and completely at home, delivering a passionate performance. If you want to add a new post-rock band to your list of favourites, grab a copy of the new 'Ornamental or Mental' album and say hello to The Ills.
Few musicians can lay claim to having worked with Kendrick Lamaar and Suicidal Tendencies... other than Thundercat. Part of the Brainfeeder collective and now a Grammy award winner (thanks to his work on 'To Pimp a Butterfly'), he is also one of the world's finest bass players. Armed with a six-string beast and backed by a phenomenal drummer and keyboard player, his eccentric assault on smooth soul, funk and free-jazz feels like its been beamed down from another planet. Visceral, virtuoso and full of life, the Thundercat trio were measured one minute and freaking-out the next, dropping highlights from the recent 'The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam' mini-album into the cosmic-slop. The new heir to Bootsy Collins thrown, he is a master and showed us all exactly why in the Red Bull Academy Tent on Saturday.
I mentioned this band in my last Top 10 Highlights for ClashMusic, and feel a bit lame doing so again... However, there is no way I could honestly write any kind of Pohoda review and not mention Ho99o9. If you have any interest in raw, aggressive and confrontational rock and hip-hop, then I implore you check out this band when you have the opportunity. Taking technology and industrial production techniques but mixing it with hardcore punk and ferocious rap, they come on like the bastard sons of Bad Brains and Death Grips.
Speaking to them backstage I suggested a triple headline tour with Young Fathers and the aforementioned Death Grips... if that were to happen however, the music industry might just completely implode! Their explosive show in the Europa Stage big-top was the most downright exciting show of the weekend, and the ensuing crowd-surfing and circle pits were testament to their impact on the tent... Wow! Another Pohoda and another festival epiphany... Happy 20th birthday to organiser Michal Kascak and his team. Here's to another 20 years of bringing people together for a real celebration of art, music and multiculturalism!
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Words: Vic Galloway (BBC Scotland & 6Music, journalist and author of 'Songs in the Key of Fife' out now)
Catch Vic on Twitter - @VicGalloway