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Festival Review: Poland’s Open’er Festival 2015

Four Days in Gdynia with St. Vincent and Drake

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All photography by Alex R. Elms except where noted.

Passport locked tightly between teeth, I’m frantically drying a newly washed pair of pantyhose with one hand and furiously googling where the heck Gdansk is with the other. Every time, without fail, predictive text on my phone tells me it is not “Gdansk,” but, in fact, “G dance.” This foreshadowing isn’t far off. I’d planned to shelve any suspicions about what the next week covering Poland’s premier Open’er Music Festival was going to be like. While the idea of a European festival is thrilling, the panic before heading to a new country for the first time on your own is ripe. There isn’t a pack of Disney animals clearing a pathway for you when you arrive, just a question of if and when you’ll get lost. Will you end up crying in a fetal position in front of a national monument? Will someone you love be called upon to identify your cold, shivering carcass?

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The four-day Open’er Festival happens just outside of Gdynia, Poland, on the huge former military airfield Kosakowo. To walk between the four stages is to walk off every fatty burrito that’s ever taken up residence in your ass. Initially, what’s so striking about this festival is just how dislocated the lineup is. As if curated in the same way today’s listeners chomp up music, Open’er 2015 had no genre boundaries or purist judgments — it was an ultimate display of an IRL iTunes shuffle. While the offering was diverse, Open’er tricked the mind into drawing direct lines between its rap, electro, indie, and house artists.

It felt freeing to witness almost every performance with an open mind (par the terrifying squeaks of Diplo rolling across the crowd in a life-size plastic hamster wheel during Major Lazer’s Day 2 set). Even with the mixture of artists, I discovered my mind still found simple connections; the laser beams during Faithless echoed the rays of strings piercing the tent stage during Jonny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra, and while the confetti cannons during ASAP Rocky showered the crowd, so did the spitting profanities of Die Antwoord. There’s no over thinking things, just one act after the other, with people happily spilling from Mumford and Sons to Swans, from the buttery sounds of D’Angelo to the acid punk electronica of The Prodigy — it’s a subversive force, this festival, a unifier.

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With beers cheaper than burgers, a balanced gender mix, and a crowd enthusiastic about absolutely everything, Open’er proved people turn to festivals like they turn to records: to seek out that safe space and lose their absolute shit. Often there’s an urge to demand that a festival will stick with you, that it will help give perspective on things you have struggled to dissect. From St. Vincent singing songs that orchestrate a culture, to the sheer heft of Father John Misty’s unshakable hip-swinging, crowd-bantering dynamic, we were granted a series of events that stuck. A festival should be “the axe chipping away that frozen sea inside us all,” and luckily enough the combination of high temperatures and memorable performances turned the crowd into liquid swards of goo. Here are the highlights.

Day 1: Wednesday, July 1st

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Today I would see Drake’s eyebrows storming the stage for the first time. Those thick, wild bushels of hair! But not until we traveled from Gdansk, a beautifully quiet seaside port where we were staying, to Open’ers unspoiled grassy airfield. Like many unchanged and enchanted national heritage sites, it’s a long way from anywhere. What this means is a daily 15-minute drive in traffic, an epic journey to The Nightfort of Poland.

After ASAP Rocky and his confetti canons rocked the main stage to open the fest, Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse sauntered in with a backpack fixed to his back, wearing a navy beanie and vaping. It was a dream to see the band headline a massive stage. Given that Poland is in the midst of long summer days (meaning the sun doesn’t set until after 10 p.m.), there was still a little too much daylight when they played. That meant technical problems, like the left speaker crackling until it blew, felt noticeably brighter, hindering the performance. As Brock strolled around the stage looking dumbfounded at the crowd despite the hitch, he admitted he’d also forgotten lyrics, licking his fingers and smoothing out his eyebrows. The most exciting period of any band is when you catch them singing a new song, and “Lampshades on Fire” burst the crowd wide open. “King Rat” moved perfectly into “The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box”, and then came ye-ol’-faithful “Float On”. Its growing power made a perfect omen for what Modest Mouse continues to do.

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First Modest, then Drake squeezed the word “Poland” into every lyrical spot he could. “I’ve heard a lot of things about a lot of places I’ve played,” he said, “but Poland is the motherfucking craziest place I’ve played in my life.” He succeeded in making Poland’s largest music festival all about him.

But all hail the mac daddy of meltdowns. The unstoppable force of Father John Misty provided the day’s only real dance-floor kick for one of the best sets of the entire festival. Throughout the hour and half, the alter ego of LA indie poet J.Tillman often raised one hand to his head in a painful plea, ending up in a dramatic church-like grasp or finger snap. The immutably frank “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” found him on his knees admitting to the crowd that his songs probably translate very poorly into Polish. “It actually means we’re all married now,” he said, to which the crowd squealed. “Shut up,” he chirped back. “I’m having emotions.” And after a fan’s “I love you!”, he unfurled into a madman’s monologue, “I love you too, but I just need some space after what you did to me. I know you went and watched Drake for like 25 minutes, and then you came here. Maybe no big deal to you, but I have a massive ego.” Unbuckling his guitar, he threw it to a roadie before disappearing into a gallant stage dive. Brutal and lovely, there are not many things in life more satisfying than watching Father John Misty sing.

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Day 2: Thursday, July 2nd

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I woke up to the sound of my feet crying and downed a cup of cold tea that I embarrassingly fell asleep before finishing the night before. It’s here where I realized that amid my packing hurricane, I only packed one and a half pairs of shoes. That’s right: one shoe, two feet, no hope. But Thursday is a new day, and with it came a hearty breakfast with not one, but two Polish musicians from the band Oxford Drama. While they have yet to release a full album, the electropop duo proves to be a fun experience. Beneath the singer and the keyboard, drum machines are confidently modest over the minimalist balladry. It’s easy to see why Poland’s music press is so excited about these guys.

Over at the tent stage beneath rainbow strobe lights, a suspender-wearing Jesse Hughes of Eagles of Death Metal strutted on stage to the backing track of C & C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now”. For long stretches, Hughes would introduce songs by drawling, “I fucking love all you motherfuckers!” As the set went on, his outbursts got louder and more intense: “We had a barbecue in Poland, motherfuckers — that shit is bitchin’!” Before showing off new material from their upcoming album, Zipper Down, Hughes reminded the crowd that they were going to “fuck [them] up,” but “ya’ll just pretend it’s killer, okay?” What’s just as astonishing as their honesty is how the band balanced it with a visceral energy that never seemed like they worried about getting stuck in our heads. Each song felt gigantic, these anthemic fist-raisers that kept everyone in a musical frenzy, breathless on their feet.

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Photograph by B. Bajerski

As expected, the noticeably befuddled Pete Doherty assaulted the crowd next during The Libertines’ set, opining, “It’s that time again, ladies and gents, where you can smell the orange blossom and the chemical toilets.” Something about his reputation is just so … efficient.

I then met 10-year-old Hanna, the fan going berserk in the front row for Swedish punk band Refused, and watched as the crowd swelled way beyond the fringes of the tent stage. This was nocturnal music, intense and absorbing, finding the band drawing from both their back catalog and their recent release, Freedom. New songs “Elektra”, “Françafrique” and “War on the Palaces” got a riot reaction as lead singer Dennis Lyxzén round-house kicked his way through the music to solidify the band’s return.

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Photograph by M. Murawski

Day 3: Friday July 3rd

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…And we’re on a flipping boat. A replica of a pirate ship floating along the Baltic Sea. Just a bunch of international journalists stealing exclusive performances from up-and-coming Polish acts on a boat. While we were tired enough that sitting felt like you’re swaying anyway, our marine adventure made for a perfect lull before the third day of Open’er began.

Friday really dawned with the beautiful sounds of Jose Gonzalez, who went from soulful folk-pop to raw-throated sounds. For all the minimalist staging, his take on balladry still has a way of sounding detailed and more personal than it first appears. We sat down for a quick hello before soundcheck, where he told me that after 12 years of doing this, he’s finally gotten used to hovering between the duality of how thrilling it is to play at a festival compared to the normalcy of home. His friends keep him grounded, he said. “They say to me, ‘Oh yeah, you’ve got a new album? Well, I got a new kid.’”

Then Mumford and Sons launched straight into a seemingly stale-sounding intro of “Lovers’ Eyes”, though few bands had crowds dancing as ferociously as they did. Rarely do festival headliners play as contentiously for their superfans, sacrificing those who approach the set as newcomers, but Mumford and co. had no worries, looking genuinely happier while playing the old banjo-plinking hits. Considering how many people they’ve annoyed over the years — judging by the vast difference between the mode in which they play hits vs. the new material — it’s clear they’ve managed to infuriate themselves just as much.

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The healing power of Swans arrived then at a far greater juncture for me. Michael Gira came off like an animal stalking his prey, pounding out primal thwacks then easing into a more calming, insistent level of eclecticism. Songs unfolded at ear-melting scale or were elegantly bare, and as Gira stepped to the mic for “A Little God in My Hands”, the volume curved across each instrument drummer Thor Harris wielded (electric viola, electric hammer dulcimer). It had you moving in a way that made you turn off any brain space that would normally tell you you’re too tired to carry on. The band never seem sapped of their raw power: Their spirit felt urgent.

But I tell ya, don’t ever doubt D’Angelo’s sincerity. During his eight-song set backed by the 10-piece Vanguard, he eclipsed all expectations to wrestle high notes and sing about sensuality, wavering commitment, and police brutality. The grinning smooth operator showed that the passage of time hadn’t crushed his songwriting or his vocal abilities. It’s rare to see an artist working through decade-old material and not only having a clear connection to it, but actually still giving a shit about it. Alternating between his piano and jumping to the center of the stage, he grooved over his mic stand with the same fluidity as the tracking camera. Closers “Brown Sugar” and “Sugah Daddy” sounded like an artist rekindling his bond with his formative work, rather than putting his mouth where the money is.

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Photograph by M. Murawski

Day 4: Saturday, July 4th

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Photograph by B. Bajerski

It’s not often that you get pushed, shoved, and thrown to the curb (grass) by drones of young, screaming, Polish, crop top-wearing kids, but here we are, world. On Day 4, it happened to me twice. First during Swedish rapper Elliphant’s set when she repeatedly ventured into the crowd, much to the dismay of the bouncers. With an album still to be released and a foreign language crowd singing every one of her rap lyrics, there’s no ignoring this Elliphant in the corner.

Second, drawing a larger crowd than those for any of the former headliners (I know, they even trumped the phenomenal Disclosure) was the UK’s Years and Years, who I like to call Olly and the Years, or maybe just Olly. It’s all the crowd chanted, and it made me grab ahold of a fellow journo’s arm, screaming, “THIS IS A ONE DIRECTION LEVEL OF FANDOM! MY EARS ARE BLEEDING!” They both made me feel old and dropped hot poppy morsels of exploding lava bombs, sweet power jams that punched into the frenzied and adoring crowd.

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But the real weeping took place during St. Vincent’s set. Make no mistake: She’s the real deal. Even with her robotic grandfather clock head and body contorting, she’s imperiously poised and backed by an outstanding band that brought out the absolute best in her. She was a vision in a black leather getup, like Mystique from X-Men. What the star has accomplished at the intersection of avant-garde and pop, she conveyed with power and authority. It was an evolutionary performance to witness, a mammoth 12-song set with three encores. The crowd grew wobble-eyed as Annie Clark charged through the narrow barricaded pathway, shoving the cameraman out of the way to man the machine herself, only to ride a burly Polish bouncer back to land. There’s something in the way she mixed anthemic songs with utter primal abandon. We saw her lying down on a hospital bed singing “The Party”, and at one point she maneuvered to the front of the stage, back plastered to the floor, legs spread wide, and fired her pelvis toward the ceiling, eyes still fixed on the audience, like a spider after falling into a vat of poison. I had forgotten what this kind of live experience could do, and witnessing her helped me remember. St. Vincent revived the need for us to speak our minds and stand up for our own identities in these terrifyingly cluttered times.

Click ahead for an exclusive gallery from 2015 Open’er Fest.

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