Cheap, pretty, and relatively exotic, Poland is a semi-experienced international traveler’s dream. And the Off Festival could be the reason to go. Held every year in coal mining town Katowice, Off is a laid-back three-day take on both Polish and international bands, including this year’s headliners Neutral Milk Hotel, The Jesus And Mary Chain, and Belle And Sebastian. With camping nearby and $2.50 Grolsch flowing freely from just about every tap in the joint, Off makes festival-going both fun and affordable, especially for those either coming from the U.S. or who might be fed up with the costly nature of events like Glastonbury.
The A.V. Club took in all three days of Off, courtesy of the fest’s organizers and our pals at Sub Pop Records, who curated the fest’s Experimental Stage Friday. Here are capsule reviews of all 22 bands we saw at the fest, from DakhaBrakha to Andrew W.K.
Neutral Milk Hotel
Months into its long-awaited reunion, Neutral Milk Hotel is still grinding away playing ramshackle versions of songs from its beloved In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and the less-beloved but still pretty good On Avery Island. This set skewed heavily toward the latter, making it less of a collective sing-along than the band’s stop at July’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Still, the band seemed to have fun, and frontman Jeff Mangum’s vocals were as haunting as ever when he warbled out fan favorites like “Oh Comely.”
Though still a relatively small band, Protomartyr has been picking up steam ever since its chat-inducing performances at this year’s SXSW Festival. That buzz has apparently carried to Poland, where the Detroit band had audience members singing along to tracks like “What The Wall Said” and “Bad Advice,” despite frontman Joe Casey’s funnily flippant assertion that the latter song’s talk of Detroit politics might not be up the Polish crowd’s alley. It was, though, and the quartet delivered one of the fest’s tightest sets.
Fellow Detroiters Wolf Eyes have been active for almost 20 years now and has released almost 100 cassettes filled with avant noise. The trio has gone through some lineup changes, though, and its late-night performance at Off seemed more like a piece of performance art than of music, with its members donning synthesizer masks at points and telling the audience that it was totally within its rights not to be into whatever it was doing.
Polish garage duo Wild Books kicked off Sub Pop’s Experimental stage on Friday. And while the festival’s guide compared the group to Jack White and The Black Keys, the band instead harnessed some of the Seattle label’s cache for its set, plugging (consciously or not) classic Nirvana riffs into its fairly poppy rock jams. For a duo, Wild Books also managed to generate a lot of gritty noise, with frontman Grzegorz Wiernicki really working some shit out on his 12-string acoustic-electric guitar.
Teased in the fest’s program as having released “the most spectacular debut of the year,” The Dumplings are a pair of electro-pop friendly Polish teens who met on YouTube. Their tunes are more CocoRosie than The Knife, though, harnessing sappy drama and coy lyrics to varying effect. The group also sings in English, which could be good, but isn’t really, as clunky lines like “Waiting for you / In the queue” fall flat.
Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires
Young, energetic, and full of Alabama pride, Lee Bains III is one of Sub Pop’s newest signings, having just released Deconstructed earlier this summer. Bains, a former Dexateens member, channeled Bob Seger and Ted Leo for his arena-sized set, ripping through songs about Southern hospitality and dirt track racing.
While Bains and company were raucous, Lyla Foy was snoozily subdued. The London-based Sub Pop act slowly flowed through tracks off Mirrors The Sky, as well as a well-placed and excellently executed cover of Tori Amos’ “Cornflake Girl.”
The Experimental Tent’s biggest draw on Friday, Clipping makes abrasive rap coupled with complex electronic production. And while rap shows can have a tendency to come across sloppy and underwhelming, Clipping’s set was anything but, with Daveed Diggs’ enthusiasm lighting up the sweaty enclosure during tracks like “Inside Out.” By the end, everyone inside—and outside—the tent had their middle fingers in the air at Diggs’ insistence.
By far the fest’s stand-out act, DakhaBrakha set Saturday on fire with its blend of furry hats, Ukrainian folk music, and African and Indian instruments. Visually stunning and with songs that are simultaneously delicate and propulsive, the Kievan group also managed to bring a note of politics to the fest, ending the set by waving the Ukrainian flag. The Polish audience were understandably sympathetic and supportive, cheering so hard after the group finished its 6:45 p.m. tent set that the quartet had to come out for several curtain calls. Be prepared (and stoked) to see these guys making waves in the states very soon.
After DakhaBrakha’s emotional set, Deafheaven’s screams seemed a little false, especially as the California group groused (wrongly) from the stage about how it was clearly an outsider at the fest. Still, the group drew a bigger audience for its sunset songs than Neutral Milk Hotel had as the headliner the night before, and Polish hard-rock fans, of which there are many, listened raptly to both songs from Sunbather and new tracks like “From The Kettle Onto The Coil.”
Belle And Sebastian
Though the group ended with a whimper and no encore, Belle And Sebastian’s Sunday night set was mostly a fun romp through the group’s 18-year, eight-album career. Led by frontman Stuart Murdoch, the band’s 13 members ran through classic cuts like “The Wrong Girl,” “The Boy With The Arab Strap,” and “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” inspiring enthusiastically twee dancing from much of the crowd.
The Black Lips
The Black Lips always put on a hell-raising show, and the Atlanta band’s Saturday set at Off was no exception. Aided by Cerebral Ballzy frontman Honor Titus, who drunkenly hopped around the stage with seemingly no rhyme or reason, the quartet whipped the Katowice crowd into a punk frenzy within seconds of taking the stage, with crowd-surfing fans pouring into the pit until the very last chord.
Orchestre De Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou
Hailing from the African nation of Benin, Orchestre De Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou has released almost 50 records in its first 15 years of existence. While that’s certainly prolific and impressive, much of the audience still wasn’t familiar with the group’s material going into its Friday night set—not that it mattered. The massive group’s polyrhythmic sounds, matching purple outfits, and synchronized dancing had everyone in the crowd entranced, proving that a band’s enthusiasm can definitely be contagious.
And speaking of enthusiasm, Andrew W.K. The party professional played straight through a rainstorm on Sunday, not that anyone noticed. WK’s loyal fans hung in there regardless and were rewarded with upbeat takes on upbeat tracks like “I Love NYC” and “It’s Time To Party” before joining in on a 100-second countdown led by W.K. to the set’s finale, “I Get Wet.” Talk about appropriate.
With his fiddle playing and countrified stance, Frank Fairfield brought the rural South to Poland, channeling Doc Watson for a somewhat lackadaisical set on Saturday night. While pleasing to the effusively enthusiastic crowd, Fairfield’s long instrumental reels seemed a little underwhelming, especially when coupled with his awkward stage chatter.
A metal band from Japan via London, Bo Ningen cuts an interesting profile. All four of its members have exceptionally long and flowing black hair, which they whip around during riffs. All that helps make the band as epic as you’d think, with the tracks and visuals combining to form some truly assaulting metal.
Notwist drummer Andi Haberl is a real hero. The group’s material is layered so incrementally and intensely over his thumping that, were he to fall just a bit off the beat, everything would surely fall apart. He doesn’t, though, and it makes the German band really shine. Haberl especially shines on live versions of tracks from 2002’s Neon Golden, the album that essentially broke the band in the States.
With his Paris Is Burning moves and raunchy raps, Le1f is a pretty singular performer. His Saturday night set was perfect for Off’s drunken partiers, who raged to back-to-back tracks like “Hey,” “Wut,” and “Coins.” It was sexy and sweaty, making for a room that one festivalgoer aptly compared to a Skins set.
Cloaked in a giant robe and an epic amount of gloomy moodiness, Chelsea Wolfe delivered an intense set of mopey tunes on Saturday. Wolfe’s goth makeout jams were accented by some of the festival’s nearby art, which included ethereal projections onto some nearby trees. Neither the art nor the tunes were earth shattering, but together, they worked to make something really nice, albeit depressing.
For whatever reason, Polish people are really into hard music, be it metal or driving rap. That played out during Sunday afternoon’s set by Thaw, a Polish death-metal act that, clad in hoodies, seemed a little bit like Ghost B.C. Lite. Opening and closing with intense bouts of noisy drone, the quintet moved through its blast beats and gong hits with aplomb, soliciting the appropriate amount of thrashing and hand signals from the interested audience.
Before Perfect Pussy started on Sunday, there was talk of how a band with a single 24-minute album would fill up its 45-minute set-time allotment. In essence, they didn’t. To its credit, though, the group’s tight 25-minute set did run the gamut of the band’s material and showcase frontwoman Meredith Graves’ fierce stage presence and vocals, even if they were a little low in the mix.
The fest’s artistic director and former frontman of major Polish band Myslovitz, Artur Rojek is essentially Poland’s Chris Martin, but with a little more bombast, if that’s possible. His Sunday night small-stage set seemed like an underplay for the singer, who used his budget to both shoot off confetti cannons full of branded “AR” glitter and enlist two fairly sizable choirs (one of adults and one of children), creating an atmosphere that was more arena rock than smallish festival. It worked, though, and audience members—even ones not from Poland—ate it up.