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FESTIVAL REPORT: Open'er Festival
Chris Roberts , July 10th, 2014 17:10

Chris Roberts heads to a former military airfield in Poland for four days of music, art, fashion, and overly enthused crowds. Photo by Michał Murawski

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The seaport of Gdynia, in – I love this bit – the Pomeranian Voivodeship of Poland, is on the South coast of the Baltic Sea, and is about a 40 minute drive from Gdansk. Gdansk is the capital of the Pomeranian Voivodeship of Poland and has a complex political history with periods of German and Polish rule. In 1939, a year after Holger Czukay was born in what was then called Danzig, the first shots of World War II were fired there. Later, in the 80s, it was the birthplace of the Solidarnosc movement, which, under the leader Lech Walesa, after whom the airport is named, helped bring down Communism across central Europe. I'm not sure how much of this you need to know if you're just here to watch the likes of Pearl Jam and Jack White playing loud squealing rock music, but once in my youth I went to a creative writing class and they said you should always provide some back story.  

The four-day Open'er Festival takes place somewhere outside Gdynia in a massive former military airfield. To walk between stages you often walk down what must once have been a runway. The spotlights are intense. Attendance is said to be around 70,000 and the weather is good. Food and drink is cheap. Having missed the first night (Black Keys, Interpol, Haim), we arrive on the second to the strains of MGMT doing the hits. You can then flit between Danish electro-pop singer MØ, muscular if not as soulful as they once were rockers Afghan Whigs, Aussie psych-dance group Jagwar Ma and main stage headliners Pearl Jam. Eddie Vedder establishes an easy rapport with the crowd, who are – in the time-honoured manner of people at festivals where you don't get festival saturation – highly enthusiastic about nearly everything. Pearl Jam cover Public Image Ltd's 'Public Image', to our surprise, with conviction and accuracy. Their encore of 'Alive' is followed by a blitz through The Who's 'Won't Get Fooled Again'. These little curveballs translate well. Rudimental perform after I've gone to bed. I've seen them on telly so it's OK; Brit-winning Hackney chic isn't my thing.  

But let us not make this a list of bands (though I will, of course, tell you who played the next night, and the next, and offer some opinions on these, for that is what Lech Walesa would have wanted). Open'er has a cinema tent, a fashion tent, a theatre tent and an art tent. These are interesting. The art gallery – exhibition title: "Show Us Your Dreams" – is a respite from all the rock and shows a selection from Warsaw's Museum Of Modern Art. The notes tell me these pieces are "embedded in the tradition of dissent" and "socially engaged", and indeed they are. A giant black balaclava made for the Statue Of Liberty. A huge plastic sculpture of an African dictator, said to be a cannibal, his phallus filling a large room. Various plays on the word "Adolf". Stacks of banknotes on the floor: Zimbabwean dollars, obtained illegally as a statement on capitalism.  A room showing black and white footage of old punk bands on a screen, in front of which a young couple make out vigorously. I'm still not sure if they were performance artists or just making out vigorously.

In the cinema tent you can watch documentaries on The National and Ai Weiwei, the new-ish film Frank or numerous Polish features. But let's get back to the music! We didn't come here to stare at culture, grandad! Friday – the 4th of July – offers a well-received, diverse set from Foals (not as clinically boffin-like as last time I saw them, now approaching actual funk) before Jack White takes the main stage. He declares that his voice is shot and that, upon the advice of his mother, he's on the look-out for a Polish wife. The two facts appear unconnected. He avoids the endless tuning-up and widdly Hendrix-wannabe solo-ing of his Glastonbury show and just gets on with the loud squealing rock music. Never seen the appeal, myself, but there's visceral in the volume. On another stage, the sinistral love songs of Wild Beasts continue to almost but not quite attain moments of true beauty. The Depeche Mode and Talk Talk references are overt. Switching between two lead vocalists is a risky manoeuvre and can stall momentum and dilute charisma: they struggle with this. And yet they are as close to art-rock as the marketable mainstream allows, and thus should be encouraged. The Poles enjoy hooting and howling with them. The tent in which Royal Blood are playing is impossible to enter, so dense is the crowd, and clearly the duo's baffling runaway buzz-factor has travelled. From outside, one can hear the Zeppelin/White Stripes riffs pounding. My new best friends from all the cool young UK music sites tell me good things about the performances of Banks and a late-night Lykke Li.

In the daytime we take outings to Gdynia and Gdansk. Everything is an eternity away from everything else, so we spend most of the day in hot cars, in traffic. Gdynia's quayside is dominated by two floating museums, a WW2 destroyer and a three-masted training vessel. There's a statue of Joseph Conrad, Polish-born as Teodor Josef Konrad Korzeniowski. Gdynia is pleasant enough despite its comically rude café staff, but nothing special. Gdansk, however, if you have the patience to get to "the old town", is very special. The beautiful chocolate-box architecture was rebuilt after wartime bombing but restored with taste and discernment. The Catholic (obviously) churches are monolithic and the street-turned-tourist-attraction Ulica Mariacka is picturesque to the point of inspirational. It is fond of amber jewellery, (real) parrots and (stone) gargoyles.

On the third night of Open'er, The Horrors are playing to a small crowd which becomes increasingly smaller. I don't say this with glee; I'd rather goths doing Simple Minds than many other things: but it seems the Poles do not "relate" to them at all. I visit the fashion tent, where every half-hour fiercely beautiful models sashay down a catwalk to a mash-up of Kraftwerk and Philip Glass. My new best friends from Vogue tell me it's no great shakes, but inexplicably I find it very watchable. And I wrote a book about Kate Moss, don't you know, so I'm an authority on haute couture. A further stroll locates a silent disco, where it is quite funny to watch drunk people in headphones bouncing up and down and bellowing "I don't care! I love it!" even if this is not quite funny when they do it in London while waiting for the night bus outside your window.                       

Faith No More are being all triumphant and epic on the main stage, clad in A Clockwork Orange white. "With this and Pearl Jam, it's a bit 90s revival", comments my new best friend from the contemporary British music press. But those that love the band say Mike Patton was in heroic form and that it was majestic. I have by now wandered off to see Daughter, who are moved close to tears by the rapturous response they receive. They do subtle, brittle things with The xx template and the singer nervously but successfully conveys emotion. They're sitting next to us on the plane back the next morning and still seem slightly shell-shocked. During the next bit of nocturnal walking, one cannot avoid a few minutes of the popular phenomenon Bastille, who are greeted like gods. I try to get a handle on their attraction. Duran Duran, only lamer? Not even. But something that pilfers the 80s and takes all the good bits out of it. Fiction Factory. H20. Go West.

Phoenix are headlining the main stage but Warpaint are headlining the ginormous tent. A preposterous broadsheet article recently cited them as "pioneering" a "new movement" of "women in rock". This was in 2014, not 1974, so you can see how funny and out-of-touch that was. For Warpaint, it's the last date of a six-week tour. Theirs is a compelling soup of art and rhythm: a Zenned-out Tom Tom Club, The Au Pairs with hauteur. Despite a technical glitch which scuppers the first song, they regroup to drive into a spiralling set of mystery and motion. That switching-between-lead-singers thing doesn't hinder them one jot, and the exquisite 'Undertow' and 'Love Is To Die' reach out an Excalibur arm and pull you under the waters. The bassist's grooving is infectious; languid but committed, it's the visual avatar of their giddy stew of sound. They close by singing 'Happy Birthday' in Polish.

Our time in the Pomeranian Voivodeship of Poland is up, and I haven't even used "Danzig the night away". Open'er is a big, comfortable buffet of a festival and if you go you'll have copious fun, because that's the kind of loose-limbed life force you are. I can tell.