Positivus 2015: The Review

A family-friendly haven for rockers and ravers looking for a dance into the wee hours, as well as people who just want to watch a puppet film in the woods at 4 in the morning, we investigate the ninth edition of Latvia's Positivus festival

Feature by Aidan Ryan | 23 Jul 2015

"Well look a-there, look a-there, look a-there look a-there-ooooh-wee!"

At first we’re buffaloed: it’s Saturday night in Salacgrīva, Latvia, and Kasabian have just finished another massive set of hit after ‘future rock’ hit, leaving plenty of fists and pulmonary arteries still pumping. Everyone but Sergio Pizzorno has left the stage; and the guitarist, seeming of late more a frontman than Meighan, is crouched like a cheeky stork, singing a capella Jackie Wilson’s Reet Petite. After a verse or two he drops the mic and slinks off, and suddenly the night spins into an epiphanic focus: this bizarre anticlimax is in fact the only way the band could have iced such a satisfying set.

But this is Positivus, and though more than a few parents push prams out through the crowd, the night is far from over: one of LP hip-hop's founding fathers, Egyptian Lover is already spinning in a little clearing in the woods to the south, with Breach and Grind Live to keep the party going until 5:30 a.m. Apparently Serg knows this: he strolls out of the artists’ enclave in his black coat and floppy hat minutes after his surprise doo-wop cover, down the festival’s main thoroughfare, and spends much of the night pounding Tuborg and taking selfies with fans, as evidenced on Instagram the next morning. And he’s not the only artist to do so. Plenty riff on the name – Positivus, positivity, good vibrations – and that they’re not paying lip service to the fans is evident when they wander out to drink, dance, and listen after their sets, as reluctant to let the moment slip away as any ticketed guest.

The sleek Positivus website promises a seaside/forest landscape of basically Narnian tranquility, where hip sons and daughters of the Mare Balticum can come to hear some of Europe’s top acts alongside obscure unknowns (especially for visitors from the UK and parts west of the now-denuded Iron Curtain-Track), mixed with circus acts, short films, a craft and vintage fair, and clean carnival games with promotional tie-ins – pop-the-Tuborg, human foosball, a Marlboro ‘smoking lounge’ all chrome and polyhedral mirrors. Unlike Glastonbury, Positivus isn’t (yet) about tradition; it’s not a fashion show like Coachella; and it isn’t just about the music, like Montreal. Unlike T in the Park, it isn’t about getting pissed. Family friendly and hipster-oriented, appealing equally to VIPs who want to drink Prosecco on white couches under the trees while bands play in the background, to clubbers dancing to house DJs into the wee hours, to people who just want to watch a puppet film in the mist of the seaside woods at 4 in the morning, Positivus actually deserves the coveted modifier Like No Other.

Billed as a ‘boutique’ affair the festival attracts 30,000 guests each day this year, who saunter rather than trek between stages – only during headline sets might you have the slightest difficulty moving.  It’s not just the size, though: there’s free wifi in plenty of places, including a tiered observation deck complete with branded beach chairs (though guests here don’t ‘observe’ much, mostly zonked on mobiles and looking like a fashionable recreation of Edward Hopper’s People in the Sun); meanwhile at the Elektrum ‘Friendly Energy Area’ in the woods off the main thoroughfare, guests lie entwined together in hammocks under slow-spinning lights, charging their phones amid the oak and pine. There’s an H&M pampering station primed for selfies; there’s a ‘Fresh Garden’ serving organic and vegetarian dishes a far cry from most festival fare (though there’s also a food court serving up everything from kebabs to Latvian desa-and-kartupeļi and feeling, at its busiest, like a small Oktoberfest). Lest this sound too chic for a veteran festivalgoer, these luxuries aren’t the point of Positivus, but a string of gracenotes accreting into an atmosphere, both for discovering new acts and, maybe, hearing a festival season mainstay sound better than anywhere else.

That might be the case with Jungle, despite the relative-newcomers’ already impressive reputation as a live act. Taking the stage Friday afternoon, they mix stadium rock, dance-funk, and a bit of Poncho Sanchez percussion, comfortable with club crowds but drawing more on soul of the Earth, Wind, and Fire vintage: the nine-piece make a perfect marriage of today’s sampling tech with an old soul sensibility. About 1,000 clap to The Heat, but on the outskirts of the crowd a couple face away, a girl straddling a bald man with his keens pointing to glory, digging the whole thing supine, neither in nor really apart from the crowd; while above on the VIP terrace a man of about 67 with a fedora and a leprechaun-green mustache dances with two blonde Baltic beauties. This is Positivus: intimate and wide open, with vastly different vibe-worlds coexisting, separated by only a few bodies or a patch of grass.

The Positivus organisers are good at getting acts fresh to the festival circuit and poised for greater celebrity, even as soon as next season. One example: East India Youth, who plays to a few hundred relaxed on benches at the Nordea stage Friday afternoon (10% facing phones, 2% actually sleeping) pumping his peaced-out music through slightly staticky speakers, sounding like someone accidentally amplified a rainstick. Even when he leaves the laptop and shoulders his axe, the mood is mellow, but not at all unappreciative – someday soon we could all be Remembering When.

Most evidently (and endearingly) On The Cusp is Jack Garratt, who onstage and off can go from fierce and focused to wide-eyed and bashful – though never (really) at a loss for words.  ‘I barely know who I am, so the fact that some of you kind of know who I am … is meeeentaaaaal!’ he tells his Friday night crowd – just as thrilled as he is. Earlier in the Media Tent he tells us that even in primary school, teachers would say, ‘Jack has so many ideas, he just doesn’t know when to shut up.’ And there is something of the precocious adolescent about the capped and bearded one-man thunderstorm, architect of songs as earnest, introspective, and exuberant as their maker.

One of the standout acts – including headliners – is the Dorian Concept Trio, playing the Red Bull stage Friday evening. Comping and self-sampling Concept layers sounds inextricable to any but his own extraordinary ears, redefining ‘polyrhythm’ and crafting on his computer and keyboards celestial and cerebral jazz that must have come of age in the pulsing dark of a nightclub. Funky, danceable, and very smart, he and his trio – ‘The Clonius’ on midi-bass and ‘Cid Rim’ on drums (who plays heavy and agile as a shark, in style like an Eastern European and mostly unsmiling Brian Blade) – would be as much at home opening for Robert Glasper as backing and beatmaking for Aesop Rock. Girls in marzipan curls and flatbrims pop, lock, and drop it while some swing dance; behind mellower heads just bob, and a punter in a pith helmet flails like he’s dodging bullets. Concept ends with Herbiesque improvising over a sweeping, tripartite suite that’s absolutely unstandstillable.

For guests from the Baltics, Positivus is a rare chance to see big name British acts close to home, but these often leave UK visitors cold: girls adore Tom Odell’s heartfelt set but plenty of Brits are bored, more intrigued by the singer’s incredible epidermal sheen than his songs – the real action is with Concept at the Red Bull stage. Charli XCX draws the bigger crowd on a chilly and gray Saturday evening, but those in-the-know or just lucky stay at the main stage for Warpaint; the four indie gals from LA seem to draw their sounds out of the trees and the algae-black Riga Bay just yards away, sending siren sounds back out over an enchanted crowd. Though now no stranger to the UK another visitor from the States, St. Vincent, also impresses. Looking in a black bodysuit like a creature from the deeper parts of the sea, at once beautiful and kind of alarming, she’s one of most sonically intriguing acts all weekend.

A big appeal for the UK visitor is in discovering new acts from the east, perhaps bringing home a CD and wild story.  For example: ‘The Big Bluff, The Big Bluff, remember that name,’ says Ilya Krumins, this Riga-based band’s intense frontman.  They’re technically a three piece, their rockabilly sound rounded out by a lovely standup bass – unless you count the two figures who appear in blue blazers, red masks, and Plains Indian headdresses, to play keyboards, a djembe, and shakers, dancing barefoot on the stage … but in the Media Tent the band univocally refuse to acknowledge this ‘apparition.’ Mixing Jimi Hendrix and John Mayer with a jam band’s playfulness and rockabilly’s danceability, their Sunday crowd love them: they remind us that rock ought to roll.  Their next step, they say, is the U.S.: we hope they’ll stop in Scotland on the way.

Then of course there are the DJs, who take over after the headliners and spin till sunup. Standouts are DJ Jonathan Toubin, who spins only deep soul cuts on vinyl (to the delight of The Big Bluff, who party under his tent Friday night) and Austria’s Camo & Krooked, who take a small stage ringed by trees and have the placed so packed that it starts to feel like a roofless nightclub – except instead of clubby sweat smells we have a brisk breeze off the bay.

By Sunday we’re all sated, looking forward to Robert Plant but unsure if anything else the day offers can match Kasabian, a big step up from Friday’s Placebo. Brian Molko’s voice may sound to some like a castrated Jack Black fused with Estelle Costanza, during hay fever season, on an exclusive diet of Clarks maple syrup, but he does know how to be ‘fucking loud,’ and excite his fans. High-decibel and tight-throatedly whiny the way we like them, Placebo justify their continued popularity as a live act with a well-balanced band sound and obvious mastery of their own catalogue of chart-toppers. Playing for Baltic hipsters, champagne sippers couchant on beanbags in the VIP section, and even a contingent of babies in head-enveloping muffs, Placebo prove they’re neither ‘for outsiders’ nor really ‘by outsiders,’ though we'd believe them if they said they never played team sports as kids. They do underscore their etymology: placebo, ‘I will please' – but Kasabian blast them into Riga Bay; and we enter the festival Sunday afternoon under skies grey with uncertainty.

EDM stalwarts Basement Jaxx change everything: they bring a big band and a string of hits and restart the party – it might as well be Friday again.  A singer in a tortured lollipop bouffant oohs to Over The Rainbow and we sway like a field of Baltic barley – then explode into Where’s Your Head At. Later in the day St. Vincent enchants us before Rival Sons deliver a solid set anticipating the Led Zeppelin tunes to come, though they aren’t doing much new with their old materials.  Then, finally, it’s time for Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters.

He opens with the funky Trampled Under Foot, signaling to all the Led Zeppelin fans that they’ll leave satisfied.  But anyone who’s followed Plant’s career over the past decade knows not to expect a Greatest Hits performance.  It seems Plant might deserve the ‘future rock’ mantle more than Kasabian Sunday night, as he traces folk and trad’s transatlantic history and transforms his slick studio songs into huge live pieces, these woven with an equal number of Led Zeppelin favourites from Black Dog (mellow but well-matured) through the swaggering Wanton Song (‘Skin’ Tyson’s solo sounds nothing like Jimmy Page) and The Lemon Song, the transitions not at all jarring, so coherent is the band’s sound and so sure is Plant’s style of reinvention, heavy enough to rock hard on Zep classics and nimble enough to include Juldeh Camara’s one-string Nyanyero fiddle, free enough for the whole band to pause and take up frame drums.

It’s a Janus-faced set, looking into rock music’s future and its past – as when Plant pauses to deliver a simple and stirring speech acknowledging his debt to the music of black America.  He tries to leave the stage, but we bring him back for Whole Lotta Love, looking in his red silk shirt more like a lion than ever, leading a huge crowd-carried moan.

‘Whole Lotta Love’ might be the heaviest peach as a tagline for this ‘good vibes’ festival but we do feel the love, we’re riding high on it, and we wish that the semi-divine Plant could pull the sun back up to paint again in pinks and blues the black tides of Riga Bay.  Of course he can’t, and (like Narnia) we can’t stay in Positivus’ time-space forever: so several revelers bus back to Riga and settle on waiting for the sun to rise again Monday morning, even then doing little more than reminiscing in half-sentences and exclamations – even some plaintive Plantian moans – on the past three glorious days of Positivus.

Positivus Festival took place from 17-19 July 2015. http://positivusfestival.com/en