The landscape of UK festivals is gradually sliding into an overwhelming state of depression. Wireless charges you extra to get a better view of the main stage, the identity of Reading and Leeds is being whittled away as it struggles to compete with the rest of the circuit, and - in a move of unnecessarily heavy handed surveillance - police scanned the faces of every single person at Download this year. And that’s before you concede that the weather usually sucks, camping is for idiots, and two pints of watered down Tuborg will cost you 16 bar. All that said, European festivals have become an increasingly attractive alternative for British festival goers bored of rinsing half their wage packet to watch the remaining members of The Who pretend to be relevant.
Admittedly, though, the majority of that attraction doesn’t come from the line-up or the sound quality or anything like that. It pretty much comes from guaranteed lush weather and the sense that you’re doubling down by getting a festival and a holiday in one go. Also, whether it’s to do with licensing laws or the lack of landowners willing to lease their fields to hundreds of thousands of people to be sick on, Europe loves to throw festivals in weird locations. Exit takes place in a Serbian Fortress, Sziget sets up camp on a leafy 266-acre island on the Danube (Sziget) that usually means people try to get in for free by swimming or paddling across the river in a raft like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach, and then there’s Open’er, which pops off in an abandoned airfield in Gdynia, Poland. I’d never been to Poland before and I was interested to know how a festival that threw Drake, D’Angelo, and Die Antwoord together on the same bill would go down, so I thought fuck it, let’s have a go.
Launched in 2002, Open’er Festival has been building a following akin to other European majors like Exit, Sziget and Roskilde, this year having a record attendance of around 100,000 people. Unlike some other European majors, though, the way Open’er is laid out means you don’t feel as though you’re surrounded by 199,999 other people at all times. The main stage stands at the head of a huge field that’s fenced off from the bars, food courts, and other stages - and that alone is bigger than the entire Reading festival arena itself. You can spend the entire four days walking around the Open’er site and not have to brush skin with another human being, which is nothing short of a British commuter’s paradise.
The other good thing about European festivals is that they don’t start until around 4pm, so even though we flew out on the first day we still arrived in time to see pretty much everything, starting with A$AP Rocky on the main stage. As he went through his set - complete with perpetual air horns, glitter cannons, and that Skrillex collaboration - I noticed two things: 1) Europe’s massive wide-on for dubstep is still very much alive, and 2) everyone is pale-skinned and Abercrombie skinny. Seriously if you think UK festivals can be a bit monocultural then come to Poland: the wristband exchange area was like a casting call for Poland’s Next Top Model. With sunblock clogging up every single one of my facial pores, shoulder skin drier than a nun’s gusset, and a body type that means I enter a room arse first even if I’m walking forwards, I have never felt more genetically inadequate in my life. Still, Drake was the first headliner and it’s impossible to feel unsexy when Champagne Papi is in the vicinity.
Drake’s set is stacked to the 6 and back. He played thirty fucking songs including covers of “Blessings” by Big Sean, “Truffle Butter”, and Fetty Wap’s “My Way” - not much from Thank Me Later or Take Care, but almost everything you want to hear from If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. He also inserted “Poland” into all his verses at every opportunity, took a mid-set break to change his hoodie, and rolled out some of the most far reaching lead-in dialogue I’ve ever heard on stage: “On Saturday, I was sick. On Sunday, I was sick. On Monday, I was starting to feel better. On TUESDAY…” (I bet he was gutted it was actually a Wednesday). But all in all it was flames. Drake threw down, Poland went up, and the set concluded with actual fireworks. The response was so intense that it gave me reservations about the rest of the festival. Surely, it had peaked too early? What were they thinking putting DRAKE on as the first of four headliners? As the week went on, though, it became apparent that the Open’er crowd will go up for anything and everything. Alt-J? Up they went. Die Antwoord? You better believe it. Hozier? So far gone they had to bring out a fire truck and quite literally hose people down.
The artists mirrored that energy back from the stages too. Pete Doherty had fun with The Libertines’ set - putting on a sailor hat that was thrown on stage and declaring that “The Libertines are back at their best”, which was nice to see. Mazor Lazer and Disclosure drew the largest crowds, once again reaffirming the continent’s undying love affair with dance music. And Mumford & Sons got so excited they spent a good ten minutes canvassing the nationality of the crowd, responding with “You legend!” when someone shouted out somewhere like Slovakia or Lithuania and “Two people, huh? Let’s fuck ‘em up” when a few cheered for Russia. You heard it here first, Mumford and Sons are requesting their audiences to beat up any Russians in their contingent.
On a less politically dubious note, D’Angelo played one of the most vibrant sets of the weekend and dedicated a song to those who have lost their lives due to police brutality. Finally, to wrap things up on Saturday night, St. Vincent and Kasabian occupied the same headline slots in a beautiful twist of fate. In one of the tent stages, Annie Clark addressed the crowd with “Ladies and gentlemen, freaks and others,” and moved through her performance - a combination of righteous guitar shredding and contemporary dance - with the stunning accuracy of a robohuman. Meanwhile, Serge and Tom strutted around the main stage shouting “OI! OI!” between lines like: “I’m a king and you’re my queen, bitch.” Never before has crowd been more appropriately divided.
A part of me doubted there wasn’t much honesty behind a festival crowd that will go wild for every single act on the bill, from 4pm to 4am. I spotted a European sadboy in a backpack and a purple hoodie shout every single word back at Ratking and a girl whose love for Major Lazer went so far that her outfit included wearing their flag as a cape, but those individuals who quite literally wore their love of music on their sleeve were few and far between. The majority of people were there to have a good time and jump around in a field to some sound, regardless of who was actually making it. Even the Red Bull stage, set up in the food court with DJs blasting remixes of “Bump n’ Grind”, had an enthusiastic crowd fist-pumping in their direction at all times.
But then again, why not? British crowds are practically conditioned to pay hundreds of pounds just to go to a festival, stand still, and wait to be impressed. It’s almost as though we need a solid gold reason to justify expressing any sort of pleasure, like we’re judges of the performance rather than an integral part of it. Seeing hundreds and thousands of people go mental for every artist on stage - even if it was fucking Hozier - only reaffirmed that, when it comes to festivals or large outdoor shows, you only get back what you put in. I spent four days at Open’er, and apart from the select few who went too hard and had to be shuttled out in tin foil blankets - I didn’t see a single person having a visibly shit time. Maybe we could all do well to do as Drake does, and punctuate all our emotions with a bit of Eurolove.
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