The best festival in Central Europe delivers everything but the killer blow

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Not even a bristling and pitch-perfect set from Radiohead could save the sense that the mighty Glastonbury lacked something truly special this year. Maybe I’m smarting from the fact that the ‘big surprise’ act on the John Peel stage on the Sunday turned out to be The Killers. Pohoda followed suit this year, with a richly diverse festival that just lacked that one, big performance.

What Glastonbury is to the UK, so Pohoda is to Slovakia and few festivals in Europe are as valuable in the national psyche of their host country as Pohoda. Since its founding 21 years ago, the festival has been gradually fashioned into arguably the most replete festival experience in Europe. Making that happen in Slovakia has not been easy and over 20 years, the festival has consistently punched above its weight, drawing in a who’s who list of rock, electronica, and dance from across the world. Pohoda is so significant, that few big bands from Europe and the U.S step on the stages at the festival without saying, “this is our first time in Slovakia”. Whoever the band are, the audience know that and it creates an automatic warmth between the performers and the crowd that is special.

Missing Shobaleader One, Squarepusher’s masked foray into cosmic funk armed with a 6-string bass, was truly gutting, but a few gleeful Pohodans tell me they were awesome. I wait for M.I.A on the main stage to get the party started and she does – she’s adored here and played a blinder in 2011, which is why she’s back. Birdy played earlier and together with Solange, Dillon and several others, this year is a great one for female artists. The chance to see Squarepusher in a mask comes again in the form of a two-hour set of characteristic intensity and electronic expression. Some of the beats have their own beats and the guy next to me is dancing to a different beat than me, I think everyone is. Everyone drifts off like they’ve been hit by a series of sonic bricks.

Sleaford Mods aren’t well known in Slovakia, “this is our first time”, says lead mod Williamson, predictably, before savaging the shortcomings of contemporary Britain for a slightly bemused crowd. “We’re not feeling it are we, Andrew?” says Williamson at the halfway breather. By B.H.S, their superb new single, the dynamic duo has finally got Pohoda onside, but they don’t get there without a fight.

Pohoda has a no spirits policy. it sounds harsh, but it’s one of the best decisions ever taken in festival-land. People are drunk, but it’s an all-day beer-drunk, not a hard liquor drunk. Since Urpiner, the rejuvenated Slovak beer company took over, the beer at Pohoda has been better and this year the food matches it, fresh barbecued fish, large numbers of vegetarian options and copious amounts of Slovak cheese, which comes with jam, augment the usual, less healthy stuff.

The Idles pick up on Saturday where the Mods left off, tearing up the Orange Stage in the baking sun and proving they deserve a headline slot next year, it’s hard to imagine a band putting more effort into a performance. Les Amazones d’Afrique, the female supergroup from Mali bring it too – bands like this appearing on the main stage is another indication of Pohoda’s meticulous forethought – their brand of world music and soaring harmonics are just perfect uplift before the evening.

After Jake Bugg does his stuff, which seems a bit lost on the main stage crowd, it’s up to Baltimore’s Future Islands. A festival band to rely on nowadays, the energy of Sam Herring’s stage performances is enough to lift crowds on its own – his Cossack dancing goes down particularly well. By contrast, Alt-J, whose meteoric rise has made them headliners perhaps before their time, provide a stunning live show by hardly moving at all. Bars of pulsing lights isolate the band from each other and there is an uneasy undercurrent of angst to the performance which draws heavily on their new album, Relaxer.

The dance arena is on fire for Ho99o9 and it should be, this punk hip hop outfit from L.A are one of the best things to emerge in years and this is their second Pohodan show. Their live shows are like cult events now devastating beats, live drums and film backdrops of police brutality and decaying meat. Ho99o9 come closest to a defining set for Pohoda 2017.

One of the great things about Pohoda for anyone coming from the UK is that they are definitely going to see important bands they’ve never heard of. So it is with avant-garde Russian legends Auktyon, who’ve been peddling a mix of post-punk, folk and jazz for over 30 years but remain sadly unknown in the west.

A lead man of advancing years in a sequined jacket drives the whole thing and they are utterly strange and completely compelling.

So, to, are Beak, whose psychedelic drones and swirling melodies prove irresistible to the small crowd that gather in Pohoda’s smallest venue, the intimate Europa stage.

Perhaps after its 20th birthday last year, the festival was still coming down from the celebrations a bit, but despite the lack of one, big, unifying gig, Pohoda 2017 proves again that this is simply the best music festival in Central Europe.

JW /.17

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