If we knew the world was about to end, there’d be a hell of a party, right? Nothing would matter anymore: we’d blast our music, spend time with our loved ones, and drink whatever was left in the cabinet ‘for a special occasion’. Then we’d do ‘that thing we love’ one more time, and rampage through what’s left of the city, soaking up the buzz.
Wild as it is, this Czech festival is not quite an end-of-the-world rampage, but there is certainly a little bit of an apocalyptic vibe – in all the best ways – to Colours of Ostrava. Landed bang in the middle of the great rusting hulk of Europe’s largest Soviet-era steelworks, Dolni Vitkovice, it’s hard to imagine a better location for a festival, or an audience more in tune with its eclectic but slightly feral dynamism.
Sure, the two main stages are set slightly away from the monstrous ferric masses of the factories, but step into the festival’s heartland and you’ll find luminous art tucked into industrial walkways, and little town squares plonked between arms of decrepit buildings. You can climb to the top of the Bolt Tower (curiously named after the Jamaican sprint star) and stroll almost a hundred metres above it all staring at gas meters where folk bands strum. The ‘busking’ stage is in the shadow of a broad reddening pipeline, next to inflatable swimming pools and a long-defunct train that’s collapsing slowly into the turf. This place feels very slightly unsafe, and it’s all the better for it.
And wow, is it well used. There are standard beer tents (flogging the local brew Radegast at about €1.50 a time), but there are also bars tucked into the core of old warehouses. Entire streets of the festival’s stalls sit in the shadow of huge factories, while oddly shaped hills serve as water slides or kiddies play corners.
Colours has a line up best described as enticingly odd. It’s odd in the sense that the main acts have very little genre coherence: there’s both Norah Jones and Justice, Jamiroquai and Alt-J. The organisation, thankfully, is clever. The two main stages are offset, meaning no clashes as you drift from one to the other (and time for a trip to the bar between sets). In typically Euro-festival style, the main headline plays second to last, leaving a beat-heavy dance act to close proceedings on the weekend nights.
There are quite a few stand outs. Alt-J seem to have lost their much-talked-about live nerves, and are pulsating as they pummel through an hour-long greatest hits set, saying little but serving up a succinctly generous, throbbing set. Michael Kiwanuka does that thing where he’s both soulful and politically fierce at the same time. Benjamin Clementine leads the kind of sing-along that could get irritating in another setting, but his charismatic mocking of the local crowd for their failure to understand his (admittedly abstract) lyrics as he struts in his jumpsuit is endlessly entertaining.
Those big, late-night dance sets are whopper, too. Justice are the better of the two, lobbing their morphing melodic beats towards a last-night crowd that’s determined to make the closer a big one. Moderat’s approach is fuzzier and mellower, and lacks the acoustics of Justice’s tracks throbbing off the factory and echoing faintly around the arena as the lighting blazes.
Jamiroquai are somewhat criminally lacking in hits, but offer plenty of throwback entertainment nonetheless as JK struts across the stage in his Statue of Liberty-aping hat, blasting out the band’s quirky funk. There’s Irish local interest, too, as Walking On Cars grab a solid main stage billing, and go down well as Pa’s energy comes to the fore. Both Imagine Dragons and Norah Jones are less than inspiring headliners – the former cheesy as hell, and the latter better suited to an elevator ride once you drag your hungover head back to the hotel at 4am – but you can’t have it all.
Of course, part of festivals like this is the allure of acts you might not have come across before. French dance act Fakear are one such act for us, proving a huge hit with their summer dance beats on the Electronic Stage. Another is Speed Caravan, a mad, lute-based band that play a kind of hugely entertaining, super-sped-up folk rock.
David Koller is the local star (and one of very few Czech acts to make it to the main stages at the event). He sounds like a dingy post-rock act with a nice line in slowed down ditties, starkly powerful live. Ferocious Dog do a great line in punked up folk, and Digitalism’s brand of nerdy Hamburg dance beats is a memorable late-night aside, too. It’s eclectic as hell, sometimes disconcertingly so, but at a festival that’s begging for time to explore the site as well as the music, that’s not a bad thing.
Colours of Ostrava might not have come across your radar just yet. It doesn’t have quite the mega line-up of a Primavera, or a Glastonbury, and it only moved to this location five years ago, after growing out of a less enticing corner it has occupied for its earlier years. What it does have is a setting that in dozens of festivals, I’ve never seen the likes of. There’s a strong line-up, a fantastic atmosphere, cheap beer and cheap tickets.
As you stare down at it all from the top of a factory that was pumping out steel just over two decades ago, watching the lights flicker across chimneys, and artists carve huge chunks of wood into factory-dwelling monsters, it’s the kind of experience to breath in. You know you’ll never go to another festival quite like this.
Ryanair fly from Dublin to both Prague, and the slightly closer Polish destinations of Katowice and Krakow. Harmony Club Hotel offered us comfortable accommodation within walking distance of the festival. Czech Tourism will help you explore a host of destinations.
Colours of Ostrava, Alt-J & Justice photographed by Matyas Theue