Is it Latvia…or ACL?
Editorsâ€™ note: Back in July, Austinist writer Anna Hanks visited Latvia and attended the PostivusAB Festival there. She reports her findings here, to you, in the ever-rarer first narrative format. Enjoy.
Earlier this summer I ended up backstage with electronic music uber-dude Fatboy Slim (aka Norman Cook) at a music festival in Salacgriva, Latvia. Luckily the beatmaster king didnâ€™t know that I was so sick with an ear infection that I nearly threw up on his shoes.
Given that the entire post-Soviet PositivusAB Festival was freakily like some tiny, storybook version of our Austin City Limits Music Festival, I was no more surprised to be backstage with the headliner than I would have been seeing a white rabbit scurry by, checking his pocketwatch to insure he wasnâ€™t late for the Manic Street Preachers.
â€œOooh, I love mash-ups!â€ said Cook, when my DJ friend Dace presented Cook with a demo made by another Latvian DJ. Iâ€™m pretty certain that Cook gets something like this little bundle of homemade electronic hope at every tour stop, yet he seemed Christmas-morning delighted about getting the CD. Cook even politely read off the track titles in his cute British accent, made appreciative murmurs, then checked for artist contact information on the disc.
If Cook had promptly vanished into the ether of the festival, leaving only a Cheshire Cat smile behind, I wouldnâ€™t have been more surprised. Considering I’d slept in an abandoned backstage dressing room the night before, that’s saying a lot.
The secondâ€“ever Positivus Festival took place over two days in mid-July in the tiny coastal town of Salacgriva, Latvia, not far from the capital of Riga. Salacgriva is on what was once the heavily patrolled western edge of the Soviet Union. Look for it on the map between Sweden and Russia. Look hard. The entire population of Latvia is around 2.5 million people. Thatâ€™s only slightly larger than Houston. It’s a place Americans hear little about, which is why I was surprised to hear Obama name-check Latvia during the recent town hall debate.You might think it’s unlikely that an Austin gal would end up in a music festival in rural Latvia. Au contraire, I ended up at Positivus because Iâ€™m an Austin girl. In Austin the world beats a path to our door. A few years ago I covered the SXSW visit of Latvian singer-songwriter Goran Gora for The Baltic Times, an English-language newspaper based in Riga. Making friends with those Latvian music industry folks led me to Positivus. Music brings people together in ways that occasionally go beyond a drunken mid-festival hook-up.
Positivus is billed as the biggest music festival in the Baltic States (the post-Soviet countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia). As such, it combined eerily familiar bits with highly unusual things.
I had my first weâ€™re not in Kansas moment when my Latvian friend and I pulled into the festival camping area. The newly mown site had most certainly been a functional field back in Soviet Times, and you could still see the faint remains of the furrows left by long-ago plows. Luckily I soon saw a skinny dude in tie-dye hanging out in the camping area, so I knew that, at least spiritually, I wasnâ€™t so far from Austin.
The setting for the festival was a lot like a Texas state park from an alternate reality. The decaying Soviet-era infrastructure lingers, but wasnâ€™t used for the festival. The food court sat smack dab on the old stage area, while the vintage bench seating was used for sunbathing and napping. Everything seemed so like ACL; until I realized that they were selling Latvian pancakes in the food court, and beer Iâ€™d never heard of at the bar. It was all so eerily familiar and yet totally alien that I was half expecting the drinks to be labeled â€œDrink me”.Walking around the festival to see acts like Pienvedeja Piedzivojumi and the Satellites LV, I was continually a little freaked out by how much the event reminded me of ACLâ€”except that the entire thing was in Latvian. With 18,000 people attending over two-days, it was closer in scale to Fun Fun Fun Fest. Yet it had that same quasi-hippy-happy musical picnic ACL vibe, without the 65,000 sweaty ACL attendees. Positivus was pop, not punk; sweet not snarly. It was as close to cuddly as a music festival could be. The festival was small enough that I kept running into my new Latvian acquaintances who usually greeted me by name, and asked, in English, how I was doing. Turns out that being a Texan is a privileged position in the Baltic States. Since Latvia is a member of NATO and the EU, and a stop on the Ryanair stag party and sex tourism circuit, they get plenty of English-speaking visitors. They just donâ€™t get so many Texans.
Like ACL, Positivus had a tent selling festival tee-shirts, and a stand or two selling arts and crafts. Positivus had hippie -green types, promoting various Baltic green causes. You could swim in bracingly cold water with algae floating on top while looking up at the trees. Yet this wasnâ€™t Barton Springs, it was the Gulf of Riga. Those Baltic trees were pine or birch, not pecan. The Positivus audience had fewer tats and piercings than one finds on Red River. I also now understand why my Latvian pals view my earplug habit as unusual, as I only noticed two other humans at Positivus with hearing protection. One was a toddler wearing those ear muffs most famously worn by Apple Paltrow, while the other was a cameraman.
While Positivus was eerily like ACL, there were some key differencesâ€”like the weather.
Ironically, given their temps in the high 70â€™s Positivus distributed the festival schedule printed on funeral home fans. I never felt the need to fan myself. At ACL, despite the â€œcoolerâ€ temps this year, I was still worried that my snowcone might catch fire.
Of course, the flipside to the cool temps at Positivus is that, after dark, I was freezing while wearing a hoodie and long pants in July. Freaky, especially when there were skinny dudes still barefoot in their bathing suits next to me.
There were other differences between the two festivals. Unlike ACL, Positivus had no lawn chairs to trip over. There werenâ€™t many people over 40. I watched pickup games of Latvian soccer, played on the empty mainstage lawn with a footy finesse you just donâ€™t see in Austin. Most disconcertingly, there were dogs patrolling the rim of Positivus, keeping out gatecrashers who werenâ€™t willing to cough up the 30 Lat (50 dollar) entrance fee. Maybe Iâ€™ve seen too many WWII films, but I found the German Shepherd perimeter patrol eerie.
Positivus really started for me with a performance of the Swedish group â€œIâ€™m From Barcelona,â€ (which is one of the reasons Iâ€™d wanted to go.) I didnâ€™t think it was bloody likely that theyâ€™d be hauling their multi-member group all the way to ATX anytime soon. What better place to see them do the song, â€œCollection of Stampsâ€ describing them having, â€œOne from Spain, two from Japanâ€¦â€ than a pan-Baltic music festival? Barcelona lead singer Emanuel Lundgren did his quasi-circus act of spewing confetti, crowd-surfing in a swim-raft and releasing lots of tiny red-balloons. It was like a lab puppy of a show: super sweet, but leaving hella mess in its wake.
Near the end of the Friday night performances at Positivus, I totally worried that Scottish group Travis was tempting fate when they played, â€œWhy Does It Always Rain On Me?â€ but the clear skies held for the festival.
As the sun was coming up around 3 a.m, my friend and I went rock-n-roll camping, collapsing on couches in the vacated dressing rooms. (Neither of us own a tent.) Fittingly, I had ended up in the dressing room of â€œIâ€™m From Barcelona.â€ Their discarded luggage tag confirmed that they really had come from Stockholm earlier that day. Confetti and guitar strings littered the floor, and a bunch of empty bottles crowded the table. Shivering ensued, under the toddler-sized blanket that I had bought earlier at the grocery store.
At Positivus, Saturday night featured British Sea Power. After seeing the Brighton groupâ€™s amazing show on Maggie Maeâ€™s rooftop at SXSW in March, I hadnâ€™t wanted to miss them playing in Latvia. They were followed by Fatboy Slim, wearing the neatly pressed shirt Iâ€™d seen hanging in his dressing room backstage. At ACL, I didnâ€™t even see where the backstage entrance was, much less get past security to hang with the rock stars.
While Positivus was eerily close to ACL in many ways, Iâ€™d be stretching the truth to see multiple similarities between Austin and Latvia. Yet Austin calls itself â€œThe Live Music Capital of the World,â€ while Latviaâ€™s tourism materials tout it as, â€œThe Land that Sings.â€ They have a band called Mofo. We have a Governor who has used the term mofo
It really is a small world, after all.