On one of the more memorable weekends of 2013 I was acquired by a gang of Estonians and we drove to Latvia for the Positivus Festival.
Since we were driving a hulking VW van (vehicle of music festivals since 1969) we were stopped at the border. I was hoping that wouldn’t happen since my passport happened to be at the Kazakh consulate in Tallinn. Thank the lord of the dance that the person doing the driving speaks beautiful Russian and is an all around charming person. After listening to a perfunctory lecture from the border cop, he let us through with my drivers license and my passport photocopy.
After that it was smooth sailing straight into Salacgrīva, a small seaside town just over the Latvian border where Positivus has been held every summer since 2007.
The location is superb. The stages are set up in large clearings in an otherwise naturally wooded area with plenty of shade. A brutally hot day would be unlikely, but it would be tolerable with the breeze coming in off the ocean. A short walk down to the beach reveals more mini stages with DJ’s spinning well into the night. There isn’t a swimsuit in sight, but everyone’s dancing and splashing around in the gentle tides. Takes the edge off not showering for three days.
Like most big festivals, Positivus is BYO tent and pick your own spot. The big grassy lawn adjacent to the parking area will be your home for three days where you’ll join half the Latvian 20-something age bracket, a lot of Estonians and Lithuanians, a handful of Brits and Germans, and the American contingent could very well have just been me. But organizers say the festival is gaining more and more international traction every year.
For now, 99% of attendees were from Baltic states and the beginning of every conversation went like this:
“Hey, do you speak English or Russian?”
The answer would usually be English, which I guess is slowly replacing Russian as the Baltic lingua franca. While that obviously works for me, it also made me a little sad. I thought about it again as I handed my last few lats over to a sausage vendor knowing that this time next year I’d be giving her euros.
On Friday it was Elephants From Neptune (Estonia) that gave my favorite performance on one of the smaller stages. Colours of Bubbles (Lithuania) was really enjoyable too. I hadn’t heard of either group before, but both acts played thoughtfully written and energetic songs in the creative indie rock vein.
Another highlight was the President of Estonia making an appearance and spending most of the afternoon discreetly socializing while trailing half a dozen paranoid bodyguards wherever he went. Dressed in a traditional Estonian cape and dark sunglasses, I would have mistaken him for a middle aged ex-raver still working on his festival getup.
As the sun began to set, the largest crowd so far gathered around the main stage for Crystal Castles (Canada). I did not think they worked well on a big outdoor stage in terms of either sound or atmosphere, but I got some nice photos during their set. Noah and the Whale (UK) followed on the same stage. Generally they’re too sugary for me but they did a really fantastic cover of Daft Punk’s “Digital Love” featuring the best guitar solo of the entire weekend.
The next morning P and I separated from the crew to go get breakfast. We didn’t really bring any food of our own but the festival food was tasty, varied, and delightfully cheap. I tried more Latvian dishes than I ever did in Riga and gave thanks that I’m not allergic to dil.
Back at the minor stages, Them Lemons (Latvia) gave us some more of that arty but melodic indie rock. I was particularly grateful to the guitarist who later helped us translate a Latvian menu into English at one of the food tents. But my Saturday highlight had to be Pienvedēja Piedzīvojumi (Latvia), a mega weird rock/punk band that sometimes veered off into metal territory. Consistently, enjoyably snotty and loud, they played to a modest but energetic crowd. The bassist’s toddler daughter ran across the stage to hug his leg in middle of their set, frightened by the noise but unaware her father was making most of it. We may have been the crustiest crowd at the festival, but our collective “awww” could be heard above the bone-rattling buzz from the speakers.
It was much warmer and sunnier than the first day so I took a nap on the beach for an hour and returned to the main stage for the Latvian Blues Band (Latvia). Just so you know, James Brown has been reincarnated as a middle aged Latvian man whose band plays medleys of classic funk songs (along with some originals, but I didn’t really go for the originals).
Imagine Dragons (USA) closed out the night for us with some overwrought, thematically obvious tunes. I don’t want to be a total snob and I don’t begrudge them their earnestness but would Queen have been famous if every song they wrote sounded like “We Are the Champions”?
On Sunday, we were gone by noon with plans to eat lunch in Pärnu and get back to Tallinn by early evening. There were one or two acts I’d wanted to see, but driving back at night seemed unappetizing all of a sudden and I think we were all secretly dreaming of a hot shower.
On the long drive home, I had lots of time to marvel at how well Positivus was organized; At how much fun I was able to have without wilting from heat stroke or spending hours in line just to get a drink or use the bathroom. My point of reference of course is the US, where major festivals draw impossibly large crowds, are ludicrously expensive, and often take place in the middle of a desert. By contrast, the Latvians nailed it. 30,000 people showed up, but it never felt overly crowded. Relative peace reigned in the campgrounds and the medical tent staff looked totally bored.
Take a f***ing hint, Coachella.