After spending a decade gathering a diverse programme of musicians into one breathtaking setting, Positivus Festival has cause to celebrate. 10 years after its founding as a garden party in the forests outside Salacgriva, a look at it now and you might expect Positivus to be among the most high-profile music festivals in Europe. In terms of the acts it can draw and the range of activities available onsite it has the appearance of any of the largest festivals on the continent. But, by some miracle, Positivus has managed to stay different, just out of the focus of the commercial music industry and the effects it has had on the festivals of western Europe. For better or worse, Positivus has remained just as isolated, craft-centred, and insulated by Latvian culture as it has been from the start.
Carved into dense green forests on the edge of the Latvian coast a few hours drive from the capital of Riga, the three day festival is known throughout eastern Europe as a local highlight of the festival season, and ‘local’ is exactly how it feels; you will not come across much English spoken here, or many English speakers over 30. A large portion of its appeal to Latvians and adventurous outsiders alike, its isolation makes Positivus feel distinctly Latvian, yet the generosity you find here makes it welcoming; locals offer rides and extra toiletries, and friendly vegans in the food court chat happily in English to those who look a bit lost.
If Positivus’ community is largely local, its programme is strikingly broad, bringing together acclaimed acts as well as virtual unknowns, from international icons like Iggy Pop and Grimes to rising stars from closer to home. Small-town Swedish RnB soloist Seinabo Sey performs a standout early set, lighting up the Lattelecom stage with an extraordinary helping of personality. The vulnerability of her ballads stand out, as does her vocal range with its true sweetness that she seems to radiate back to a crowd who obviously adores her and her exceptional supporting vocalist, childhood friend Rosemary.
There are an almost surprising number of English artists playing here as well. Well-known bands like Years and Years and Wolf Alice, and top 40 soloists Ellie Goulding and Joss Stone draw huge crowds, delivering largely what you would expect from their studio recordings. But lesser known bands like The Japanese House and Hælos bring a slightly more authentic view of the English rock/indie scene to Latvia, and although unsure at first, audiences embrace them just as enthusiastically.
Iggy Pop, neo-soul icon Charles Bradley, and art-popstar Grimes headline this year’s festival programme and the anticipation for their sets seem to grow with each day of the festival. Finally taking the Nordea stage on day three, Grimes packs viewers in and mesmerises them with choreographed backup dancing and trippy electronic hooks that sound practically identical to her albums. If a bit low on chat, she is charmingly clumsy on stage, fumbling a bit with her keyboards, but vocally in perfect form and dancing along with the crowd all throughout her all too brief set.
Despite his advantage in years, Charles Bradley pulls off an equally action-filled set. It is truly the kind of performance you will not see again; as he grinds to the beat and raises his arms to the sky, belting out notes that seem like they may never end, it is pretty obvious why they call him the Screaming Eagle of Soul. Yet despite his flamboyant nature, Bradley is surprisingly down to earth, kissing babies and hugging lucky audience members after the set.
The ultimate thrill, however, is saved for last as Iggy Pop closes the festival on the Lattelecom stage later that evening. He performs hits from what is probably one of the most colourful careers in music as the largest crowd of the weekend screams along. Completely uncensored and clearly enjoying himself, Iggy is the perfect finale to the smallest world-class festival we have found yet.
Photos: Krists Luhaers, Janis Dunkurs, Positivus Festival