Even before this, its thirteenth edition, Zagreb's InMusic had established itself as Croatia's leading alternative rock festival, the perfect counterbalance to the dance music festivals which dominate the country's coast in summer. Compared to similar western European festivals, its a relatively cheap affair for a three day ticket. But Croatian wages are not comparable to those in western Europe. For locals, it's a dear do. But InMusic has a reputation for bringing artists to the country who may not otherwise visit. They're often not mainstream enough to stop some locals grumbling. But previous guests the likes of PJ Harvey, Arctic Monkeys, Iggy Pop, Alice In Chains, Massive Attack, Arcade Fire and New Order have been enough to make the right kind of fan, from far across the region, save for months in order to join the visiting tourists at the site. And, true to form, this year's event is packed, but not uncomfortably, as the sun begins to wane on the Monday evening of its first day.
This Monday is also a national holiday in Croatia. It's the one marking their independence. That's a big deal here. All of the supermarkets are closed and city-wide transport is running a reduced service that baffles the entire population. Buses which replace the regular tram services are packed. Glitter covered, half cut festival goers join commuters in baking, cramped conditions. Some are eating barbequed corn cobs bought from street vendors in the centre. That wouldn't be a good look on moderately busy public transport. And it stinks. The sloshing lips, gnashing teeth and rotating wrists justly draw scornful looks.
Many buses seem to drop festival goers quite a distance from the site, the artificial lake Jarun and its surrounding park. Very popular with locals as a destination for barbeques, nightclubbing, sports, or exercise, its the park's central peninsula which hosts the festival. The walk there, along the Sava river, is not unpleasant. Besides, it gives Ransom Note and our accompanying local friend time to drink the bottle of wine he bought several days ago in preparedness. Except it's not the dirt cheap Serbian wine he was expecting. It's mislabelled and something closer to sherry. Needs must. We are pretty jolly by the time we arrive at the park and sail through the press entrance into the festival.
We haven't walked a hundred yards before a burly, short-haired, middle-aged man bounds over to us, whips out his police ID and asks us to accompany him to where his colleague is standing, behind a fence, to be searched. No objections are possible or even needed. I don't do drugs and, having visited this festival before, have ensured our friend isn't carrying any either. (At one previous InMusic, a local friend in our company was caught with some marijuana, which he promptly flicked into the bushes when undercover police pounced on him. Despite searching the undergrowth, they couldn't find the morsel, nor nothing else on him. They weren't happy. Somehow his shoes ended up in the river. He walked home, through fields and streets, in his socks.)
“Put all of your belongings on the car.”
I comply and maintain our smiling, joking, alcohol-fuelled manner with the cops, confident that nothing bad can happen.
“Do you have any drugs?”
“No, but we're kinda drunk”
He begins his search while his colleague frisks my friend.
“What is that?” he asks, feeling a lump in the pocket of my shorts.
“Put everything on the car. I won't steal your money.”
“I know you won't. You're a Croatian policeman. You probably earn much more than me.”
I'm flattering him. He perhaps doesn't, and not because I'm well paid either. His face remains free of any discernible emotion or acknowledgement of my humour. I really can't tell if my jovial tack is winning. But his colleague is smiling at least.
“Where are you from?”
“City or United?” asks his colleague.
Everyone asks this.
“Oooh, sexy,” I say, as he full on grabs my penis and scrotum. His colleague half smiles. My not unattractive sexual assailant remains stony-faced.
“I will beat you,” he says quietly.
He is still completely devoid of expression and so I can't tell if he's fucking with me or not. I've gone too far down this route to stop the banter entirely, showing I'm intimidated. Nevertheless, I decide to tone it down a little.
When he asks me to remove my shoes, I complain I'm embarrassed that his colleague will be able to see the holes in my socks.
“Where?” asks his colleague and leans over to look. He laughs. The holes are not small.
But, when my groper asks, perhaps unnecessarily, how old I am, I actively force myself to not reply “Why, do you have a younger sister who is unmarried?” “Why did you stop us?” I ask, as the fruitless search draws to an end and we're readying to leave. “Do I look like a drug dealer?”
“No. But your friend does.”
It's perhaps a little unfair, but I can't disagree. And besides, I'm keen to hit the main stage. David Byrne is on in ten minutes.
Byrne visited Manchester in the two weeks previous and friends Facebook reports the following day were gushing. The pictures looked amazing. I kinda know what to expect and two previous shows by Byrne, both when he was touring exclusively Byrne/Eno productions, are among the best shows I've ever seen. But he still manages to exceed expectations.
The stage is barren, No amps, leads, microphone stands and no backdrop, save a minimal, descending curtain of thin vertical lights which surround the band on all sides. During the introductory track, presumably from Byrne's new album (which I've not heard), he will emerge from behind this curtain, as do his accomplices who grow in number from three at the beginning to a maximum of twelve as the show progresses. At least four of them are drummers and, like all of the musicians, each wears their instrument on their body. The whole ensemble wear distinguished outfits of matching grey, Byrne and his backing singers all carrying their microphones on their heads.
This is musical performance as theatre, live gig as art. Each song is distinctly and engagingly choreographed. Sometimes groups of three or four will drift off into their own routine, at others the whole's movements are aligned. It is stunningly well thought out and rehearsed, calling to mind the great spectacle of the Talking Heads movie 'Stop Making Sense' or Byrne's brilliant contemporary dance project and soundtrack 'The Catherine Wheel'.
For his second song he surprises with a faithful version of 'Lazy', the 2002 dance track he sang for UK house combo X-Press 2. After that, a generous and uproariously received assault of Talking Heads finery is unleashed. Beginning with a ritualistic 'I Zimbra' it goes on to include 'Slippery People', glorious in its gospel-esque call and response, a beautiful 'Naive Melody (This Must Be The Place)', 'Once In A Lifetime', 'Houses In Motion', 'Blind', a wonderfully frantic 'The Great Curve' and 'Burning Down The House'. He also sings his latest single 'Everybody's Coming To My House' and a relatively recent collaboration with Fatboy Slim, finishing with an all percussive battery of Janelle Monáe's highly politicised and angry 'Hell You Talmbout'.
At 66 years of age, a sprightly, white-haired David Byrne puts on a performance that few of any age could touch. And he has a rich and timeless back catalogue capable of wowing any audience, regardless of their make up. Pining for a Talking Heads reunion is understandable, because many of these songs are so beloved. But to see Byrne so vivid, so inventive, enthusiastic and animated as he is in his solo guises, you really have to question whether you would want to put a halt on such works, cutting down an artist still in his prime, all for the sake of a nostalgia trip. Ain't gonna happen. And, while you can still see him at shows such as this, I for one don't mind. Neither should fans of Talking Heads.
Desperate for the toilet, I head to the nearest portaloos. I'd been holding it in, transfixed, for at least the last six songs. To my dismay, I cannot find a single toilet with toilet paper among the many rows. What's worse, though, is that there are no hand washing facilities. No chemical cleaner, no running water. What the actual fuck? Do not take this info the wrong way if you have never been to Croatia. Croatians are not dirty people. Their city centre bars have toilets that are almost universally spotless. Likely is that someone significant has a cousin who owns these portaloos and therefore they are granted the contract annually, regardless of the standard of service. Thirteen years into a festival's existence, the site riddled with fast food outlets, a minimum of hygiene is not too much to expect. I go to the press tent to register my disbelief. Because I am a bit of a wanker.
I walk past The Kills in order to do so. They are playing on the second stage and have drawn almost all of Byrne's crowd. None of the headliners here play simultaneously, performances alternate between these stages. It's a clever set up and means you don't miss out on seeing anyone. The Kills sound like a petulant T Rex. I might enjoy them if not distraught about the treatment of the proletariat by significant guy's portaloo contracting cousin.
The lady in the press area is apologetic about the abysmal lack of hygiene (the press area toilets all have paper, naturally, but also no hand washing facilities). She says it's not her responsibility. I sympathise with her, knowing that I'm being a bit of a wanker and agree.
Queens Of The Stone Age are next on the main stage and I'm joined for the performance by talented local singer, songwriter and producer Martin Žunec, who has recently had a couple of minor hits on Croatian TV and radio with his Bordo project. He is a fanatical QOTSA fan, having seen them before. He assures me this is the best he's seen them.
Their show is the antithesis of Byrne's, darkly lit with powerful red flashing lights and spotlights. It's as muscular and macho a show as are the band's musicians. They growl and race through a very well received, mammoth set containing If I Had a Tail, Monsters In The Parasol, My God Is The Sun, Feet Don't Fail Me, The Way You Used To Do, A Song For The Deaf, No One Knows, The Evil Has Landed (which Josh Homme graciously dedicates to David Byrne), Long Slow Goodbye, Smooth Sailing, Make It Wit Chu (which features some great singing from the audience), Little Sister, Go With The Flow and A Song For The Dead. It's not totally my bag, but a solid, enjoyable performance. It makes me forget all about the portaloos anyway.
Day two of InMusic sees the sun shining again, but as Croatia are playing the last of their group stage matches against Iceland in the World Cup, I choose to watch the game and miss St Vincent entirely. I ask a friend to give me a review of the show. His English is great, but he sends me complicated text that he probably imagines is how music reviewers write. She wore an eye-catching outfit, employed choreography impressively like David Byrne (in contrast to her earlier shows) and plays a great set judged by the crowd response, is my best guess of what he's driving at.
Croatian band Jinx are playing when I finally arrive on site. The band have countless hits that the Croatian audience all know and it's great to see a local act so prominently placed on the bill, although their sunny, jazz-inflected pop isn't as edgy as much of the rest of the lineup.
Nick Cave literally finishes off the main stage; his violent imagery and menacing performance leave the audience, which looks even bigger than QOTSA's, emotionally wrought. People scream in appreciation of the songs selected, the set starting calmly with 'Jesus Alone' and 'Magneto'. Cave lulls us into a false sense of calm and in doing so manages to devastate once his band unleashes a cacophony of noise within the third or fourth song. Discordant guitars crash like tidal waves on the pacified crowd. Such six string mangling feels twice as powerful as the more linear rock chugging of last night's metal stars. 'Do You Love Me?', 'From Her to Eternity', 'Loverman', 'Red Right Hand' and 'The Ship Song' are played gloriously and delicately by an extensive line up of The Bad Seeds. Bells ring in intros, outros or continuously, offering an air of impending doom. There's a beautiful singalong moment when they perform 'Into My Arms', the InMusic crowd being in very good voice, before 'Girl in Amber' and 'Tupelo'. A fantastically extended version of 'Jubilee Street' follows and by this time every track that follows is a knockout punch of emotion; 'The Weeping Song', 'Stagger Lee', 'Push the Sky Away', Cave's voice alternating between lullaby and death scream as he looms over the audience resplendent in his stylish jet black suit.
Sorry to say that I miss the third day of InMusic entirely due to other commitments, but Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds dramatic performance is as fitting a memory to leave a festival with as any. Of the estimated 100, 000 that have visited over these three days, it will be an occasion, like David Byrne's show and the grip on this writer's genitals, which will be carried in the mind for quite some time.