Photo: Julien Duval

INMusic Festival Wows Record-breaking Crowd

Arcade Fire and Kings of Leon deliver wildly disparate spectacles as thousands gather for Croatia's premiere music festival.

Win Butler was immensely pleased. “You know all these fucking new songs, and we haven’t even released them,” he exclaimed in front of INMusic attendees. Truthfully, Arcade Fire played only two new songs on June 19 — one of which had been released as a single weeks prior to the show — but the relatively modest crowd was transfixed, soaking up the visceral energy, singing, or at least mumbling, along to every tune.

Make no mistake, the space in front of the Main Stage was full — it just counts some 20,000-25,000 people, at the most. INMusic festival, which celebrates its 12th year this summer, is deliberately a small party. In a sense, it’s even private. Held on Zagreb’s Youth Island, merely miles from the vibrant city center, it is literally an oasis (well, an island) of calm and compelling nature, a grass field surrounded by a lake full of swans, ducks, and circumstantially hyperhidrotic rowers. It’s all that, plus some 5,000 languid foreign campers, joyfully doing very little throughout the day, waiting for the sunset and the festival’s main programs.

In this and other ways, INMusic is a wildly different beast from a typical European (and American) pop/rock music festival. Considerably smaller and almost incomparably more relaxed, it is the rare event that is truly made to serve the masses who sojourn in its relaxing scenery toward the end of June every year. Close to the city center and casual in nature, it beckons people to just take a few days off and see some of the world’s most prominent bands hassle-free; no huge crowds, no long pilgrimages toward the festival site, and no insufferably long lines. Moreover, INMusic organizers are known for bringing many of the world’s most expensive rock bands to small Southeast European crowds.

This, however, comes in the form of a gamble: festival chief Zoran Marić always knew just how hungry the countries in the Balkans (until some 15 years ago unfortunately detached from the rest of Europe) were for a good show. To this end, he envisioned a fully fledged festival with the biggest names. But with those names being the only significant investment (i.e., the largest chunk of the festival’s budget would be directed toward a handful of headliners) the rest of the lineup would be comprised mostly of local acts, many of them up-and-coming.

There is no other prominent festival that weaves its lineup this way, but this gamble paid off right from the start, enabling the masterminds to grow their “pay less, get less, but the best” operation seamlessly. At least in Southeastern Europe, it is evident people prefer to hear a handful of popular bands at the price of one concert ticket more than they want to compromise by receiving a flamboyant festival experience, with a myriad of moderately prominent bands playing in succession. Who would have known.

Which brings us to the actual happening. Day one, June 19, kicked off slowly and late, possibly because the festival is traditionally held Monday to Wednesday, in order to save money (weekend bookings are more expensive). Around 8:30PM, Darko Rundek, the legendary Croatian rock musician, kicked off the party by performing songs from his seminal work, Apocalypso. Regardless of the language barrier, the uptempo vibe of many melodies — coupled with sheer exoticism of the ethno sound from the Balkans — proved enough for countless foreigners to dance happily (or is it hippily?) all over the vast meadow, contained only by the surrounding lake and several “Do Not Swim” signs. Sure enough, some did jump in.

Rundek may now be 61, but the enigmatic, lanky, bearded man still mesmerizes regional audiences with his punk attitude and lyrical expressionism. The 90-minute gig culminated with “Shane”, a 1985 ex-Yugoslav hymn about bad boys in a worse world. “Come out and fight,” screamed the 20,000-strong crowd. The combat-happy sentiment was evident and certainly justifiable for the most part — it would just be good to know who we were fighting and what we were fighting for.

The first performer to set the event alight on the OTP World Stage, basically the only global performers venue in addition to the main one, was Michael Kiwanuka, the BBC’s “sound of 2012” laureate. A sly, skillful soul musician of impressive voice, he instantly demonstrated why so many compare him to the likes of Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield. Having kicked off with “Cold Little Heart”, the opening theme to HBO’s lauded miniseries Big Little Lies, he had an unknowing but curious crowd warm up to him within minutes. After the 75-minute stint came to an end, more than 1,000 people wouldn’t let him get off stage. Though his YouTube videos are only starting to break the 1,000,000 views mark, it seemed like Kiwanuka will soon become a household name, which is certainly great news.

It was after 11PM when the Canadian sextet par excellence plus two touring members took to the stage. The slow intro to “Everything Now”, the lead single off the aforementioned upcoming eponymous album, was a distorted version of the song, delivered in a slow crescendo and reminiscent of Massive Attack. The real tune, however, is considerably more upbeat — and that was no surprise there if you knew it was produced by, among others, one Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk fame. Nevertheless, even with a slew of joyful instruments such as the flute, and a quasi-disco (funnily enough, ABBA comes to mind) dynamic, “Everything Now” is typical Arcade Fire, if such a thing exists. In it, Win Butler remains as detached and snide as ever, discreetly lashing out against the world which promised him nothing, but has apparently delivered even less.

The subdued anger that Arcade Fire masterfully turn into poignant tunes became painfully evident immediately, as the 30,000-strong audience erupted into maniacal screaming during “Rebellion (Lies)”. Throughout a 90-minute set light in new tunes, the crowd, which had previously seen Arcade Fire here in 2011, was treated to a greatest hits compilation and plenty of emotions. Musically and visually, with a multitude of instruments and lavish scenography, the polyphonous Canadian band may sound playful but, in reality, their true, raw strength and global popularity lie in Butler’s devastating lyrics. Since their somber 2004 debut, Funeral, Arcade Fire have distinguished themselves from most other acts by not shying away from the boredom and vacuousness of everyday life and the ramifications it inevitably has on every subject. Nearly all bands talk about hopes and dreams, romanticized renditions of love and ambition; Arcade Fire mercilessly explore what happens after you irrevocably realize none of that is going to happen.

One after another, singles aplenty were accompanied by people singing or at least contently swaying, to the tunes. The frequent change in pace was deliberate, and almost necessary, if you take into account the difficult subject matter of many songs. Halfway through the set, “The Suburbs” struck an exposed nerve. Dedicated to David Bowie and already a classic among fans who sang every word, it exposed us to a rare moment of physical engagement from an otherwise fairly contained Butler. While delivering “And all of the houses they build in the ‘70s finally fall, meant nothing at all, meant nothing at all, it meant nothing,” through clenched teeth as the verse moved on, his lip curled in anger. Depicted without skipping a beat on the big screens on both sides of the stage, it was a heartbreaking moment of true powerlessness. Evidently, the suburbia devours you until all that makes you feel alive is aimless indignation.

That’s not to say Arcade Fire are not a fun band — they certainly can be, in carefully administered doses. The latter part of the show belonged more to Régine Chassagne, who proved, once again, that she is the pounding heart of the operation. Unlike the elder Butler brother, she is highly kinetic, smiling, and feisty. Her back vocal delivery during “Reflektor” was flawless; the defiant, almost childishly fearless way she shook her head and built up a crescendo while singing “If this is heaven, I don’t know what it’s for, if I can’t find you there, I don’t care!” was stupendous.

The only new song in addition to “Everything Now” was another fresh single, “Creature Comfort”, a deceptively uplifting tune which could have easily been written and delivered by James Murphy. This was unsurprising, though, since the man himself co-produced their previous effort, Reflektor. “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” had the last tune to get casual fans to dance, before the massively moving final song, “Wake Up”. A loving singalong by virtually every person on the island appeared to be a morsel of youthful vigor, habitually crushed by Win Butler’s agonizing first verse: “Somethin’ filled up my heart with nothing.” Guess we had to adjust.

The night didn’t end on a sad note, though, but rather an unfortunate one, with dozens, if not hundreds, of inebriated enthusiasts, hoarding at the karaoke tent until the wee hours of the morning, slurring the words to “Wonderwall”, “Everything I Do”, and more.

The second day was considerably more lighthearted. At 8:30PM some 15,000 people were treated to an hour and a half of Alt-J, who managed to cram all their singles, plus all but two songs from their latest album, Relaxer, in that slot. Since recently a trio, the lads from Leeds offered an impressive light show in the form of a drapery of laser beams, as well as some cheeky singles. Even so, the whole performance felt somewhat lackluster. The reason for Alt-J’s overnight success is their sonic fearlessness, their complete disregard for the unwritten rules of contemporary pop music and the ability to weave and interconnect seemingly disparate melodies.

Alas, live, with only three band members onstage, the music falls flat and sounds almost monotonous. This is the likely reason for so many audience members leaving the stage midway through their performance while most of the rest remained static and unmoved, chatting to their friends and diminishing the overall atmosphere. There was some good reaction to the most prominent singles, namely “Breezeblocks” and “Taro”, but Alt-J can certainly do better, and one can only hope the band will involve more musicians in their touring lineup in the future.

Around 10:30PM, a record-breaking stampede of more than 30,000 folks rushed to the stage — the Followill family was there to partay. Not much new can be said about what it’s like to witness the force that is a Kings of Leon concert: the music is loud, powerful, and identical to what you get on their records, while the million-dollar, evidently American sound production becomes the last piece of the puzzle, and the key to their impeccable delivery. In a set light with tunes recorded pre-2007, Caleb Followill once more demonstrated that his singing abilities far surpass what we hear on the radio. Confident in a casual white shirt, with rolled up sleeves and an untrimmed beard, his croaked voice would soar to the skies at every turn, with enormous strength and great clarity.

The packed field sang to every tune in unison, often inarticulately jumping or at least moving their shoulders rhythmically. Without skipping a word, the largest crowd INMusic has ever seen contributed to the excellent, uplifting atmosphere, throughout. The pacing of the Mechanical Bull and WALLS-heavy set was superb, too, with gentler ballads extinguishing the overly macho brisk Southern fire every once in a while. Even in a state of euphoria, it was clear that the high points were “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody”, though the lot did go properly berserk during “Find Me”, and “Supersoaker” as well. With “Waste a Moment” as a fitting closer, the Followill brothers and cousin proved once more they were running an airtight operation. Fully confident that faithful renditions of their songs are enough to create a frenzy, and with minimal communication with the audience, they achieved what they set out to do, which is deliver a killer fun show that solidifies their position among the most pleasurable live rock acts around.

Unfortunately, those of us who have daily work duties unrelated to journalism had to skip the third day. Anyhow, the final day saw another 25,000-plus people flocking to see Kasabian, and from what I’d been told, Tom Meighan’s and Sergio Pizzorno’s outrageously entertaining bunch kept the spirits high until the very end of the event. Shame I didn’t get to hear “You’re in Love With a Psycho”, but worse things could happen.