Ostrava, we’re told shortly after landing in the Czech Republic’s third city, is a lot like Sheffield. It’s not an analogy that holds up to too much scrutiny. The Czech city’s proud working class origins might connect heavily with mining, but what’s left today are the Soviet-era scars. Towering, ferric factories fill the suburbs; their brick chimneys poke through the trees along every highway.
Colours of Ostrava is the city’s vent: the festival’s grown over the same 10 year period that’s seen 30,000 people – around 10% of the city’s population – abandon Ostrava and its fast-dying industries. Sitting alongside kilometres of towering pipeline and the rusting steel hulks of warehouses at Vitkovice’s defunct steel factory, Colours twists the steampunk-feel photographer’s haven into an artsy music powerhouse.
The setting is used perfectly: a wine bar in the Bolt Tower, 80 metres over the festival’s heart, soaks up the main stage beats atop a shaky-feeling blast furnace. The festival’s ‘highway’ takes in anarchist bookstores and wood carvers beneath walkways that flake with paint 50 metres above. At night, twin chimneys host neon figures dancing to the festival’s rhythm, while factory tunnels display psychedelic art and cryptic carvings.
The line-up almost hordes genres. Between Norah Jones’ indifferent musings and Fakear’s euphoric Euro-dance, there are stops offs at Speed Caravan’s abrupt and entrancing lute melodies, and David Koller’s local gypsy-Pixies alt-rock.
Wednesday sees Alt-J’s division of the stage into segments with piped lighting, a setup that feels like an interpretation of Viktovice, as Newman, Unger-Hamilton and Green deliver a powerfully accomplished set laden with alt-pop highs, soaring peaks and movie references. In searing sunshine Birdy is heavy on syrupy, vocally gorgeous covers, while Ferocious Dog blast through tracks like a country-punk reinterpretation of the Dropkick Murphys.
The festival’s second day seems to be the nominated slow day: the waist-deep on-site pools and their inflatable slides are thick with punters, as are the almost endless beer tents, serving Radagast lager, or mixers made with liquorice-cola Kofola and local energy drink Semtex. Norah Jones is a serene lull in proceedings, a slow down even after Michael Kiwanuka, whose soothing vocals are gently and playfully soulful, though the pointed undertone of his politics seems somewhat lost here.
Come the weekend, the official ‘headline’ acts are shifted to second to last on stage, allowing superstar dance acts to close the show to heady crowds. Moderat’s intricately thumping bass beats follow Benjamin Clementine, whose snark at the local’s inability to repeat his emotive chorus lines nevertheless turns into a charismatic sing-along, the jumpsuit-clad, barefoot vocalist cocky and charismatic as he thumps his piano. Walking On Cars and Midnight Oil both deliver lively sets of obvious pop melodies, and French dirty-rock fusion act Speed Caravan excel themselves with a boisterous set framed in bouncing lute chords and off-kilter rhythms.
The last night sees Laura Mvula’s melodies drowned in a thunderstorm, before Jamiroquai’s hooks liven up a muddy field, though spiky-hatted JK and co inexplicably skip many of their bigger 90s hits. Closing proceedings, Justice are left to tap home a real festival open goal, as the duo serve up searing beats in a messy, shape-throwing 2am set that seems to bounce off the browning factories.
There are a few big take homes for visitors: Colours’ rejection of any dominant genre is a kind of forced diversification for punters, and it throws up some unlikely gems. Beer prices are roughly a third of what they are at home, with consumption relentless. The festival expands its boundaries in gloriously weird ways – like in a surrealist art exhibition at Dul Michal, a coal mine several miles away, where you can forge the event’s logo as part of a festival metalwork class.
The acts alternate on the two main stages, which are a three minute walk apart to allow punters to catch every moment with a stop off at the bar en route. It’s a mixed blessing: the lively Electronic Stage boasts the likes of Darkstar, Fakear and Digitalism, but almost all the main acts play consecutively.
During troughs, that can mean periods of absent-minded strolling, distracted by the tragi-comic dance offs of a tent dedicated to robotic dance routines for the Macarena and Junior Senior, or a beaming local folk-punk act slamming away right where a steam outlet seems ready to deposit the factory’s gunk in a slimy heap right at stage centre.
At ten years old, though, Colours of Ostrava is still a growing festival, and while there’s some real on-stage class on offer, the setting is the obvious star. It’s a post-apocalyptic wasteland party, where abandoned trains rust into the ground between stages, and decrepit factories – their windows still splashed with paint designed to hide them from World War II bombings – turn punters into party-going ants amongst rustic tubes and ravey tunnels. The feel is of a city throwing off its industrial shackles and letting loose, its past creaking hundreds of feet overhead. Sheffield never felt like this.