Valley d'Itria, Italy
With the majority of music festivals there’s often something of a trade-off between venue and line-up: the English summer festival circuit is regularly stocked with big-name acts worth seeing, after all, but nine out of ten times buying a weekend ticket means you’re probably going to be stuck in a shithole field somewhere, miles from a working shower, knee-deep in mud and who knows what else.
Even Barcelona’s Sonar Festival which, year after year, boasts one of the best line-ups in electronic music has its late-night shows in a conference centre with all the ambience of an airport departure lounge. It’s refreshing, then, for a festival to properly consider its line-up while also giving due care and attention to location. And, in this sense, VIVA! – created by the ever-reliable team behind Turin’s Club to Club – has the edge over so many of its peers, even as a young festival, now only in its second year, and without perhaps some of the clout of its contemporaries.
Nestled among the hills, olive groves, and vineyards of southern Italy’s Puglia region, this year’s VIVA! plays host to names as diverse as Arca, Iceage, Goldie, The Black Madonna and Jamie xx across its four-day program – a line-up which, at first glance, may seem a little cobbled together but which showcases exactly what the team behind the festival are all about: bringing together a bill of artists for which the grand unifier is not a shared genre or approach to making music, but a shared commitment to their work and a clear sense of quality.
Following on from a low-key disco-heavy opening event on the Wednesday, the first official evening of the festival sees Jamie xx headlining among the rustic grandeur of Masseria Eccelenza. Mixing some geographically appropriate Italo Disco with housier tracks and a few of his own jams, it’s a fitting soundscape for the thick air and clear sky. A little stranger, perhaps, is that his set follows on from a considerably harsher hour of frenetic, intense, and politically charged music from Diagonal Records’ Not Waving – something more suited to a 2am slot at Corsica Studios than, say, at an open-air venue. It’s an odd transition in theory – and, admittedly, a little in practice too – but one very much rectified by the crowd’s reaction as Jamie xx works his way through the more movement friendly end of a tight but very relaxed set which, as it turns out, is a pretty good way to take the edge off.
Travelling for festivals can throw up a lot of interesting contradictions, and perhaps the biggest of VIVA! 2018, and also one of the most enjoyable, is a chance to watch Goldie play an open-air Boiler Room set, chain smoking and dropping heavy drum ‘n’ bass tunes in full view of the brightly illuminated historic Italian town of Locorotondo. It’s incongruous, but it works and the Friday night crowd, packed in as tightly as they might have in a more traditional Boiler Room perspiration vault, are clearly down for every tune the veteran DJ has to offer.
Another surprise, perhaps less so for the home crowd, comes in the form of LIBERATO. A strange pop sensation of sorts with no album to speak of, only singles eked out over the course of a year, sung in the Neapolitan dialect, the artist’s identity obscured. What little there is to be known of LIBERATO, however – and what little back-catalogue there is to enjoy elsewhere – is more than made up for with what are undeniably an impressive (somewhat theatrical and suspiciously expensive-looking) live show and an arsenal of dyed in the wool bangers the artist clearly saves for the stage.
It’s without a doubt the biggest response to any act playing over the course of the entire festival: the crowd is not only big but also vocal and ecstatically frenetic. As ever with this kind of thing, it’s a great sight and it’s hard to replicate that kind of joyful mass hysteria. The only negative is that it does reveal a few chinks in VIVA!’s otherwise fairly impervious armour. While LIBERATO undoubtedly has more mainstream commercial appeal, it’s still strange to see Arca, surely one of the biggest and most interesting names in electronic avant-garde music at present, play to what looks like around 50 people on the same stage an hour after the Italian artist finishes, succeeded (in another quirk of programming) by Denmark post-punks Iceage.
As with everything at VIVA!, however, any cracks, much like all of its many successes, are very much a question of minutiae. And small details are where VIVA! truly flourishes. John Maus dominating a stage the size of a home counties pub venue with the same fervent idiosyncrasy he’d play London’s larger venues or Laurel Halo, turning it out in incredible fashion, bringing the strange ticks and clicks of her more experimental electronics to that same photogenic makeshift Boiler Room dancefloor ultimately pack more of a punch than The Black Madonna’s thumping set on the main arena stage. Perhaps, then, it’s fair to say that what VIVA! does best – or at least better than so many of its contemporaries – is not only the diversity of its artists but also its inclusivity: the way in which smaller stages and objectively smaller moments make for the festival’s biggest triumphs over the week. Occasions where people are brought together, albeit briefly, to share something, rather than simply as part of a crowd.