Part I: Thessaloniki aka Macedonian Madness
A quick note before I start with this latest gonzo adventure: As some of you have already heard, the first part of the festival had to be moved last minute from Istanbul, Turkey to Thessaloniki in northern Greece. It just got to hairy with the failed military coup and the all-round political instability.
For me personally, it was a bummer, as Istanbul is on top of my list of places to visit. But it was even more disappointing for our friends in Turkey, and near disastrous for Pete from Slovenly Records, who worked for years to set this thing up. But he didn’t give up, he rolled with the punches and in the end delivered a party for the ages. So bear with me on this epic journey, which I divided in three installments for maximum pleasure.
Friday September 23:
My flight from Amsterdam to Thessaloniki was delayed for an hour, so when I landed I stuck around the airport waiting for the crew from Serbia to arrive. I bought a beer and did some people watching. One of the first folks I noticed was a patched member of a well-known outlaw biker MC with a couple of his buddies milling around.
Turns out they were welcoming a bunch of heavily tattooed Russian giants. As they bear hugged each other, a few ZZ Top-like orthodox priests were fumbling with their cell phones. Hell, I felt right at home.
Soon the plane from Belgrade landed and my roommates for the week to come arrived. Two of them were We’re Loud veterans, namely Milos and my cousin Draza, and joining us for the first time, Milos’ girlfriend, Duska. They were hauling big ass bags, as they were gonna DJ at a bunch of parties during the festival.
As we were in the south of Europe, things don’t always move smoothly. There was a bus drivers’ strike going on, so we had to take a cab to the city centre. The cab driver figured out we were from Serbia and started reminiscing about the great times he had in Belgrade in the late 80s, only to rip us off in the end by charging us extra for the bags.
Well fuck it. His colleagues at the Belgrade airport would’ve done the same. But the very affordable two-room apartment we rented in the centre was great and super close to the action.
As soon as we unloaded I buzzed Danny, aka Dr. Gonzo [read my piece about the 2015 fest for some background info], to meet up.
Danny, a registered nurse in San Francisco, and the uncrowned King of the Party, was in town for a few days and already did some useful scouting. After he gave me directions we met up on a hotel penthouse with a rooftop pool and bar. Did I mention the great weather in Greece?
So out with the t-shirts and jeans and in with the beers and swimming gear. Danny enlightened us on the best restaurants, rock n’ roll bars and strip joints in town while we enjoyed a rooftop view of Thessaloniki.
I would describe the city as a beautiful mess, or as my fellow Serbs and I called it – Belgrade on the sea. While there’s a charming old neighbourhood up on the hill, close to 100 Byzantine churches scattered all around the place, it’s also dirty, noisy, partly derelict and covered in graffiti. But who said that’s a bad thing?
Anyway, after slurping a few beers in the fading sun we decided to go back to our apartments to change and doll up for the first of the many parties to come.
So the madness was about to commence on a cruise around the city harbor on a galleon called Clio, starting around 9.30pm. We were there at 9pm next to the impressive White Tower. Slowly bags of other sinners and sinnettes from around the globe started showing up. Then the boat made its grand entrance with rock n’ roll tunes blasting from the deck. As Danny would say, “Shit was about to get weird!”
So we hopped on and started meeting some old and new friends. Our party accomplices from Istanbul, again please consult my article on last year’s fest for background info, brought a bunch of new faces and the man with the plan, the brain behind the operation, there too. I’m of course talking about Pete from Slovenly Records, who organized this whole extravaganza in face of monumental difficulties, involving military coups, industrial action and the biggest human exodus in recent memory.
But hey, he soldiered on, rescued the party and gave a few dozens of us crazy sinners and hundreds of locals the time of our lives. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.
As we were meeting this international motley crew of lovable freaks, one of the motifs and catchphrases of this trip was born. Silan, the better half of Istanbul’s DJ duo, Amfibik, pronounced the legendary words upon seeing Danny get on the boat, “Man you are Poseidon!” Poseidon is the Greek mythological god of the seas, and another big dude with really long hair. In the coming days and nights it was great to have his blessing on our side.
After getting properly warmed up on the cruise we were off to club Ypogio for the the first party. It was the release kick off for a new LP by the amazing Greek neo-60s garage band, the Basements. I’d never heard of the dudes and although I love the Nuggets comps and the million and one other similar spin offs, I’m usually not really into retro bands. But these guys just plainly kicked ass.
They have the sound and the look to a T, including bowl haircuts and paisley shirts. But it’s their tight, energetic and exhilarating delivery that really captured me. Another pro is that the singer was a dead ringer for the British cult actor Oliver Reed. I mean it’s the second best 60s look after Brian Jones.
The capacity crowd was going wild and they had to come back for a few encores. Peris from Lost in Tyme Records, the Basements’ label, kicked off the DJ set playing garage and beat favourites and it was up to my Serbian homeboys to rise to the occasion as they were up next. Milos and Draza, aka Pacific Boilers, took to the decks at around 2am and went straight to third gear.
70s punk, 90s garage and a healthy dose of ex-Yugo cult favorites, from the heavy psych of Pop Masina, spastic punk rock of Pekinska Patka, to the groovy noise funk of Disciplina Kicme. As the people were dancing to these tunes that many of them were hearing for the first time, I was running around professing the gospel of Eastern Balkan rock n’ roll. After a tight 45-minute set we headed home for some late night souvlaki and shut eye.
Saturday September 24:
I woke up way too early, as my adorable dumbass cousin Draza forgot to switch off his phone, which started buzzing like crazy at 8am. Understandably, I went fuckin’ berserk and had trouble falling back to sleep, so I started flipping through a guide to Greece that our host left for us in the apartment.
In the chapter on Thessaloniki, it said that it has a particular Balkan feel, or as the snobby Athenians would call them at football games, Bulgarians. As a fellow Balkanoid I had to chuckle about this local patriotism and the centuries long rivalry between the country’s biggest cities. Same thing happens in Serbia, Holland or wherever else.
But it’s a fact that northern Greece, aka Macedonia, is different than the southern parts of Roumeli and Peloponnese. I guess they had an even stormier history fighting with Ottomans, Bulgars and other neighbors. It’s a taboo in these parts to talk about the country Macedonia, aka the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as there’s centuries of geo-political disorder and fictional national identities at stake. But let’s get back to sun, booze and rock n’ roll.
First up was a hangover lunch at Mitsos Taverna. Located bang in the middle of the main market this is Thessaloniki at its liveliest and most chaotic. Talk about fresh produce, and I don’t mean just olives, feta and pomegranates, I mean whole goat carcasses sporting a tail, ball sack and a head with horns, so you know what you’re getting. But for that strictly Balkan flavor, there was even a street band playing Serbian turbo folk covers to drunken tourists at two in the afternoon.
Luckily the tavern where we met for lunch had a more relaxed and traditional character and the food was amazing! Fresh veg stuffed with cheese and tomato, sizzling grilled meats, but the best of all were the seafood sausages. The same look and texture as a kebab, but super moist and yes, fishy. Delish.
Stuffed and ready to go, we went to the Eightball Club to check out the bands. First on the bill were the Magnetix from France. Loved by garage trash enthusiasts around Europe, they’re just not my cup of tea. Too noisy, atonal and dark for my taste. Next up were Demon’s Claws from Canada. I never heard the dudes before, but I kind of dug their first song, a twangy, up-tempo rocker.
But as the set progressed, they couldn’t grab me by the balls. Although good musicians and capable of writing a catchy hook, they were just too timid and restrained for my liking. Seemed like they deliberately didn’t want to rock out, while the songs were screaming for a kick in the butt. Last on the bill were Bazooka from Greece, another band that has a following around Europe but just doesn’t do it for me.
The after party was at a massive squatted apartment building, not unlike the Boiler Club, the main after hours hang out in Athens, but bigger. Seven or eight stories high and totally trashed. This was like the squats in Amsterdam 20 years ago, but Balkan style. I might be getting old, but slaloming around passed out crusties to get a warm beer is not my thing anymore.
The all-girl three piece Fotzen Power Germany sounded just like you would imagine they would with a name like that. We stuck around for a little while because one of my favorite DJ’s, Oihanne, was blasting the best of 70s punk and power pop, but I soon decided to look for another rock n’ roll orientated bar. Danny knew a few places, so we crawled around the city centre, where it looked like every place was open the whole night.
It was refreshing coming from Amsterdam, and Belgrade, for that matter. Most bars played shitty metal, so we parked ourselves at a bar blasting classic rock crap. It ended with us downing tequila shots with the bar staff and playing Serbian rock n’ roll on YouTube at full volume. Another souvlaki, another planet.
Sunday September 25:
There was a record swap and a movie screening in the afternoon, but we headed straight for the previously mentioned rooftop bar and pool. We were meeting some very dear friends of ours from southern Serbia, Filip and Misko of the cult garage punk band Hosenfefer. They live in Kosovska Mitrovica, which is a hotbed of diplomatic disputes and had its fair share of violence over the last 15 years. But these guys always welcome me with open arms, and I have had some of the best times hanging with them over there. It was super cool to have them over in Greece, which is just a few hours’ drive from their hometown.
After a few beers and dips in the pool it was time for all of us to prepare for the main event of the Thessaloniki part of the festival. This was in the big room of the Eightball Club and first on the bill were the Frantic Five. Another excellent neo-60s garage band from Greece. They closed the set with the compulsory cover version of the Count Five ‘Psychotic Reaction,’ and the place was starting to boil.
Then it was time for Reverend Beat Man, the Swiss one-man band featuring the head honcho of the influential Voodoo Rhythm Records. Again, revered and loved all over the place, his over the top shtick is not my cup of tea. I spent most of the set outside meeting and hanging out with locals. The folks that stuck around for his gig all loved it, so all power to him.
Then it was time for the absolute headliners, the Belgian punk rock pioneers, the Kids. Like last year in Athens, it was an amazing gig. I’ve seen them a lot over the last ten years and they’re always good, but playing in Greece just lifts them to another level.
I was up on the balcony in a sort of cage where we were enjoying the gig while sipping on Milos’ homemade Serbian moonshine, rakia. It was so cool to see Fillip’s reaction to seeing them live for the first time. He just pointed to the goose bumps on his arms. Again, if Pete didn’t put this fest on in this part of Europe, a lot of people wouldn’t have these kinds of moments. The rakia got me going and I raced down from the balcony to the pit downstairs to enjoy the madness up close and personal. What a gig, what an atmosphere.
After the gig I had the pleasure of introducing Luc, guitar player of the Kids, to my Serbian buddies. I know he fuckin loves playing in south eastern Europe and the guys were super happy to meet him. Also there was our friend Chris from local punk rock heroes, Voodoo Healers, and he took us to a really cool punk rock bar. No crappy metal over there but DK, Black Flag, Cock Sparrer and the like. But we weren’t through with partying as the official after party was at the Residents Bar near the harbor.
Once there we hooked up with the rest of the traveling circus and danced like crazy to tunes provided by the American DJ’s, Jenny, Ardy and Pete Slovenly himself. Just a bunch of grooving, swirling and whirling bodies addicted to that magical back beat. And speaking of magic, tune in for the next instalment where our crazy bunch hops on the plane to the beautiful Island of Lesbos for some more parties in paradise.