Vilnius’ Capital Days festival heralds the start of the cultural year every September, and is a great chance to enjoy Lithuanian live music in combination with a long weekend away. Duncan Rhodes reports.
Vilnius’ Capital Days festival finds the city in fine fettle. The broad pedestrianised Gedimino Prospektas – the main shopping street that leads all the way to the city’s startling ice-white Cathedral – is abuzz with traffic that slows down to admire street exhibitions of pop art, or else pulls to the kerb for grilled sausages and beers, drinking in the last of the day’s glorious September sunlight along with the ale. Amongst that traffic, Lineta, Virgis and I are hurrying along to the Veiksmai stage to catch a concert by Solo Ansamblis, a local band that are playing as part of the festivities.
“I’m jealous of you being a tourist here in Vilnius,” says Lineta… “The city is alive again!
“I’m jealous of you being a tourist here in Vilnius,” says Lineta, clearly enjoying the hustle and bustle on the street. “The city is alive again! In summer time Vilnius is empty – only tourists are going around, nothing is happening. The real fun begins from 1st September, when the Capital Days start. All the students come back, all the workers are returning from their holidays – the city is again how it is supposed to be, with everybody who belongs here.”
The Capital Days Festival (Sostines Dienos in Lithuanian) is a three day event with art, workshops and entertainment, but most of all music. Six stages line the Gedimino Prospektas, continuing into Bernadinai Gardens, with the main stage occupying none other than Cathedral Square. Taking place at the start of the September the festival symbolises the start of the cultural year, after the summer hiatus, and offers a spotlight for homegrown Lithuanian bands to showcase themselves, with a sprinkling of international stars thrown in for good measure. All of the concerts are free.
If I was nervous that Lithuania’s “local bands” would share a standard with sixth form school boys belting out rock covers during Rag Week, then it didn’t take long for Solo Ansamblis to assuage my fears.
If I was nervous that Lithuania’s “local bands” would share a standard with sixth form school boys belting out rock covers during Rag Week, then it didn’t take long for Solo Ansamblis to assuage my fears. Their brooding industrial beats overlaid with guitars (played by extravagantly quiffed hipsters) wouldn’t sound (or look) out of place at Barcelona’s notoriously hip Primavera Sound festival and I soon find myself doing my best emo-nod along to the rhythm.
A few years ago, I might not have been so lucky to hear this type of music, as Virgis explains. “There were always talented [Lithuanian] artists, but they were more in the underground – only a few were in the big stages. On the big stage and on TV everything was dominated by mainstream pop music. I mean music made with little talent, that is mostly marketed, mostly commercial. But now it’s changing. There are so many talented people using the Internet and social media to reach people that these bands are growing from the underground… they are getting invited everywhere, music festivals, everything. As a result the Lithuanian public are changing their taste and they start to understand what is good music as well.”
“There are so many talented people using the Internet and social media to reach people that these bands are growing from the underground… the Lithuanian public are changing their taste and they start to understand what is good music as well.”
If Virgis is more interested in contemporary music trends, Lineta is more attentive on the subject of fashion. “Everyone is looking so nice,” she exclaims, after running the rule on the crowd’s clothing choices. “In Vilnius in downtown you can see just nice people. They look very fashionable, especially the young people, and whenever I’m in the centre I feel like I’m Vogue magazine pages – everybody is so stylish and I love it. Maybe we cannot win a competition with London or Milan,” she concedes, “but anyway we have really good taste of style.”
As Solo Ansamblis wrap up it’s time to head down to Cathedral Square for the main concerts of the night, starting with Beissoul & Einius, a bombastic electro duo whose Kate Bush-esque dance moves in a Macklemore thrift shop style fur coat caught my attention as much as the music. These were followed by the internationally renowned German electro outfit Digitalism, who funky dance-friendly beats proved a great way to round off the programme for the night.
I joined my travelling partner in crime Pierre Le Van from Voyage Forever at Kablys, an out-of-town nightspot where walls of speakers pound out dark techno and drum’n’bass in curtained off rooms full of wide-eyed party animals…
After Digitalism it was time for Lineta and Virgis to go home and, whilst it was nothing to do with the festival, my journalistic integrity behoves me to mention that I did not go to bed… but rather I joined my travelling partner in crime Pierre Le Van from Voyage Forever at Kablys, an out-of-town nightspot where walls of speakers pound out dark techno and drum’n’bass in curtained off rooms full of wide-eyed party animals. After several hours of drinking, dancing and chatting to girls literally half my age, I stumbled home with the happy reassurance that Vilnius’ nightlife was just as entertaining as when I was last here…
The next day there was time for dinner and drinks in the uberhip courtyard of Mano Kiemas before Pierre, myself, Lineta, Virgis and other assorted Lithuanian friends made our way back to Cathedral Square this time for a concert by none other than Andrius Mamontovas. As people sang and swayed along, cheered, clapped and held lighters in the air, Lineta briefed me on the importance of this semi-mythical musician.
“They had such a strong voice, they made such a big difference, everybody, my parents, my grandparents, everybody knows them… it wasn’t about a political agenda, it was about the voice that said you should do something.”
“During the Soviet Union this guy was creating our spirit, saying that we should do something and fight for our independence. He had a band called Foje, which is so important to us that we study their music at school. They had such a strong voice, they made such a big difference, everybody, my parents, my grandparents, everybody knows them. The difference was because of his lyrics, it wasn’t about a political agenda, it was about the voice that said you should do something. When you listen to his music and you understand what he means to us, you are transported to such a special mood, you are dreaming and you are just remembering all these times”
As we dance, sing and joke and drink an overly strong mix of rum and coke from a seemingly never-ending bottle, it’s hard to imagine life here in Lithuania before the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Those difficult years did however give rise to a special form of creativity, explains Virgis. “Our independence was peacefully fought for one or two years. There were meetings of people, and different kind of events, including concerts and music festivals. Soviet police would try to stop them somehow, but there were bureaucratic ways how to avoid them… for example Western music like hard rock was forbidden, so what they did was they created music so that it sounded like a parody, with sarcastic lyrics. They wanted to hold a music event that was on ‘the allowed list’, so they said to the authorities ‘it’s a parody of the west.’ It’s actually very interesting to listen to those songs, because they all sound a bit funny. It’s a very peculiar thing because all songs from that period have some irony and sarcasm – but also a lot of metaphors. For example everyone knew that when they sing about zombies, they were singing about Russian soldiers. But in that way they could sing and they could perform publicly.”
“It’s a very peculiar thing because all songs from that period have some irony and sarcasm – but also a lot of metaphors. For example everyone knew that when they sing about zombies, they were singing about Russian soldiers.”
After Mamontovas signs off with a crowd-pleasing finish, the night is still relatively young. A short drive away in an old factory complex, there is another music festival running concurrently with Capital Days called the Loftas Fest. You need tickets for the main acts, but I’m assured that plenty will be going on in and around the complex for us to check out, so we hop in a taxi. Well all except Pierre, who rather overdid it the night before.
If Capital Days is mildly geared towards the mainstream, Loftas is about as hipster as it gets. Around the industrial complex various art installations are on display, from mannequins perched on wheelie bins to dangling light cables, this would be a fun place to explore, with or without a fiesta going on. After refuelling at the street food trucks, we find ourselves drawn towards the circus tent, erected in the middle of the zone, which surprises us by housing an actual circus (I was sure it was going to be ironic!). And so we settle down to watch flamethrowers, knife wielders, clowns and acrobats do their thing. Once the show is over, we seek out some music and chance upon a garage-esque opening, where a DJ is spinning twisted electronica at the bottom of a concrete slope. We take the chance to use the luminous chalk provided to draw pictures on the wall. Finally we decide to follow the throngs as they head into one of the zone’s larger buildings and descend into a James Bond villain’s lair of subterranean passages that finally lead to sweaty, cramped and airless stage. I’m glad we do though, as the Russian DJ – Oligarkh – accompanied by two maniacal drummers, proves to be a musical highlight of the night, creating an intense mosh pit of energy in this musty cavern of a room.
After refuelling at the street food trucks, we find ourselves drawn towards the circus tent, erected in the middle of the zone, which surprises us by housing an actual circus…
By now we’re pretty much done with the festival, but I’ve heard about this club I want to check out and so I persuade Virgus and Lineta to accompany me to Opium back in the centre. The atmosphere is electric, but it turns out that whilst my mind is willing, my body is out of battery. Besides as a sober, nearly 40-something, average Joe I feel distinctly out of place amongst the elegantly-wasted, intimidatingly-tall Lithuanian elite party people. It’s time to retire to my comfy chambers at the Artis hotel and I leave the more spritely Virgus and Lineta on the dancefloor.
It’s been an epic couple of days, but it ain’t quite over yet. My Lithuanian buddies need the night off – it’s now Sunday after all – but thankfully Pierre has recovered from his Friday night exertions, so we brave the rain and head to Cathedral Square once more for the Capital Days closing concert: Jazzanova. Understandably, given the weather, the crowd is a small fraction of the Friday and Saturday night turnout and Pierre and I decide to stand back, observing the concert from a distance in the dry spot under the eaves of the Cathedral. However a few songs in, seduced by the lively energy of the band, we decide to muck in under the rain, stomping our feet to electro-jazz rhythms right up to the festival’s finale. It was the least that Capital Days deserved.
Duncan’s trip to Vilnius was kindly assisted by Go Vilnius together with the four star Artis Hotel, which is perfectly situated just a few minutes from Gedimino Prospektas and the Cathedral Square (with pool and saunas for detoxing). All views are his own. Click here for more stories on the lovely Lithuanian capital.