Getting in the European groove

WILLIAM MACE
Last updated 05:00 24/11/2013
Pula amphitheatre
SAMANTHA BAKER

PARTY TIME: Thousands gather at the amphitheatre in Pula, Croatia, for a concert.

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The yellow light illuminating the 2000-year-old façade of Pula's Roman amphitheatre suddenly shut off.

The three-storey-high arched windows disappeared and the stage's lighting rigs went dark, leaving a 5000-strong crowd to sway in blissful darkness with nothing but their glowing spliffs to light the way.

Thankfully, the music continued unabated. Only the faint outline of ancient stone walls against the moonlight served to distinguish the ancient Croatian gladiator pit from a power-starved Jamaican dance-hall.

The languid reggae beat rang out even louder than before, quickly silencing ironic cheers from the audience as it became clear a power outage had plunged the arena back into pre-electric antiquity.

It's the kind of glitch that can turn a hedonistic voyage to one of Europe's most-heralded music festivals into an expensive stumble in the silent, stony dark.

But one thing that sets Outlook Festival apart is the acts on the bill.

The Original Wailers are carrying the crowd through the lighting lull. It's the contemporary version of Bob Marley's backing band as assembled by Al Anderson, the lead guitarist on Marley's breakthrough 1974 US tour.

The amphitheatre's rustic masonry has already absorbed the bass-heavy DJ talents of New York hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash - blasting everything from Snoop Dogg to Nirvana and mixing his seminal 1982 hit The Message straight into The BeeGees' How Deep Is Your Love.

The Wailers are keeping the beat, and the crowd, high despite the lighting disaster.

The sound system briefly cuts out too, but within seconds the whole show is restored to full power: subtle hues of Rastafarian red and yellow colour plumes of smoke rising above bobbing heads, and the beat goes on.

The amphitheatre scene is only the opening salvo of a five-night barrage of bass which more than 10,000 people have each paid around €180, about NZ$300, to attend.

Despite the odd glitch, Outlook is regularly named as one of the best festivals on an increasingly crowded European summer circuit.

Many have flown, bussed, driven or hitchhiked from the United Kingdom, but there are also many Europeans, local Croatians and what seems like a disproportionate contingent of New Zealanders and Australians.

Outlook's opening concert is linked (but ticketed separately) to the main event, which kicks off the following day at a site not far from the amphitheatre in the centre of Pula - a town of 60,000 and the administrative centre of Istria, northern Croatia.

The area is so connected with nearby Italy that locals use "ciao" as a common greeting, farewell or thank you.

As the Wailers bid their own farewell, the audience prepare to reboard the ferry boats which earlier brought them the 20-minute journey from the festival site-proper amid a blazing Croatian sunset.

Back at the festival site, Outlook's crews are putting the finishing touches on the abandoned medieval fort which will host revellers for the next four days and nights.

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The organisers haven't built these immense stone fortifications themselves, they've merely added bars, graffiti installations, light shows, DJ booths and bone-rattling sound rigs to Pula's decommissioned coastal defences.

The result is yet another surreal setting to please the senses of a devout, bass-hungry audience and to create a sense of true escapism among the incongruent relics.

One stage, Noah's Ballroom, is a 10-metre-diameter circular pit encased by two-storey stone walls with an open ceiling looking up to overhanging trees and clear night skies.

The trees are lit with the same translucent yellow that featured at the amphitheatre the day before.

It's accessed by a barely-lit, foreboding underground tunnel which emerges into the starry-ceilinged room filled with warm dub-step bass and smiling faces.

Another stage nearby is called The Moat, for obvious reasons. A 50-metre section of the long-since dried canal has turntables at one end and three stacks of speakers at regular intervals on each side, all the way to the back.

Strobing light patterns stream on to the 10-metre-high walls as drum and bass tempos return the mix of ravers into something resembling, from a distance, the fluid movement of glistening liquid.

The main Harbour stage is set slightly apart from the fort itself and is a more traditional stage with speakers set up for the headlining acts.

It is, though, adjacent to a working festival harbour, where party boats dock and depart throughout the day and night.

The boats host three-hour dance parties promising punters the chance to get up-close and personal with legendary DJs and producers while cruising the Adriatic Sea.

With fully stocked bars aboard, sound systems that would blow away most Kiwi nightclubs, stunning sunsets and skippers who thrill partygoers by passing within metres of other party boats, Outlook's boat trips are a highlight.

At the end of five days, tired bodies litter the region's white pebble beaches. Many of the Kiwis and Australians talk of "life-changing" experiences and are already organising their accommodation for next year's event.

Many will stay for another week of revelry at Dimensions Festival at the same venue as others move on to the likes of Sun & Bass on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, or the house music haunts of Ibiza.

Whatever the outside world holds for them on their return, those here have chosen to spend their holidays among like-minded people, revelling in good music on a sunny, surreal outcrop in the Adriatic.

- Sunday Star Times

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