‘I WANNA SEE ALL MY FRIENDS AT ONCE’, the lyrics from the Arthur Russell classic are projected onto the ceiling of the stowed-out SWG3 warehouse. The Black Madonna hands the reins over to JD Twitch and JG Wilkes one last time, and the subtle synth notes of Bronski Beat’s 'Smalltown Boy' slowly fill the room. The reaction from the crowd is instantaneous and memorable. Thousands of faces attempt to sing along, hands-in-the-air, providing a fitting finale to a festival celebrating 20 years of Optimo.
The legacy of Optimo is something that cannot be downplayed. Their weekly Sub Club residency, running every Sunday from 1997 to 2010, tore up the rule book and continually pushed the boundaries of what constituted 'club music'. The refusal to restrict themselves to certain genres or scenes was revolutionary, and the incredibly diverse Optimo 20 line-up was testament to this mind-set.
The programme featured just as many female performers as it did male; just as many young, up-and-comers as it did seasoned veterans; as well as a fine blend of local and international talent. Yet rather than trying to satisfy some imaginary quota, it was clear that each act was there on merit.
These artists were split over 3 rooms: the newly-opened and highly-anticipated Galvanizer’s Yard was given the role of main room; the TV Studio, with its stage and open spaces, was reserved for the many live acts; while the 120-capacity Poetry Club, nestled away in the corner of the complex, provided an intimate alternative to the two larger rooms.
On entering, what was most striking was the engulfing darkness of all three rooms, so much so that your eyes took a second or two to readjust. This was clearly an intentional move, and coupled with multiple posters warning against using phones on the dancefloor, made for an environment where dancers could focus solely on the music.
It was the Poetry Club that we entered first, with local DJ and radio host Sofay opening the festival with a two hour slot. It was a set characterised by the kind of hypnotic, leftfield electronics you’re likely to hear on her Self Service show on Subcity Radio, and the Manfredas remix of Moscoman’s 'Dévoué' was a timely selection as the festival began to busy up. For a DJ with relatively little experience of playing out, there was a real confidence in her demeanour as she commanded the attention of those on the floor.
From there, we moved into the TV Studio to see singer-songwriter Carla Dal Forno cycle through tracks from her 2016 album, You Know What It’s Like. Her dreamy, yet haunting synth-pop was ideally timetabled for mid-afternoon, giving festival goers the chance to ease themselves in gently.
Moving back into the Poetry Club, Sofay’s set was coming to an end and Copenhagen-based collective, Apeiron Crew, took control of the decks. The trio, playing back-to-back, employed tougher, bassline-driven techno and ice-cold electro to masterful effect.
We then made our way through to the main room for Avalon Emerson and a first glimpse of the Galvanizer’s Yard. The gargantuan, hangar-like warehouse space had an impressive attention to detail: purpose-built Danley Sound Lab speakers were suspended delicatelyfrom the ceiling and a raised terrace ran adjacent to the DJ booth. Emerson weaved together sophisticated, atmospheric house and techno, seemingly inspired by the Arizonian frontier she referenced in last year’s acclaimed Whities 006 EP.
Back in the TV Studio, Detroit electro-punk outfit Adult snarled and screeched their way through an hour-long set. The electric guitars may have been replaced by synthesisers, but the punk attitude remained.
It was then time for one of the most anticipated sets of the day as Ben UFO took over from Brooklyn’s Aurora Halal in the Poetry Club. To witness such a celebrated DJ in such a confined space is rare, and the tiny dancefloor soon began to swell, far exceeding the aforementioned capacity. It was perhaps the day’s only instance of poor programming, and the lack of space sadly soon became unbearable.
King Ayisoba and his hyperactive live band provided ideal respite in the TV Studio, offering up fascinating modern interpretations of traditional Ghanaian music, but it was soon time to re-enter the main room for Optimo and The Black Madonna’s big finish.
The back-to-back touched on myriad genres: everything from classic disco and Paradise Garage favourites to electroclash and Belgian New Beat, but the last half hour was reserved for those iconic tracks that have gained legendary status at Optimo parties over the years.
'You Make Me Feel' by Sylvester, 'Psycho Killer' by The Talking Heads and Kernkraft’s 'Zombie Nation' all received a spin, but it was the dropping of Madonna’s 'Hung Up' that provided that ultimate Optimo moment.
Here were two DJs with an encyclopaedic musical knowledge, unashamedly playing a mid-2000s pop hit, completely devoid of pretension – the true essence of Optimo. The festival finished with a rendition of 'Optimo', the 1983 Liquid Liquid track from which Twitch and Wilkes took their name, being sung by the band’s vocalist Sal P. Revellers smiled and embraced, taking in the last few moments of an event that will undoubtedly live long in the memory.