A place where anything can happen

We are on an island in the middle of the Danube River, Budapest, at one of Europe’s biggest – yet most intimate – festivals. The cream of indie and dance are on the main stage, there’s a bone crunchingly tough metal stage, a Roma gypsy music tent, a Hungarian band arena, lots of busy smaller stages, and a bizarrely brilliant section of fun areas where you can paint, draw or make stuff up.

Sziget festival is warm all night long and is pretty cheap to get to. It takes up the whole of a wooded island by one of Europe’s most interesting cities, where you get free public transport and local amenities as part of your ticket price. It’s friendly with endless all night fun, and one of the best-kept secrets on the continent.

It’s hard to understand why anyone would want to go to a UK festival these days; for sure there are lots of great gatherings, but with cheap airfares, great weather and adventurous bills that don’t rely on dustbin indie. Plus there’s the chance to check out a new city. These European festivals make so much sense.

This is where Sziget really scores. It’s a long time since I’ve been to a UK festival where you can wander around all night without a coat on, make loads of new friends from all over Europe, and check out a bill this eclectic.

Its closest UK cousin is Glastonbury and it shares the same sort of idealism as the Eavis garden party. There is the usual mainstream indie fare on the main stage, but also lots of so-called world music in the brilliant Roma gypsy music tent and various other stages. I also saw the wildest Moldavian folk band complete with foot-stomping audience craziness twenty-minutes after the Prodigy had sent the main arena into meltdown. There was also lots of Hungarian bands as well as the huge metal stage, which is something you would never get at a mainstream UK festival.

The British festival circuit is built around landfill indie rock and the rest of the music world is generally ignored – apart from the token ironic pop act. Getting to see some pretty extreme metal mashed in with the folk and the cream of Brit and American indie makes for a perfect day.

The main stage sees the inevitable titans of indie rock, from the critic-pleasing The National, who combine every aspect of hip indie listening into one journalist pleasing whole. With flourishes of the Velvets, the hiccupping vocals of Tindersticks, a dash of melodrama and a sensible, studious approach to indie rock, the band have become competent stadium-fillers in rapid time.

They are the direct opposite to The Prodigy who headline Saturday and draw the biggest and wildest crowd with their thrilling set of techno-rock filth. The Prodigy are masters of the festival circuit, and their twin front man attack of Maxim and Keith Flint have the charisma to project Liam Howlett’s technological rush to the back of the field. Perhaps the best punk rock band on the planet in 2011, the Prodigy make all the electric noise of the best rock bands in the world but bring the noise with their juggernaut breakbeats.

It’s this kind of escape from dance venturing towards post-techno that is loved over here. The previous evening saw the Chemical Brothers almost pull off the same kind of reaction with their outer space light show and monster beats whilst headlining over Kasabian, who are readying their brilliant new album with some festival dates.

The Kaiser Chiefs singalong commentary on British suburbia still gets a great reaction here, and frontman Ricky Wilson is still the sweaty rabble-rouser. Three songs in and he looks like knackered by his wanton extrovert nature, and the crowd love him all the more for it. It’s easy to forget just how many catchy songs the band have.
The Manic Street Preachers sound crystal clear through the best PA I’ve ever heard at a festival, and you are reminded of just how many great hits the band have had over years. (An unbroken run of 33 top 40 hits till last year when they dropped just outside the singles chart with ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’ stalling at number 44.)
The songs capture every mood from euphoria to angst to sadness before touching loss and bereavement and community. The highlights are, of course, ‘Design For Life’ and ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ – does anyone else dare write songs drenched with so much pure emotion and dislocated poetry? Their sensitivity couched inside the high decibel of a rock and roll show is something their heroes like Guns N’ Roses would never dare to do.

The Manics have to settle for second on the bill below headliners White Lies, whose melancholic modern guitar pop hits a raw nerve with the Eastern Europeans. They embrace sadness despite living in perhaps the best period of their history twenty-years after the monochrome fake communists were run out of town. A running out of town that the Sziget festival was initially started twenty-years ago to celebrate.

Skunk Anansie are still surprisingly popular out here, even if their profile has slipped in the UK. Their popularity here is fierce and partisan with the audience hanging onto frontwoman Skin’s cut glass vocals.

Mariachi El Bronx are perfectly suited to the heat and the dust. Their take on the prime Mexican folk music is camply brilliant. Dressed in matching mariachi outfits, the band deal out a set of lilting and brilliant songs that are played with a sheer love of the form, and they really capture the music’s sense of sadness and celebration perfectly. Gogol Bordello, with their take on East European gypsy music, are welcomed like homecoming gods. The band have got the live thing nailed down, and their multi-instrumental approach and commitment to rabble-rousing anthems soaked in folklore and good time music works perfectly.

If you want the real thing, though, the Roma tent is where it is at. Here, working gypsy bands are raising the roof. Hungary has a big gypsy population of around five per cent of national total, and there have been some problems with right wing types so the tent is an attempt to build bridges – and it’s working perfectly.

A celebration of Roma culture worldwide, there are Indian gypsies from Rajastan playing a drum-driven hypnotic rush that features a dancer who jigs on a bed of nails with a big urn balanced on his head; there are Roma folk troupes with macho dancers and beautiful women in full gypsy attire; and a bonkers gypsy brass band who make a sound that is so off-kilter it makes you feel drunk with excitement.

Meanwhile Buraka Som Sistema are rocking the dance tent with their African Kuduro beats allied to stomping dance thunder. Dizzie Rascal is still keeping it raw on the main stage, belying recent excursions into pure pop with a tough set that still coasts along with his natural charm.

There are nearly thirty stages at the festival: from a world music stage where Sly and Robbie prove that they are still perhaps the best rhythm section in the world with Junior Reed singing; to a stage for upcoming European bands to reach a larger audience where I catch Italian post-rock band Verdana, whose more clipped electric moments sound imaginatively brutal like the Pixies once did.

The aforementioned metal stage is like a world of its own, with a clutch of filthy noisy droogs from Poland and Hungary, as well as international names like Judas Priest on their last tour, and the Deftones.

Cranking up the dark guttural side of death metal are Sweden’s The Haunted, and on the opening night the stage is headlined by the evergreen Motorhead whose T-shirts is everywhere you look wandering around the site. Lemmy is, of course, some kind of god and few can claim to the walking, talking embodiment of rock and roll like he can. The band are often mistakenly lumped in with metal when they are one of the few pure rock and roll bands you will ever get to see. Representing lineage from Little Richard through to the early Beatles, MC5 and very early punk. This is the true core of Lemmy’s vision, and they are still one of the greatest live bands in the world with their no bullshit, guttural version of the truth makes complete sense out here.

I end the festival watching the Moldovan folk band with their banging bass drum and tripped-out flute, creating a riot of their own in some far off, far out tent. It’s a sublime moment and a reminder that the only true way to listen to music is with an eclectic ear, and Sziget is the perfect place for this: a place where anything can happen and the soundtrack is not fixed.

Words by John Robb
Photo by Mark Somay


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