After two days of alternating weather and headlining acts of alternating quality (I didn’t say this – the majority of reporters did, though), the third, or officially Day 1 of the Sziget Festival, brought about some much-needed guitar and alt-rock. The gargantuan pan-artistic event has been growing exponentially in the past 15 years or so, and this growth meant some difficult decisions regarding the nature of Main Stage(s) performers had to be made. Now that Sziget is indisputably one of the largest cultural events in the world, in order to sell enough tickets to support its magnificent 1,500-plus programs and 3,000-strong staff (seriously, major kudos to those people working around the clock so that we can feel at home), compromises have to be made, and that’s all right, business is business, after all. It is for this reason that the majority of the Main Stage headliners in recent years have been pop and club-house stars, and the good ol’ guitar had to, literally, forgo center stage, and settle for the large A38 tent, the epicenter of, in my opinion, best festival performances for some four years now.
Still, Friday had given us a break from the pristine plasticine and unbearably dense crowds, and the 70,000-strong mass got to meld and enjoy several stellar performances at the two main stages, with some more energetic music heard at the World Music Stage and Europe Stage. Though the clouds had definitely deprived us of marveling at the Perseids meteor shower, at least the warm breeze proved an idyllic meteorological option for a night of sweat and intense shows. Throughout the day, tens of thousands of campers could be found engaged in the most diverse activities all around the 200-acre island; many dismissed the cloudy day and still lay comfortably on the Sziget beach, near the Danube. Some decided on forming long queues for the marvelous Luminarium, Sziget’s beautiful labyrinthian dome of interspersed lights, while others were just slouching all day in their fold-out chairs, waiting for the booze and the atmosphere to kick in.
Only the most resilient campers stretched their legs to witness the first Main Stage show, that of the local Bohemian Betyars, but John Newman set the tone for what was to come as early as 5.45 pm. The young English singer-songwriter proved he is ready for superstardom with his powerful voice and a greatly energetic stage act. As usual, the crowds had gone berserk with many of his already great hits, namely “Losing Sleep” and “Give Me Your Love”. An effective and candid communicator, Newman paid his respects to the late Dan Panaitescu, Sziget’s Art Director who had tragically lost his life in July. The pace was kept well throughout the show, up to the explosive “Love Me Again”, the last tune of a perfectly good pop-rock show, and the growing crowd was properly warmed up for another pop-rock sensation, Bastille.
Bastille who had already played at Sziget in 2014, may just have two albums, but their committed performances and great ambitions more than make up for what they still may lack in experience. “Bad Blood” and “Laura Palmer” set the tone for a performance full of singalongs and joyful camaraderie, while “The Things We Lost in the Fire” burns and more than a few earnest adolescent tears are shed. Smith is already a skilled frontman and a solid showman, meaning he brings enough charisma to make the band’s rendition of TLC’s “No Scrubs” sounds less like a parody, and more like a sensual down-tempo seduction tune. The set naturally ends with “Pompeii”, and the ever-growing, predominantly younger, crowd is caught up in another singalong, bidding a grateful farewell to their new heroes of alt-pop.
The day’s Main Stage headliner was Manu Chao, on at 9.30 pm, but I have to admit I had to skip the performance for a chance to visit some more stages and, well, see the Editors at A38 at 10 pm. Before we move on to the stars of the A38 stage/tent, it has to be said that the atmosphere throughout the Island was much more vigorous on Friday, since there was no single headliner whom all the visitors pleaded to see, and the audiences were encouraged to explore other stages and performers. The spirits were particularly high at the World Music Stage and Europa Stage, one dedicated to the most energetic regional and global performers of ethno music, the other mostly focused on emerging rock bands, ideal for those who wished to avoid the mainstream for a bit.
Editors commence their tour de force, sky-piercing rock odyssey at 10 pm sharp, to an overjoyed and overcrowded tent – in an instant I can’t help but wonder why this band isn’t on the Main Stage, where they have already performed in 2013. Tom Smith and his Stafford crew have been building up their stadium-vibe carefully and passionately, over the course of a decade and a half. After staccato “post-punk” beginnings and synth-heavy In This Light and on This Evening, their official shift toward a… more ambitious kind of rock, their latest album, In Dream, is an epitome of grandeur and is designed for vast open spaces, through which Smith’s opulent piano chords and despondent lyrics can shoot aimlessly and hit everyone. The 75-minute show, which featured predominantly their newer songs, was nothing short of brilliant, minute after minute.
Smith is an unlikely frontman, an everyman face with a sturdy, stern voice, but his mercurial presence makes for one hell of an experience. Depending on the heaviness and pace of the tune, Smith shifts from apoplectic to fully kinetic in seconds, and his vocal delivery, with his mastery of the piano he plays during most tunes, is a marvel in its own right. Editors used to be an ordinary band, and then a band simply hard to swallow for those unaccustomed to emotional turmoil – today, most deservedly, they are the stuff of legends. The fact that their newer singles, such as “A Ton of Love”, are reminiscent of U2 circa 1991, is a great compliment. The singles off of In Dream are also well-received, and the audience is kept sweating, crying and crying out for the duration of the emotionally charged show. Smith compassionately follows suit, sweating a gallon too much for such a skinny, unassuming man, almost literally wearing his heart on his sleeve. His commitment to the performance sends the audience into a trance toward the end, with the synth punch of “Papillon” eliciting screams across the tent. You know what – whoever can make the verse “it kicks like a sleep twitch” iconic, is someone to be admired.
If the Editors were brilliant and powerful, UNKLE’s headlining performance reached a whole new plateau of melodic heaviness. James Lavelle has never been a man known for subtlety and the fact that his collaborative project hasn’t had an album in six years does nothing to disturb the seismic power of the 11 tunes the live band performed. “Eye for an Eye” immediately sees to it that the crowd is mesmerized, while “Hold My Hand” provides the dry vocals over a tectonic backdrop of synths and guitars meshed with aplomb. While “Restless” remains one of Lavelle’s most admired tunes, the impeccably funky and subversively pop tune is somewhat marred by a delicate live soprano – with all due respect, it is next to impossible to replace Josh Homme on a song greatly dependent upon Josh Homme’s flippant, unhinged vocals.
The catharsis is reached early on with “Burn My Shadow”, an orogenic compression of a million sounds into a single, thunderous eruption of controlled noise. The already cataclysmic visuals give way to intense red light, which briefly obscures everyone on the stage. In that moment, it appeared as though the audience was burning, too. Lavelle doesn’t let up until the very end, and the crowd is treated to such hits as “Lonely Soul”, “Reign”, and “Heaven”. The 70-minute long set may appear on paper as brief, but UNKLE’s intensity would be too much to bear if sustained for much longer than that. At the end of the show, the back screen lights up with the words “THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE” on it. Fair enough. Let’s all exhale into the breezy Hungarian night and get some rest before the Sziget morning yoga class at 9 am.