Sziget is as big as they come, and then some. The scale and scope of what is today recognized as one of the largest cultural events in Europe, if not worldwide, is noticeable the moment you step on the Óbudai Island, comfortably wrapped around the Danube and tucked away merely miles from the Budapest city center. There are hordes counting tens of thousands of people of all ages, ethnicities (more than 100 nations visited the festival last year), appearances and backgrounds that march across the K Bridge (one of Budapest 14 bridges), with Sziget welcome notes written in various languages dangling above their scalps. It’s been a full quarter of a century and what once started as youthful and politically charged escapism from the chains of a totalitarian regime, today is a 76-venue, seven-day, 500,000-strong extravaganza of all kinds of music, performance art, TED talks, board games, yoga and even belly dancing lessons. Its ambition is staggering, its effects on the visitors impressive.
As I am handed the so-called Sziget Passport, a handy 78-page guide to what one can expect from August 8 to 15 this year on the Island. The Island itself is 76 hectares vast, 1.2 times larger than the Pentagon and 1.7 times the size of Vatican. There is so much to experience and take in it’s all but impossible for one person to recount the many splendors of this week-long festivity; my situation is further inconvenienced by the fact that my partner was unable to attend this year and help out with the coverage but I’ll pull through somehow. On we go.
The first day of the festival is usually reserved for one major, major headliner, accompanied by other acts on the Main Stage. Most other stages are closed, save for the Europe Stage and Afro-Latin-Reggae Village, two of the several world music venues. This year the biggest number of foreigners, over 20,000, come from the UK, overtaking the Netherlands as Sziget’s No. 1 source of visitors from abroad. One of the explanations for this is that Glastonbury is in its fallow year, with the Eaves family taking a brief sabbatical, allowing the festival grounds to recuperate.
Virág Csiszár, Sziget’s booking manager, spoke to the Hungarian portal, Index, about the implications of massive bookings – while more than 1,000,000,000 HUF (roughly $3.56 million) was spent this year on performers, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to book the most coveted names in show business simply because the prices keep raising by about 10% every year. Nevertheless, with Kendrick Lamar, Gorillaz, Arctic Monkeys, Kygo, Shawn Mendes, Lana Del Rey, Dua Lipa, Mumford and Sons and many more as headlining acts, the festival is certainly showing no signs of slowing down.
Virág explained the rationale: each day needs to have a “strong” headliner so that the festival can sell about 20-25 thousand daily tickets and manage to make a modest profit (indeed, Sziget has never been hugely profitable and most people in the organization are happy if they turn a 3-4% profit). If, for example, one day sees a full capacity of about 94,000, then it’s a non-issue if another day or two is less visited and more focused on alternative acts. This year it’s already been confirmed that the sold-out day is Monday, Aug 13, when Kygo and Shawn Mendes, who’s only playing three dates in Europe this year, will perform. This is unsurprising, given that the majority of the world’s most popular acts of the past 25 years have already played at the festival and that new generations of barely legal kids on the path to self-discovery are more than happy to show up in bulks for new pop stars du jour.
On with the show. It’s August 8 and the temperature outside is a cool almost 100 F, hardly ideal to kick of “-1 Day” of the event. The heat has scorched the ground and it doesn’t help that the dust has risen, penetrating every pore on one’s body. There are sprinklers stretched out above the Main Stage and still plenty of cover to be sought beneath the many trees, but it’s all but unmanageable to witness the afternoon shows on the wildly exposed Main Stage without perspiring to the point of becoming drenched. Few people are present for the Clean Bandit but luckily, Stormzy‘s performance sets the tone for what’s to come over the course of a full week. The English grime sensation is giving it his all, his glitchy and spitting lyrics flowing seamlessly. The several-thousand-strong audience feels his ingenuity, he seems to be having fun with his performance and as a result, so do they. Stormzy’s 60-minute set is energetic and even those who have never heard of him before are having lots of fun. The end is reserved for his biggest hits, “Know Me From” and “Shut Up”, and the audience delivers, forming a large moshpit and going berserk in the ever-rising dust.
The tone changes drastically with Lykke Li, Sweden’s pop darling and one of the many Scandinavian acts taking the world (and this year’s Sziget) by storm. Though the sun hasn’t settled and it the blistering heat threatens to swallow us all, the slight chanteuse is dressed in all-black fetishistic three piece, long sleeves and all. Perhaps she didn’t account for the customary heat every August in Budapest, at least soon she took the jacket off. Her 13-song set is quite short and brings an enormous change of pace, her four-piece band supporting her longing, saccharine vocals. The show opens with “No Rest for the Wicked” and it’s clear that we’re in for an opus of sweet, suave, more down-tempo tunes. It’s not a groundbreaking show and Lykke Li isn’t lively enough herself to keep the 15,000-strong crowd energized throughout, but it’s a decent show and the finale, saved, of course, for “I Follow Rivers“, gives the first massive singalong of this year’s edition.
Unfortunately, things only went downhill from there. As 68,000 people gather to see the shining star that is the 12-time Grammy and Pulitzer Prize Winner Kendrick Lamar, the stage is dark and nobody’s explaining why. While 68,000 isn’t nowhere near the capacity crowd of about 94,000 (for example, in 2016 Rihanna had a full house), and while it was clearly expected that more people would come, it still appears as though every person present on the island came just to see him deliver his gospel live. Good enough, however, 40 minutes past showtime, Lamar still hasn’t appeared onstage. No statement about the rapper being late was made except that the Hungarian media mentioned there was an equipment malfunction on his side.
When he finally emergers to kick off his 2018 European tour, Lamar is forced to cut the show down to 16 tunes, out of which four are further shortened. The iconic Compton rapper intended to disregard the 11:00 pm curfew, but the authorities would have none of it and the audiences are left hungry for more, and better. Onstage, Lamar has a wicked presence, his brilliant, old-school delivery complemented by a full band, aiding him with restless percussions and guitars. The stage itself is all but empty, with Lamar circling its every corner like a hyena, waving his arms and pointing to the audience at every turn. The backdrop is a single large screen, and the letters “Pulitzer Kenny” flashing intermittently hugely entertain. He deserves the title.
The show is mostly hits, from the opener “DNA.”, through “ELEMENT”, “King Kunta”, and plenty others. The audience at the front is animated and all of his many outstanding hooks are readily screamed. At the end, “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, “m.A.A.d city”, “Alright” and, of course, “HUMBLE.”, save the day and provide a riveting closer to an otherwise merely alright show, marred by us missing out on almost half of it for undisclosed reasons.
Thursday, however, lifts the mood. It’s sizzling hot again and no more than a few hundred people can stand to be under the A38 tent, Sziget’s second biggest stage, where the Copenhagen-based experimental pop trio, WhoMadeWho, are trying their best not to collapse in the heat. They finally elicit a wild response through a rendition of Benny Benassi’s anthem “Satisfaction”, that guitar hook attracting hundreds more instantly from outside.
On the Main Stage, Max Colombie, aka Oscar and the Wolf, arranges a nice 60-minute set of synthpop tunes coupled with his crooning, velvety vocals. Unfortunately, again, there are very few people on the Island compared to previous years, and barely a thousand are standing in front of the stage, only vaguely interested in what they are hearing. Several thousand more sip beer and frolic around the forest in the back. It’s not even 7:00 pm and a slender girl threatens to collapse under the weight of her much larger, and evidently heavily intoxicated, male friend, whom she is aiding in walking. The party hasn’t even kicked off yet and apparently it’s already over for some.
When Simon Green aka Bonobo steps on stage with his band, there is only about two thousand people waiting to see him. The last time Bonobo played Sziget, it was in 2014 at the A38 tent and to date it remains one of the most packed and beautifully received shows this festival has seen (this is spoken from 14 years of Sziget experience). However, as wonderful as his layered, often soothing electronic concoctions can be, Bonobo has never been a Main Stage headliner (moreover, he played in Budapest merely two and a half months ago to more than 5,000 people) and the risk is enormous – will the massive audience about to congregate to see Gorillaz live take to his cerebral, mostly wordless melodic configurations? In short – but of course.
Green is a veteran of music production and while most of his standard setlist holders are there, the arrangements have been carefully changed, sped up and augmented so as to fit a more visceral, festival atmosphere. He and his band of keyboards, bass, percussions and a brass trio, start off slow, with tunes from his latest release, Migration, and the moving single “Towers”, sung by his long-term collaborator, the lovely and ever-barefoot Szjerdene. The first 15 minutes of the show not much changes, but before we know it, the night falls and Green picks up the pace, opting for more club-friendly tunes, and thousands rush to the stage. “Kong”, with a little help from a loop beat, is the game-changer, getting everyone in the vicinity to dance.
The beauty of Bonobo’s music lies in the fact that it is suitable to virtually anyone’s taste, without compromising artistic integrity and intentions, and even those who just happened to get dinner around the stage when he first came on are hooked, at first just tilting their heads and casually swinging their hips, and then using all their limbs to move, leaving another round of beer for later and joining in on the party.
The show is a triumph and Green knows it as it’s evident he aimed for a more relaxed and pumped up show, but even he is surprised by the size of the crowd toward the end and pauses for a moment to take a picture. He has all the reasons in the world to be pleased: this was a difficult task and he pulled it off, certainly introducing himself to some new fans in the process. “Are you excited for the Gorillaz show? I am, too,” smiles Green before stepping off stage. At a drink vendor nearby, an aggressive techno version of the Game of Thrones theme song starts.
And excited for Gorillaz we definitely are, all 50,000 of us or so. Damon Albarn knows this, his band’s set moved to 9.20 pm so he could play a little more – 24 songs, to be exact. When Goldtooth takes to stage in faded jeans and a plain yellow t-shirt, he is accompanied by too many artists to name – a sextet of back vocals adorned in varied, funky and often ethnic garments, two percussionists, two keyboardists, and two guitarists (one of whom is Jeff Wootton, band’s long-term lead guitarist). This bunch of 13 stays onstage throughout the show and is joined by Jamie Principle, De La Soul, Peter Everett, and more for select singles. It’s a gargantuan mishmash of sounds, styles and musical backgrounds, but that’s what Albarn loves most – that’s what we love most about him, too.
The set begins with Albarn shouting “Hello? Is anybody there?” through a megaphone; surely, it’s “A1 M1”, the closer from the band’s 17-year-old (!) eponymous debut, and frenzied guitars soar, bringing the excitement to a maximum from the get-go. As the band moves onto “Tranz”, one of the more prominent singles off this year’s The Now Now, it’s immediately clear that Albarn, languidly slouching over a microphone or a piano, is all in. The 50-year-old is an absolute magician of contemporary music and possibly the Least Reverent Man in the entire music industry. He does what he wants, when he wants and how he wants it and we are truly blessed is that what he wants this time around is a gargantuan party filled with what can be called truly world music. While the band’s last year’s release, Humanz, was well-received, the songs from The Now Now are better suited to this occasion, with more (up)beats, more delightful singalongs and more fast electronic backdrops, ideal for Jamie Hewlett’s countless cartoon visuals (many of which are simply videos translated to the big screen).
Sure enough, Albarn’s trademark melancholy and instant introspection are also present – when he longingly repeats, “Are we the last living souls?”, he looks as though it’s not a rhetorical question, as though he believes that this moment, whatever it may represent for him, really is the only thing that’s left in the world. It’s hardly a secret that Albarn’s truly uniquely sorrowful vocals are a good part of all his bands’ success, but when his pale blue eyes, now followed by deep slashes on his forehead, aimlessly pierce the crowd from a gigantic screen, you can’t help but wonder if there is more to life than this one moment. He’s a wonderful trickster, that man.
“Rhinestone Eyes” brings the first fist-pumping dance-along, while “Every Planet We Reach is Dead” sees Albarn shine again, singing better than ever to the one tune that really requires him to sing. He’s not much of a vocalist and he knows it, but this time around he puts in the effort and the song mounts into an astonishing jazz piece with an alternative ending, the back vocals taking the place of piano crescendos. One third into the show, De La Soul storm the stage for “Superfast Jellyfish” and the crowd is completely sold, jumping, singing, smiling and generally enjoying themselves to the maximum. “On Melancholy Hill” and “El Manana” once again bring Albarn to the limelight, but from then on he takes a backseat while his countless collaborators take to the stage to help the show reach its boiling point (if anyone’s interested, it’s still over 80 F outside, though it’s nighttime). The newer songs, such as “Strobelite” featuring Peter Everett and “Andromeda” mesh well with older hits and the pace never lets up.
With such an indescribably eclectic opus of varied genres and styles, it’s inappropriate to save that Gorillaz have saved “the best for last”, though it’s no overstatement to say they’ve saved the most popular stuff for the end. “Feel Good Inc.” is a rapturous explosion of hands in the air and shrieking festival-goers, gasping for air while singing along to the chorus, but “Saturnz Bars” and “Kids With Guns” fare well with the hypnotized crowd, too. Finally, minutes before the curfew, the drawn out sounds of Albarn’s famous melodica get the screams out one last time, and “Clint Eastwood” begins. For all of the song’s fame and praise, I don’t think “I ain’t happy, I’m feeling glad” is an iconic-enough verse. It should be; after 17 years and countless repeat listens, today we are older and hopefully more mature, finally able to fully appreciate the playful, deliberately half-assed irony conveyed to us so many times by Albarn. His messages, however melancholic in tone, are those of optimism and content, and this is exactly what he leaves us with after a brilliant performance which elicits smiles all over the Island.
It’s only 11:00 pm but the legs are giving in. I heard Cigarettes after Sex and Seasick Steve gave great performances at the A38 tent but couldn’t attend due to conflicting schedules. With five more days to go, it’s time to get some rest, or at least it is for some of us – as I queue for the cab (a seamless, well-organized cue, just like pretty much everything else at Sziget), thousands of teenagers are running amok, about to get their drink on and wander off into the festival night. Good for them.