After an ever-impressive display by Gorillaz on Thursday, Friday begins with a much larger mass of people trying to squeeze over the K-Bridge and access the Island in time for the Kooks. After 68,000 showed up on Day 1 and then perhaps a tiny bit more on Day 2 (the official numbers are still not out), Friday is definitely close to capacity, and about 85,000 people, give or take 5,000, are pushing vigorously to the bridge from the overground metro station. As it usually happens on a Friday, around 6:00 pm, it appears as though virtually everyone who intended to get to the Island that day showed up at the same time.
Needless to say, the entrances become fully clogged and barely penetrable in an instant, but the organizers are ready, and the barcodes on everyone’s wristbands are scanned so fast that even if you are person No. 3,567 in the line, chances are you will squeeze by in under 10 minutes. At some point, the staff, of whom there are more than 1,000 on the Island at all times, remove the bars separating the visitor line from the staff and press line, and the other entrance becomes available too, which helps. These crowded lines are always a bit of a nuisance, but miraculously people are mostly gentle and supportive, and the organization does its best, so nobody can really complain about much.
I miss the performance by Shame, the up-and-coming post-punk band from South London, whose debut album, Songs of Praise, scored highly with many critics, however, those who were there promise that the Brits will soon take the world by storm and that anyone into young indie bands should look into them. Take note. It’s about 6:00 pm and the Kooks take to the Main Stage, around which more than 15,000 people have flocked.
Luke Pritchard takes no chances with a weekend daytime performance in front of, most likely, fairly indifferent festival-goers just wanting to enjoy their beer and soak up the sun, so the show kicks off with several greatest hits, of which “Ooh La” and “She Moves in Her Own Way” steals the heart of many a young maiden dreaming of her own rock and roll nice guy, a role Pritchard has played effectively for almost 15 years now. After a big bang they made on the forever sizzling British rock scene way back in 2006, when Pritchard promised to incinerate latter-day rock ‘n’ roll and also Johnny Borrell’s hair (remember that feud, anyone?), the band has since subsided into amenable pop-rock and hymns for teenagers, not really improving upon their sound considerably. That’s not to say the Kooks aren’t a fun band, they are, tremendously, but it’s also self-explanatory why it’s mostly eager female teens you hear squealing in the dust (by Friday, the dust on the Island had become so bad it resembled a setting out of Dune more than a flourishing oasis of green.
Over the course of about 75 minutes, the band draws heavily from their debut release, Inside In, Inside Out, but also refreshes the set with three tunes from their upcoming album, Let’s Go Sunshine, out 31 August. At the very end, the many 30-somethings present finally get their own nostalgic singalong with “Naïve”, the 2006 hit featuring that deliciously passive-aggressive opening verse anyone can relate to: “I’m not saying it was your fault / Although you could’ve done more.: All in all, it’s a satisfying festival performance and a neat intro to a long weekend of pop and electro entertainment laden with some heartfelt rock.
The sun is setting and Parov Stelar‘s sextet of pop-jazz, electro-swing, booty-shaking, hands-in-the-air-at-all-times mavericks hops on the stage against a simple backdrop of bright electrodes changing colors. Stelar, aka Marcus Füreder, is a prominent Austrian electronic music DJ and producer and it comes as no surprise that he’s seated behind a computer and turntables as his band, featuring the three brass stooges (trumpet, sax, trombone), two vocalists, bass, guitar and percussions, tirelessly animate an audience of over 40,000. The band, always a reliable presence at Sziget, are great at what they do – besides being solid musicians with interesting ideas, their populist, exceptionally radio-friendly jazz and swing, laced with electro rhythms, gets the masses to dance joyously in an instant, reminding us why music festivals are a great place to relax and spread some… well, good vibrations.
“I Need Love”, “Catgroove”, “Booty Swing” and, of course, “All Night”, are all there, radio hits well known to Central-European audiences, here mashed up in medleys and sped up, much to everyone’s delight. The energy remains high throughout the show, in no small part thanks to the fantastic brass trio, who never let up with their relentless virtuosity and onstage antics – they often synchronize their movements, jumping or waving in unison, and the audience, many of whom are already tipsy, are sold. At 9:00 pm everyone is sweaty and it’s difficult even to breathe anywhere around the Main Stage – Queen Elizabeth Grant is about to perform soon and tens of thousands of youngsters, many of whom in Bo Derek braids and flower wreaths in their hair, physically fight to get as close as possible to the expanded catwalk, on which their idol will strut, lie and longingly lament a fatal love.
The moment Lana Del Rey appears in a simple floral dress next to a swing set up just for her and a grand piano, accompanied by black and white images of California, Hollywood and the Pacific, a shriek so loud it could shatter the earth resonates all the way to Austria, or so it seems. The heroine of lost and tragic love, lust and melancholy is finally at Sziget, all smiling and chatty, and doesn’t take long for the non-stop screaming fans to drag her into the audience, where she would spend almost 10 full minutes shaking hands, signing autographs and taking selfies with the lucky ones.
Plenty can, and has been, said about Lizzy Grant aka Lana Del Rey. The concert reports in Hungarian media described her as anything ranging from a bland poser to the Queen of Sadness, a weak performer to a spectacular showgirl, a genuine headstrong woman to a cheap Hollywood product. Some even ventured so far as to bring Frederic Jameson’s into the picture, commenting on Lana Del Rey through the lens of late-capitalism cultural theory. However, I’d like to keep things simple as I don’t believe there is much reason for us now to dive deep into the collective (un)conscious.
Lana Del Rey is a decent enough performer, with lush, beautiful vocals which fit her songs perfectly. While her delivery is inconsistent and at times hushed, likely due to insecurity, the very tone of her voice is so uniquely alluring on today’s scene that it’s a delight to hear her in any capacity. On the other hand, her band is consistently great, often giving her otherwise slow and sometimes monotonous tunes a more vigorous, even rock ‘n’ roll quality. As for the scenography, all the trademarks of the Hollywood cliché are there and it’s uncertain whether Del Rey realizes this and does this on purpose, or if she’s oblivious to her own joke. Besides her acting as a pin-up girl throughout the show, the visuals often feature the American flag and other allusions to the abstract American Dream, with prominent waves, chateaus and black and white scenes of opulence or oblivion, depending how you look at things. Otherwise, she’s an atypically charming and candid presence, smiling like a schoolgirl and chatting with the audience often, even performing two songs a cappella by request (“The Blackest Day” and “Gods and Monsters”).
The 90-minute show, while at times slow, is compelling enough to make even the passers-by stick by Del Rey who, besides performing plenty of tunes from her last album, Lust for Life, also indulged everyone to the point of endearing herself even to the hardcore naysayers. The greatest hits, such as “Born to Die”, “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games”, sound fascinating live and elicit grand singalongs and many tears, while the less-known but genuinely moving songs such as “Yayo”, which Del Rey performed herself on guitar, are gems of contemporary pop culture. There is really no need to analyze things too deeply right now: Del Rey is an interesting ande genuine performer who seems to care deeply about her music and her fans, and her, for today’s standards unique sound and aesthetic, make her compelling to a wide young audience who have never heard anything like her. “Summertime Sadness” and “National Anthem” get the blood pumping again after a somewhat sluggish middle of the set but it’s the final song, “Off to the Races”, that proves the show is a triumph, with the band launching mercilessly into straight up rock jam, Del Rey exercising her three-octave range with gusto.
Saturday is somewhat less crowded but no less joyous, on the contrary. As we return to the vast and welcoming Island, on our right, an applause indicates a couple has just gotten married. Yes, on top of a fully mobile supermarket, acrobatic performances, belly dancing lessons, board game competitions, a beach on the Danube, several tattoo studios and even camping for families with small children, Sziget also has a wedding tent, where you can say the wows to your loved one hassle-free. Bless this place.
At the A38 tent, Everything Everything are winning over some new fans. While the tent is always half-empty at the beginning of the day, their 16-song set is a powerful one, proving that they are an inventive force of experimental, yet highly listenable, pop. Jonathan Higgs’ playful vocals motivate the audience to hum along to it, “Cough Cough” and “Distant Past” being the standout singles.
Elsewhere, on the Main Stage, I could swear Bastille played here last year. It’s only partially a joke – the band really did play Sziget in 2016 and 2014. However, their charming mix of pop and rock and impassioned lyrics are all the prerequisites you need for another hot and enthusiastic night at the festival, and the audience knows this well. Though the Island itself is unusually empty for a Saturday, the space around the Main Stage is teeming, tens of thousands present at all times, and more singing along to tunes that you’d expect. Dan Smith is a charming performer and the attendees are enthralled, chanting throughout the 20-song set. As always, it’s the hits with the big choruses that get everybody going, “The Things We Lost In the Fire” and “Pompeii” causing havoc, people throwing sunglasses, inflatable animals and other props in the air. Perhaps the organizers aren’t crazy to bring them here every other year. At the A38, Fink draws a sizeable audience to his majestic bluesy rock.
And then there was Marcus Mumford and his happy few, his band of brothers (and sons). With Mumford and Sons not actively touring this year, and with so many Brits in the audience, it was appropriate to expect a good concert of a decently popular and critically acclaimed band. However, I wasn’t certain if their mixture of folk and rock was suited to a weekend headlining slot at a major music festival.
How wrong was I.
The merry quartet kicks off with “Sea a Sign”, a live debut of the three new songs they will play during the show. Just like the other two, “Woman” and “Guiding Light”, melodically it is a departure from their origins and a new step toward stadium rock, with a discernibly rock and electronic background, as opposed to their folk and banjo-heavy, Dylanesque origins. Still, Marcus Mumford has the heart, and the pipes, to double down on any bet and deliver in spades. It is bold to commence a show with a song never heard by anyone before, but the English quartet is charming enough to pull it off. Immediately afterward they launch “Little Lion Man” and the Main Stage is absolutely packed, with people of all ages and profiles spitting, “I really fucked it up this time, didn’t I, my dear?” through gritted teeth, sweat and tears. While it’s hardly a secret that Mumford and Sons are a popular, good band, this incredible welcome, this constant singing and deep emotions shown by everyone present, was all but a shock. Turns out people still take to those with a heart the most.
And what a heart this band has. Mumford sings splendidly and passionately, his vocals strong enough for him to hold his own even when he loses it and breaks down while performing. From gentle whispers and broken syllables to thunderous screams, regardless on what he sings about, he gives it his all and takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster with him. The band is also outstanding, Winston Marshall’s banjo and Ted Dwane’s double bass resonating across the Danube. There is lots of confetti, barn dancing, laughing, crying, and shared emotion – even at the very back people are hugging one another, swinging together to the lyrics and getting carried away. Nevertheless, one Hungarian reporter called Mumford and Sons “folk Nickelback”. The fool doth think he is wise.
Among the many Shakespearean lyrics and artistic allusions here in front of us lies an impossibly heartfelt and tender concert which managed to unite everyone in the shared desire to love and be loved in return. Mumford’s lyrics often hit close to home and while often melancholic, still provide a dash of optimism and emotional commitment. It’s a rare pleasure to listen to this utterly genuine and virtuous band, now also known as the Great Singalong providers through “I Will Wait”. At the A38, Sofi Tukker host a full house, proving they will soon be stars worldwide. Their insane jungle rhythms and contagious, often aggressive pop tunes, make for a real Saturday night fever – everyone is immediately hooked and adores them, perhaps partially due to a growing BAC level. It’s nearly midnight, after all.
Sunday is packed again (full capacity is around 94,000, though there are still no official numbers regarding these three days), and this time around we await another international pop star with an attitude to match her grand radio hooks, the 22-year-old feminist icon, Dua Lipa. However, it’s also the most obvious “rock day” of the whole week, with several prominent rock acts occupying both of the largest festival stages. The day kicks off with the Icelandic blues-rock-folk quintet, Kaleo, who ignite several thousand people with their interesting combination of traditional American sound and new-age rock. At A38, the Kentish punk-rock duo, Slaves, not only invite mosh pits, but participate in them as well. Always provocative and outlandish, Laure Vincent and Isaac Holman are your new go-to people for a hard, inarticulate rock jam. The tent is pretty packed for such an early gig and the band feels it, communicating with the audience and inviting people on stage during “Cut and Run”. The 14-song set is uncompromising and manic, leaving many rock fans energized for Wolf Alice through a spectacular rendition of “The Hunter”, saved for the finale.
After them, Ellie Rowsell and the rest of Wolf Alice absolutely blow away all present in a packed tent. After many critics hailed their sophomore effort, Visions of a Life, as one of the best releases of 2017, it was no surprise that the anticipation was running high here. And the band honors everyone’s trust buy delivering a stunning, frenetic hard rock, grunge-y and yet melodic and deeply personal performance. In an eclectic performance full of both hardcore rock melodies and delicate ballads, “Sadboy” and “Space and Time” are the night’s standout tunes, and Rowsell is an enchanting performer, slightly reminiscent of 1990s young female rock idols, such as Melissa Auf der Maur or Jack Off Jill – but a better, more passionate singer. “Visions of a Life” sounds mesmerizing live, Rowsell’s beautiful mezzosoprano stretching out to the maximum over a reverberating guitar chord.
I wouldn’t waste many words on Liam Gallagher, whose infinitely more talented brother gave a great performance here just two years ago, so moving on to Dua Lipa, who was welcomed by no less than 75,000 people at the Main Stage. It’s difficult to say whether there were more people here than at the Lana Del Rey show simply because the crowd density is too great and the field too vast to make an informed assessment, but the atmosphere was sizzling despite the weather slightly cooling down after some cloudiness and rain over the weekend.
Dua Lipa may be only 22, but she has all the makings of a great pop star – intriguing, easily discernible tone of voice, solid vocal delivery, lots of dancers and back vocals live, and feminist explorations of relationships, working the angle of a maturing not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman. The youngest members of the audience know her every move and lyric, ecstatically singing every word with her, while casual listeners enjoy a light pop show, full of colorful, borderline psychedelic imagery, and sexy dance moves.
Lipa herself is a growingly confident and compelling performer, with her chin-long cropped black hair and a sparse top, showing off a great figure. She commands the stage with ease, moving on from one hit to another, though she’s only been in the spotlight for maybe a year. She’s aware of her very new superstardom, thanking the audience for showing up in such large numbers for what is aptly described as her first headlining slot at a major music festival. As is expected, “One Kiss” and the closer, “New Rules”, get everyone going and Lipa makes sure young girls hear her resolutely exclaiming – “and if you’re under him, you ain’t getting over him!” It’s a great pop performance to balance out a day of strong rock and roll and, with King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard taking the headlining slot at A38, the day is another triumph, leaving people exhausted, but smiling, looking forward to a sold out, “pop” day on Monday and the closing headlining performance by the Arctic Monkeys on Tuesday.