When 496,000 Szitizens visited Budapest’s Óbudai island in 2017, the organizers expected to draw in half a million this year. Sure enough, after seven days of yet another successful edition of what’s likely the world’s most diverse entertainment event, all forecasts were exceeded, as more than 565,000 folks congregated in ecstasy to witness the most eclectic and successful edition of Sziget to date. While Sziget is already a global festival benchmark with its stupendous organization, counting thousands of employees aiding the attendees with anything from hailing a cab to getting married, this year also featured possibly the most eclectic and satisfying lineup in recent history. Headliners ranged from (teenage) pop icons to rock legends, rap kings, and world-famous DJs. Every headlining set on any one of the largest stages was at worst decent, and at best the stuff of legends.
Fun fact: even though the event itself is absolutely benevolent, crime was considerably down this year from the previous editions – 71% down, to be precise. During the ten days of the festival, if you count the “move-in” and “move out” days for campers, merely 34 people were detained by police officers, six for drug trafficking, and 21 for possession of illegal substances, expectedly.
Regardless of profile and musical preferences, another week of love in, pretty much every visitor seemed to have had their expectations fulfilled – and if you take into account that the public’s expectations from Sziget have been ludicrously high for ages, this says all you need to know about this unique event. The atmosphere was further embellished by sunny (though often blistering hot) weather, save for the last day, when an enormous cloud of dust and a thunderstorm seriously threatened to jeopardize Arctic Monkeys’ performance. But we’ll get to that.
The first five days of the festival went by in a blink of an eye. Kendrick Lamar’s shortened set left a bit to be desired, but Gorillaz and Mumford and Sons gave incredible performances, while Lana Del Rey and Dua Lipa elicited screams from 70,000-plus ardent youth. Day 1 had about 68,000 and the festival, on average, had about 80,000 visitors per day. Nevertheless, it was only Day 6 that saw a full house of about 94,000 stop by, with Shawn Mendes and Kygo as main performers. An unsurprising insight, if you take into account that these two have never performed in Budapest before and that teenagers nowadays wield more buying power than, say, ten years, ago, which they readily use to purchase tickets to see their idols.
Unfortunately, since I had to report from the festival on my own this year, exhaustion caught up over the course of five days, as it usually does with this astonishingly intense event. All of Sziget’s venues, of which there are over 70, are all but impossible to visit and describe properly in a very limited number of words and even with my best efforts not to drink or stay on the festival premises after midnight, Day 6 caught me tired and incapable of meandering. Not to mention the spectacular crowds, which made it difficult to be mobile anyway. I arrive at the festival just in time to catch the day’s first headliner, Shawn Mendes, the young Canadian heartthrob who had outgrown his tender teen years just day prior to arriving at Sziget. The first artist to land four Billboard Adult Top 40 No. 1s before the age of 20, live, Mendes is a highly charming and energetic presence, his catchy rock-lite tunes laced with folk predictably pleasing to listen to.
Also predictably, more than 75,000 predominantly female teenagers scream in unison whenever Mendes, well… breathes. The show gets intense straight away, Mendes kicking off with “There’s Nothing Holding Me Back”, one of his most famous singles to date. His band’s production is impeccable and his voice, though often verging on saccharine, is powerful enough to deliver all the massive hooks with ease and elegance. One after another, hits from his three albums to date hypnotize the enormous crowd, and Mendes switches from acoustic to electric guitars with ease, already a highly skilled and earnest showman. Midway through the set, the Frank Ocean cover, “Thinking ‘Bout You”, which he performed himself on piano, becomes the standout point of an already solid show. Mendes’ face may be shown in closeup, positioned against falling petals on a massive screen, but he and especially his management have to be forgiven for such gimmicks – after all, he was 19 until a week ago, and it’s hardly a secret who his target group has been up to this point.
For all of his youthful delivery, Mendes as a performer is not gimmicky in the least, and he’s certainly no amateur. Here, before us, we have a rock star in the making, someone who could easily become a rock giant in his own right some 10 or even 20 years down the line (please remember how young he is still). With folk roots already deep within his melodies, Mendes has all the prerequisites for becoming the Great American Singer (well, if you ignore the fact that he’s Canadian) and only time will show us what kind of path he’ll choose for himself when he outgrows the Mickey Mouse Club bravado. I have faith.
A great cover of “Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon and an explosive rendition of “Treat You Better” bring this cool pop-rock show to a close, leaving the masses hungry for more partying. Luckily, the Norwegian wunderkind house producer, Kygo, ignites the engines to an enormous open-air club party with his deft remixes and mashups. “Stole the Show”, “Kids in Love”, “It Ain’t Me” and many other commercial house hits and heavy beats are exactly what the crowds needs right now. Sziget has conceded to putting a commercial DJ name on the roster each of the previous seven years or so and while some of the older fans of different kinds of music may call this “selling out”, the reality is that folks simply like a good, light, careless party, and this is exactly it. “Love Revolution”, this year’s festival motto, lives on.
Tuesday, Day 7, was supposed to revamp the rock ambiance and close the event with a bang, however, what we got was thunder instead, at least in the beginning. And that’s real thunder. The day kicked off benevolently and with plenty of sun. On the Main Stage, Gogol Bordello did what they do best – throwing a gargantuan punk-rock-Roma-music party to which everyone is invited. Eugene Hütz’s band has this incredible, indescribable charisma and lust for performing seldom seen even in the most passionate acts. Their uplifting sound, colorful outfits honoring band members’ Slavic or Roma roots, and onstage antics make for one hell of a show every time (if I count correctly, this is their fourth time at Sziget). Sadly, it’s only 4:00 pm, and there’s less than a couple of thousand of people present for the occasion; still, those who were had a superb time, indeed.
Over almost an hour and a half after Gogol Bordello are done, Blossoms, the up-and-coming English pop band, play almost every song they’ve ever released (they have released two albums). Tom Ogden’s band is a decent pop-rock bunch, but both their sound and their performance are unmemorable, and the audience knows this, hence no significant increase in the numbers in front of the stage. Their set is almost ruined, however, by an enormous flurry of raising dust, brought about by unpleasantly strong winds midway through the show. The whole Island looks as if it’s instantly become a set design for Tatooine, though there are no Jedi here. It becomes next to impossible to see and as the winds worsen, people run for cover. After 10 minutes of bad wind, there’s only a handful of fans left around the Main Stage, and even the most resilient ones are soon chased away by a thunderstorm. Heavy rain starts to pour and all of a sudden it’s completely dark and desolate, which is a damn shame, because the War on Drugs are about to perform.
Even with eerily few people present and most of us pretty much eavesdropping on the show from under parasols and food stands, the War on Drugs sound like heaven, hell, and everything in between all rolled into one. The Philly sextet is astounding live, their rich, layered and ever-progressing melodies taking to the skies. While their influences, from Bob Dylan and Neil Young to Americana and the U.S. indie rock of the 1980s (R.E.M. comes to mind, too) are evident at every turn, the band’s soundscape is so expansive and laden with genuine emotion that a whiff of freshness comes out of its every pore. Adam Granduciel’s unsentimental, deadpan vocals are unpretentious, and he hits heavy with his lyrics about the discovery of all life’s complications and subsequent depression. It’s difficult to name any one standout song in a sea of lush, beautiful compositions but the winners of 2017’s Grammy Award for Best Rock Album are a band which deserves to be more famous in Europe. Again, a damned shame, so few people got to witness their glory.
It wasn’t at all certain that the rainfall would stop before midnight, but it did, just in time for the tens of thousands of people who were hiding god-knows-where to try their luck with slippery mud and slide down to the Main Stage, hopefully without falling. It’s 9.30 pm, and the third massive global music act whose name is directly related to some type of simian (the other two being Gorillaz and Bonobo) is about to take to the stage, females, this time of all ages, hoarding in the front rows. The stage is adorned simply, with nothing but several rows of flashbulbs behind instruments, and a bright, massive MONKEYS positioned between the lights, flashing intermittently.
From there on it is pure genius, sprinkled with traces of showmanship. Alex Turner and the Bad Deeds, or perhaps the Miles Kane Appreciation Club, depending on what kind of pose Turner is trying to strike as a part of his newfound love of onstage personas, shine as bright as only they can. Turner, who just recently cut his hair and is now impersonating the aforementioned Kane, as opposed to Elvis, who he was evoking with his appearance up until about three weeks ago, is on top form and then some. As is his band, joined here by longtime touring member Tom Rowley. It has to be said that Turner has done everything in his power to become the best and most skilled musician he can be and it’s showing – for one, he really learned how to sing, lurch into a lush falsetto and generally makes the most of his instantly recognizable, intriguing tone of voice. Then there is the piano-playing, the attempts at showmanship, still mostly feeble, but hey, he’s earned the right to do whatever he pleases and delight us with his earnestness.
Otherwise, the band standardly sounds great, their songs now comfortably extended into jams, flowing naturally into one another, seamlessly combining the old material with the new – a sign of great maturity from a quartet whose oldest members are barely 33. There isn’t much that can be said about Arctic Monkeys that the public isn’t already aware of but the way Turner’s unprecedentedly exceptional lyrics are brought to life with his focused, laser-sharp gaze, is something to behold in awe, time and time again. Turner has often been described as a kitchen sink realist, but little about his shockingly imaginative depictions of everyday themes through uniquely original metaphors is angry. If anything, charming as he tries to be, he is still that same shy, dear, and decent young man who habitually gets upstaged by actual natural-born showmen and “bad boys”, such as Kane. His lyrics may have made a shift from hyper-realistic and naturalistic toward the psychedelic and futuristic, but he is still as genuine as ever, without a trace of this rock and roll persona in an oversized white shirt and golden chain we see in front of us.
Nevertheless, his shenanigans are amusing to watch. “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” is a masterpiece rather than just a cheeky hit, and “Batphone”, taken from the band’s “dramatically different” new album, is brought to life through an exceptional narrative which may bring tears to your eyes without you understanding why – not quite the way some science fiction does, but definitely in the spirit of classic Hollywood movies, just the way Turner intended.
An hour and a half later, we are emotionally exhausted – Arctic Monkeys’ music is, for the generation who grew up with the band, like a rollercoaster that only goes downhill. All this is no small part thanks to Turner’s uniquely insightful lyrics, but one must also give credit to the band, the guys who have now really come into their own and become a powerhouse of performance. We will wait with baited breath to see what their next move will be, any potential barriers to growth have been overcome, and now all bets are off.
Elsewhere, Fever Ray cancels a headlining performance at the A38 due to illness; a sad moment, as the Swede was among the most-anticipated performers of the festival. Still, it’s almost midnight, and while those who don’t have to work on Wednesday are pushing by and walking off into the night, it’s time to say goodbye to another astounding edition of Sziget. With so much love and a serious effort to commit not just to entertainment, but also to civic education through workshops and other initiatives, it’s best not even to try to be cynical about this event. It’s a part of who we are, all half a million plus of us. And next year, we’ll come in even greater numbers.