Ed Sheeran / Photo: Rockstar Photographers

Sziget Festival 2019: Ed Sheeran Collapses the Island, the 1975 and Martin Garrix Wow Younger Audiences

Circuses, acrobats, art installations, lectures, activism, and 95,000 people flocking to see some of the biggest music stars of today. Sziget kicks off another outrageously successful year.

The times when Budapest’s Sziget Festival was considered just that – a music event – or compared to other festivals, seem to be long gone. Upgrading and expanding its scope and scale yearly, the weeklong event welcomes about half a million people from more than 100 countries each year.

Some two decades ago, Sziget was the only Central European getaway for people from all walks of life who were hungry for global cultural events, at that time sadly scarce in the region. Today, thanks to year-long work of dozens of full-time employees, and some 16,000-plus staff operating the Óbudai Island throughout the seven-day caper, the event features nearly 30 thematically diverse venues and a budget of more than $34 million. Yoga, samba, belly dance, and Indian Kathak dance workshops, board games and chess tournaments, experimental art installations, pottery classes, NGO stands and TED talks, a street circus, and acrobatics troupe, queer rights platform… are just some of the contents available at Sziget. And that’s not counting the music.

While the hippie indulgences may be off-putting to the more cynical festival-goers who just want to come in for a couple of shows and a beer, the decision to expand the offering to include workshops, street performances, and activism, makes complete sense. Moreover, Tamás Kádár, the CEO, and his team are acutely aware of the ample opportunity that running Sziget offers both to them and the attendees. They run an airtight operation logistically, with unprecedented support for the 50,000 campers who stay on the Island during the event, while their corporate social responsibility efforts to educate while entertaining keep growing to address numerous societal issues.

Taking a peek at the 80-page strong “Sziget Passport”, a user’s manual of sorts, will provide you with information on contactless payment, reusable cups, hostility toward plastic straws (“don’t suck” is a witty tagline), “low-carbon” meals at the Mama Earth eatery, traveling funfairs, the Museum Quarter, a virtual reality dome, TEDx talk salon, a standup comedy tent, human rights activism initiatives, and much more. There are credentials aplenty for the conscientious youth looking to not degrade their environment or society while on summer vacation. And we still haven’t reached the music part.

img-9428 Photo: László Mudra – Rockstar Photographers

Day 1 (sometimes called Day 0) traditionally kicks off on Wednesdays, featuring one of the world’s most prominent (usually) pop stars, to attract full house before the weekend. Over the past several years, Day 1 was reserved for the likes of Prince, Rihanna, and most recently, Kendrick Lamar. This year it was announced months in advance that Day 1, with headliner Ed Sheeran, had been sold out. Unfortunately, except for million-dollar headliners, Day 1 is accompanied by another traditional feature – logistical mayhem. The festival may have grown from 70,000 to almost 95,000 visitors daily, but the Island has not, and long lines are now all but customary.

While some media vocally criticized the festival staff for this, in fairness, it has to be said that it is all but impossible to invent another access point to an island, and given that there is only a single narrow K-bridge as an entry point, some serious lines will continue to spoil the fun for a little bit. More on that later. Thankfully, the 108-hectare island is more than vast enough to accommodate 95,000 people seamlessly. So tens of thousands of campers quickly start spreading to set up shop in an area most compelling to them. Camping is fair game almost anywhere on the island, making for a wobbly walk in the dark, often accompanied by tripping over sleeping people’s legs.

As is customary for August in continental Europe, Budapest is scorching, and most early birds spread out to get affordable food and beverages around the islet or dip their toes into the Danube. However, this time around a solid crowd of more than 10,000 happily awaited Michael Kiwanuka. It is a genuine pleasure to see the 32-year-old Brit being given the attention (and love) his music deserves. As a newcomer to the main stages of distinguished festivals, he did not disappoint. Equipped with a full band, two outstanding back vocalists and his own pained and strained, raspy moan, Kiwanuka delivered a heartfelt 12-song set. He signaled that indie-folk and blues are very much alive and welcome among the younger audiences. You just need to be an impressive enough performer. Nine of the 12 songs performed came from his second release, the 2016’s Love & Hate. While some tunes appeared to demand more intimacy and shelter from the open plains of the main stage, the last two, “Cold Little Heart” and “Love and Hate”, got hundreds rushing to the stage to sing in unison with the rest.

It would be foolish not to acknowledge that Ed Sheeran was the reason that tens of thousands came to the big stage to sweat together a while before he was due. But the bomb that is the French singer-songwriter Jain impressed. The 27-year-old is a star in her native France and around the Iberian Peninsula but is yet to capture the attention of the Anglo-Saxon audiences, despite notable performances at the 2017 edition of Lollapalooza and this year’s opening ceremony of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Jain has already performed at Sziget, at the A38 tent in 2016, which she announces to an incredulous audience who don’t seem to remember that. It only makes sense to note that the perspective does change once you see someone on a gargantuan scene in front of 30,000 people, though.

img-9429 JAIN / Photo: László Mudra – Rockstar Photographers

The playful chanteuse is a delight to watch – combining world rhythms, ranging from Latin American, through African (where she lived), to French and Spanish folk, with her snappy yet unpretentious vocals and a respectable flow, she mesmerizes the crowds. It is dusk and folks are ready to dance. Save for her greatest hits, “Makeba” and “Come”, on which she wonderfully plays the acoustic guitar during an extended version that goes on for nearly 10 minutes (!), people don’t really know the lyrics, but still joyously accommodate all requests for inarticulate singalongs. Jain has all the time in the world to get on the radar of international audiences, something she fully deserves as a hugely intriguing multi-instrumentalist, however, she would benefit greatly from having a band on the stage. While a formidable and commanding presence, for the most part she operates alone on a scrimpy scene with no scenography or a band to help her improvise and come into her own. It would be quite interesting to see how far she could go if she formed a large band, ready to jam and bring the wonderful breadth of her melodies to life more fully.

All of a sudden it is 9:00 pm, but one doesn’t need to look at the watch – you can feel the growing anticipation by being rendered incapable to move or breathe deeply. The greatest sensation to come out of the 21st century British guitar-pop scene, Ed Sheeran took to the stage accompanied by nothing except his acoustic guitar. In plain shirt and jeans, perpetually smiling, he is the most unimposing presence the world has seen since Mark Zuckerberg decided to play the humility card in public.

img-9430 Photo: Rockstar Photographers

It is challenging to comment on Ed Sheeran’s music and this performance. Both as an author and a stage presence, he is incomprehensibly benevolent. Genuinely smiling, never cursing, never raising his voice or tackling any remotely complex subject matter, with his unkempt ginger beard and bangs, and wide-eyed grin, he is the most perfect of all pop stars. His songs are melodically often even simpler than those of Oasis and live, the comparisons with the card reader-equipped vocalists from the English subway are almost too on the nose. However, all this certainly works. Sheeran’s videos routinely get more than a billion YouTube views. He is about to cause the greatest congestion Sziget has ever seen and, let’s face it, all of us know every single one of his songs. The moment he runs onstage with the scrappy intro to “Castle on the Hill”, tens of thousands of phones pop out to take pictures and videos. Meanwhile, a 65,000-strong crowd gasps for breath as they sing every word throughout the concert.

“I Don’t Care”, “Galway Girl”, “Thinking Out Loud”, “Photograph”, “Perfect”, “Sing”, “Shape of You”. It’s a fool’s errand to try to guess which song got the most humongous applause or elicited the most frenetic singing by ladies and gentlemen alike. While thoroughly musically anticlimactic, this show was an absolute triumph, with all in attendance beside themselves with joy. After all, personal preferences pull little weight when you see a gigantic crowd full of smiling faces who have had a phenomenal night out. That is, until the very end. After the show had ended, it became painfully obvious that the masses won’t be able to leave the Island easily. It took more than an hour for those in the middle to reach the exit, and another hour to cross the wobbly K-Bridge, which has been awaiting reconstruction for the past six years. Lamentably, this led to an outcry from angry fans. While no one was physically harmed, I hope the organizers will take the more-massive-than-ever crowds into account for the future and try and overcome the issue of the single access point.

img-9431 Photo: Rockstar Photographers

Day 2 commenced noticeably lower temperatures, noticeably fewer people, and Quimby, Hungary’s most distinguished alternative rock band. In their quarter-century history, my impression is they have played at Sziget a minimum of 50 times. All jokes aside, prominent local bands often open the days on the Main Stage, a welcome shot of diversity to the lineup consisting of acts who predominantly sing in English.

Speaking of acts featured prominently here, there was a time when Franz Ferdinand headlined the Main Stage at Sziget two years in a row (2005 and 2006). Those days are, unfortunately, now long gone, and even though the Scottish pop-rock band has been barely recording in the past decade, as it turns out, their old hits alone were/are enough to warm up any crowd. Most of those who found themselves ready for music in broad daylight congregated at the Main Stage to sing to their legendary pop tunes, namely “Do You Want To”, “This Fire”, “Ulysses”, and “Take Me Out”. Frontman Alex Kapranos’ charisma is still more than enough to make the crowds happy, and it’s always great to see them.

img-9432 Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos / Photo: Rockstar Photographers

Before sunset, an inspiring spurt of activism came in the form of Jane Goodall, who held a brief, 10-minute speech on environment preservation. She implored for a (better) future for both humans and animals, whose habitat is being progressively destroyed. At 85, Goodall, named the UN Messenger of Peace, is a great scientific authority and an adequate choice for this type of activism. It’s quite sad to say she is most likely preaching to the wrong choir, as it’s difficult to see what the young individual in attendance can do to stop deforestation in Brazil or oil spillage. Until we get the 1% capitalists in line, little will change.

If Richard Ashcroft’s brief, 10-song stint, extorted buckets of tears through the Verve’s compressed greatest hits setlist (it only went downhill from “Sonnet” – and that was the opener), completed with the ever-cathartic and majestic “Bittersweet Symphony”, the 1975, on the other hand, failed to elicit any such response. The second night’s headliners, albeit funny and showing some potential, failed to estimate just how (un)engaging their stage personas are. Singer Matthew Healy casually smoked, sat on the floor, chugged huge shots and stage dove. All of that would be absolutely fine were it not for his saccharine, uninspired singing and the aura of forced and tired panache made complete with silly lines such as: “It’s not about me, it’s about you.”

img-9433 Jane Goodall / Photo: Rockstar Photographers

To be fair, the 1975 are a decent quirky pop band, drawing a lot more from the INXS and even Jamiroquai (think “Sincerity is Scary”) than their reported idols, The Talking Heads and Michael Jackson. With tunes to dance to, such as “Somebody Else”, “Chocolate”, “The Sound”, “Sex”, they are capable of engaging an eclectic audience, but with Healy’s minuscule emo voice and subpar concert delivery of his bandmates, they fail to either entertain or inspire the audience that was a fraction of what showed up for Ed Sheeran. While their concert wasn’t bad, it was something likely much worse for Healy – unmemorable.

On the other side of the stage, inside the A38 tent, Chvrches dazzled and broke sweat with a full house of more than 5,000 people. The beloved Scottish electro pop trio, whose performance here in 2016 is still talked about in the local indie circles, impressed once more. Tireless Lauren Mayberry looked stunning in a layered, frilled skirt and combat boots, against a backdrop of kaleidoscopic, flashing light. While the pumped crowd sang most of the songs, expectedly, it was “Miracle” that brought the house down, with Mayberry letting the audience take the lead.

img-9434 Martin Garrix / Photo: Rockstar Photographers

Martin Garrix may be 23 years old, but that’s no reason not to be the Main Stage Day 3 star. For the second time. The Dutch DJ cum producer sensation has taken the world by storm some five years ago and hasn’t left our radios, or our festivals, since. Having headlined Balaton Sound, Sziget’s (younger) sister festival last year, Garrix returned to Budapest in style this summer, with another hyped up mix of tunes you know and tunes you don’t know how you know. If there is a DJ headlining Sziget, there is a compulsory all-inclusive package that comes with, namely strobes, fireworks, glitchy images on humongous screens, lasers, and confetti. Lots of confetti.

More seasoned festival-goers may protest the management’s decision to bring at least one DJ du année to every festival edition of this decade, mostly at the expense of more veteran rock bands. But the young always seem to be having a great time during these performances. Every type of music has its place and time, and Friday night seems about the right hour for a fun DJ to dance to. After all, the festival is seven days long, and there is room for everyone. Or maybe we are just too old for these kinds of events now. Everything is open for discussion.

Elsewhere, Xavier Rudd and Anna of the North gave solid, albeit disparate, performances in front of a full A38 tent. Rudd’s ponderous indie-folk and Anna of the North’s gentle synthpop offset an otherwise strongly guitar-pop oriented intro to the festival.

Over the weekend, the melodic diversity will intensify, as headliners will include the National, Post Malone, Macklemore, Years and Years, and James Blake.