Events

Sziget Festival 2019: Macklemore Rules Showbiz, Post Malone Falls Flat, the National Deserve Better

Macklemore / Photo: Rockstar Photographers

Days four and five of the Sziget Festival saw some great shows with Macklemore leading the way, big crowds, and an even bigger drug bust.

The first three days of the week-long Sziget Festival in Budapest delivered on the romp and pop expected of an event which attracts over 90,000 people daily. An intense melting pot of High Street music performers and more than 20 venues with wildly disparate content, scattered across an island sitting on the Danube, just outside of the astonishing city center, is what the half a million visitors from over 100 countries are used to. All this, and much more is what they get. These high standards that are met with outstanding organizers' effort is what makes this event unique.

Thursday saw a drop in temperature partially offset on Friday, but from the break of dawn on Saturday, it was clear the upcoming days would be scorching. "It's sizzling outside!," Sziget app, a handy piece of software available to all guests, notifies us early on. Whereas it would have been sensible for the festival-goers to wear clothing that covers, hats, and lots of sunscreen, most simply showed up in barely-there cropped tops, bare back or sleeveless shirts. Some people were topless, and some wore bee and butterfly wings. It's a festival, after all, and the possibility of shutting yourself on an island for a full week makes for a cozy, hippy utopia.

Photo: Rockstar Photographers

Long queues started early in the evening, as Macklemore's co-headlining set was due at 7.45 pm. This time around there were no issues. So everyone managed to come in on time and make themselves comfortable in the pit in front of the stage, or by the trees in the back, where most people spread out blankets and set up shop for the evening, putting their companions in heavy rotation of trips to the bars. Those who would join at the front rows later are spending their afternoon mostly at the crowded Sziget beach, playing volleyball and enjoying summer cocktails, or at one of the workshop tents, doing yoga or playing board games. The "something for everyone" cliche comes to life wonderfully here. One of the island street performers brings a life-size mechanical camel with her. You cannot make this stuff up.

Photo: Rockstar Photographers

The afternoon starts with a brief, but enjoying set from the British electronic music producer, Mura Masa, who viciously mashed hip hop, R&B, dance and more. (Charli XCX and President Trump's second-favorite musician after Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, were featured in the set). It's unclear why the festival team would choose him for the Main Stage, especially in the middle of the day during sweltering heat. But he kept the people well entertained before Macklemore was due on stage for the third time in the last six years. There's a good reason for this frequency of performance. The nicest man in hip-hop is a natural showman, with a hilarious comedic show narrative and carefully curated troupe of supporting musicians and acts, ranging from trumpeters, moustached singers in tights, to a turntablist who takes his shirt off because it's dripping with sweat. After a winning headlining set in 2017 (and 2014), it was clear this was the kind of performer who could truly get any crowd going and Virag Csizar, Sziget's international booking manager, is no fool. Now there are 50,000 of us jumping up and down endlessly, dripping sweat with Macklemore and his band.

"Do you see this sweat? It's a great sweat, it's our sweat, all of us sweating together. This is not my show, it's our show," grins Macklemore as the crowd keeps dancing for 75 minutes straight. Though the set, comprised of mostly the songs he's created with Ryan Lewis, is only 13 songs long, Macklemore is a talker, tirelessly engaging with the audience and not shying away from extending a song intro through uproarious montages on the screen or babbling with the band. At the very beginning, there is a plump red bra thrown at him. Montages run with cartoonish narratives of him being the love child of Samuel L. Jackson and Lady Gaga. There are costume changes for "Willy Wonka" and a halftime show brought to you by a couple of crowd members selected to dance on stage, male-on-male squeeze dancing during "Downtown". During the six minutes of outright chaos that is "Can't Hold Us", the rapper praises Sziget as being "his favorite festival". "We did a lot of festival shows this summer, but when I heard we were gonna be doing this one, I said fuck yeah!"

Photo: Rockstar Photographers

And then there is the more serious side to this funny young man. Before the band starts playing "Same Love", a groundbreaking song for the hip-hop genre, supporting queer love and denouncing discrimination and violence in rap lyrics, Macklemore delivers a scathing indictment of the current U.S. government and their (immigration) policies. Until recently, with the younger generations growing up to be more sensitive and socially responsible than the previous ones, speeches on homophobia, love, and inclusivity seemed redundant, almost too on-the-nose. Nevertheless, with the global political climate we live in 2019, nobody in their right mind would point a finger at a musician for calling for peace, love, and understanding. It is profoundly disconcerting even to think that any of the supposedly woke attendees of these inclusive festivals would be in need of hearing such a message, but statistically, chances are many do.

Another triumphant mishmash of benign entertainment and socially conscious anecdotes ended with dust high up in the air during the closers, "Good Old Days" and "Glorious". Macklemore may not be everyone's favorite musician or rapper, but he is, beyond any doubt, a stellar entertainer with a knack for keeping the spirits high throughout the performance. It's all but certain Sziget will host him again soon, hopefully with some new material for him to show off.

What was to follow, sadly, was one of the greatest disappointments in this festival's history, as only about 15,000 (at best) people showed up for the magnificent headlining show by the National. Expectedly, the alt-rock quintet drew more than a third of the setlist from their latest release, I am Easy to Find, another touchdown in their consistent streak of fine form. Joined onstage by what appears to be Mina Tindle, one of their distinguished female collaborators from the refreshingly feminist and dignified new album, Matt Berninger is as disgruntled, apologetic and moody as ever, but this time he allows his barking baritone to subtly fade out and allow for female vocals to come to the frontline soaring.

The National's Matt Berninger / Photo: Rockstar Photographers

Not much new can be added about the National's customarily excellent shows, except that the new songs work wonderfully, allowing for new depths and angles through the interplay of male and female voices. Berninger is his same old ponderous and enamored self, pouring his heart out onstage even with very little contact with the audience. Having performed "Bloodbuzz Ohio" early in the set, it was a bit odd not to hear the Ohio natives say something about the recent mass shooting. Of the new songs, "Rylan" and "Where Is Her Head" impress with melodic depth and diversity, while the sorely missed "I Need My Girl" brought out tears in the loyal fans scattered across the massive field. However, the issue was the audience in general, of whom few seemed to be familiar with the band.

In the 15 years that I've been reporting on Sziget, I have never seen a smaller crowd around Main Stage, especially for a headlining act. For comparison, somewhat similar performers of recent years, such as PJ Harvey and Mumford and Sons, had no problem attracting considerably larger audiences. So it's difficult even to guess why so few people stayed for the show, given that, save for the A38 tent, musically that wasn't much else going on at the Island at that hour. The local media have aptly pointed out that, had the organizers reversed the order, having the National play before Macklemore would have provided an elegant way to gradually fill the main stage for a party climax. This way the Island was, for the first time in festival history, swarming with people all over on a Saturday night, when usually there would be nobody walking around, with virtually everyone squeezing at the Main Stage until 11:00 pm. I understand the chiefs may have overestimated the interest of the younger party audiences in a fundamentally mature and bleak band, but there is no reasonable explanation for why so few had stayed. Even the VIP area was eerily empty, everyone having gone elsewhere right after Macklemore was done. Hopefully, in the next few years, we will see some more thematically coherent days, the way we used to until the early 2010s.

Things appeared to be a lot better at the A38 tent, where James Blake mesmerized a large, sweaty audience with his angelic voice. The sparse live arrangements of his songs, featuring only a drummer and another keyboardist, allow his heavenly tenor to shine. Listening to him sing "Retrograde" (the closer, of course) is an experience impossible to retell in simple words. Even though Blake has recently penetrated the big game mainstream by producing for the likes of Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, and Frank Ocean, on his own he is still a hermetic electronic act which may prove a challenge for some. Hits such as "The Wilhelm Scream" and "Limit to Your Love" are absent in the show consisting of only eight songs, but the set, featuring mainly the tracks from his fourth studio album, 2018's Assume Form, still works well. "Barefoot in the Park", his collaboration with Rosalia, and "Voyeur", are particularly well-received, with the clearly inebriated attendees throwing cups in the air and swinging loosely side to side. The main program of the night ends with a powerful minimal set from the Detroit scene legend, Richie Hawtin.

An open air yoga class / Photo: Rockstar Photographers

Meteorologically speaking, Sunday was just as difficult to bear as Saturday. Now that the famous water sprinklers, once stretching out from the Main Stage all the way to the trees in the back, have been replaced with localized water cannons, it's more difficult to suffer the heat and clouds of dust floating in thick, odorous air. It certainly didn't help the incalescence that Olly Alexander was on fire onstage with his loveable synthpop trio, Years & Years. Supported by a touring keyboardist, back vocals and a spectacular light show (that's without mentioning Alexander's outfit, a prop in its own right), they have certainly grown into their own since their first show here in 2016, even if now they only have one more album to their name. Alexander, now fully embracing his queer identity in public, is a lovely and genuine performer, bringing some meat and soul to the band's customarily radio-friendly pop tunes. And the 40,000-strong crowd knows this, singing and dancing to the choruses of their various hits.

From the get-go, "Sanctify" electrifies the crowd and it only gets better from there. While the beloved "Take Shelter" is missing from the set, "Shine", "Desire", "Eyes Shut" and "If You're Over Me" provide plenty to single along to, with the inevitable climax being "King", during which the crowd drowned out Alexander in noise. The band could still benefit from more musical prowess and showmanship, but their ingenuity and positive messages more than make up for what they may be still missing. After all, they are still very young and have plenty of time to mature and transform.

Just like with Ed Sheeran on Wednesday, again we saw a full house at the Main Stage for the headlining show by Post Malone. Same as Sheeran, the 24-year-old American singer and rapper was all but alone on stage, thinking his overproduced tunes are all it takes to impress a crowd of 50,000-plus people. While this mostly worked for Sheeran, for Post, it didn't. While, admittedly, many in the audience did seem to be having fun, Post Malone's songs alone weren't enough to truly engage the majority of the crowd, who were there out of curiosity. Last year Kendrick Lamar had a similar stage setting, but his ambitious, Pulitzer-award winning lyrics, pulled weight on their own, hypnotizing in the process. Post Malone's whimsical, Auto-Tuned, overhyped songs are weightless. With better live arrangements and a band to support, Post could likely be an appealing performer. But for now, he is just another pop star of the moment whose party hype speaks to the kids at clubs. There isn't much more there to comment on at all.

Post Malone / Photo: Rockstar Photographers

At the A38 tent, however, the English funk/soul collective, Jungle, gave a brilliant show to a large crowd. The septet's revival of traditional soul and R&B is greatly complemented by some well-timed funky rhythms and themes, making for a hugely satisfactory (i.e. radio-friendly) listen without compromising on the depth of the musical expression. "Cassio" and "Heavy, California" worked particularly well as up-tempo tunes. All in all, it was a great performance to close off a mostly great weekend.

The ones for whom the weekend was not so great, or at least not toward the end, were the two Dutch men who were arrested with a, for Sziget, record-breaking amount of drugs, namely about 2.2 pounds of ecstasy and four ounces of marijuana. The police caught them after having been tipped off by the security, who had noticed a "peculiarly continuous amount of traffic around their tent".

Monday and Tuesday will see Florence + The Machine, Twenty One Pilots, and Foo Fighters close the festival. Stay tuned for more updates.

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