Let’s be honest: as brilliant as the concept of Sziget can be, six days is a devilishly long time to spend at a festival. There’s a reason why the vast majority of music events last only three or four days. By the time you get to Day 5, you’re already spent, especially if you’ve been partying or otherwise engaging with different types of content 24/7.
On Sunday, this sense of hangover and burnout is felt throughout Óbudai island, Budapest’s largest island on the Danube and the home to Sziget. The aftermath of the intense blowout brought about by Justin Bieber, Calvin Harris, Alan Walker, and more on Friday and Saturday sees countless slouching, barely sentient bodies wake up sometime around noon and quickly spread all around to brush teeth, take showers, wait in line for groceries, or sunbathe over breakfast. During the day, the only long queues are the ones for coffee and groceries at the pop-up Aldi stores, where the price of food practically matches the prices in the city. These stores are also a humane way of ensuring that those without a surplus of cash can still attend the (progressively more expensive) event; plenty of premade meals can be purchased for as little as $1.50, while the staff also grill on request.
The weekend ending also means it’s becoming easier to breathe, and not metaphorically: the enormous clouds of dust that have been suffocating us for days have been tamed somewhat thanks to organizers’ sprinkling efforts. At the international press conference on Saturday, word was that the truly horrendous Arrakis-like conditions on the island were caused by climate change alone; while I won’t argue as I am no climatologist, I’d still urge the festival overseers to provide more extensive rubber covers for the heavily treaded ground next year.
452,000 Smiles, Despite Challenges
The press conference also officially confirmed the reasons behind some of the issues we’ve encountered with this year’s edition of Sziget (all are discussed in the first two reports). Of course, the pandemic is to blame. Many of the dozens of full-time staff have departed, the subsidies were left standing on shaky ground, while the inflation and the horrific weakening of the Hungarian Forint (about 20% in two years) meant that the production had to make do with far less money than before. It is therefore unsurprising that the infrastructure suffered, as well as booking (to a degree), with fewer high-paid names as co-headliners.
Festival chief Tamás Kádár confirmed that 8,000 people worked tirelessly on 76 hectares to set the event up; 1,000 security staff, 500 showers, and 1,200 mobile toilets are just some of the numbers indicating the magnitude of the endeavor. In the end (this report is written after August 15, the last day of the festival), 452,000 visited the festival, with the first day being sold out at 95,000 capacity, and Days 3 and 4 coming close to these numbers. Despite financial setbacks and some sacrifices that were felt both by visitors and the press, it would be unbecoming to say that this edition, like any before it, wasn’t a huge success.
For those interested in just how expensive and complicated organizing an event of this size is, I wrote on Sziget and issues of profit/content six years ago. (See “Is Any Musical Artist Worth a $1Million Performance Fee?, PopMatters, 29 September 2016). If there are suggestions to be made for the future, they would most objectively be “please try to enhance the infrastructure for everyone”, namely more benches and spaces to rest, control the dust, and more affordable food, and “please help journalists do their jobs”, i.e., give us a better press area or allow us back into the “VIP” area to rest, eat, and drink without queuing for hours. As I said, six days is a long time for a non-stop party, and everyone deserves an experience untainted by a lack of basic resources.
Lastly, I genuinely hope that the sadly shrunk press team will get itself together again and start engaging more – and more effectively – with stakeholders, including the media, since this year we couldn’t obtain press releases with contact numbers and other important information, not to mention the issues many photographers faced with obtaining permission to document many of the headliners.
Day 5 – Tame Impala and Caribou Impress a Smaller Audience
It is Sunday afternoon and I, too, feel the exhaustion from the four days of intense partying and lack of sleep. There is a big press tour of Budapest going on in the afternoon (I heard it was a marvelous time for newcomers), but I pass as I must save energy for the several brilliant concerts coming up. In my opinion, Sunday has the strongest indie and alternative lineup, which is of great personal interest, so I’m in battery-saving mode. There’s simply too much to do at Sziget, and one must continously choose amongst them.
After some 55,000 campers and early visitors wake up, one witnesses a large number of guests packing their things and leaving. Some journalists remarked this was likely due to a shift in the lineup from radio superstars to more rock and indie acts, but I’d say it has more to do with the length of the festival itself. Many who took three days off work or were away from their studies might not have a full week to spare, regardless of the appeal of the event. Besides, this Sunday’s attendance dropoff was seen in the previous editions of Sziget, too.
On the Main Stage, Anne-Marie is the last of the feisty pop acts to grace the big stages before a day and a half of rock extravaganza. The Essex pop sensation whose many songs you’ve heard countless times without perhaps knowing her name has fully come into her own with her sophomore album, Therapy, and has plenty to show for it. A mesmerizing spunky soprano, she delivers her summer bangers with plenty of charm. Being a decorated Shotokan karate champion also helps turn her humorous tirades into a physically energetic display. Though she performs live only with a percussionist and a guitarist/keyboardist, her hits still come across powerfully enough to impress a hugely supportive crowd, which kept singing from the first stanzas of “Ciao, Adios”, all the way to the closer, “Friends”. I have a feeling this young lady will be returning to the Island in the near future.
Admittedly, Tame Impala is not an act to follow a chart-topping pop spitfire who performed mostly for barely legals. Despite cunningly emerging after a video of a nurse instructing the audience to take a “new, patented time drug, Rushium”, those left in the enormous Main Stage auditorium mostly don’t seem interested in embarking on a new space odyssey. Kevin Parker, thankfully, doesn’t care, as he and the band stroll onstage with an impressive light show and a backdrop using more electricity than any EU government can spare this year. This is a typical Tame Impala show, with all the singles, some (very) extended outros, visuals psyched up beyond form, and a shirt on Parker whose print looks like something that came out of a lit student’s acid nightmare.
This evening, I am grateful for the many Brits at Sziget, as it’s always the Brits who save the day if a rock/indie act isn’t enjoying enough rapport. Of the maybe 30-40,000 folks in attendance, more than 5,000 are Britons who flock to the front and keep the spirits high by singing and making videos. The rest are simply not particularly into it, despite confetti during the “Let It Happen” outro, or the continued light show during “The Less I Know, the Better”.
To be fair, one shouldn’t speak of the Australian indie bunch in these terms anyhow – light shows and cheap thrills are entirely secondary to the power of their music and the energy of their jams, but tonight this simply doesn’t resonate with the Szitizens. Many said this is purely due to conflicting tastes and that those who come to Sziget nowadays don’t care for rock at all anymore. Still, I’m ambivalent, as I’ve watched Tame Impala at several major pop-dominated events of 2018, and the crowd always had a splendid dancing time with them. Perhaps it’s burnout, I’m not sure. It was a lovely concert nevertheless.
At the Freedome tent, the Canadian experimental new-wave jazz trio, BadBadNotGood, open another melodically diverse evening. The crowd could have been more enthusiastic – or more plentiful, for that matter – but the instrumental bunch, known for their high-profile collaborations with the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Tyler, the Creator, endure the lackluster reception stoically and give a wonderfully engaging intro to the star of the evening, another Canadian, Caribou.
Unfortunately, the beginning of Dan Snaith’s performance coincides with the Tame Impala show, so sacrifices have to be made. Nevertheless, I am richly rewarded during the latter part of the set, when hundreds rushed over from Tame Impala. While Caribou’s tracks can fall flat if listened to in the comfort of one’s home, live, Snaith employs the invaluable help of electronic drumsets and turns his arrangements on their head and into a kinetic, borderline funky affair.
At midnight, Jon Hopkins treats a still-growing crowd to a DJ set of vibrant, multilayered ambient music that in fact, unfurls into techno, but it’s time to get a drink and a snack and rush to Steve Aoki at the Party Arena. I remember Aoki’s hyped set here in 2017, and this man is taking no prisoners. In many respects harder than most other EDM headliners, he raged through the 90-minute set at the most consistently packed venue of the festival. I have to leave midway through, though, as it’s past 2 am and my limbs are giving out.
Day 6: Tits Out for Arctic Monkeys
The last day of the event starts off just as uneventful as the fifth, except there’s bad news: Sam Fender’s much-awaited performance is canceled because the signer has laryngitis. Instead, Holly Humberstone, the 22-year-old English singer-songwriter, is given the thankless job of setting the stage up for one of the most hotly anticipated live returns of the summer with her mellow pop. Accompanied only by a drummer and rocking the guitar and keyboards by herself, Humberstone is a solid live act but would have, at least on this occasion, been better off at a smaller stage such as the Freedome. While the reception is warm enough, there simply aren’t enough people there to keep the energy high before nightfall. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of room for her to shine for decades to come; it’s just apparent that the majority of those who bought a day ticket to see the Sheffield quartet couldn’t care less about her tonight, not least because the big crowds only started arriving at the island after 8 pm.
By 9 pm, more than 50,000 people are packed in front of the Main Stage, with probably around 20,000 more about to arrive. Between the two shows a most peculiar selection of tunes is blasted from the speakers; I’m utterly astounded to hear Gary Numan’s “Cars” and The Streets’ “Turn the Page”, the electrifying opener to the legendary Original Pirate Material. I’m only two glasses of wine deep, but I have to say it saddens me to see that generations who’d pay a premium just to see Alex Turner sweat underneath a leather jacket have no idea what they’re listening to there and then. Mike Skinner walked so Turner could run.
At 9:15 pm the lights are out, and a seeming million phone cameras are on. Without a word, Turner, Matt Helders, Jamie Cook, and Nick O’Malley dive into “The View from the Afternoon”, one of the finest tracks of their 2005 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. Helders is absolutely on fire tonight and the intensity will not let up until the very end of the much-awaited show.
Since Arctic Monkeys are one of the rare bands performing this summer without even so much as a hint of a new release, this is a greatest hits affair, with a focus on high energy. The crowd is grateful for this, especially the myriad women competing for the most audacious or disgusting sign put up that night. “Baby, I’m Yours”, “Alex, Let’s Make a Baby”, and “Tits Out for Arctic Monkeys” take the prize. “Can I Suck It and See?” I’d rather not comment, though I can tell a cunning linguist wrote this.
The show itself is as good as any they’ve ever put on – Turner sweats until he decides to lose the jacket and show off a gold chain he’s wearing under an unbuttoned shirt. Helders, too, is dripping sweat, and so is the audience, who can barely breathe from the dust rising yet again. The most intense tunes are perfectly coupled up with more crooning yet equally beguiling and tense counterparts _ “Brianstorm” and “Snap Out of It” are followed by “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair”, “Crying Lightning” precedes “Teddy Picker”, and “Pretty Visitors” is offset by “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High”.
The one misfortune is that the songs from their latest LP, 2018’s Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino are almost entirely overlooked, with only the titular tune and “One Point Perspective” making the cut. While this is easily one of my favorite Arctic Monkeys albums, I must solemnly concede that this might have been a good decision, one that will likely stay, well, forever. The majestic Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino might be one of the most thematically rich and suave albums of the past decade, but its languid tempo and jazzy melodies don’t mesh well with the rest of Arctic Monkeys’ songs live. When they played five or more songs from the release on their last tour in 2018, including another spectacular showcase at Sziget, this was a different story, but tonight these songs would indeed appear misplaced. I’m devastated they couldn’t even smuggle in “Science Fiction” (would have been better for the intensity than “One Point Perspective”), but we should all make peace with the likelihood of never hearing this album live again.
“You’ll have to excuse me, I’m getting quite hot and bothered,” croons Turner before kicking off “Arabella”. As damn cute as he is, he is also still a mostly awkward performer whose strengths lie anywhere but in his bizarre ramblings of a potentially high man. “Happy new year!” he shouts at one point, but he is always forgiven. This is one of the great lyricists of our times, and his imbalanced stage persona just brings another layer to the complexity of his expression. Or at least so I romanticize, the same way he would.
After saying goodbye with a supercharged version of “505”, the quartet is back for a quick encore, starting with “No 1. Party Anthem” and wrapping up with “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “R U Mine”. The masses are in ecstasy as the Englishmen wave them goodbye; we’re sure they’ll be back as soon as the new album is out.
It is fascinating to see such a huge crowd come together for this show; what many who criticize the perceived “lack” of bulk at the rock shows vs. pop shows at Sziget fail to note is that the majority of pop, DJ, or hip hop / R&B headliners of Sziget had either never played in Hungary prior to their festival appearance (cue Bieber), or play in Central Europe very rarely. In contrast, practically all rock bands, Arctic Monkeys included, play Budapest every tour they embark on, making it more difficult to sell 40,000 tickets priced at $70 or more for a single day of the festival.
Anyhow, it was a brilliant experience. As always, there is so much more to see, but I’m done. My flight is at 6 am and I must get something to eat and run back to the hotel to pack and lie down just a bit. Sziget has again done it – not perfectly this year, but more than well enough. It’s already been confirmed that the festival will be back from 9-14 August next year, with super early bird tickets available exclusively from 18-20 August. Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of this singular event and the arrival of the 10 millionth visitor (didn’t happen this year). While I’m hoping for a return to their past logistic glory, I’m also sure it will be another event to remember. Book a cheap early flight to Budapest and I hope to see you there.