The self-proclaimed ‘Island of Freedom’ Sziget Festival turned 21 this year, and we were fortunate to pop over to Budapest (via a 26-hour coach ride) to find out for ourselves what kept the fans of this European City-fest coming back year after year.
The festival is a mammoth eight days long from August 11th to 18th, but ‘Szitizens’ with camping passes can enter the island from the 9th to set up. This year’s festival attracted 415,000 revellers from 87 countries, and bands from 41 – a homage to the festival’s long-standing commitment to creating a ‘temporary republic’, AKA a meet-up for anyone who happened to be travelling in Europe that week.
We arrived around midday on the 11th and were still able to squeeze our tiny two-man abode between neighbouring camps of friendly Dutch girls and space-invading Italian teenage boys. The first evidence of Sziget being the island of freedom to us seemed to be that aside from directly in front of the stages, you could pretty much pitch your camp wherever you fancied completely unregulated. Having got our bearings, acquired a site-map and realised absolutely everyone spoke English, we ditched the phrase book and headed out for some music.
As Budapest is so hot during high-summer the bands didn’t start until around 4pm each day, which meant we reached the main stage (Pop-Rock Nagyszinpad) just in time to catch the upbeat stylings of Leningrad, a ska-punk band hailing from Russia known for their controversial lyrics and generally being an absolute riot. Having approximately 80 members in the band, they looked more like an angry mob on stage than a festival act, but their infectious hit ‘Super Good’ got the crowd skanking enough to make Bad Manners proud.
In what we soon realised was true Sziget form, the ska-punk ramblings of Leningrad were then followed by an appearance by our very own Brit boys, The 1975, obviously. Having only been in the limelight for just over a year and with one album under their belt, the boys managed to own their mid-evening slot well, with Johnny Borrell lookalike Matt Healy leading the lads through a whistle-stop tour of all their radio hits from the past 12months (and there have been a surprising amount). Despite being newbies and across the continent, they still managed to get a great reception for their biggest hits ‘Girls’ and ‘Chocolate’, and Matt even managed to sneak in a bit of political commentary.
I had the best time of my little life being crushed against the barrier that had to be rebuilt throughout the show to prevent a human mudslide.
The grand finale on the main stage was one that transported us back to being pathetic, hysterically-excited emo fangirls: Blink 182. Waiting at the front barrier for kick off it was obvious that we weren’t the only ones whose teenage dreams were about to come true, as groups of twenty-somethings from Hungary to Australia buzzed about the pop-punk idols, a lot of pressure for a comeback appearance! The show got mixed reviews. I had the best time of my little life being crushed against the barrier that had to be rebuilt throughout the show to prevent a human mudslide. Unafraid to play crowd-pleasers, Mark Hoppus and co blitzed through their twenty-year back catalogue, interspersed with their usual crude banter and school-boy charm, regardless of the fact they are a bunch of dads singing about teen angst.
Some of our new international buddies weren’t quite as enamoured with trios performance as we were, with a few commenting that the set seemed dry, and the banter ‘forced’ with the band just playing up to what the crowd expected. Whilst I respect these opinions, they were wrong, and it was brilliant. After the long journey and being crushed to a human-smoothie in the crowd and Blink, we retired early for the night.
We started our Tuesday by heading to one of the many local natural spring swimming pools in Budapest. One of the best things about the festival being its proximity to the city, a mere 15 minutes by public transport, and with the bands not starting until late afternoon, we were free to spend our days exploring.
Tuesday at least had a more obvious theme than the eccentric set-list of the day before, with offerings from grunge-heroine Brody Dalle, her husband’s big-rock ensemble Queen’s of the Stone Age, and another dip in nostalgia from American Emo legends Jimmy Eat World.
Dalle opened the days music with a solid set but shied away from much interaction with the crowd, so only her most dedicated fans, either current or from her days as a Distiller, were overly taken with the set. She offered a Misfits cover to cater to the members of the audience perhaps not familiar with her new album or more obscure tracks, but it still felt like she wasn’t performing, and instead just playing some songs.
Josh Homme personally congratulated a fan who had managed to crowd-surf in a wheelchair.
Having seen Queens of the Stone Age before, I was pretty confident that we were going to get a good show. Although Josh Homme and co were up to their usual par and played a tight set, the crowd lacked atmosphere and it was obvious that many were only there to get good positions for the following act, Deadmau5. Again putting these two acts back to back was questionable. The highlight of the set was undoubtedly when Josh Homme personally congratulated a fan who had managed to crowd-surf in a wheelchair for being a ‘Total fuckin’ badass’.
Finally, we caught the second half of the Jimmy Eat World’s set, having interviewed them earlier in the day. There was some disappointment as the band actually played one slot ahead of where they were given in the festival guide, meaning that many (us included) missed for the first few songs. Nevertheless, the nicest guys in emo put on a great performance. They married old favourites such as the ever popular ‘The Middle’ alongside tracks from their latest studio release ‘Damages’ with little objection from the crowd, and it became apparent that it’s difficult to leave an encounter with Jimmy Eat World without having a really lovely time.
Having enjoyed the sunshine over the previous few days and having a tent wisely constructed under the protective shade of some woods, we headed into the city centre with little regard for the weather, until it escalated into what felt like wandering in a raging, humid inferno. We managed two full hours of shuffling around the Royal Palace and Chain Bridge before cutting our losses and heading back to safety of the festival’s shade.
The line-up for the evening had a heavy UK influence, and we settled in for performances from Jake Bugg, Placebo and Skrillex (who although he insists on using that abhorrent LA accent, is actually from Surrey, quit hiding it Sonny Moore!).
Little Jake Bugg seemed especially baby-faced as a lone black t-shirted figure on the huge main stage during his opening set, but it actually worked to highlight his immense talent and stage presence as he rattled through his Dylan-esque country-folk collection, captivating the crowd without little interaction. Upbeat numbers including ‘Lightning Bolt’ had the desired effect, but his acoustic rendition of 2012 hit ‘Broken’ was a particular breakthrough moment, and let his vocals really shine.
Skrillex crawled across his decks in a one-man game of twister.
English rock old-timers Placebo played the penultimate slot of the evening, but much like Brody Dalle before, seemed to just play through some of their songs without much performance. The set was disappointing, and it seemed that they only played six or seven songs leading into a ridiculously extended break, before returning for a lacklustre encore. If you had come to the festival as a day visitor just to see these guys, you would’ve left feeling a little short changed.
The evening was rounded off by EDM’s current darling, Skrillex, and if you came looking for a show he was your boy. Obviously having listened to previous criticisms of ‘standing on stage and pressing a button’, Skrillex is a DJ who really tries to add a level of performance to his set. Crawling across his decks in a one-man game of twister, hyping up the crowd and including samples of everything from trip-hop to Mika, Skrillex had the whole crowd folding to every whomp, and played on of the best sets of the festival to one of the most eclectic crowds.
After the main stages died down and we recovered from Skrillex’s Bangarang finale, we investigated what else the festival had to offer and stumbled upon the World Village Stage. We’d ventured here a few nights before but it had been closed, so the sight of hundreds of Szitizens now Russian dancing to traditional folk music was a welcome view. It seems that the love of folk culture in Hungary is alive and well, as this stage was a sell-out for the rest of the week.
Another, more surprising discovery, was the Hungarians love of Irish and Blues music, with a whole stage dedicated to it. Once you get over the strangeness of a Pogues song sung in pure Hungarian, it actually makes a lot of sense, and again the Blues and Irish proved a popular venue into the early hours of the morning.
Our final full day at Sziget, we only set aside two acts to see: home-grown, friendly pop act Bastille and American hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. With time to kill and the weather having turned from blasting heat to torrential rain, we explored some of the sheltered activities on offer, which led us to the arts and circus areas.
Firstly, we entered the ‘Illuminarium’, an art installation that consisted of an inflatable structure that had numerous internal chambers that you could relax in. I’m sure under different circumstances we would have enjoyed this a whole lot more, but after queuing for 45 minutes to get into what was essentially an un-bouncy bouncy castle, we lest feeling underwhelmed.
We then headed to the circus tent, where the story was very different. We caught a mid-afternoon performance from a French Circus Troupe called Cirque Le Roux, with their act ‘The idiot is the angel’. Their fusion of gymnastics, dance, mime and old-fashioned feats of strength made for an excellent traditional circus production.
Bastille’s Dan Smith climbed the clock-tower in the centre of the audience, causing a stir with all females aged under 18.
Moving to our final music acts for the week, we caught Bastille’s early afternoon performance. Seeming a little too sweet for the main stage, the boys managed to hold their and control what seemed to be an ever-swelling crowd, with lead-singer Dan climbing the clock-tower in the centre of the audience and causing a stir with all females aged under 18. Their soft-indie has obviously translated well across the continent and their show made for a pleasant afternoon’s watch.
Our last music act of the festival was Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and unfortunately it ended on a low. Sziget celebrated its highest ever attendance on the Thursday, 85,000 Szitizens, and it seems that every last one had ventured to the mainstage for Mack. The crowd was pushed so far back that you were standing in the surrounding pop-up bars and so were unable to hear the performance. This, it turns out, was no great loss as the duo only played around six songs for the entire set, one of which they played twice. It was a risky move making Macklemore headliner having only had one released album, and his lack of material became apparent by his incessant ‘filler space’, which consistent mainly of saying the word Budapest. I’m not against Macklemore or his music, I actively appreciate his support of diversity and equality, but his performance was not that of a headliner, and we left the back of the crowd early to return to the joy of the World Village Stage.
Overall, as an international celebration of diverse music, Sziget succeeds. It manages to host a week-long event that would satisfy at least some of the needs of most music fans, as well as providing an amazing location for members of countless nationalities to come together and party on the ‘Island of Freedom’. The amenities on the island are fantastic and put most British festivals to shame (although finding a free source of drinking water is impossible) and the food and drink is cheap and cheerful. The only issues we incurred were with the fact that anyone who has a 2-day pass can camp on the island, and with no one to check tickets and chuck them out, I reckon most of them just stayed for the rest of the week, which led to the overcrowding of Thursday evening.
If you’re looking for next year’s summer holiday it’s the perfect fusion of festival and city break, and I have never met a friendlier bunch than the Sziget festival crowd.