Sziget Festival | 08.12 – 08.17 | Budapest

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Words by: Lindsay Colip | Images by: Steven Walter

Sziget Festival :: 08.12.09 – 08.17.09 :: Obuda Island :: Budapest, Hungary

fes·ti·val (fst-vl) n.
an often regularly recurring program of cultural performances, exhibitions, or competitions

Sziget Festival 2009
We’ve been to several music festivals this summer, but none really take the literal meaning of “festival” to heart like Sziget. Set on Obuda Island in the middle of the Danube River in Budapest, Hungary, Sziget is the festival of all festivals. Music is just one chunk of the spectacle, with 13 main stages and headliners such as The Prodigy, Fatboy Slim, Klaxons, Lily Allen, Faith No More, Snow Patrol, Editors, The Ting Tings, The Offspring and Placebo. Other parts of the festival include a jazz club, BURN (Red Bull on crack) Party Arena, a Theatre & Dance Area, Afro-Latin & Reggae Stage, Ambient Tent Garden, Film Tent, Magic Mirror Area, Sculpture Park, Sports Terrace, Games Area, Labyrinth Site, Museum Quarter, Traveling Fun Fair (for kids), Wedding Tent, Circus, Library and the Hungaricum Village (local foods, dance, crafts). I mean, crazy, right? 500,000 people came to this island over August 12-17, and unlike almost any other festival, they were allowed to set up their tents wherever they wanted. No rules. And, to top it off, it’s known for its friendliness and safeness, not to mention affordability. Beers are $2. Pizza slices are $1. And variety… there are hundreds of artists from 41 different countries. All in all, this is set up to be a most varied and entertaining spectacle.

Wednesday, August 12

Because the festival covers a whopping 76 acres, it was clear the best way to begin was to get the lay of the land. From a quick walkabout, my first impression was that this was an incredibly diverse crowd and the variety of foods, activities and atmospheres was fantastic. People of all ages, shapes, flavors, styles, with no discernible fashion trend, except perhaps the preponderance of Burning Man type clothing, but that was a very specific group of people. And of course costumes. Always costumes. There was food to make everyone happy, from mini donuts to beautiful fruit stands, gyros to Indian cuisine, and pizza to enormous hot dogs. Plenty of Dreher Beer to whet your whistle, tons of breathing room (even though the crowd is massive, you can breathe and walk around without claustrophobia), any game you’d like to play (our photographer Walt kicked ass at the brain game tent), and any activity you’d like to try (bungee, dance lessons, crafts, tarot cards, museum strolls, African hair braiding, tea sipping, talking to a Rabbi, getting your photo with a cardboard Obama, playing Rock Band in the America Tent, getting info on women’s issues, gay rights, health problems, psychiatric help, yoga, world peace). You name it and they have it. So, before the music even began, we had already been exposed to a variety of wonderful performances, speeches, advice, games, crafts and Mate tea. And that was day one. Now, bring on the music.

Sziget Festival 2009
IAMX, the side project of Sneaker Pimps’ Chris Corner, started off the festival on the Main Stage. If you remember, Sneaker Pimps brought us really dirty, erotic, need-a-cigarette music like “Spin Spin Sugar” and “Underground.” Well, Corner’s new band sounds a lot like his former work, so fans should not be disappointed. Complete with crazy futuristic/military outfits, lots of synth and real aggressive head banging, the live act is Corner on vocals/guitars, Dean Rosenzweig on guitars/bass, Tom Marsh on drums and Janine Gezang on keyboards/synths/vocals/bass. They’ve been around since 2004 and played singles such as “Spit It Out,” “My Secret Friend,” “Nature of Inviting” and “Kiss and Swallow.” Very cool dirty electro. I hadn’t heard them before and will most certainly be purchasing their music, right after I pick up chain smoking.

After these guys came Snow Patrol, a band I’d never seen live. The crowd tripled in size and so did the energy. They were outstanding performers. Besides the fact that they played all of their hits AND sleeper album cuts like opener “Chocolate,” “Eyes Open,” “Spitting Games,” “How to be Dead,” “Run,” “Make This Go On Forever” and closing jam “Chasing Cars,” they also treated us to songs off their latest album, A Hundred Million Suns. They played a snippet of “a very, very, very long song” as passionate frontman Gary Lightbody said, called “The Lightning Strike,” and it was fantastic. On the large video screens on both sides of the stage, we were treated to crazy, colorful animations as well. Remember the cover of the band’s Final Straw album, with the people in really cool space suits? Imagine them animated. The swirling flowers from the cover of their newest album? They were animated, too, bursting into a million colors. It was all very trippy and a really nice compliment to the music. The thing about Lightbody and the rest of this U.K. band is they just don’t seem to make bad music. And, if I may go one step further, they seem ridiculously in love with life and it’s infectious. Their music is full of grand sweeps, builds and powerful lyrics, and dang it, it just feels important. People around me were belting out lyric after lyric with such passion at this great, great performance.

Sziget Festival 2009
Headlining was Lily Allen, a performance I was excited to loathe. And for 75-percent of the show, I did. Allen walked around lazily onstage, smoking cigarette after cigarette, wearing ridiculous powder blue Old Navy type shorts that were so unflattering it was shocking. I mean, she had the see-through top, the sexy black heels, her face painted with glitter, so why the cargo shorts? As she was sauntering about I couldn’t help but think, “Lily Allen really likes being Lily Allen.” The big block letters behind her that read “L-I-L-Y” was my first clue. Which is fine, but if you love yourself, own it! Come out with energy and pizazz! But no, she sang with indifference. It seemed like we were bothering her by making her perform… and then BOOM! I was totally caught off guard. She started smiling and jumping about and even told the crowd, after a nice rendition of “Smile” that we were, in fact, “the best crowd she had ever played for!” What? She busted into Britney Spear’s “Womanizer” and had the audience going nuts. She also played her new single, “22,” along with “Fear,” “Fuck You” (her ode to George W. Bush), “Back to the Start” and “Who’d Have Known.” Her feminine and sugary voice sounded great live and to my surprise her library of songs was actually more pleasing than I anticipated. They were definitely more ambient, more electronic and more danceable than the bubble gum pop that is “Smile” (see JamBase’s review of Allen’s latest album here). So, here I was determined to hate this performance and actually ended up buying into it. Shit. Bravo, Lily.

I caught a little of Calexico, an alternative rock/country/mariachi/indie band from Tucson, AZ over at the World Music Stage. Led by Joey Burns and John Convertino, they drew a huge crowd. Having released their sixth album, Carried to Dust, last year with collaborator Sam Beam from Iron & Wine among others, Calexico is enjoying a surge in popularity. Strangely, I think that the European crowd has caught on more so than the hometown crowd, but hopefully that will change soon. These guys are great live performers. By this point at the festival fire dancers were out in full effect, costumes were starting to show up, the party was just getting started and Calexico seemed to summon the magic.

White Lies :: Sziget Festival 2009
Next, we headed to White Lies, in the A38-wan2 Tent (whatever the hell that stands for). Like at Roskilde Festival (JamBase review here), these U.K. boys absolutely slaughtered the audience, which is appropriate since they’ve been playing under “The Summer of Death” banner all season. They are moody, dark and wonderfully dramatic – cue the smoke. The sound is Franz Ferdinand meets Interpol meets Editors meets The Cure. Lead singer Harry McVeigh is a joy to watch, pouring his soul into each note he belts out. And he really belts it. They played mainly songs from their first and only album, To Lose My Life. Crowd favorites included “Farewell to the Fairground,” “A Place to Hide” and “E.S.T.” Because there will be no new material to cling to until 2010, pick up this album immediately and get swept into the darkness.

We finished the night dancing to house and electronica DJ powerhouse Pete Tong (U.K.) in the Burn Tent. One of the most sought after DJs in the ’90s, and approaching age, he still has the gift and kept the party going well into the morning. His jams can be found on all of those Ibiza and dance mix compilations that Walmart loves to sell. My only complaint would be ventilation in the tent. It was so hot and smoky that people had to bail for air. A great first day, and only four more to go…

Continue reading for Thursday’s coverage…

Thursday, August 13

The Ting Tings :: Sziget Festival 2009
The day started out in the Afro-Latin Tent at a Jamaican-Angolan Caribbean Dance lesson with over 100 people participating. This was followed by Egyptian Belly Dancing and Djembe Dancing, which proved a beautiful sight with people of all walks of life coming together to learn some traditional dance. From here we went back to the circus area and caught a bit of a puppet show, followed by a stroll through the museum area, around the labyrinth and finally back up to the Main Stage for The Ting Tings. U.K. duo Katie White and Jules de Martino put on quite a dance party. You have certainly heard the catchy single “That’s Not My Name,” if nothing else, but they actually have an impressive collection of songs. Interestingly, The Ting Tings play all of the instruments between the two of them, often jumping from keys to drums to guitar to drum kit and back to keys, all in one song. Most often de Martino would start a loop on the synth and then pop over to drums to enhance the sound while White rocked out on the guitar. White can sing, too, as evident in the slower song “Traffic Light.” They played mainly songs from their only album to date, We Started Nothing, including “Fruit Machine,” “Shut Up,” “Let Me Go, Great DJ” and, of course, “That’s Not My Name.” In sum, The Ting Tings play upbeat, fun, catchy as hell pop/dance music. They look cool, too, with White in a one-piece full body spandex suit with a rocker t-shirt and hat, de Martino in signature glasses. A great, high-energy performance that is not to be missed.

Fatboy Slim :: Sziget Festival 2009
Next up was Bloc Party, and boy, was I nervous. I had been completely underwhelmed by their performance at Melt! Festival (read the review here). The group that showed up to Sziget, however, was a whole new band. They absolutely killed it. Frontman Kele Okereke was so animated, so personable, so chatty, so smiley. Constantly engaging and rousing the crowd, at one point he even got into the crowd to sing. He shouted, “Come on you fuckers, jump!” and jump we did. They were on fire, opening with “Hunting for Witches” followed by dance anthems like “Banquet” and “Like Eating Glass.” This was not the slow, lazy show of Melt! This was an energetic, fast paced, sing-along, kick ass show. I realized that the enormous screens on the sides of the stage helped us catch what we had missed at Melt! Festival. They allowed us to see the emotion with which they play and sing, and what a difference. “Signs,” “This Modern Love,” “Mercury in Retrograde” and “Two More Years” were also crowd pleasers. Drummer Matt Tong, who looks eerily like Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters, was so much fun to watch. He stripped off his shirt at one point, came out front, did sit-ups and even faked a death onstage. Thank goodness he and Okereke were so entertaining because bassist Gordon Moakes had the stage presence of a faucet. However, lead guitarist Russell Lissack sounded fantastic as well, and overall this was the party I wanted them to bring. Throwing beach balls into the crowd, taunting the cameras, giving high-fives, playing the holy crap out of their instruments and dancing around, this was the show I had been waiting years to see. Koszonom (‘thank you’ in Hungarian), Bloc Party!

I was sure I would never see a DJ top Trentemøller’s performance from Roskilde Festival. That is until I saw the greatness that is Fatboy Slim, aka Norman Quentin Cook. Coming out to a clip from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory and smiling from ear-to-ear, this almost 46-year-old Brit producer, DJ and musician knew he was about to dominate. “In Heaven,” “Praise You,” “Right Here, Right Now,” “Rockefeller Skank” and every other song you’ve come to love over the years were played and mixed with old greats like “Let Me Clear My Throat,” “Whoomp! There It Is,” “Jump” and more. I loved the insane animations on the big screens during his songs. One of particular note came during “Right Here, Right Now” with an evolution video moving from fish to ape to caveman to obese man. It was awesome. Iggy Pop and Christopher Walken also made video appearances, singing along to two of his songs. I don’t think I’ve ever danced so hard in my life. The crowd was going absolutely ape shit to this true pioneer of electronic dance music. I was equally impressed that Cook, at 46, was ROCKING OUT on stage – fist pumping, smiling, dancing hard. It was a treat. He left us to John Paul Young’s “Love is in the Air” as we walked out. Fantastic.

Friday, August 14

Jet :: Sziget Festival 2009
After it poured rain all morning, the sun finally came out in time for Jet, an Aussie rock ‘n’ roll band that brought us the catchy hit “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” back in 2003. The band, around since 2001, consists of brothers Nic Cester (vocals, rhythm guitar, piano), Chris Cester (drums, percussion, guitar), Cameron Muncey (lead guitar) and Mark Wilson (bass, keys, harmonica). The guys put on a bonafide high-energy rock show with lots of yelling and dancing. They played a bunch off of their new album, Shaka Rock, including “She’s a Genius,” “Seventeen” and “K.I.A.,” as well as hits from both Shine On and Get Born, both highly praised albums. All of the songs sounded great live and you could definitely feel/hear the nods to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Lots of crowd surfing, shoulder stands, blow-up dolls and rolls of toilet paper being flung about. A great start to a stacked lineup on Friday.

Speaking of dancing and energy, Pendulum is another Aussie band (now calling the U.K. home) but of a completely different genre. A drum and bass/electronic rock group formed by producers Rob Swire, Paul Harding and Gareth McGrillen, the guys came out and absolutely brought the crowd to a frenzy. I had never heard of Pendulum before this set but I most certainly will be downloading their albums when I get home. Try “Propane Nightmares” or “Slam” to get a feel for the sound. This music is for getting fired up, getting your groove on, singing your heart out. The beats were driving and hard, the synths perfectly overlaid, and the lyrics easy to sing-along to. They are definitely a “jump up and down and scream” type band. At one point, they had us all sit down (which amazingly all of us did) and then, at their command, jump into the air and start “losing control.” What a show. It was so much fun to be in the crowd. Their peak moment came when they mixed a really dirty heavy metal song into a rock/electronic song. The mesh of genres was really interesting and the crowd loved it. The energy was off the charts and thank God because next up was The Prodigy.

Sziget Festival 2009
Remember back in the ’90s when we rocked our faces off to “Firestarter” and “Breathe”? Well, the hardcore, electronic, rave boys are back and making more noise than ever. The Prodigy – Liam Howlett (keyboards/composer), Keith Flint (vocals) and Maxim Reality (vocals/MC) – are promoting a new album called Invaders Must Die, and from what I heard, it is fantastic – dirty, loud, grinding and pulsating, everything we loved about them before. These guys have sold over 17 million albums, unmatched by anyone else in dance electronic music, and it is clear why. They are really good at what they do, and, to top it off, their live performances are insane. They are still as feisty and naughty as ever. “We’re not here to fuck around” was how Howlett greeted us, and honestly, I was a little nervous. No, they were not here to fuck around. It felt that if you stood in the crowd without dancing or fist pumping that they might take you out with a sniper rifle from the stage. Go crazy, dammit! The guyliner was out in full effect, the crazy rave outfits were plentiful and the outdoor space was completely packed. It felt as big as the Roskilde crowds, which hit about 90,000, and was easily the loudest, most high-octane show of Sziget yet. “Breathe,” “Firestarter,” “Smack My Bitch Up,” “Invaders Must Die,” “Warriors Dance” and “Spitfire” were clear highlights to a stellar set.

After wiping the sweat from my brow, I went over to the World Music Stage to catch a bit of beloved Amadou & Mariam. Husband Amadou Bagayoko and wife Mariam Doumbia met at Mali’s Institute for the Blind in their hometown of Bamako, and from there they met Manu Chao, who helped propel them into the limelight. They play everything from Malian blues to reggae to funk – any genre is fair game. They wrote the official anthem for the 2006 World Cup, toured with Coldplay and Scissor Sisters and just put out their fifth studio album, Welcome to Mali. I also just read that they played on the Jimmy Fallon Show back in June, so they are really getting great exposure. If you have a chance to see them live, do not miss it. With about 10 people onstage, beautiful colorful outfits, bare feet, horns, keys, percussion, and dance moves, it is quite a spectacle. They spoke in French mostly but sung in various languages, and the inviting music would be perfect for various cinematic adaptations.

Continue reading for the final two days of Sziget…

Saturday, August 15

The Subways :: Sziget Festival 2009
The Subways, an alt rock high-energy band from the U.K., started off the day. To be honest, I didn’t particularly like their music. However, they are incredibly entertaining to watch. So much so that I stayed for the entire show and enjoyed myself, despite what I was hearing. Charlotte Cooper on bass and Billy Lunn on the lead guitar share vocal duties and are supported by drummer Josh Morgan. Shirtless and absolutely nuts, Lunn kept shouting, “Let’s get craaaaaaaaaaazy, Sziget!” And eventually everyone did. He spun around with his guitar, repeatedly jumped off of the drums (leg kicks and all) and wouldn’t stop joyfully screaming at the audience. All the while, Cooper is head banging and thrashing about. An intense live show that has brought them a loyal audience. The highlight of their set and perhaps even the entire festival for me was when Lunn jumped into the audience and crowd surfed in the middle of a song. Smiling and laughing, this lasted for about 10 minutes. Multiple times the security guards tried to get him down and he swatted them away. Once back up onstage, he finished the song, “Rock & Roll Queen,” and the crowd went crazy. They also played songs from Young For Eternity and All For Nothing, including “Oh Yeah,” “Shake! Shake!,” “I Won’t Let You Down,” “At 1AM” and “With You.” My overall feeling was that they had some really interesting hooks in their songs but nothing that ever truly grabbed me. What did grab me was their incredible stage presence.

Next up was Editors, another fantastically dramatic U.K. band. The dark indie act led by frontman Tom Smith is about to release their third studio album, In This Light and On This Evening, and are on tour this summer promoting it. Smith is joined by Chris Urbanowicz (lead guitar/synth), Russell Leetch (bass/synth/backing vocals) and Ed Lay (drums). Their new material sounded great, and a lot more electronic than expected, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it went platinum like their other two releases, The Back Room and An End Has A Start. If you don’t know these guys, think friendlier Interpol mixed with a darker U2. Lots of synth, heavy drums, dirty guitar riffs and a voice that is truly possessed. You can’t keep your eyes off Smith, who sings like he is literally just the messenger not knowing what words will come out of his mouth. He looks surprised and a little pleased at what he ends up singing. He passionately ripped through hits “Blood,” “Munich,” “Bullets” and “All Sparks” to an entranced crowd. The performance was very dramatic, with lots of sweat, lots of emotion and Smith was clearly exhausted after it was all over.

Klaxons :: Sziget Festival 2009
Manic Street Preachers were up next and I lasted about 10 minutes before utter boredom set in. Yes, there was a piñata onstage. Yes, there were some costumes (a captain’s uniform, I think?). Yes, it was rock ‘n’ roll, but it was boring. I couldn’t believe this U.K. band took this time slot on a Saturday. They had a decent crowd, but not near as many as the nights before at this hour. I thought everyone must be at The Crystal Method in the Burn Tent, and so I went there. I walked into Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland‘s glorious “Busy Child” and was thrown into the party. Jordan and Kirkland have been producing massive electronic/dance hits since the early ’90s and they are still as wicked as ever. They had the crowd going insane for “Keep Hope Alive” and, in fact, afterwards announced that this had been their best show ever. EVER. Now I’m not sure whether to believe this or not – Lily Allen had claimed the same thing a few nights before – but it was pretty high-octane. They did a two-hour DJ set and had the energy up the whole time.

Klaxons, another indie rock/new rave band from the U.K., took the Main Stage as the sun was starting to set. Simply, this is just a really cool band. With only one complete album, Myths of the Near Future, they have been kicking ass and winning awards since 2006. The London quartet are about to put out their follow-up album and from what I heard here the material sounds great. They played new songs like “Imaginary Pleasures” and “Silver Forest,” but oldie favorite “Golden Skans” seemed to be the highlight of the show for many.

Headlining Saturday was Placebo, an alternative rock band from the U.K. They’ve been around since the early ’90s, put out six albums, including 2009’s Battle For The Sun, and have gained international recognition along the way. The live band currently consists of singer/guitarist Molko, Stefan Olsdal on bass and new drummer Steve Forrest. I honestly don’t know one Placebo song and once they started playing, I instantly knew why. I don’t dig. Sorry. There are a million other headliners I would’ve chosen, but the crowd seemed to love them. Not my steez.

Sunday, August 16

Maximo Park :: Sziget Festival 2009
While I was eating my 45th falafel and exploring more of the camping area, I realized that I hadn’t seen half of the grounds. Unbelievable. What I did see was a guy dominate a Rubik’s Cube in 20 seconds. 20 seconds, people! After I applauded the wizard in man’s clothing, I went to the Main Stage to see Maximo Park. Another new band for me, the U.K. alt rock group consists of Paul Smith (vocals), Duncan Lloyd (guitar), Archis Tiku (bass), Lukas Wooller (keys) and Tom English (drums). Their sound is PERFECT for a John Hughes movie (R.I.P.). Think Prom 1986, forlorn teens, broken hearts, loads of drama. But this band isn’t dramatic, they’re fun. Standing in front of a sparkly gold backdrop, frontman Smith donned a bowler hat and half-tuxedo. Think a happy A Clockwork Orange. He sang with personality and animation, jumped around onstage, and even brought his journal with Hungarian translations so he could communicate with the fans. Songs that really stood out to me were “Girls Who Play Guitars,” “The Kids are Sick Again” and “Books from Boxes.”

The Offspring followed and summoned an enormous crowd. The Europeans love California ska/punk rock! They played all the summer power anthems like “Come Out and Play (Keep ‘Em Separated),” “Self Esteem,” “The Kids Aren’t Alright,” “Gone Away” and “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy).” They’ve been around for 25 years and are still rocking out. Add them to the list of old rockers that are still kicking ass. Their last album, Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace was put out in 2008 and they’re planning on putting another out in 2010. In the meantime, they’re playing festivals and enjoying a very long, successful career. I don’t particularly like their music but I can’t deny their importance in music history, aka during the ’90s dawn of the MTV generation. Summer anthems can be annoying, but they can’t be ignored.

Faith No More :: Sziget Festival 2009
The final act of Sziget was Faith No More, a San Francisco band formed back in 1981. Okay, again, I have to point out, AGING ROCKERS CAN STILL KICK ASS. They came out in 1980s suits and appropriately sang Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited,” while the big screens had the guys in split screen. Pretty funny. The touring live act is the Faith No More from the Album of the Year era and they’re hitting many of the big European festivals this summer. There’s even talk of a new studio album. If you were a fan back in the day, you’ll be very happy with this show. They sound great and still prove to be electric.

Looking back, the headliners weren’t completely up my alley, but the supporting bands and various stages/tents/areas more than made up for it. For the people that LOVED the main acts, this must’ve been the best week of their life. By the looks of many faces, it was. I really appreciated the variety of music from all over the world, the circus spectacle each night, the tasty foods, the camping situation, and mostly the fans. Everyone was happy to be there and I was happy to join them. Next up: Austria’s Frequency Festival, check back for the full review.

Continue reading for more photos of Sziget Festival…

Editors
Jet
Maximo Park
Bloc Party
Calexico
Snow Patrol
Fatboy Slim
Faith No More
Faith No More
White Lies
The Offspring
The Subways
The Subways
The Ting Tings

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