Europe in the summertime. I know what I think of – music. Music, culture and beauty – and there is no better place to find it than one of Europe’s largest and most established festivals, Sziget, in the beautiful haven of Budapest, Hungary. Held every August in Northern Budapest Óbudai-sziget – translating to ‘Old Buda Island’ – this festival upholds a reputation of being one of the world’s best festivals and is world-renowned. QRO popped along for a day this August to see what the fuss was about, and to see if what was meant to be one of the best festivals internationally lived up to the hype – and it did not fail to stun.
Growing from a low profile gathering back in 1993, following the fall of the communist era, Sziget has grown to accommodate crowds of hundreds of thousands on the beautiful leafy island in the middle of the Danube, seeing up a picturesque scene for thousands of visitors – both hailing from homeland Hungary and visitors from abroad – and more than 1,000 performances over the week-long festival. The success of the festival speaks for itself, franchising out to Romania for a sister festival, Felsizget, and a new close knit partnership with local businesses, Sziget has been subject to countless awards and acclaim, and some of the biggest names in music history from Iron Maiden, R.E.M., Prince, The Stone Roses, to David Bowie have all played Sziget through the years, with artists lining up to play this prestigious event.
Where does this success stem from? Well, it’s clear to see what makes Sziget so very special. On entrance, crossing the grand bridge onto Old Buda Island, one is literally transported away from reality. Indeed, there are the regular festival facilities, bank points, food stalls, currency exchange, extensive healthcare facilities – but one can even do their laundry, roll up to the hugging tent, rent a bike, hail a taxi, catch a ship to the beach, donate blood and even – no word a lie – get married. It is truly very difficult to convey what a mind-blowing spectacle this festival is. It is so much more than an arts & culture festival, but provides an opportunity for individuals from all walks of life to experience what it is to truly let go- invigorating and refreshing for the soul.
The festival site spans a large portion of the 266-acre island and is spread out throughout, creating a very real and sprawling mini-city full of countless types of entertainment. Throughout the site, the different areas have their own atmosphere, with their individual facilities, much like a real city (the festival even has their own payment method), from areas of shops and pubs, to well equipped areas for chilling out, beanbags and roll mats galore, internet cafes, street theatre, a skating rink, funfair, and circus areas – the list could go on – but there is without doubt no matter where one turns there is something glorious to be found, and memories to be made to last a lifetime. Even when one is making their way to the festival, there is a dedicated ‘party train’ from the Western Europe to the festival. If that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is.
However, first and foremost, Sziget still remains to be known foremost as a music festival. QRO had the opportunity to grace the festival for the very last day of 2011’s line-up, Sunday, August 14th, to watch the sun go down on year another momentous year of this landmark event.
Opening up the main stage for the last time was Mariachi El Bronx. For those who don’t know, Mariachi El Bronx are in fact – that’s right, the Los Angeles hardcore band, The Bronx, taken on the form of the traditional Mexican Mariachi music. Well established in the hardcore scene, frequent performing with bands such as Bad Religion and linked to Black Flag, the band have released two albums as El Bronx, to great success. Their second album, released in August 2011, coincided with the band’s performance at this year’s Sziget, allowing a swaying introduction into Sunday, with a mix of perfected older material as well as newer tracks, making a magnificent grandstand on how traditional hardcore roots meet the traditional experimentation of Mariachi history – a noted natural progression with the band hailing from Los Angeles. With a number of stringed instruments accompanying the established rock set up of the band, Mariachi El Bronx roused the crowd in the early hours of the afternoon, performing songs that established the band as an independent artist away from the hardcore scene, such as single “Cell Mates” and “Slave Labor”, a track distributed to create interest in the band. These pieces, as much of the material performed held a high accessible aspect to them, with rich tones and tight arrangements, warmed up the crowd nicely for the mayhem to come.
You would be hard pushed to find rock ‘n’ roll mayhem like the next artist to appear on Sziget’s main stage – Gogol Bordello. If a band were to ever to appear on Sziget’s stage in a more boisterous yet jocular manner, one would be surprised. Forming in 1999, the band has worked hard to gain an internationally renowned reputation over the past ten years for their animated performances. With an international crew – front men Eugene Hutz hails from Ukraine whilst Sergey Ryabtsev from Russia, and an array of percussions/vocalists/dancers and MCs from Ecuador, Scotland, Ethiopia, and Israel, to name a few – there couldn’t be a more appropriate act to celebrate the closing of this truly international festival. However, it’s their gypsy punk music – greatly influenced by the Balkans – which stirred up a massive dance party down in front, proving that even after a week of non-stop partying, that Sziget still does it best. Busting out into fan favourites, such as the widely known “Start Wearing Purple” and “Not a Crime”, provided to be highlights of their set. If you’re a fan or not, it’s hard not to appreciate the jovial nature of the band, and whether if you’re into the gypsy punk scene, there’s something to be said about the spectacular display of animated acrobatics and reverberating energy that Gogol Bordello exude – every minute, of every song, of every performance. The beauty of festivals is the path of discovery – musical discovery – and it’s a wonderful thing to be bedazzled by a band such as Gogol Bordello for the first time, and to watch faces light up as the joyous vivacity of the band catches on to all.
Taking it down a notch was Brooklyn’s best up next, and a band that needs no introduction: The National. Sporting a never-seen-before fancy backdrop, the group started with the triumphant crescendos of “Start a War”, a track finely laced with building brass and heavy guitar. Whereas The National are often mistaken for being a boring band, or a one-trick pony, their highly consistent and technical skills showcase their masterful each member has come with over ten years of experience in the live field and all boasting a lifetime of musical commitment. Although The National may not be as brash in nature as their predecessors on the Main Stage, their fine tuning and subtleties did not go unnoticed, with each song put together beautifully – the delicate pickings of guitar from Bryce Dessner on the older track “All the Wine”, accompanied by twin brother Aaron providing an enduring bass line, the finely placed beats from Bryan Devendorf on drums on “Mistaken For Strangers” – each song has it’s own small glories. However, it’s not all about subtleties as Boxer (QRO review) track “Squalor Victoria” kindly demonstrated, with vocalist Matt Berninger providing a forceful, truly impressive performance away from the mumbling baritone that perhaps one is accustomed to finding with The National. A welcome break from the audacious prior acts, The National provided, although with slight reservation, a truly favorable set, closing to the single “Terrible Love” – a divine way to see the last of the sun go down on Sunday’s Sziget.
Next up, flying the Welsh Flag proud, were Manic Street Preachers. With a career spanning the decades, it’s clear to see that, despite the band’s rocky path, stints of personal misfortune and criticism were temporary. Although the Manics have been around longer than many of the crowd – they are currently celebrating the 21st anniversary of releasing their debut single – their glam punk set up laden with glittery statues and feather boas was enough to warm up the audience, whether familiar with the band or not. But even festivalgoers not of the traditional Manics generation found themselves singing along to tunes that perhaps you even forget existed. The Manics have left a huge mark in the British music industry, and whilst they’re often thought to have peaked in the early 1990s, Sziget’s performance proves that this perhaps isn’t the case, that there is a musical energy that runs through one’s veins found in rock star blood. Perhaps the Manic Street Preachers haven’t been labeled the most rock ‘n’ roll of bands – their perhaps ‘camp’ image isn’t always in line with this – but regardless, even after all these years, songs such as opener “You Love Us” (1991) and “Motorcycle Emptiness” (1992) resounded with the crowd, songs often forgotten by casual listeners, but strong reminders from the bright lights and exaggerated live performance create an unforgettable energy. It’s interesting to see that although the music media has kindly identified lulls in the bands career, that the same reaction can be said to be true from later tracks such as “Your Love is Not Enough” (1997) and even “Postcards From a Young Man”, released in 2010 and from their tenth studio album. However, it’s their final track, global number 1 & youth anthem “If You Tolerate This, Then Your Children Will Be Next” (1998) that caused the final uproar to close an engaging and insightful set into the history of the Manic Street Preachers.
The Manic Street Preachers have clearly been round the block a few times and although they may be on the wrong side of thirty, this band has the part of performance down to a tee, with a set list full of hits, sparking lights and great showmanship – just another example of the utter class acts Sziget exhibits.
There are simply not enough adjectives in the English language to accurately try describing the intensity of Sziget accurately. More so, perhaps it lies in that the festival has it all – natural beauty, magnificent people, phenomenal music, extraordinary arts, and culture – the festival is awe inspiring. If you haven’t been, go. Sziget will change your life forever, and the memories will remain evermore. But be warned – the bar will be set unsurpassably high for everything else you may ever do.