By Rory Winston
Sitting in Sziget Festival‘s Magic Mirror stage, asking a snatched audience member sitting next to me if he knew anything about the upcoming show, the response came: “Lots of ‘asslethics,’ lots of super-tight wire acts and loads of boylesque, sweetie.” The show in question is Briefs Factory – as in men wearing briefs rather than anything indicative of the program’s duration.
Although one could posit that Brief’s is a juxtaposition of circus, comedy, and burlesque, the level of sheer athleticism, talent and skill signaled way more. Acrobats, dancers, world-class showmen, belie the whimsical namesake. Their guest, Francis Perrault, and Matthew Richardson, are, respectively, highly skilled gymnast and hoop aerialist while being consummate artists in their own right.
With an Australian sense of irreverent humor, the high-heeled Greek gods in underwear, entertain, dazzle and create an experience worthy of a Broadway stage. That this act found its way to Budapest’s Sziget Festival from all the way down-under is no surprise given that there are over half a million in attendance, from over a hundred countries, at the Island of Freedom – this being the Festival’s 27th year. While an unprecedented number hail from the Netherlands in particular, beyond the European and US-based visitors, guests came from as far as New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Tobago, and Trinidad. From music to theatre, comedy, dance performances and workshops, varied talents gather from 62 odd countries. Cultural diversity and a love of all genres are clearly a key component to the festival’s success.
Ed Sheeran, the Grammy Award-winning British singer-songwriter mounts the stage. With campfire song candor, he introduces well-wrought melodies with so much restraint that even the slightest introduction of a drumbeat in the final songs gives one the feeling of a power-pop tune. Although the enormous venue feels a bit off for such an ‘unplugged sensibility,’ the crowd holds steadfast from beginning to end.
The audience is a fickle thing. Although Sheeran passes muster without taking risks or even without engaging the crowd, while Richard Ashcroft – who went all out – does not. It makes little difference that Ashcroft appears under his own name rather than under his former band’s name the Verve since almost everyone – with disgruntled exception of Ashcroft himself – waits to hear Bitter Sweet Symphony. Living up the song’s name, Ashcroft’s performance makes even those who don’t know him recall the sweet fragrance of 90’s Britpop as well as the bitter aftertaste it left on investors. Franz Ferdinand, Twenty-One Pilots, The National – the main stage hosts some of the most major indie and alternative bands around. In addition to this selection, there’s Tove Lo and the renowned Florence and the Machine.
Florence Welch has come a long way – both in good and bad. ‘The machine’ is better than ever but Florence, as we know her, is noticeably absent. Florence knows how to place her vocals more precisely than ever. In fact, she makes the entire band serve her vocal flights of fancy by muting any frequencies that could undermine her sound. At times, brilliant and at others, extraordinarily contrived, Florence, nevertheless, gives a hearty performance that, as shortcomings go, lacks heart. “Shut off your phones, we are here now in the present,” may be cute for a newcomer pressing the ‘nowism’ button, but Florence seems a bit too polished and full of bluster for such a ‘real’ moment.
In sharp contrast to Florence, Tove Lo rocked. Full on, sweet, vulgar, girly, bitchy, aggressive, sensitive and, ultimately, real with an unrehearsed feel. Her emotional range was worthy of everyone’s attention as she gave full meaning to why it’s so important to see a genuine artist perform live.
Boasting more than 10 large stages, the weeklong festival has plenty of opportunities for seeing artists that range from contemporary classical to jazz, world music, local up-and-comings, metal, DJ sets and a host of uncategorizable sounds capable of catalyzing future waves. Of all the stages, the most interesting remains the Mastercard Stage by A38. Not only did exciting bands like Chvrches and Kodaline play there, but artists like James Blake and Yungblud performed as well. Though I am admittedly a James Blake fan, his mood-induced heartfelt moments felt self-absorbed and free of dynamics. No band stirred me quite as much as Son Lux. With nuanced grooves, unanticipated pauses, crawl tingling chord progressions and fragments of haunting melodies, Son Lux is an odd reminder of what Peter Gabriel might have been doing had been born in the early 80’s. Another great surprise was getting to see the ever-evolving Broken Social Scene and the nuanced electronic duo, Maribou State.
Besides the many stand-up comics and theatrical extravaganzas, Sziget Festival also has a plethora of worthwhile Dance performances such as Soharóza, a post-modern dance pageant with a choir singing works by Zoltan Kodaly. Local works also included the expressive choreography of Eva Duda Dance Company who did a unique homage to the frenetic dark joys hidden beneath each circus.
With a minimalist set, no lighting and nearly no props, a young choreographer, Stefaniya Georgieva, from Bulgaria’s Atom Theatre created a highly idiosyncratic and exciting new language in dance. Together with her sister, Kalina, the pair worked through slow but highly articulated personal movements whose effect was to deconstruct human dialogue into action and reaction and rebuild it into a single flowing organism constructed by the pair’s interaction.
Evoking Japanese society in all its order -complete with fetishistic rituals – is what the all-male contemporary Company Un Yamada brings to their work, One Piece. Entertaining, thought-provoking, and extremely well synchronized, their nuanced movements fuse modern dance and ethnic posturing.
As finales go, The Foo Fighters deliver full-on signature rock star stuff. They are energy and joy in rock star form. The two-and-a-half-hour main stage concert – which had the massive main stage audience beaming and yelling for more – made it apparent that David Grohl‘s opening comment “we’ll play till they kick us off,” was no mere boast. With Grohl’s own daughter sharing the stage, one was reminded just what a long-term family the entire band really is.
With 7 days of uninhibited fun, Sziget is by every measure a festival that embraces all lifestyles. In simple terms, it is one of the best ‘music and more’ festivals out there.