By Rory Winston
Featured Photo: courtesy of Rockstar Photographers
It’s little wonder that Sziget, the Summer Festival that stands out as the best of 2019, hosted – to paraphrase a rock classic – ‘the best, the best, the best, the best of the Foo Fighters.’ As finales go, The Foo Fighters were full-on signature rock star whimsy, energy and joy. 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 Dave Grohl’s opening comment “we’ll play till they kick us off,” was no mere boast. In a relatively cynical age, there are few bands who can appear one hundred percent genuine while having a young man in wheelchair crowd-surfed onto the stage to smash a guitar. With Taylor Hawkins drumming and singing a few songs of his own, and Grohl’s own daughter sharing the stage, the set had all the hallmarks of a reunion with the feeling that little time had passed for Grohl since his days with Nirvana.
With over half a million in attendance at the Island of Freedom, Sziget Festival’s 27th year had visitors from over 100 countries. While an unprecedented number hailed 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 gathered from 62 odd countries. Cultural diversity and a love of all genres are clearly a key component to the festival’s success.
While the Foo Fighters brought closure to an all-encompassing festival, the main stage was rife with contemporary giants in tune with the zeitgeist. Kicking off the festival, was the remarkable singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran. With campfire song candor, he introduced well-wrought melodies with so much restraint that even the slightest introduction of a drumbeat in the final songs gave one the feeling of a power-pop tune. Although the enormous venue felt a bit off for an ‘unplugged sensibility,’ the crowd held steadfast from beginning to end.
For the audience, it made little difference that Richard Ashcroft appeared under his own name rather than under his former band’s name the Verve since almost everyone – with disgruntled exception of Ashcroft himself – kept waiting for Bitter Sweet Symphony. Living up the song’s name, Ashcroft’s performance made even those who didn’t know him recall all that was sweet in 90’s Britpop, and the many artists for whom it left a slightly bitter aftertaste. Franz Ferdinand, Twenty-One Pilots, The National – the main stage hosted some of the most major indie and alternative bands around. In addition to this selection, there was Tove Lo and the renowned Florence and the Machine.
Florence Welch had come a long way – both in good and bad. She knew how to place her vocals more precisely than ever, and also made sure that the entire band served her vocal flights of fancy. At times, brilliant and at other times extraordinarily contrived, she, nevertheless, gave a hearty performance that, as shortcomings go, lacked heart. “Shut off your phones, we are here now in the present,” may be cute for a newcomer pressing the ‘nowism’ button, but she seemed 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 gave plenty of opportunities to see bands that ranged from contemporary classical to jazz, world music, local bands, metal, DJ sets and a host of uncategorizable sounds capable of catalyzing future waves. But, perhaps, of the stages, one of the most interesting remained the Mastercard Stage by A38. Not only did exciting bands like Chvrches and Kodaline play there, but artists like James Blake and Yungblud performed. Though I am admittedly a James Blake fan, 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, there was also 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 introduced 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 and oddly fetishistic rituals were the contemporary Company Un Yamada with their work, One Piece. Entertaining, thought-provoking, and extremely well synchronized with nuanced movements that fused modern dance and ethnic posing, the work was far more interesting than many had expected.
Oddly, it was here that I made friends with someone who in the end turned out, unbeknown to me, to have come to Sziget at the behest of Dave Grohl. Having been to many festivals, he confided, “This festival is totally awesome. Even the food, the wine, and the Hungarian girls are a marvel to behold.” Still, it wasn’t until I got a chance to meet up with the legend, Grohl, that I realized just how wonderfully informal and serendipitous all that which made up Sziget really was. As Grohl sent me off with a banana to give to my Nirvana-loving singer-songwriter Finnish girlfriend, I got the definite sense that Sziget was absolutely the best, the best, the best Festival out there today.