Chester Bennington’s Last Tour with Linkin Park as seen in Hungary’s Volt Festival
By Rory Winston
(All photos except those otherwise indicated are courtesy of Volt Festival)
“That festival? Right – they did perform there. Did he seem normal or could you sense…? – Not that anyone can tell such things in advance but, well, I mean, looking back on it now?”
The he my friend was referring to was Chester Bennington, the they were the surviving members of the recently deceased singer’s band Linkin Park, while there was Volt – a week-long star-studded annual rock festival held in Sopron, a city located in the remote Western region of Hungary. As for the ‘such things’ that I or other onlookers should, perhaps, have discerned, my friend was alluding to signs of Bennington’s impending suicide wherein the 41-year-old singer hung himself at home less than three weeks after the aforementioned gig.
Having grown up with Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Tribe Called Quest and a bevy of groups that influenced the alternative nu metal rap rock that became Linkin Park’s genre, it was hard not to share Bennington’s mood swings, well rhythmed angst and sharply juxtaposed directions that veered from cynical to sensitive to haunting in the matter of moments. Still, did I anticipate or even remotely imagine…? No. Then again, it’s not likely that even Bennington had planned out the actions he’d be taking just weeks later. At least, not on that sunny June 27th when, in the company of other band members, he looked out over an enthusiastic fairground lined with screaming fans. Certainly, not on that balmy day when he performed songs ranging from the more forgettable electro-poppy Talking to Myself (the third track on their new pop-infused album One More Light) to the evocative classic In the End – a show-stopper that was followed by encore numbers such as Numb.
To be sure, Volt Festival is a strange concatenation of longing and memory – one that lives up to the multiple (if inadvertent) connotations inherent in its moniker. Though named after a popular local cultural magazine, Volt culls forth very distinct images that range from voltage – the electric potential energy inherent in something – to the Hungarian word ‘volt’ meaning ‘had been’ as in ‘all that which had come before.’ While it may be an unintentional bilingual homonym, there is something to the notion of ‘things passed’ holding the key to our as-of-yet ‘unrealized future.’ As with the best music, emotive moments are built on acquired taste while nuance depends on finding exciting variations to oft-recurring themes. The echo of past motifs sits dormant in every potential song. When it comes to great rock festivals: they carry the ‘electric feel’ of the past, releasing otherwise dormant ancient energies. A primeval mood hides in the contemporary. An unspoken pagan world is alluded to in each rocker’s chant. Behind the rhythm, layers of ritual. Behind the dancing masses, hundreds of thousands of years of tribal communion – body paintings, colorful powders, flashy tattoos. All the paraphernalia, noise and sets are merely echoes of a long lost world – a primordial garden that beckons us, albeit in a distorted way, asking us like Nirvana to come ‘as we are, as we were, and as we are, likely, meant to be.’ To come and to become in the very same instance. Like the best of rock festivals, Volt is the very essence of this dichotomy – it is a rich field where nostalgia and nuance dance with one another, where each spectator unwittingly acts out a past destined to alter another onlooker’s future.
In musical terms this juxtaposition means that the young contemporary DJ Martin Garrix works the same audience as Fatboy Slim while Australia’s Pendulum plays alongside the 80’s British rock band the Cult. Here post-hardcore experimental rock band Enter Shikari takes over from R&B singer songwriter Jess Glynne, iconic indie pop Ellie Goulding precedes US heavy metal band Of Mice and Men, Australian electro dance duo Knife Party warms up for the US alt rock pop punk band Paramore, and blues and soul inflected indie rock band Imagine Dragons leaves us in the hands of those like the house dance pop Dj Sigala.
Besides the battery of international superstars, the festival is rife with Hungarian oddities as well – those that range from well-established songwriting legends such as Janos Bródy to alt rhythm and blues rockers Kiscsillag, melody-laden Quimby, the highly theatrical Anna and the Barbies and their more self-ironic post-modern counterpart, Peterfy Bori and the Love Band. As for some of my own personal favorites, they came in the form of a newer generation of Hungarian artists such as the infectiously humorous Elefánt, the highly emotive Marge, the Hungarian Franz Ferdinand-styled band, Ivan and the Parazol, its spinoff indie folk band Fran Palermo, the electro-chill feminine answer to Chris Isaak in Belau, and the haunting artistry of Babé Sila.
Though the focus remains music, an old school ambience pervades Volt – a traveling carnival-like atmosphere evinced by period-evoking amusement park rides, barn-like dance joints and copious amounts of reasonably priced local wines, craft beers, cocktails and foods. More importantly, the audience itself is strikingly diverse with visitors of all ages from all walks of life. Located in close proximity to the Austrian border – Vienna being the closest big city – the Festival sports has grown in both size and international repute. Despite the recent attention, Volt has nevertheless maintained a Mid-1900’s kind of appeal with its limited number of stages, its easily walkable grounds, and its highly manageable venues. The overall feeling is that of meeting world renowned artists within the context of their own hometowns. Though a good number of the visiting bands and artists come to Volt at the height of their careers, the quaint setting endows them with a sense of vulnerability, making their presence feel almost intimate in nature – as if they were neither more nor less remote than local bands. It is this laidback atmosphere that lasts the entire duration of the festival.
Unlike many similarly long festivals, Volt doesn’t leave one mentally exhausted, hankering for silence; instead, it energizes, making one crave more. Luckily, Volt staff refuses to relegate music to solely mega-events where ticket sales determine enthusiasm. No sooner had I informed the organizers that I was returning home by way of the Hungarian capital than Tamás Jáky insisted I attend Sofar Sounds Budapest – a member of the growing global Sofa phenomenon wherein artists and listeners experience one another in privately owned living rooms that have been generously donated for this purpose. Incidentally, the aforementioned home-based concert was planned for the very same evening when many were just getting back from Volt. After several hours on a train, I took a quick shower, guzzled down a pitcher’s worth of water, downed a repulsively thick espresso, washing away the bitter aftertaste by burdening my heart with an additional energy drink. Soon, I was on my way to the local Sofar Sounds, an enclave that can best be described as Williamsburg-upon-Pest, Hungary’s hipster heaven, a connoisseur’s corner for music or whatever other appellative one can conceive of when trying to describe the place where the young tastemakers of tomorrow gather.
The young cognoscenti of the capital turned out to be a congenial, well-informed lot who not only made it a point to keep up with the best in art globally but were open to most anything apart from those that emulated the style of other established artists. For better and for worse, the creative marriages consummated under the auspices of Budapest’s ‘smart sofa set’ were not ones of pop cultural convenience. They seemed to stem, instead, from genuine proclivities, singular aesthetics and, if not always an all-encompassing vision than at least the uncompromising search for an authentic voice. The results that evening: the jazz and soul tempered pop-friendly progressive fusion of Shaibo – brainchild of the ambitious singer Zsófi Szigeti – and the heartfelt delivery of singer/songwriter Mano whose alternative folk rock songs remind one that stadium-sized charisma can squeeze its way into an ordinary living room without overshadowing the verity behind its content.
As denouements go, Sofar suited Volt 2017 to a T. It encapsulated its very essence: global awareness, an unadorned love of music and an unpretentious easy-going attitude. It was this same approach that allowed Volt to have larger-than-life bands in the company of relative unknowns, legendary figures appearing on unassuming stages, and after-parties where there was little discernible distinction between performers and audience members as they mingled. Removing the veneer of fame and the artificially generated distance it often engenders, Volt turns otherwise inactive voyeurs into genuine participants. Despite the exceptional effects, elaborate lighting and projected images that went into many shows, it was a given that the bands performing sensed the individual presence of audience members throughout.
Still, Bennington… Like most, I think back to the last time I saw him, racking my recollections for clues. But, although hindsight often comes to the rescue of memory, making irrelevant moments significant while turning pivotal moments into negligible ones, there’s little I recall from Linkin Park’s Volt performance that makes his demise more comprehensible. No eureka, no flashes of insight, no telltale omen temporarily forgotten. Not a single image that resurfaces in my dreams to presage his death or foreshadow the onset of a severe depression. But why would an audience member be expected to detect something when even those closest to him sensed nothing just days prior to his suicide. Memories of Volt 2017 wouldn’t allow for harbingers of Bennington’s eventual departure to be embedded into them. Volt remains in memory as it was during those glorious days in June: pure voltage – potential energy being released, an ancient ritual being realized, the electricity of emotion as it surges from performer onto onlooker, working its way through the audience, holding all who come in contact with it in its grip. It is not what Bennington died from but rather what he, and those like him, live for. As the renown Linkin Park song goes, Bennington, like many must have felt Volt was “somewhere I belong,” somewhere that ‘Lost in the Echo’ of our collective past, somewhere everyone can remove social constraints, connect and “Burn it down” together.
For additional information on annual rock festival click here: VOLT Festival, Hungary