Sziget Festival 2011 – Review

“And this,” our tourguide paused a moment to emphasise the full gravity of what he was about to say, “Is where Katy Perry shot her video for ‘Fireworks’. You know that song? ‘Baby you’re a fiiiiiiiiiirework’…” He produced an iPad. He showed us the video. It was true. Fireworks had shot from Katy’s tits in the very same cobbled courtyard of the former Hungarian Royal Palaces in which we now stood. This factoid stood as the coup de grace of two hours of heavy tourism around the Old Town of Budapest, where we learnt where Paris Hilton had stayed when she came to town, the quarter where Brangelina were going to buy property, Lewis Hamilton’s favourite hotel, and about Paul Newman’s Hungarian roots, but somehow failed to ever mention a) the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or B) Communism.

But then again, why dwell? Hungarians seem like a pretty forward-facing, future-embracing lot these days. People like to talk about ‘The New Europe’ here – former Soviet satellites who have shucked off their dowdiness to embrace a clean and shiny futurism, and Sziget Festival has become totemic to Hungarian’s sense of New Europe modernity. For instance, you don’t carry money around the site. You load Oyster-style pre-paid cash onto smart-watches, then tap them against stallholders’ receptors to buy beers. What Sziget manages to do is marry the arts festival imaginative spirit of Glastonbury – people holding events in trees, avant-street theatre shows, a strong emphasis on offbeat or world music, with a clean, super-jacked efficiency in their organisation. Here are the best reasons to book your place in 2012…


The Prodigy May Well Be On Your EasyJet Flight
Well, they were on ours. Keith had screwed his hat down to make himself less conspicuous. Liam was wearing shades, for that authentic ‘rockstar trying to look anonymous’ vibe. Maxim – well, you can’t really disguise Maxim, it’d be like putting a bobble hat on St Paul’s. As they sat in the Speedy Boarding section of the queue, the Always Outmanned Never Outgunned hitmakers looked a tad nervous. The rest of the passengers pointed and whispered and clustered round them. One woman went up to them and asked “Are you guys in a band?” They confirmed that they were. Then they probably made a mental note to sack their tour manager. The Kaiser Chiefs, on the other hand, flew in for their Saturday set on a private plane. Who is keeping it more real these days?

It Reminds You Of Our Shared European Destiny
At a time when the Eurozone is warping and folding under the weight of its own contradictions, and Euro-skepticism is right back in fashion, Sziget is such a deeply international affair that it reminds you, as a cynical islander Brit, what this thing on our doorstep is all about. Possibly the most diverse festival on the continent, attendance is only about 10% Hungarian. Even less are British, the rest are all the peoples of Europe. Seeing so many Dutch, Germans, Swedes, French and Italians, Romanians and Slovaks greeting each other in cheery harmony would make Herman von Rumpoy weep into his haikus. Our granddads firebombed each other. Now we listen to White Lies together. Progress.

You can be arrested by the Avon And Somerset Constabulary
At first, everyone thought the British policeman hanging around the site was a tourist with a particularly good fancy-dress tailor. Turns out he wasn’t. Every year, Avon And Somerset Constabulary send two Glasto-hardened officers out to the Sziget, and likewise, the French and Germans send two of their finest on patrol, and dish out policing advice to the Hungaro-rozzers. Apparently, this is all totally legal.


You Get To Pretend To Be Disabled
It’s not really a hippy festival in the British mould – too many Vodafone towers – but perhaps the mark of Sziget’s liberal charm is that there is an entire zone devoted to empathising with the handicapped. This includes a bit where you get to drive a wheelchair up a series of torturous ramps until you learn some basic respect.

There Are Bands
Yes, bands. The Kaiser Chiefs’s long sabbatical has clearly done them a power of good, and their set produced a wonderfully bizarre moment when a woman in a wheelchair crowdsurfed across the mainstage arena. The Prodigy were their usual bruising, brutal selves, inspired perhaps by the lack of a decent crisp selection on EZY554. Gogol Bordello were at the peak of their powers – Sziget has a large Romany influence anyway (they’ve set up a Transylvanian tent specifically to play Gypsy music), and Eugene Hutz had them eating out of his massive hands. Kate Nash brought a man who had written ‘Marry Me’ across his chest up onstage, where he sat for a while, like a Howard Jones-style chains-gimp.

This seemed a useful way of breaking up a set which never got to grips with what it wanted to be. Jared Leto’s 30 Seconds To Mars blasted off to planet Shit On Toast right on schedule, which may be why the diva-ish Leto had banned all photographers at his headline show. Mariachi El Bronx took on the punishing midday sun in their full mariachi suits and won. The Manic Street Preachers blasted out their hits in the punishingly loud manner they always do – ‘Motown Junk’, ‘Design For Life’ et al, but depite coughing up a lot of Postcards From A Young Man, failed to push the totally superior Journal For Plague Lovers.

They may have simply been stunned that White Lies were headlining, above them. The Lies were perfectly satisfactory. For a band with only two (pretty short) albums, they must’ve played every song about haunted fairgrounds they knew. I certainly didn’t hear any complaints about a lack of brooding Audi-noir in their set. Anyone? No? Good.