For a festival set in a fortress that never saw a single act of conflict, EXIT festival sure started with a bang. Barely have the gates opened when The Cure take to the main stage, in a corner of the Petrovaradin Fortress in Novi Sad that feels like a fairy grotto of lamp-lit trees, with the sweep of sparkling wind-chimes that introduces ‘Plainsong’. A song made of pure, brilliant billow, it set the scene for a blast through a gig almost identical to the world-beating set the band played at Glastonbury, but far, far more intimate.
More than ever before, this current Cure blitz of European festivals seems designed to remind the world of their import and influence, and make them one of the first alternative rock bands to settle firmly into the top-most league of rock music on a par with the behemoths of the ‘60s and ‘70s – the McCartneys and Stones, the Fleetwoods and Floyds. So often the greatness of a Cure gig is based on balance; the proportion of pop smashes versus barrages of bleak. Tonight finds an almost perfect equilibrium, a finely-crafted flick-book of forty years skipping around the edge of a deep, black sea.
So, following the sumptuous trajectory of ‘Disintegration’, out of a tangled weave of guitars rises ‘Pictures Of You’, Robert Smith hugging his guitar to his chest as he sifts through old photos in his mind and the song blows past him like a wind tunnel of memories and regret. The Serbian heavens dutifully open, yet ‘High’ is remarkably sunny, adorned with visuals of neon pink clouds.
And there ends the opening, lightheaded alt-pop rush. The grinding ‘A Night Like This’ ushers in a more dour and menacing mid-section: ‘Just One Kiss’ primal and austere, Smith floating around the stage to the pure glower of ‘Last Dance’, ‘Lovesong’ pinning the mood to the wall, the sound of Cure concentrate. Come ‘Burn’, Smith pulls out an exotic looking pan pipe affair and summons forth dark voodoo rock full of nightmare visions: “Every night I burn/Dream the crow black dream/Every night I burn/Scream the animal scream”. ‘Fascination Street’ clacks yet more jackal bones, anticipating a salacious night out in New Orleans, and ‘Never Enough’ comes across as nothing less than evil baggy.
Then ‘Push’ rises out of the murk like a Bond villain’s missile from some subterranean lair, and a second chunk of breezy pop brilliance blows the cobwebs – and, it seems, the rainclouds – away. ‘In Between Days’ and ‘Just Like Heaven’ sound, as is Smith’s inimitable art, like a different band entirely; Smiths-like, jubilant and determined, if they possibly can, to kiss God’s balls.
After which Smith goes into full satiation mode. Fan of the doomy stuff? Here’s half an hour of it. ‘From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea’ is so relentless and compulsive it collapses in a desperate heap at the end, the sound that bands must make when they cancel tours citing nervous exhaustion. ‘Play For Today’, ‘A Forest’ and ‘Primary’ epitomise The Cure’s gothic strain, even if the last sounds like a goth AC/DC. And the main set ends with a trio of gargantuan dirges – ‘Shake Dog Shake’, ‘39’ and ‘Disintegration’, so pummelling that it feels like The Cure plan to raze the fortress before clambering out the rubble and waving goodnight.
Had your fill, gloomsters? Good, because the encore is half an hour of solid Cure-pop bangers. ‘Lullaby’ lures us in, ‘The Caterpillar’ gives the section bright, colourful wings and between ‘The Walk’ (their take on New Order, a kind of ‘Black Monday’, if you will), ‘Friday, I’m In Love’ and ‘Close To Me’, this is a joy-burst as spectacular as any confetti cannon. Smith ends the set wafting around the stage singing ‘Why Can’t I Be You?’ and ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ like the happy-drunk uncle at the karaoke bar suddenly forgetting about his impending divorce.
It’s difficult to imagine how any other set of the weekend could top one of the very first ones, but EXIT floats away from the main stage deeper into the fortress to hunt out its late-night delights. Until 8am the cobbled courtyards, ramparts and hidden tunnels of Petrovaradin host DJs and knees-ups of all shade. BoBadu (pictured) spins Jamaican dancehall and Afro-tropical beats on the Wenti Wadada Positive Reggae stage, Rudhaman dishes out warped Latin spacetronica at the Chipsy Disko Zone, Live Egon’s Embrace provide gabba trance on the ultra-psychedelic Gaia Experiment stage and Charlotte De Witte draws a rammed crowd to the mts Dance Arena for her artful techno minimalism.
There’s an old punk flavour out there too. The Selecter deliver stylish Jamaican ska fed through the mean streets of Coventry on the Addiko Fusion stage, making anti-Brexit statements and slipping occasionally into bits resembling a skanking Franz Ferdinand. And Peter And The Test Tube Babies bring the unadulterated, crass and scatalogical punk, with their rampaging tunes about shitting themselves (‘Never Made It’, “to the bog on time”), weddings (‘My Unlucky Day’) and anal sex (‘Up Yer Bum’).
EXIT continues tonight (July 5) with sets from Chase & Status and The Chainsmokers.