Serbia, Thursday, July 7 – Sunday, July 10
Maybe it’s the history that reverberates around Serbia’s Petrovaradin Fortress, but time does funny things when you’re at [b]Exit[/b]. Even the clock tower overlooking the Danube has the size of its minute and hour hands reversed (originally so that fishermen could read the time more easily), heightening the dissolution of reality that begins as soon as you ascend the steep stone entrance. We’ve barely got our bearings before we hear a DJ blasting M People’s [b]‘Moving On Up’[/b] from the bottom of a parched moat. We wonder if, with [a]Pulp[/a] headlining the first night, it’s a sly nod to the ’94 Mercury Music Prize, but the shutter-shaded folk who dance-walk past would probably disagree.
Over on the main stage, though, [a]Arcade Fire[/a] are blazing through a lengthy set covering all three albums, reminding us that the present is the only place to be. Win Butler looks as striking as ever, sweating out electrolytes and punk spirit during [b]‘Month Of May’[/b]. More serene is Régine Chassagne, twirling kittenishly throughout [b]‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’[/b]. When the lights dip for the revelatory key-change she returns holding fistfuls of gym ribbons and we think we’re in love. Thrills of a more visceral nature are offered during a firework display so huge that in Britain they would’ve been launched in a separate county. Here, [a]Pulp[/a] fans are left to fend for themselves as stray missiles burn down into the crowd.
“How do you get out of this festival?” cracks Jarvis in jovial mood. “Everywhere it says Exit.” The joke may be lost in translation, but [b]‘Disco 2000’[/b] unites the pan-global crowd in a fit of hip-wiggling and finger-waving. [b]‘Mis-Shapes’[/b] – missing from their Primavera set in May – feels as relevant as ever, particularly when [a]Deadmau5[/a] is holding court to thousands of robust-looking men in cargo shorts in the gargantuan dance arena. Still, it’s [b]‘FEELINGCALLEDLOVE’[/b] which hypnotises, the humid atmospherics unfurling into the Balkan night like wisps of steam off the sunstruck crowd.
There’s no such respite for [a]MIA[/a], whose [b]‘Paper Planes’[/b] threatens to destabilise the festival site’s Paleolithic foundations. The grainy Windows Paint visuals are all present and correct, but better yet is when we’re plunged into blackness for [b]‘Story To Be Told’[/b]. MIA, resplendent in lilac lamé gym shorts and Charlie Le Mindu wig, takes her place at a lectern, parts the wall of microphones and addresses her willing acolytes. As she diddles with an effects pad, tweaked vocals skirt around our skulls over a throbbing, tumescent bass.
Likewise, [a]Santigold[/a] brings an art-schooled sensibility to her Saturday slot. Possessing enough natural magnetism to knock the earth off its trajectory, she explains, helpfully, that we’re “here to party”. New track [b]‘Go’[/b] sees viral outbreaks of one-leg skanking right back to the Portaloos, but when she leads out a pantomime horse we don’t even pretend to get it. Still, her aspirational hipness is cemented when she cherry-picks audience members to join her onstage for [b]‘Creator’[/b], the pinwheeling synths and boom-clack spirit severing any mental connection with car adverts for good.
[i]NME[/i] competition winners Hey Sholay may be more straightforward in their stagecraft, but their stripped-back psychedelia twangs between tension and release, with frontman Liam Creamer suppressing enough energy to power the dance arena’s light show. However, tonight belongs to the Nightslugs crew who, stationed in a cleft in the hillside, keep the pinkest of dawns at bay with their future-gazing bass music. When Girl Unit pull up [b]‘Wut’[/b] for a rewind, you wish it could last forever, and it feels like it does. On Sunday night it falls to [a]Portishead[/a] to apply the balm to our fissured psyches. Beneath a waxing moon – ancient arbiter of time and tide – the crowd is strung out on the synths of [b]‘The Rip’[/b] while Beth Gibbons, looking sultry even in her dress-down Friday chic, cups the microphone sensuously.
The insinuating strings and low-slung guitar solo of [b]‘Glory Box’[/b] sees couples swaying, almost obscenely, in the heat. [b]‘Machine Gun’[/b] saves us from the corporeal atmosphere with its stark industrial grain. Maybe it’s the hellbent timekeeping of Jim Sclavunos, maybe it’s the sight of Warren Ellis sweating through his beard, but time itself seems to be given a kick up the backside by [a]Grinderman[/a]. Both [b]‘Worm Tamer’[/b] and [b]‘No Pussy Blues’[/b] stir the crowd into a euphoric tangle of bodies; sweaty top lips are lost beneath streams of perspiration that cause people to slip off one another like eels in a barrel. A bra is proffered to Cave – the midlife-crisis-bearer it’s OK to fancy – as he lurches through ‘Kitchenette’, propped up by the front row, and when the crowd begs for more, Cave seems genuinely moved, obliging with [b]‘Love Bomb’[/b] for an encore.
Once more braving the swelling mass, he serenades a flushed-looking woman standing atop her boyfriend’s shoulders. Then it’s over, with just a smattering of flip-flops and loose change left behind. Filing past the clock tower for the final time, the sun cruelly peaking over the horizon, we can almost feel time cranking back into motion, gathering up its slack and pulling us back into routine. What a pity.