Blur, Franz Ferdinand and The Cribs defy a Budapest heatwave at one of Europe’s more relaxed festivals
By Lee Gale
It’s a wonder of the modern age that you can arrive at the entrance of a major European music festival quicker than it takes to drive from London to Glastonbury (factoring in traffic jams, stop-offs to purchase roadside scrumpy in Domestos containers, etc). Having said ta-ta to the cat at midday, six hours later we’re in the Hungarian heat, onsite at the Sziget festival, sipping Budapest-brewed Dreher lager (£2 a pint) with a collection of multi-coloured wristbands. The flight on the Airbus A320 of Wizz was far from restful; it was packed and Luton Airport is a factory process, something to endure rather than enjoy (and at £330 return, it’s a ridiculously costly hop). Despite the grief, a feeling of peace and serenity awaits at Sziget, even when Enter Shikari are on stage.
Sziget is Europe’s best-attended music festival, pulling in 350,000 visitors over a seven-day programme. It might sound a disconcertingly high figure, but on the 107-hectare Óbuda Island, a former shipyard that sits in the wideness of the Danube, there are never more than 70,000 people onsite at any one time. Of this, 50 per cent are Hungarian, while the rest are a melange of foreign revellers.
To its credit, Sziget never reveals itself as a wild amphitheatre of debauched behaviour or drunken excess. It’s a chance to disconnect from the humdrum of your existence and live in a fairy tale. It’s ever so slightly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but you’re never quite sure whether the Child Catcher has been written out of the script.
Earlier in the week, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Dizzee Rascal (a Sziget regular) and Biffy Clyro ventured from the UK and played in sweltering 40°C-plus Death Valley conditions. At sunset on Friday, with the evening a balmy, barmy 34°C – not unpleasant when wearing shorts, it has to be said – a besuited German outfit named Seeed are sweating through a lively set. Smiling, yet verging on breathlessness, they must be losing a stone in weight during their performance.
Seeed are supposedly a reggae concoction, although not reggae in the traditional Trojan sense. Shoulder-suspended marching drums are a central theme, so this sounds more like a military tattoo than an Upsetters tribute. The German-speaking world loves them. Last year, Seeed’s eponymous LP went platinum, selling over 200,000 copies. Krautrock this isn’t, but German pop rarely sounds authentic to British ears. The fact that one of the singers looks alarmingly like the Anglo-Polish BBC weather presenter Tomasz Schafernacker only fuels the confusion.
Friday headliners Blur are easier to digest. All but Alex James bravely opts for long trousers. The remainder must feel like they’re wearing wetsuits in this stove-like heat. Blur are a more sedate affair than Seeed. “Girls & Boys”, “Country House”, “Parklife”, “There’s No Other Way” and “Coffee And TV” certainly have European hands pumping the air, but for the most part, this is Blur so relaxed that it’s like being invited into their sitting room.
By the time Budapest is pogoing to “Song 2”, the wind begins whipping around dust-brushed legs. Tannoy announcements grimly announce an oncoming electrical storm and a general campsite Armageddon. You and your family must take cover. Tent living at UK festivals is tough enough, but the tightly packed canvas dwellings beneath Sziget’s woodland canopy look like they’re about to be engulfed by a month’s rainfall. Why subject yourself to jungle squalor when Budapest’s hotels are so close at hand? Central Budapest is a mere 30-minute, £3 boat trip along the Danube; trains cost 50p; while easy-to-find taxis are little more than £10.
Starving, back at base in the avant-garde Art’otel on the west bank of the Danube (rooms from £76 a night. artotels.com/budapest), the Art’bistrobar announces that it’s only serving booze. Nearing midnight, disaster is averted by trotting five minutes along the river to the nearby square of Batthyány tér. One of the few non-English speaking eateries in town, Nogyi Non-Stop Palacsintázója pancake parlour, known in these parts as “Granny’s”, offers exceedingly simple fare at exceedingly simple prices. We sit outside downing two helpings of cheese and pesto crepes, £2 all in, while across the city, dull-yellow jolts of old-fashioned forked lighting crash to earth at four-second intervals.
It’s a fabulous spectacle. The rain, which arrives later in the night, scythes the temperatures. Saturday’s highs prove a manageable 24°C. We eat at the Art’bistrobar the following night, and the grilled goat’s cheese with sautéed vegetables, for £7, is the best food I’ve had this year.
As Saturday’s headline act is Mika and very few English-speaking bands are scheduled, the day is effectively freed up to explore the island’s new venues. As you’d expect, Sziget is more than a music festival. There are comedy acts and street theatre to discover, as well as a huge range of trans-European cuisine to sample.
A 30-feet-high coliseum constructed from wooden freight pallets provides a 24-hour dance arena, although numbers are understandably thin at mid-afternoon. Across the island, half an hour on foot, an Ibiza-style beach idyll offers Café Mambo beats, sunloungers and cocktails. Sunset here is a relaxed affair and the mosquito count thankfully low. The only giveaway that you aren’t in a Balearic hideaway is the metal fencing running through the industrial waters just 15 feet from shore. Swimming in the Danube is not a safe pastime.
Should you have opted for camping, a trip to the neo-Baroque Széchenyi thermal spa in the City Park – the largest medicinal-bath complex in Europe – will assist with de-lousing and, as we discover, provide an ideal hangover treatment.
Within the compound are a plethora of small pools, whose temperatures range from a hot-soak 38°C to a teeth-chattering 16°C. Locals of all ages gather here to discuss Magyar tittle-tattle, although most are unaware that a major music festival is taking place five miles to the north. In these parts, start a conversation about Franz Ferdinand (who are playing on Sunday) and you’ll soon be at cross-purposes. In the 26°C outdoor pool, hot bubbles erupt from the floor, while jets of water thrust from side vents like rocket engines. If you take careful position, you can give yourself a thorough massage and leave Széchenyi in a state of deep contentment, albeit with a very red back.
Whereas Saturday was a day off for British music fans, on Sunday we return to the coalface. At Sziget, the second-biggest venue on the island has been given the curious title of A38 Stage. Could this home of alternative acts really be named after a trunk road that links Cornwall and Mansfield? Sadly, not – A38 is a local concert hall and nightspot. For a week, A38 is sponsoring this immense, red big-top which, we’re reliably informed, is the largest tent in Europe. Within the cathedral-like awning, at 6.30pm on Sunday, Cribs singer Ryan Jarman reveals to a shocked gathering that Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos is in bad shape following a severe allergic reaction to ingesting peanuts. Of course, this is no news to GQ.co.uk. Instead of strolling to the A38 to support Wakefield’s finest, we’re sitting backstage supping ale with the managing directors of Sziget, discussing ways the festival could further improve in 2014.
A little earlier, Kapranos had made short work of a plate of rice that, unbeknownst to him, contained peanuts – presumably to provide extra crunch. Sounds yummy. We believe an anaphylactic attack was swift to follow, and we are told that Kapranos required two epinephrine shots to ensure his survival. For a while, it seemed that Franz Ferdinand, one of the bigger pulls of the week, would have to cancel their slot. Had the curse of Central Europe once again struck the name of Franz Ferdinand?
With tension high, event organiser Gábor Takács – an approachable but solid individual – remained cool as a cucumber. He reveals that top of the hit list for this year’s Sziget was pop deity Prince, who’d headlined, at great cost, in 2011. His fee was so whopping two years ago that Sziget actually made a loss. No reply was forthcoming from Prince’s camp until earlier this week. “Yes, Prince would now like to come to your festival,” the representative gladly stated. “In fact, he can play this Thursday.” Maybe Prince’s tax bill had just popped through the letterbox. Regardless, the response was too late and a legendary performance lost forever.
With Kapranos treading the narrow hinterland between life and death, I ask Takács why New Order have never played Sziget before. “They are a band that we would love to have,” he replies, “but they’re always too busy playing other festivals around the world.” Sitting mere feet from Takács, New Order’s PR Jayne Houghton, described by Shaun Ryder as “a mouthy Leeds bird” in his autobiography Twisting My Melon, is sipping ice-cold water. Houghton moonlights for Sziget in August and knows Takács reasonably well, although her Factory connections have obviously never been revealed.
“Jayne!” I shout across the table. “Any idea who we could approach to get New Order to play here next year?” “Lee’s being naughty,” Jayne smiles, “he knows I work for New Order.” “I didn’t know you worked with New Order!” Takács gasps. “You know I do!” Houghton shrieks back. So, that’s the first band sorted for 2014.
An hour later, Franz Ferdinand appear onstage as if nothing has happened. Stiff upper lip and all that, although Kapranos’ lips looks rather stiff, and his eyes are obviously swollen. In fact, the band, beneath a banner that reads “RIGHT ACTION” (the name of their new EP) give the punchiest performance of the entire weekend, speeding through tracks from the forthcoming album which, on first listen here, give much to look forward to.
“Take Me Out” remains an epic composition, and it’s always a thrill to hear “we’re on Radio 2 now” in foreign parts (“The Dark Of The Matinée”). But it’s on “Can’t Stop Feeling” that the entire festival reaches its zenith. Franz have craftily attached the rhythm of Donna Summer’s disco masterpiece “I Feel Love”, uprating their 2009 track into the realm of cool indie mash-up. Eventually, it notches up a gear by segueing into the KLF’s “What Time Is Love”. It makes you want to scream with delight. For all David Guetta’s pyrotechnics in the following slot, it’s a four-piece from Glasgow that provides the fireworks. Franz Ferdinand: justified and ancient, and so good, so good, so good, so goooood.
Later, I ask a female Guetta devotee in the VIP area why there is so little evidence of drug use at Sziget and she replies in a no-nonsense, Rosa Klebb monotone, “Drugs are for losers.” This defiant sociocultural comment is not quite the answer we expected but this glamorous, lithe blonde, with ironed-straight hair, seems to echo what Hungarian youths truly believe.
With illegal highs firmly off the agenda, for the price of an E, you can strap yourself to a vertical beam, along with four to six of your friends, and be hoisted into the sky by a building-site crane like a job lot of bricks. Flight by crane is so much more graceful than the antipodean lunacy of bungee-jumping. Soaring like a seagull at 300 feet, with the gentle breeze of the Danube softly rushing past your cheeks, this not only seems safe, it feels natural. It tops a fantastic day. UK construction companies are missing out on a real money-spinner.
Leaving the site, a T-shirt is spotted that reads “I’m from Skeggy”. The slogan may lack panache, but sussed British festival-goers are now fully aware of Sziget’s appeal, viewing Budapest as a viable alternative to the corporate-branded weekenders of home. There’s a great deal of choice in Europe right now. Since Sziget’s launch in 1992, there has been a five-fold increase in the number of major festivals, meaning that quality bands are increasingly difficult – and expensive – to book. Regardless of world-class performers, Sziget is a unique experience and this alone should secure its long-term future. And if New Order play next year, we’ll definitely be back. Just make sure they play at the weekend. Some of us have got jobs to do.