EXIT Festival 2011
Landing in Serbia for the first time, the effects of the 5am start in London wearing off with the endless blue skies and uninterrupted sunshine, I realise I don’t really know what to expect from the Exit Festival. A spur-of-the-moment decision made in April means I have little background knowledge of one of Europe’s biggest and most popular festivals bar some journalistic research, but, refreshingly, it means I’ll approach it with a relatively unjaded mindset, which is unusual for a decade-long hack like me.
The view of the festival site, first glanced as we walked over the Danube to pick up our passes, was reason enough to expect this would be more than even the usual European festival. Sonar’s strength may be that it’s in the centre of Barcelona, but even a such a great city as the Catalan capital can’t rival Novi Sad’s historical beauty. I can’t think of any other festival that takes place in a 16th century fort. In fact, part of me wished we’d start tonight rather than a rather sensible rest day before four days of hedonistic indulgence. The organisation is laid-back but effective. Picking up accreditation took only 15 minutes, a breath of fresh air, and bodes well for the weekend. But for now, a few local pivos, and head down in preparation. If I’m going to cut the figure of a so-called festival veteran, then I better not fall prey to the classic ‘first night out’ syndrome. I’ve been there too many times before, and I don’t need to wake up with a slamming headache again.
Thurs 7th July
Thursday is the start of the real action, and a chance to test the water, get your bearings, then wade in. It’s hard to plan when you’re a first time visitor, so the best lesson learnt is to work out how long it might take to get somewhere, and double it. Ironically, in our case, our preparation meant we spent forty minutes on the bridge across the Danube for our friends to turn up, eating up all our spare time in the process. Nerves were shredded enough before we got in – easily – then hit the beer tokens queue. Knowing no better, we spent twenty frustrating minutes before giving up and legging it to get into position for Arcade Fire.
Saved from alcoholic dehydration by the Tuborg man (I’m all for sponsorship at festivals, as the money needs to come from somewhere, but surely we could’ve had a superior local brew?) we spent the next hour in rapture to the Canadian collective. It’s the third time in three months I’ve seen them, but their lustre isn’t reduced, only increased. A multi-platinum group, with no top ten single, they certainly have the records and stage presence to more than laugh that statistic down the road. Interchanging vocals, instruments, and old and new records, they hold the crowd in the palm of their hand and looking back from halfway back, we can’t see the end of the crowd. It raises the interesting question of, for a main stage, it’s not very big. It may not boast as many punters as Glastonbury, at only a quarter of the size, but the biggest stage isn’t here, and it’s much more spread out across over 30 different ‘arenas’ across the lofty festival site. It doesn’t lessen the enjoyment, not when you have a band following that’s fast entreating a renaissance period that makes it feel like they’ve never been away.
Pulp may be following many other bands on the comeback trail (from the sublime – Suede – to the ridiculous – Blue) but this is no cynical cash-in. The death of a friend prompted the Sheffield collective to reform, and make the most of the present, and the result is one of the warmest-received of years, something a recent sellout at Wireless confirmed in wonderful fashion. I was there that day, and even though it’s only been four days since, I’m just as excited as I was then (though probably less emotional). Fireworks burst overhead to bridge the gap while the roadies beaver away, but no one seems to be bothered by the wait. Pulp may open again with Do You Remember The First Time? but they are a band riding the crest of a wave of goodwill and fervour that even they couldn’t have predicted.
Moving them from London to Serbia makes no difference, as the crowd sing from start to finish, as Jarvis Cocker proves himself the consummate frontman. In 1997, when they played Finsbury Park, he was a misfit, an outsider trying to connect with a still sometimes sceptical crowd, but the intervening years have seen his onstage brio grow, and his rapport with the audience increase tenfold, and the result is a mixture of well-attempted Serbian, sentimentality, and biting wit, with even a short burst of Yellow Submarine as an intro to Misshapes. When they finish with Common People, it feels for a moment as if 1995 never ended. It could be overstating it that a band stole the festival on the first night, but they may have done that.
At this point, we’d not even transgressed outside the main stage, which felt a little like cheating in such an incredible setting. There’s four days left to explore, so for now it’s a shin up the hill and over to the mt:s Dance Arena. And if you’ve seen photos of the festival, chances are this is the place you’ll have remembered. With much of the festival inside the fort’s walls, this space sits in the immense moat, with the stage below one wall, and facing it ramparts that slope up to stands that tower over fifty meters above the front of the dancefloor. It’s an imposing sight empty, but fill it with crazed dancers and it takes on an element of the unhinged. We fight through to catch the end of Tiga, who is busy tearing the arena in two with his trademark electronic house. The truth is that much of the crowd are here for the next act, Canadian Deadmau5.
Now I’m no fan, but even I can’t really begrudge the spectacle, with seemingly half the heads that bob up and down to the beats dressed in free masks that mimic his red mouse mask, adding a bit of surreality to proceedings. By this time dawn is breaking (a not so shocking 4am) and it’s time for this hack to head home. I think the Tetris theme finally broke my spirit, but I seem to be in a minority, with sunglasses donned, the thousands show no sign of calling it a day. the walk home isn’t helped by falling up the metal steps on the way out, but it’ll be a ‘reminder’ of the trip away I suppose. For the first time I’ll traverse the half hour trip back to our apartment, through a zombie-like deserted city, trying to beat the heat of the sun and back to the air con before my head burns and sleeping in to revive for the next day. There’s three more to come, so it’s an essential part of the festival routine.
Fri 8th July
Having spent the recovery on the City Beach on Thursday, it’s our first port of call once again to rest the bones. And this is no hastily-put together strip, but half a kilometre of fine sand that’s stood in Novi Sad for a century. It’s another string to the bow of this weekend. It’s not just another festival, there’s character to it, and it’s like no other place I’ve ever partied. And the scenery, well all I can say is that I’m glad I’m wearing massive sunglasses as I lie in the heat, because I don’t know where to look. Or rather I knowexactly where to look, and I don’t want to get caught.
In what will fast become a routine for the weekend, we head down around 10pm to catch the first of the main headliners, in this case, Editors. They’re not a band I know well, but festivals are all about catching artists like this, and they’re an intriguing prospect live, not least because frontman Tom Smith seems to exude a charisma that I could only describe as being heavily under the influence. Perhaps it’s just the euphoria of the evening, but I’ve been in enough clubs to know he looks a little… refreshed. Still, it’s a sturdy entree to the rest of the evening, which will be spent mostly getting giddy with excitement for Underworld. For an act that formed in 1987, it’s astonishing that they’re still making music and touring, with the last album, Barking, released in 2010. And with Darren Emerson back in the fold after a decade it’s fair to say I’m looking forward to this even more than I was their triumphant return to Renaissance in 2007.
The scene’s set skilfully by Londoner Maya Jane Coles (born a year after Underworld were formed), a DJ du jour in 2011, playing a selection of deep and emotive house to the waiting masses. When the trio emerge onto the stage to Rez, the crowd almost surges forward, and it’s quickly almost impossible to dance, so we take to shuffling, arm-waving and cheering in front of the immense light show that accompanies the collection of hits old and new. For a man of 54 years old, Karl Hyde moves like someone half his age, as he digs out every move from his idiosyncratic bag of tricks, weaving and waving to Dark and Long, Scribble, Two Months Off, and finally causing a mini-earthquake with a finale of Born Slippy. For a song with utterly meaningless lyrics, it’s screamed by thousands of voices in what’s for many the high point of the festival weekend.
After such a crescendo, even Carl Craig can’t quite lift the atmosphere back up, so we decide to go walkabout, determined not to just sample the main arenas. The setting alone of Exit dictates that exploring is a must, and over the next two hours we almost circle the entire site, taking in a wall of noise at the Fusion Stage from The Good Boys, reggae at the Positive Vibration stage, and watch hardly souls fly down the zipwire above us, hoping they don’t decide to take that moment to empty their stomach onto those walking below. There are stages around every corner, from DJs hammering out techno to a handful of woozy punters to thrash metal and punk on the packed Explosive arena, and it’ll take more than a quick walk to cover them all, or indeed even uncover all of them, but we’re going to try, because that’s what festival adventures are all about. As we head home, the sun bruising the sky through a strangely deterred early morning Novi Sad, we make a mental note to carry on our tour on Saturday.
Sat 9th July
Saturday comes with the chance to spend more recovery time by the water. However, it’s slightly less grand surroundings than the City Beach, more a glorified (and brown) paddling pool in a friend’s house across the other side of town: trailerpark luxury. The fourteen girls, over on a hen do, were dressed in matching vests and tutus last night, and are in collective states of fragility, having blazed a trail across the site the previous night, but come game time they’re more than steeled for another session as we see what Saturday has to offer.
As it happens, it’s Jamiroquai. Like many of us, we didn’t realise he was still touring, but it turns out there’s a large market for big acts like this on the European festival circuit, and when we actually reach the main stage, it’s clear it’s the biggest crowd of the weekend, as Jay Kay struts his stuff in what can only be both a massive and boiling piece of headgear. A brave move, but then without the hats, it’s just not him, is it? After ten sweaty minutes we retreat, barely having pierced the throng and make good on our promise to revisit the fort’s nooks and crannies. Travelling up through the tunnel and into the ramparts, we fight against the flow, through the queues at the pizza stall, past the strange sight of the Silent Disco, its patrons shuffling quietly in a tent and cheering, seemingly to nothing at all, and alongside the Latino stage, its laid-back samba floating through the night sky. This time we find a cinema (though it’s never clear what odd program is actually on), and a bar that serves Cuba Libras, a welcome relief from the beer/wine/cider trio on offer in most places. There’s always a surprise around the corner at Exit.
The dance arena lures us in once more though, and I grit my teeth as Fedde Le Grand tears out the last half hour of his set. We’re here for Groove Armada, but it’s clear a lot of the hordes are here for Fedde, who obliges with dancers, an MC and, of course, Put Your Hands Up For Detroit. It may not really be my thing, but I’m in an extreme minority, and it’s barely possible to move as the muscular electro-house throbs over the sea of hands. When Andy Cato and Tom Findlay replace them, the atmosphere palpably comes down a notch. It’s a shame, as they spend much of the set playing robust house, straining to regain the lost frenzy, and teasing us with accapellas of their biggest tracks as they weave more modern fare, concentrating on their laptops in front of them as if entranced.
By 4am, I’ve made the executive decision to escape, leaving the rest of our crew to dance through the night, but reports the next day of Sneak’s following set make me wish I’d not been so lilly-livered. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but over four days, sometimes you need to take a night off, even if that only means heading home an hour earlier than every other night. With the high 30s, sky-blue days, it’s not hard to relax and sleep off the excess, and in somewhere as beautiful as Novi Sad, where despite the festival, it’s not obvious in the centre of town in the afternoons unless you hunt for wristbands. This time, I’m taking no chances. I guess I’m not as young as I used to be.
Sunday 10th July
It feels sad to have reached the final day of Exit’s four-part extravaganza. In the course of the last 96 hours, I’ve come to love thiscorner of eastern Europe. Novi Sad is a beautiful city, and the people are welcoming, and laid-back. It’s a joy that we’re not escaping straight away, taking a day’s rest on the Monday when most of our friends are enduring the nightmare of a seven-hour journey straight from the festival to Budapest for a flight home. Rather them than me. I can’t wait to spend another day on the City Beach, and enjoy the hospitality of the locals, planning to take in more of the rustic local cuisine.
Having caught the British Grand Prix in the afternoon, we’re refreshed for the final off. And two acts on the main stage stand out, and they couldn’t have been more of a contrast. Portishead, the mythical Bristolian trip-hop outfit that straddled the 90s come before Grinderman, Nick Cave’s unreconstructed man-rock quartet. It’s what makes festivals such a patchwork of interest, and the there’s barely a sound as Beth Gibbons’ ethereal vocals float over the hushed crowd. It’s clear the band have big support here, with almost word-perfect response to Glory Box and Dummy, despite their first language being Serbian. While Gibbons’ legendary reclusiveness even reflects in her reticence to face the crowd when she’s not at the mic, it only adds somewhat to their aura on the main stage this evening.
Following such an atmospheric hour, we’re assuming the polar opposite and it’s what Grinderman give us in spades, with visceral, clattering rock that leaves nothing in the dressing room. Nick Cave proves himself to be a frontman of a very different dimension. In the hour plus set, he’s in the crowd on numerous occasions, at one point scoring a bra from a brave fan. At others he’s seemingly picking fights with his guitarist, his microphone – a roadie’s nightmare – serenading (or scaring) a female in the front row, screaming “I just wanna relax…” terrifyingly on Kitchenette, or lamenting in the bleak No Pussy Blues, they’re a band that take the blues and twist it into a tornado of noise and power. We’re left reeling, a final night surprise that will take some topping.
As the final hours of Exit play out, we retreat to the m:ts Dance Arena, to finish with one of electronic music’s hottest trios. The Rebel Rave consists of Jamie Jones, Seth Troxler and Crosstown Rebels honcho Damian Lazarus. As the sun comes up, they release a stream of giant balloons, as their sleazy house punches the slowly brightening sky, sending the masses into further raptures. It’s one of the many highlights of the four-day party, and a fitting end to Exit 2011. As we finally head down the hill for one last time, thanking the fact we’re not heading straight to the airport, it’s going to be difficult getting the smiles off our faces, and this week in July is already blocked out in our diaries next year.
For all info about Exit, head to the web-site, link is below.