A niche too far?

Budapest has emptied. The tens of thousands who descended on the city have gone home. Sziget is over and by all accounts, it wasn’t nearly the success it has been in previous years. The week-long music festival has been running for 25 years and this is the first year it hasn’t been run by Hungarians. Or so I’m told. Apparently, the same US crowd who run the weekend Coachella festival in California have taken it over and their influence was visible.

I went myself, for the first time, back in 2014 and had a blast. The novelty was quite something. To see such a well-organised temporary city within a city was evidence of the extraordinary logistical feat involved in catering for daily crowds of up to 80 000 with few, if any, incidents of public disorder. I went then because I got a free ticket. This year I paid because I wanted to see Jamie Cullum again, having thoroughly enjoyed his gig last year at the Veszprém Fest.

He was on stage at 4pm, so we set out about 2 to have an hour or so to wander around before having to pay attention. This time, himself was the virgin. It was Day 1. Pink had played the day before on Day 0 and the five-day passers wouldn’t arrive till the next day. There didn’t seem to be nearly as many as I’d expected and the crowd was somewhat subdued. I saw far more chairs and blankets and lots more sitting around this year. Perhaps it had to do with the heat. It could also have been the music though.

Jamie, God love him, is brilliant. But outdoors at 4pm in 30+ heat ain’t his gig. Still, though, he gave it welly and his 70 mins were great. A short break and then Tom Odell took the stage. They’d said I’d like him but he didn’t do it for me at all. Biffy Clyro, though, they were brilliant. And for all the mad roughness that their appearance screams, they’re gentlemen. Now them, them I’d go see again. And I’ve note to self made to get a CD for the car. They’re driving, stay awake, sort of stuff. I have it on good authority that they got their name because one night, sitting around stoned (hey, it’s what I heard), one of them asked the other to pass a Cliff Richard fan pen, the Cliffy biro. It came out the Biffy Clyro. It makes a good story.

Between acts, we wandered around and looked at what was on offer. Much the same as 2014, there were some additions – like the fun fair. With the Italian marionettes. There’s also a museum quarter where all the museums in Budapest had taken a stand. Skanzen, the traditional Hungarian village centre from Szentendre, was there, too, complete with its games from the past. Various causes were well represented and this year they seem to have had a full theatre and a comic gig or three. I was taken with the recycling efforts but despite handing out free portable ashtrays and offering rewards for bringing back bags of trash, the place was littered with cigarette butts and empty cups. It wouldn’t have taken much had everyone picked up after themselves, but as I say, this year seemed different.

I was very disappointed in the wine village – a paltry offering that was overpriced. And the food…. what we hadn’t wasn’t great but of the hundreds of outlets, we only tried two, so it could well have been the luck of the draw. Perhaps my expectations were too high. But in talking to some Irish friends who’d gone the VIP camping route this year (as opposed to bring your own tent as they did last year) they, too, noticed a difference. More drugs. More booze. More trash. And the music was more mainstream but very much focusing on electro (is that the right term?) dance. Last year, they said, they’d had to juggle to get to all the gigs they’d wanted to see (there’s about 1000 in all over the course of the week), but this year, they’d time on their hands.

Hungarian friends tell me they stayed away because they didn’t recognise the big names. I thought it was just me, which wouldn’t be surprising. But those they knew weren’t their scene. Seems like it’s niching up and playing to a particular crowd – Scandinavians and French.

We rounded off our evening at the Music Box where Ripoff Raskolnikov was doing the business. I’d already seen him earlier that week at Kobuci Kert for his birthday gig. But I wasn’t worried. When he and Nagy Szabolcs (keyboards) get together, they don’t play set pieces. It’s more of a ‘what’ll we play next’ sort of thing. which is good if you’re a regular – you never get the same gig twice.

Sziget? Yes. For a day. But only if there’s someone you really want to see. The experience has become expensive, very expensive, and many are being priced out. The offer is more limited and while the novelty factor is still there, I doubt I’ll be in a hurry back. That said, if Ed Sheerin were to head it up, I’d be there. But if it’s going down the dance route, he’d hardly be their first pick. Let’s wait and see.


Ageing to the sound of music

I’ve just discovered that I have onychorrhexis. For months now, I’ve been telling myself that I should go see my doctor but I never found the time. So I did what any semi-digital native might do – I checked my symptoms online. And there’s no doubt. I have onychorrhexis – vertical ridges on my fingernails. And the main cause of this condition? Ageing.

I’m lucky. Had the ridges been horizontal, they’d be known as Beau’s lines. These, apparently, are caused by ‘diseases that affect the entire body, including malnutrition, heart attack (myocardial infarction), severe infections, and metabolic disturbances, including poorly controlled diabetes’. Whew. I only have to deal with ageing. I just love a bit of perspective.

I am getting older, though. And this fact was brought home to me earlier this week as I walked the streets of Budapest catching up with what’s going on. I make it a habit to take a walk and read the billboards, the posters, the tram-stop advertisements, just to see what’s happening in the city. And with summer within sneezing distance and the shoes and socks already discarded in favour of sandals, the festival season is almost upon us.

dropkickThis year’s Sziget (Island of Freedom Festival 10-17 August) line-up has left me cold, even colder than last year. I don’t recognise any of the acts, apart from Robbie Williams and the Dropkick Murphys (and in truth, it might be the Murphy part I’m relating to – I couldn’t begin to tell you what they sound like but I’d hazard a guess that it’s some type of Celtic rock). Florence and the Machine? Marina and the Diamonds? Gentlemen and the Evolution? Who are these people?

vayaLast year, I missed out on VeszprémFest (this year happening from 15-18 July). I was raging. Too late I saw the posters for Katie Melua (I could sing you at least two of her songs … offkey of course). Too late I saw the posters for Vaya Con Dios (Dani Klein would go on to play her last concert in October last year and that I missed the opportunity to hear her live still makes me mad). And too late I saw the posters for Youssou Ndour – it’s a personal ambition to be able to dance well to his music. I could have gone for the whole five days and felt at home. So this year, I was on the ball. But who have they playing: Kool and the Gang and Roger someone who used to be with Supertramp. I was hoping for Leonard Cohen and Imelda May and the Beautiful South. But no joy.

When I looked at the line-up for Balaton Sound (9‒12 July), I despaired. Hardwell, Nicky Romero, Afrojack, DVBBS, Showtek? I’d never even heard of this lot – but then I realised that they’re DJs. I’m excused. That last time I was at a disco, the Parish Priest was passing through the hall making sure we all had our arms fully extended during the slow set.

motorheadThe Volt Festival in Sopron (1‒4 July) brings me out in hives stressing about how uncool and out-of-touch I am. In fairness, I have heard of Motorhead and enjoyed an interview I heard recently with Fat Boy Slim, but neither of them would aerate my Aperol Spritz.

palomaI was charging my ignorance of all things modernly musical up to me getting older but then remembered that a friend in her seventies had turned me on to George Ezra and another one tipping eighty is mad about Paloma Faith. Wait! I saw that name on a poster somewhere. That’s all I need: my septuagenarian friends bopping away at Sziget while I sit at home, educating myself on YouTube. Ridges on my nails? Onychorrhexis? That’s the least of my worries.

First published in the Budapest Times 8 May 2015

Monkeys, by any other name, are still monkeys

Could I have two tickets for tonight’s concert, please?
It’s sold out.
No tickets?
Yes, there are tickets. But it’s sold out.
So, can I get two tickets?
Yes, but you will have to stand.
That’s no problem.
Can I go in now to see the zoo?
No. You’re standing. You can’t go in until the concert starts. Only those with seats can go in early.

IMG_4158 (800x600)I had come to Budapest Zoo to see Budapest Bar in concert. The website said that with your ticket you could enter at 7 pm, check out the animals, and then see the gig. But only if you got a seated ticket, apparently. If you were standing, then you couldn’t go in. This made no sense. If I was wandering around looking at the animals, I wouldn’t be sitting in a seat? But hey… I was tired. I’d had a bad day. And I really wanted to see Budapest Bar.

So I bought the tickets and then killed an hour in the local IBIS bar. Not the most fascinating place I’ve ever had a drink in, but the wine was wet and came in a glass and I’d had a bad day. I said that already, didn’t I?

Those of you paying attention will remember that Budapest Bar was the band that impressed me most at Sziget. A gypsy band with six musicians who play the cymbol, keyboards, violin, double bass, drums, and accordion, they attract a who’s who of Hungarian contemporary singers. The craic they had on stage had the audience in stitches and us mono linguists wishing for the billionth time that we had the Hungarian to get the humour.

IMG_4153 (800x600)And the joy that is Budapest Bar is that they open up a completely new world of new voices. I now have a major girl crush on Németh Juci. And a major boy crush on Frenk. Together, their rendition of Wild Rose was mindblowing.

My second favourite song of the evening was Frenk – again – with the Alabama Song… this was the one that converted me to Budapest Bar in Sziget.

And in third place was a version of Purple Rain that was, to my mind, better than any one I have ever heard, including the original. Frenk and a girl called Sandi… who in her own right was bloody amazing, too. The talent… the talent…

Fourth place (after this I gave up ranking) went to Rutkai Bori for Mr Alkohol. But you need to see her in action to appreciate the animation. As the inimitable MLB said: I’d wrap her up and take her home.

They played everything from the Pulp Fiction opening number to David Bowie’s Everything will be alright tonight. It was undoubtedly the best 1900 huf (€6/$8) I have ever spent on live music.

These lads love their stuff. The singers, all of them, are animated, acting as well as singing. The audience of about 800 souls chilling out (literally) in the low twenties open air at the zoo on a Thursday night in Budapest were with them all the way. Sure what else would you be doing?

Next door, in Gundel  (perhaps the most expensive restaurant in the city) patrons sitting on the terrace had a great vantage point and a free gig. But it would be hard to begrudge them, seeing as some entrées on that particular menu go for 40000 huf (about €125 or $175).

The booze wasn’t cheap cheap… but the setting more than made up for it. It was a gorgeous evening. Great music, good wine, scintillating company. What more could a body ask for?

Well, I’d have liked to have seen the monkeys!

PS They’re playing a gig in the synagogue on Sept 3. If you’re in town, it’s well worth trying to get tickets.





No longer a virgin

Each year, come July/August, I go through the same routine. I check the line-up for this years Sziget music festival and see how few names I recognise. Then I have the same debate with myself: to go or not to go. And each year, despite the best of intentions to let this be the year that I get out of my box and break down those comfortable walls, I never follow through. I find an excuse and I chicken out.

The seven-day Sziget music festival has been running since 1993 and now features more than 1000 live performances over the course of the week. This year, Thursday sold out with Lily Allen on the main stage. 85 000 day tickets were sold that day and all festival goers were contained on Óbudai-sziget, a 266-acre island on the Danube.

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In my defence, I am musically clueless. It’s as if the music world stopped turning for me in the 1980s. I detest crowds with a passion, unless I’m neatly corralled in my allocated space where you can’t stomp on me, elbow me, or spill your pint on top of me (strangely though, I have no problem with crowds at a racetrack…mmm…). I can’t abide being marked up, paying over the odds just because I’m one of  a captive audience with no choice other than to pay or go without. But this year, I actually went. Just for one day. But I went.


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It was muddy and the mud stank like the wet fur of a million dogs. This was the second-last day and those who were camping for the week were looking a little like they’d been dragged through a ditch backwards. As a newbie, I let fly with my fair share of oohs and aghs. I was  impressed. It’s like a little city with post offices, pharmacies, shops, a consular office, bars, and restaurants. All that was missing was a church.  There were UK police and police from Germany, the Netherlands  and other countries in uniform and on hand to help. Signs showed meeting points for Australians, Dutch, Nordic, Indians and more. You could buy a festival phone to keep track of your mates and everything was paid for using a festival card that you topped up as you needed at one of the many banks around the place. You could even get married there, have an HIV test, or check your mental health. There was an Irish stage, a world stage, and various other tents and stages that featured specific types of music. I could have stayed all night at the circus pitch – remarkable stuff.


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Prices seemed quite standardised and certainly more expensive than the usual Hungarian fare but for the many international heads (I heard that over 70% of attendees come from abroad), it is still cheap. Hidden amongst it all is a pub that operates on the island year round. It accepts the festival card but has its own prices (about half of what you’d pay elsewhere)  – a good place to know. People were walking around with small pails of cocktails. Wine bottles were being emptied into plastic containers. Beer was being sold by the vatload and yet there were surprisingly few obvious drunks and those who were a little the worse for wear were in great form.

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The place is dotted with interesting art installations and there is plenty to see and do. Were I to do it over, I’d go in the morning and wander around before the crowds got too much. Then I’d sit for a while near the circus, spend some time at the world stage, and perhaps hand-pick a band or two that I really wanted to see.

First band on the main stage that even was an Indie band from the UK – the Bombay Bicycle Club. Needless to say I’d never heard of them but they were good. I could listen to them. At 7.30 IMG_4090 (800x600)Madness appeared and I was back in the kitchen in Northbrook in the mi-1980s with Messrs Jackson and Dowdall doing their take on Suggs et al. in the kitchen. Great stuff. They sang all the classics to which I even knew then words. I never fail to surprise myself.

Crowdsurfing was all the go and I watched a little agestruck as people were bodily passed across the crowd, mentally calculating that there wasn’t enough wine in the world to make me trust in the hands of strangers.  Towards the end,  Our House and Baggy Pants roused the younger ones, as if turning on a collective memory switch. It became just a tad hairy, as they barrelled through the crowd to the front, regardless of what or who was in the way. By this stage, I’d had enough. There’s a limit to the amount of discomfort I can handle. Prodigy were next up – the main act that night. I listened long enough to realise that I am not and will never be a fan. I just didn’t get them. So I went in search of good music – Budapest Bar. 

And from there to the World Stage for some reggae. By this time, I was running on empty. Completely knackered. Twelve hours was as much as I could handle. I was pretty impressed that I’d lasted that long and more impressed with the set-up. And while I love the idea, I can’t for the life of me imagine a whole week of it. Next year, I’ll be in Africa, so the internal debate can be postponed. In 2016? Who knows.

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