Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad
As Serbia’s biggest festival, as well as one of the most renowned music events on the European summer calendar, attending EXIT festival felt like a rite of passage. Held in the enormous, labyrinthine Petrovaradin Fortress, the location itself was something to behold. As we crossed the bridge over the Danube and walked up into the expansive festival site, the sheer magnitude of the four-day extravaganza sunk in. With over 40 stages and music zones and more than 1,000 artists, EXIT was a true showcase of a broad spectrum of sounds, from Serbian hip hop to rock, pop, and world-class house and techno.
Previous editions of the festival have drawn in some 200,00 visitors at a time and EXIT remains not only an iconic music attraction, but an important symbol for unity in the Balkan region. The festival was founded in 2000 in the University Park as a student movement, fighting for democracy and freedom in Serbia and across the Balkans. After the Yugoslavian general election in 2000, EXIT moved to the Petrovaradin Fortress in 2001 where it has stayed ever since, now in its 22nd year.
With so much on offer, there were plenty of highlights to choose from. Here are five stand out sets and performances from across the festival.
Fresh off the back of a triumphant Glastonbury performance, Viagra Boys boast the confidence and charisma of a band who have really hit their stride. The irreverent Swedish post-punk sextet were everything you could want from an opening-night act on the expansive Main Stage – bold, frenetic and endlessly entertaining. Frontman Sebastian Murphy endeared himself to the locals in the crowd with his mumblings about rakia, the nation’s potent fruit spirit, while saxophonist Oscar Carls’ hip-thrusting moves proved oddly impossible to peel your eyes away from. Tracks like Sports showed Viagra Boys at their anarchic best but the soulful, slowed-down rendition of Just Like You proved that there’s gravitas amid their controlled chaos.
Not many DJs can move so naturally between warm, unhurried beats layered with flute melodies to tech house-tinted grooves and squealing breaks – and that’s just in the first thirty minutes. On the tucked-away NSNS stage, Ben UFO showed off his peerless selecting skills with a two hour set that leaned heavily into an early 2000s vibe. He built momentum steadily and seductively, the enormous fortress walls and leafy trees flanking both sides of the stage acting like a natural amphitheatre and lit with pulsing purple and orange lights. The Hessle Audio co-founder looked thoroughly at ease throughout and in contrast to the harder techno being pumped out on other nearby stages, this felt like a cosy (and packed) dancefloor utopia.
Usually, Ben UFO would be a tough act to follow, but American DJ, musician and producer Avalon Emerson laid down a seamless transition into her sunrise slot. The two artists are clearly on friendly terms: Emerson could be seen dancing away in the wings during Ben UFO’s set and, likewise, he stuck around to enjoy her uplifting selections. For her set, Emerson started out with buoyant, vocal-led tracks before winding into tougher, more gritty fare. Holding the attention of a sizable crowd, with the dark night sky bleeding away into a pale dawn, Emerson provided the perfect soundtrack to keep both spirits and energy lifted.
Florence Shaw comes across as something of a reluctant frontwoman, but the usually reserved vocalist for the south London arty post-punk group couldn’t help but crack a smile in response to the warm reception they received from the EXIT festival audience. Their thoughtful, wry songcraft went down a treat on the Fusion stage as Shaw’s spoken-word musings provided a fine counterpoint to the band’s propulsive rhythm section and bombastic guitar work. An assured performance, it confirmed why they are one of the most buzzed-about emerging UK acts around just now.
Wu Tang Clan
It felt like the entire EXIT audience turned out to see the legendary NYC hip hop collective do their inimitable thing on the closing night. Wu-Tang last performed at the festival in 2007, and they were clearly happy to be back and playing to such a rapturous crowd, with thousands of hands held reverently aloft in the ‘W’ symbol. With the exception of Method Man, all of the crew – RZA, GZA, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, Cappadona, U-God and DJ Mathematics – were assembled, blasting through classics like Protect Ya Neck and C.R.E.A.M.. The memory of Ol’ Dirty Bastard lived on through screen projections of his image, and the thoughtful and dynamic visuals added an extra element to their combination of live band and decks set up. Not content to mine their own extensive greatest hits catalogue, Wu-Tang closed out with a fun-filled medley that incorporated The Beatles Come Together and Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. A suitably monumental Sunday night headline show to celebrate another resoundingly successful edition of EXIT.
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