Live Report: EXIT Festival 2019

Live Report: EXIT Festival 2019

An ecstatic weekend at the much-loved Serbian event...

Still a big player in Serbia’s push for change and reinvention, EXIT Festival celebrated its nineteenth year with the most diverse line-up. As a former outlet for youth rebellion almost twenty years ago, it was an “exit out of the madness”, a way out of Slobodan Milošević’s regime.

The feeling of isolation from the rest of Europe made EXIT keen to link Serbia to the other countries. To see some of this idealism and rebellion unfold at the festival is authentic and moving as 200,000 guests from more than 90 countries go through the gates to see various acts perform on the twenty stages.

The weather in Novi Sad is known to surprise, and the changes range from heavy downpour to sunny and dry, from muggy and warm to thunderstorm with clear skies to follow. Nevertheless, the festival adapts well to the alternating, tricky conditions.

Hosting the festival at the stunning Petrovaradin Fortress makes the adventure quirky and charming. The combination of cobblestone and uneven, hilly terrain adds to the experience. What’s more, the fortress has numerous little ‘secret’ pockets of space, and when they get utilised and turned into venue and performance space, a magical Pandora’s box effect kicks in as all sorts of events take place during the four days. It is a nice extra feature.

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It is Thursday. The main stage is where The Cure’s magnitude is displayed. Having just performed at other big festivals, they have developed a winning formula. As expected, they are the band to watch that evening and they deliver the gothic rock goods. Combining a ‘Best of’ but showing nuance and depth is far from straightforward, but a balance is obviously achieved. It is a magical execution highlighting their elaborate body of work.

As their frontman Robert Smith notes, it is interesting that EXIT’s opening ceremony is due to happen after their performance, and not before it. The performance shows the band at total ease, Smith is enjoying himself and the crowd appreciates the scale of what they are seeing. As with most festival sets there are highlights but during the two hour set everything is one big moment of control, expression and joy.

Dark, beautiful but humorous, set favourites include ‘Fascination Street’, ‘In Between Days’, ‘Just Like Heaven’, ‘A Forest’ and their hit sprinkled encore consisting of ‘Friday I’m In Love’, ‘Why Can’t I Be You’ and ‘Boys Don’t Cry’. But picking moments makes it seem like an injustice is done.

EXIT Festival is not all about music. It offers visual art and interactive sessions on subjects like science and astronomy. A high-profile installation this year is by Yoko Ono. The conceptual ‘One Day…’ gets revealed in Novi Sad a week before the festival opens. Placed at the foot of the Fortress, it takes inspiration from a chaika, a traditional boat, once used by Serbian frontier patrols during the Ottoman Empire. Yoko Ono has stated that “peace is power” and that the artwork is about hope and survival.

Some of Friday’s highlights include The Chainsmokers, Chase & Status and the “world’s most popular DJ” Peggy Gou. Now a global star, the South Korean continues to impress, skilfully wowing the international fans with rare nuance and innovation. The crowd at the Dance Area is ecstatic. Her flash and slick production values support the finesse, eclecticism and cultural diversity offered in her style. 

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The glorious sunshine on Saturday adds an extra dimension before the final day. It is exactly what is needed to manage fuel and energy levels as everyone begins to prepare for the climax.

Contrary to UK festival life, days at EXIT begin and finish several hours later. Subsequently, the festival gates don’t open until early evening, so it is not necessarily a festival for early risers but the pattern makes it highly suitable for techno raves and extended DJ sets. A strong presence and a big voice, Tom Walker knows how to engage as he receives a huge response from the crowd. His chorus led soul-rock is infectious and direct.

Having written a song with Rudimental whom he refers to as “one of my favourite bands of all time” before playing the song ‘Walk Alone”. Eager to express some political beliefs, he goes on to talk about his hate for Brexit prior to launching into ‘Dominoes’, a song tackling the current culture of news. The bold nature of his set makes it effective and popular with the festival crowd. It is obvious that they love it.

But an entirely different atmosphere is created by Michigan rockers Greta Van Fleet. Having gained the recognition of Robert Plant himself, the Led Zeppelin influenced four- piece has been playing live shows around the world. It is hard not to be awestruck by the production, the sound and their studious performance, but their music does carry an element of artifice coupled with a lack of originality. Songs such as ‘The Cold Wind’, ‘Highway Tune’ and ‘Black Smoke’ are catchy and work well when performed live.

Finally, Sunday offers plenty of activity including Vojko V, IAMDDB, Desiigner, Skepta and Detroit DJ legend Jeff Mills. During Mills’ two hour set, EXIT’s Dance Arena is transformed into a vibrant, pulsating stadium full of techno devotees. The raw beats may seem relentless but there is just so much happening underneath.

An array of colour, variety and changeability, there is a real sense of development and a narrative. It is an authentic and vibrant display demonstrating decades of experience and skill. It is the perfect climax builder.

Paradoxically, the EXIT Festival site has few exits, and so leaving each night, or morning, takes longer than anticipated. However, inspired sets like that of The Cure or Jeff Mills eliminate the sense of urgency to leave early and the desire to stay longer on site increases with each day.

EXIT Festival is more than comparable to other festivals of that size and ilk, but it is so welcoming and that makes it more appealing than the majority.

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Words: Susan Hansen

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