Exit Festival 2011


Written by James Read
Photos and illustrations by James Read
17 Sunday 17th July 2011

Arriving at the town of Novi Sad later that morning, I am unspeakably glad that we've plumped for an apartment over camping. With day temperatures stuck firmly at 37C, a bit of shade to sleep in is a godsend. Thankfully, the music schedule is planned around such extreme heat, with acts running from 7pm to 7am. So after a fitful nap resetting the body clock from 'office' to 'festival' setting, we're off to Petrovaradin Fortress to see what Exit has to offer.

The 18th century Fortress which towers over the town is a fantastic venue for the festival, with seemingly endless tunnels, moats and enclaves providing a setting seemingly far more intimate than a 190,000 person gig usually allows. It's probably a good idea to bring some good shoes though. Locating the main arena, we find a spot for politi-punks Bad Religion, whose songs about Gorbachev, nuclear winter and the Flat Earth Society could have been poignant in post-communist Serbia. Unfortunately a lot seems to have changed over the 30+ years they've been around, and they seem to have mellowed out into rather dull pop-punk. The show feels flat, and the sun's still too high for much more than gentle shuffling from most of the crowd.

Not so for Arcade Fire a couple of hours later. An admission: I have in the past perhaps unfairly dismissed the band as another  Canadian indie group with too many members and an inoffensively generic sound. Everything comes together for them at this gig though, with every track (mostly taken from The Suburbs) being distinct and infectious, with energetic band members rotating musical duties throughout. Riding on the success of their popular HTML5 video for 'We Used to Wait', they are supported by a fantastic visual show. Combining a drive-in aesthetic with multiple kaleidoscopic screens overlaying the band members, it is warmly retro with not a hint of irony.

Pulp are late. Instead we have various mysteriously suggestive messages scrolling across a black curtain obscuring the stage. 'Would you like to see me?', 'Meet me at the bar', and finally 'Do you remember the first time?'. The crowd roars. The curtain drops, and Pulp launch into the song from His 'n' Hers. Jarvis is clearly in high spirits, thrusting his pelvis towards Novi Sad in general and shaking off any illusion of a retiring graphic designer that his appearance may belie. Though they stick mostly to their biggest album, Different Class, the height of the gig has to be 'This is Hardcore', which sees Jarvis slinking up the speaker stack and cocking his hip at the audience, before leaping into the photo pit. The set closes, of course, with Common People. And the crowd go wild.

Seeing Portishead is a gig that, for me, has been 13 years coming. Ever since Roseland NYC, I've been waiting to watch Beth Gibbons perform tracks like 'Only You' and 'Mysterons'. But seeing her is difficult as she drips off the microphone stand, trying apparently to hid behind it. But what her stage presence lacks her voice more than delivers - an undeniable and mesmeric force, soaring and holding notes, and capturing the crowd. But they're unsure of how to react - alternately one half will applaud while the other hushes them to better hear her. Nosaj Thing's remix of 'Wandering Star' in his later set seems a fitting tribute. However, Portishead are directly followed by the raucous and sleazy Grinderman. This would seem a weird choice in billing, but since Gibbons has in fact chosen Grinderman to play at their ATP I'll Be Your Mirror show, perhaps there's some logic.

Nick Cave's gig echoes the energy and sexual drive of Pulp, but with rather more violence. His 'sub-band' Grinderman (all members are also in The Bad Seeds) are replete in lounge lizard chic with pink drumkit, and Nick in winklepickers and a new romantic suit (jacket torn off by third song). He is kicking everything he can find on stage, diving into the audience screaming 'No Pussy Blues' through a reverb filter into a thrilled and bewildered Serbian crowd. At one point his heavily bearded guitarist Warren Ellis (no, not that one) drops to the deck, doing sit-ups over his violin to reach the microphone into which he shouts backing vocals. It's a wild set, and one of the only major ones not to feature any AV - instead we have Cave telling a cameraman to "get the fuck out of my face" - setting out to prove he can carry off a show without any of Exit's production. As ever it remains very hard to believe that he is 53.

What have I learned about Serbia? It's bloody hot in the middle of June, but apartments are cheap and keeping yourself wet with cheap beer is easy. Also the local honey rakija is pretty good (though perhaps of lesser quality from the ladies brandishing it in test tubes at the main gate). What else? Novi Sadians are a very friendly and helpful bunch, and great bakers too - do please try the Burek, it's delicious.

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