“We just came back to switch our amps off”. Bernard Sumner, ubiquitous leader of New Order says as he comes back into sight against a backdrop of cheers and applause. The behemothic stage is set against the stunning scenery of the Petrovaradin Fortress. The sun has recently disappeared behind the river Danube, taking the temperature down to a modest 30 degrees, and a cool 30,000 people are rightly unfooled by his assertion as he launches into an emphatic Joy Division encore of ‘Transmission’ and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.
Serbia isn’t exactly top of everyone’s list of holiday destinations. A tumultuous political past generally doesn’t transfer to picture postcard imaginings. However, EXIT Festival and the surrounding city of Novi Sad have an incredible amount to offer. Days spent lazily on the beach, basking in the sun, drinking beer and eating local food is pretty much the checklist for most people’s vacations. Here though, that’s also accompanied by a truly special music festival.
Exit festival is set within a captivating 18th century Petrovaradin Fortress whose defensible lofty perch, thick curtain walls and cobbled streets play host to some of the worlds biggest artists. Despite housing twenty stages, some in close proximity to one another, it’s a testament to both the production levels across site and the incomparable architecture that you never end up hearing a cacophony of clashing, discordant sounds as you move from one stage to the next. That’s not to say that any stage is quiet. Quite the opposite; sound across the festival is loud and felt, but never deafening.
After landing in Belgrade at 1am and negotiating a seemingly fair price for a taxi £40 to travel the 90km to Novi Sad (we would later discover that we were thoroughly ripped off), it’s straight to the main stage in the hopes of catching the embers of Duran Duran. Sadly they’ve just finished, and the 50,000 strong crowd are waiting in anticipation for the next act: Sub Focus & MC ID. It’s a seemingly bizarre bit of programming, a classic band followed by a bass heavy modern hero, and it’s a theme that continues over the entire weekend. But it works. The swarming crowd that were at one stage no doubt bellowing ‘Rio’ and ‘Girls on Film’ are now equally as magnetised by Sub Focus’s journey through genres. Weaving a fine selection of house, drum & bass, dubstep and a few cheeky nods to techno, this is a lesson in how to hold a crowd. Elsewhere, we catch a glimpse of TEED playing a sublime set in what must truly be the heart of the festival – The Dance Arena. The stage is the last to close each night hosting a seething yet welcoming 25,000 people from dusk till dawn across a lower ground level and a rising amphitheatre way above the stage, stunning.
After spending a good portion of Friday acclimatising and sampling the local beer on the beach, which itself has a host of stages playing music throughout the day, it’s time to properly explore the fortress. There’s a wealth of smaller stages, artist studios, small bars and secret tunnels over to the east of the site, in parts giving unparalleled views over the city and the river Danube. Tonight also brings the aforementioned New Order, Hercules & Love Affair and Reboot. However, the highlight had to be finding Locked Groove and George Fitzgerald tucked away on the HappyNoviSad stage, no more than 100 metres from the Dance Arena. Fitzgerald in particular played a distinguished set, delving headfirst into a fantastic collection of current house, bass and techno including Bicep, Boddika, Trikk, and a lot of his own work.
As is often the case with festivals, some of the best moments are those that you cannot plan. There’s not much that can beat listening to live Serbian hip-hop, half cut in the morning sun, surrounded by people who appear to know every single word.
Elsewhere we caught Benoit & Sergio playing (ambiguously) live, Richie Hawtin playing what only Richie Hawtin can get away with, and a techno-heavy set from the eternally happy Claude VonStroke, before arriving back at our hotel for breakfast.
Maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s the fact that there are no queues for the bars or the toilets or well…anything, but although surrounded by people, EXIT never feels impersonal. In fact, the only time that we felt crowded or at all had to fight for a place to stand was on Sunday during Guns n’ Roses. However, due to their largely lackluster performance, we didn’t feel too bad about leaving thirty minutes into what turned out to be a two and a half hour jam session. Not to worry though, both the Dance Arena and HappyNoviSad stage today host an array of top-drawer talent, including Laurent Garnier and Maceo Plex, both who hold the crowd with unwavering class. Our favourite set of today though came from Skream, who forced us to cast aside previous experiences of a DJ who’d “over-indulged”, as he delivered one of the most high-energy, polished and skillfully mixed sets we’ve heard in a long time. Diving from Donna Summer to Dismantle, this was proper party music, just the right amount of tongue lodged into his cheek.
And then all too soon it was over. Saying goodbye to mid-thirty degree heat, beers for less than a British pound and a beautiful country filled with beautiful people is no easy feat. And it’s perhaps this reason that those who have been are beguiled into going again and again. The setting, the line-up, the history and the hospitality all point to one conclusion: EXIT Festival may be the best festival in the world.
Thanks to: Nadia, Nikki, Nemanja, Marko, Nick & Chris, for an unforgettable experience.