It’s the evening before Exit Festival in the north Serbian city of Novi Sad, and the alleyways that line the far end of the city centre are rammed with people, bustling in and out of the numerous bars stacked alongside each other; there’s plenty of festival renegades filtering in from all over Europe, though the majority are still Novi Sad locals out to make the most of the bustling energy descending on their city.
We hear from locals how much Exit Festival has changed Novi Sad, since its humble beginnings as a student protest against the Miloševic regime back in 2000. It’s enticed visitors from dozens of countries, while equally exposing the city itself to a diverse global posse; a cultural exchange, of sorts.
Crossing the bridge over the Danube River on Thursday evening around 9pm as the sun is beginning to set, you can see the spectacular Petrovaradin Fortress perched on the cliff face of the river bank; the foundations of the current site were built back in the late 17th century when Austria wrestled control of the region from the Turks, commencing construction over the next 100 years on a complex series of tunnels and walls within the site.
As visitors to Exit discover, nearly every corner, moat and walkway is utilised across the festival’s 15 or so stages. At the end of the bridge, you’re led down a narrow road that’s flanked on each side by gritty Eastern European architecture bustling with festival goers, packed with street stalls, along with countless drop-dead beautiful locals selling test-tube shots of a Serbian liquor known as Rakia.
Up a grassy hill, and along a cobbled path that eventually opens up into the sprawling Exit Festival main stage area; a grassy plain peppered with trees, the space is dominated by a massive stage flanked by huge video screens, boasting impossibly clear sound. A scenic backdrop capable of housing 25,000 people.
Beth Ditto and her Gossip crew are the first marquee act on stage tonight, the disco-inspired grooves that underpin their upbeat garage rock serving as a subtle reminder of how grounded in electronic music Exit Festival is. Ditto is as bemused as the rest of us by the video camera swinging over the crowd on a crane, eyeing her every move on stage. “Hello little robot man!” she squeals with delight.
The main stage makes for a perfect low-key start to the evening’s festivities, and 1am is the ideal time to make your first venture to the Dance Arena. It’s arguably Exit Festival’s most defining location; set within a moat of the fortress walls, the grassy flat in front of the stage leads up a sharp incline that once climbed, opens onto another grassy flat, backing onto a circular brick wall, which a number of staircase platforms have been stacked against.
You can climb to the top for an ideal view down into the dusty, throbbing bowl in front of you. It houses nearly 20,000 at its peak, the stunning location combining with some of the most crisp, yet thunderingly heavy sound you’ll ever hear; little wonder it’s proclaimed as one of the true dance meccas of Europe.
Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs sets the scene nicely with some bottom-heavy electro grooves, but later at 3am it’s Sweden’s Avicii who plays the headline set for probably the whole weekend, drawing easily the biggest, and most hysterical crowd.
To many he’s become the face of the silly side of ‘EDM’, but tonight plays a set that technically is impossible to fault, a giddy joyride of bouncy electro, main room house, vocal mash-ups and sugary trance. It’s delivered with enough crafty ingenuity to slay the Swedish House Mafia, and as the sun rises at 4am, a crazy energy really does collect in the bowl.
When he predictably closes his set with ‘Levels’, 20,000 of Serbia’s finest reach critical meltdown. One particularly hysterical punter pinwheels so fast he nearly unwittingly knocks his entire buddy circle over. Truly a sight to behold.
Friday night sees an even stronger dance contingent on the main stage, punters greeted by the disco sounds of Hercules & Love Affair; the classy stage antics enthralling the crowd. New Order are next, proving for the umpteenth time their indie-electronic fusion is as relevant as it ever was; though tonight they’re a little off, lacking the tightness heard elsewhere this summer.
Netsky takes the reigns as club music once again invades the main stage after 2am, and with a little help from MC Dynamite, melodic d&b euphoria rings beautifully across the grassy field. It’s beautifully received, encouraging Netsky himself to snatch the mic from Dynamite. “It’s great to see so many people here loving drum & bass, it really touches my heart.”
Over at the Dance Arena, Luciano has been chosen to spearhead tonight’s party. Hitting the decks at 4am just as the sun begins to rise, what Avicii managed to conjure the night before in screaming hysteria, Luciano delivers in joyful grooves and blissful crowd energy.
He’s positioned himself at the perfect juncture of mass appeal and the underground, and it’s all endless rolling grooves, peppered with moments of true euphoria, like when the chorus from 'Somebody That I Used To Know' slips into the mix; gleeful body shaking, as the sun switches to scorching, and dust rises in the bowl.
Saturday night is the busiest of all four evenings, with Erykah Badu and Plan B bringing class to the main stage early on, while US brostep specialist Borgore plays an oddly bland set of hits, mash-ups and remixes after 2am.
Over at the Dance Arena, though, things are about to get wild, and techno’s most immaculately coiffed figurehead Richie Hawtin leads the charge with two hours of thumping minimalism. It’s all driving 4/4 and hypnotic loops, but Hawtin has no trouble summoning the kind of furious, hedonistic energy you’d get at an insanely loose after-hours in Ibiza.
It’s a smashing festival-ready set, and Hawtin certainly knows how to play the big crowds; the heavy beats keep coming, the screams and hands in the air don’t stop, and the bowl is heaving. It’s the third evening in a row the arena has been rocked by festival professionals, though each bringing something completely different to the table.
Sunday night is the end of the road, and there’s not a lot for dance enthusiasts on the main stage this time. It’s hardly a loss, though, providing the perfect opportunity to explore the sprawling delights of the Petrovaradin Fortress.
Leaving the main stage for the southern end of the grounds, a long brick canyon opens to your left, hundreds of hands in the air enjoying crowd-pleasing dance anthems.
There’s countless tunnels to descend into, featuring rock, metal, reggae, funk and soul. After enjoying the spectacular views of the brick outpost looking down upon the Danube, and the arts stores that are open underneath the Fortress belltower, a chance stroll leads to an open concrete expanse where Buraka Som Sistema are utterly tearing it up, thousands jumping around like crazy.
Sunday night’s biggest source of inspiration comes from a walk through a brick tunnel to the right of the Dance Arena, into an opening of green trees and grass that at first glance looks like the Garden of Eden.
Stretching out in front is a long, deep trench flanked by brick walls on both sides, the left emblazoned with a sign marking it as the ‘Happynovisad Stage’; the festival’s second biggest dance arena. Tonight it holds the golden ticket of a two-hour performance from Skream, who summons an utter mindfuck set of future dubstep, followed by a ridiculously tight set from Goldie, who shows he’s lost none of his craftsmanship over the years.
“This one is going out for the sunshine,” declares SP:MC, with a blast of frenetic melody marking the rise of the sun over the moat. The intensity of the energy is incredible.
Next door at the Dance Arena, breakthrough big-room deep house hero Maceo Plex is bringing it home. Rising to the challenge, he keeps the energy redlining with a set of tough techno grooves that builds and builds, before finally offering release at 6am in the form of his own ‘Under The Sheets’.
Looking down from the top of the scaffolding erected against the outer walls of the bowl, it’s one of the grandest sights you’ll behold at any dance event anywhere in the world. While we hear mutterings of the festival chasing the tourist dollar at the expense of locals, it’s not consistent with the fact that most everyone you meet over the weekend hails from Novi Sad. At this moment, there’s certainly no doubt that Exit Festival belongs to Serbia.
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