A fascinating array of international stars and upcoming artists were just a part of the allure of the fifth Reeperbahn Festival--held in Hamburg, Germany, late last week, and offering a fascinating glimpse to American eyes of how music can be celebrated on a worldwide level.
The three-day event, held in Hamburg's internationally famous Reeperbahn district, offered the same mixture of talent, art, and multimedia panels that Austin's more celebrated annual South By Southwest conference regularly provides, but its smaller scale--an estimated 20,000 were in attendance--allowed more access to artist performances and the compelling atmosphere of the Reeperbahn. The latter, historically famous for its red light district, its teeming masses of colorful pedestrians, and its reputation, justifiably, as the birthplace of the Beatles as a live band, could not have provided a better backdrop for a 21st Century music festival.
The comparatively low-key stable of stars in attendance was in itself interesting; among the biggest names were Cee Lo Green, Donovan, Gonzales, Edwyn Collins, the Black Angels, Wolf Parade, and José González's reunited band Junip. Unlike the agreeable madhouse the SXSW festival has become--people waiting in lines to witness "surprise" appearances by superstars like Metallica and their ilk--the Reeperbahn fest thus allowed attendees to see just about anybody they'd like to see, at venues nearly next door to each other. No jaunts to the other side of town, just a brisk walk between venues, and seeing a dozen bands each night was well within the realms of possibility.
That said, the obvious strategy--at least for an admittedly jaded Angeleno--was to catch whatever I could of artists least likely to be hitting Los Angeles anytime soon. First up Thursday night was Scottish folksinger Grant Campbell, who stood at a microphone, guitar in hand, speaking with a thick Scottish accent but singing, rather surrealistically, in a manner that recalled Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska or Tom Waits before he got weird. The venue--a small upstairs bar in a larger venue called Angie's Nightclub--was comfortably filled, the audience was appreciative and apparently familiar with some of his material, which has so far filled three albums, all of which were being sold nearby. Next up was a small and overheated bar to witness Danish band Murder, an interesting duo whose melancholic acoustic music might be filed somewhere between Will Oldham and Smog--and perhaps enjoyed even more in cooler climes. Their new album Gospel Of Man arrives next month.
After seeing Gudrid Hansdottir at SXSW earlier this year and being impressed--not just with her talent, but with her making her home in the Faroe Islands, a tiny area mid-ocean between Iceland and Scotland that I had frankly never heard of--I could not resist seeing yet another Faroe Islander. In this case it was the compelling Eivør Pálsdóttir, whose voice was described in the festival guide as being a combination of Kate Bush, Bjork and Marilyn Monroe. Playing in a striking downstairs venue that looked like a combination of church and bunker, the blonde singer was entertaining, not above beating a native percussion instrument and making high-pitched sounds, and fascinating to watch.
The singular charms of Hamburg would surface the next day, as a guided tour to "the Beatles in Hamburg," featuring effervescent, ukulele-bearing host Stefanie Hempel, brought a group of traveling journalists to the various Reeperbahn locations that played such an important role in the early years to the Beatles--and not just John, Paul, George & Ringo, of course, but also Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best. Aside from the famous Star Club, now torn down with a commemorative obelisk erected, early clubs the band appeared in--the Top Ten (now called the Moondoo), Kaiserkeller and the Indra--largely still stand, and were in fact hosting festival performances. One of the more striking aspects of the brief tour was Hempel's stopover at precisely the same doorway that John Lennon stood in, years ago, for a photo that would eventually turn up on his Rock 'N' Roll album cover.
Following a tour finale at Beatles-Platz--an arty, sculptured shrine at the entrance to the Grosse Freiheit--we visited Beatlemania, a museum wholly devoted to all things Beatles and boasting a surprising number of relatively priceless collectibles, all via the cooperation of the Apple Corporation, as opposed to the computer company. It was surprisingly impressive.
The night's performances were more varied than Thursday's, and for this writer the most essential stop was at the Docks club to witness a set by Edwyn Collins, the former leading light of Orange Juice, whose serious health problems of late made any appearance something to treasure. Reclining on a stool for the most part, Collins ran through a welcome array of Orange Juice tunes--all of which can be found on the new boxed set Domino Records will soon issue--as well as his worldwide hit, "Never Met A Girl Like You Before." He was in fine voice, his songs still stand up better than those of his contemporaries, and for me he was the highlight of the festival. Preceding Collins' was a fine set by Wolf Parade, perhaps the last band I'd ever expect to be one of the biggest names at any festival, who acquitted themselves admirably and drew a noticeably appreciative audience response.
Culturally speaking, though, the later set by German band Irie Révoltés may have been the night's most eye-opening: Playing a mixture of ska, punk and hip-hop, with lyrics completely in the German language, the group was enormously well-received, with enthusiastic fans whirling t-shirts above their heads and the band's dominating beat elicting a near-stunning dance party response. Earlier that night they had performed an acoustic set inside a nearby bus for those local fans who couldn't make the actual gig, which says much for their populist approach. Impressive stuff.
Following an afternoon tour of the Elbphilharmonie, a still-under-construction concert hall that, however gorgeous, may end up being one of the most psychedelic structures ever constructed in Europe, the final night of the Reeperbahn festival was no letdown. After the previous day's Beatle tour, we found ourselves at the Indra, the same club at which the Beatles performed in the very early '60s, and at which a batch of Danish artists proved impressive, most notably The Rumour Said Fire, of whom we caught just a little but liked what we saw. Onstage next were Thee Attacks, who though being billed in the program as a cross between the Hives and the Kinks seemed more like a Danish version of the Chocolate Watch Band or the Seeds; high-energy, garage-ish, and fun to watch. A walk over to the crowded club Gruenspan brought a well-played set by British trio Band Of Skulls, who were surprisingly good and may stand a greater chance of Stateside success if they find themselves on a stronger American record label in the coming months. A final trek over to the Docks again saw a closing set by Rox, a UK singer whose blend of soul, pop and reggae could not be more mainstream but was no less enjoyable for it.
Three days in and three days out: the Reeperbahn festival was professionally run, professionally booked, and one of the most enjoyable music festivals this writer has ever witnessed. It may have been the diverse array of talent, which though low-key was culturally enlightening and never less than enjoyable; it may have been the overall environs of Hamburg, which with its spotless mixture of high culture, the blare and glare of the Reeperbahn, and its fascinating nightspots was a revelation; and it may have been the history, from the Beatles onward, the city has been a part of. But personally, it was like nothing I've ever seen before, and I'd like to see it again very soon.