Looking forward to something like mad and then it swooshes past and you sadly see the back of it already: Those are the events that keep us going and there will surely be a next time. This year's Reeperbahn Festival was such an occasion. You know that I am not the roughing it in the tent, dabbing myself with wipes and dousing my head with dry shampoo type, so I only ever consider three festivals (of the ones known to me). One is the cosy Bruis Festival in Maastricht/ Netherlands where I can go home every day; another the very fine Little Waves Festival in Genk/ Belgium and last but by no means least Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg/Germany.
Apart from it being THE place to be for networking in the music industry and also developing new ideas and discussing developments, it is a wonderful four-day could-be tour-de-force but usually ending up like "feck it, drifting is the best strategy" for all music lovers. The best thing about it is that you are not in a festival compound but always can go and eat, drink, be merry, meet people, see a bit of Hamburg and return to such a variety of venues, you are left a tiny bit dizzy. But there is some fresh air to be had on the walks between the venues. (Of course you can avail yourself of Hamburg's excellent public transport system too).
Breathe, I told my inner perfectionist, just let it go. There would have been quite a few interesting panels on the conference side but what with a station meeting on Saturday and lots of meets and greets during the other three days, I would have to refrain and maybe read up on the results later. As for the music, don't you ever try to hard. Do not underestimate the lure of fine food and drink, sleep, some pretty warm weather that long weekend, bumping into people, losing your way, finding your way, not finding your way and also many occasions of three gigs that you would like to see, all at the same time in different locations. Don't get beat up about it, just drift and enjoy.
Of course the main idea, as the festival sides with a conference of the music industry, is to promote new talent and I have seen quite a few new acts and heard of even more (ask ten people of their best-of-list and you get ten different favourites) but this was the year where some big names returned to the festival and the presence of US-American and Canadian artists and of Asian countries was really felt. The pandemic seems forgotten and thus the visitor numbers of the festival were almost back to pre-pandemic status. But add to that a heaving "normal" Reeperbahn tourism/business and on Saturday a victory of local football heroes FC St. Pauli, all of this in a big city and you can feel slightly overwhelmed. It certainly drains you but the events just keep tempting and, hey, sleep is highly overrated anyway. (As for FC St. Pauli - great club, the station I work for is right "on" St. Pauli next to their stadium and all that: I had to keep a poker face as I felt a wee bit sorry for losers Schalke. After all I was born into a family of Schalke fans, cannot deny that).
I went a day earlier than usual, still not the full monty, this year Wednesday, 20th of September until Saturday, 24th of September 2023, but Thursday, just after lunch, I stormed into the festival village (where people can, just like on the Spielbudenplatz, also without ticket, avail themselves of concerts, panels and just the general vibe). My dear friends Barbara and Sandra (Zettpunkt, of the fabulous Golden Glades on www.byte.fm) were coincidentally right there and soon after we could devour the first act which happened to be ADOY from South Korea representing the country's rich musical landscape. It was not quite as bedroom indie as I would have expected and veered towards post-rock and later even a kind of yacht rock. Also it seemed (we could have been a bit blind though) that not all the instruments were really being played but the enthusiasm of the band as well as of the audience and the people presenting ADOY was surely heartwarming and we had good fun watching the show on the Spielbudenplatz. When I later flicked through the programme and saw what I had already missed on Wednesday, I too noticed that BEL had been playing in one of the venues at the Spielbudenplatz. Don't do that, checking out the missed gigs, it just is bound to break your heart.
Also right at the Spielbudenplatz, you can find the venue "Sommersalon", a small venue with a comfy sofa but who on earth can stay seated when Adwaith are playing, ambassadors for the massive and fantastic Welsh music scene. It is necessary to mention that Adwaith is an all female band? Reeperbahn festival managed to present more than 50 per cent females on stage this year and surely Adwaith from Camarthen were also invited for this reason. But I would rather not see them in the "female musicians genre" but in the "bloody-hell-they-rock genre". Saying that, there were fun songs and there were sad songs. The sheer joy of playing was tangible and Adwaith are the friendliest people ever. If you have not yet heard it, it is high time to be looking at their album "Bato Mato". Oh, yes, and Adwaith sing in Welsh but as beautiful as it sounds, thankfully, there was an English summary for the songs as well.
I seem to remember that we treated ourselves to some wine and water and a good old chat in a pretty bar in one of the side streets before returning to Imperial Theater, always very welcome with its friendly staff and the gorgeous interior and of course the comfy plushy seats. Coming a tad late to the show, we enjoyed some songs by Susan O'Neill who I had heard of on the occasion of a collaboration with Mick Flannery. Susan treated the audience not only to an elaborate, sometimes funny, sometimes touching, background story to the songs but surprised also by picking up the trumpet for a song. Would like to listen to her new material in peace and quiet.
We were a bit rushed to run to the performance of Ichiko Aoba. When I had spotted the kimono clad musician and read the blurb on the festival's web page, I was immediately intrigued and bought an album. I am a great fan of Japan and Ichiko Aoba renders the ultimate Japan experience plus multinstrumentalism, classical guitar playing and a charming, dream- and childlike musical landscape. She had also been nominated for the festival's prestigious ANCHOR award and judging by the response she got from the audience in the Grünspan venue (with the ANCHOR jury amidst the audience), she was actually not without a chance. I would have been delighted but did not really expect her to win. But to my surprise, Ichiko Aoba was awarded the music prize on Saturday, the last day of the festival, with much of the comment on why she won, being in unison of what I had to say about her music. Also, just the few songs we managed to hear, were performed absolutely perfectly and took you away straightaway to a different realm.
Picture by Dominik Friess at the Anchor Award Show
A lovely crab bun later, we headed for a nice pint of the dark stuff to wash it down at Thomas Read's where Whammyboy was playing. Either we were on the wrong floor or he played really quietly or else something totally different to what we expected - or the fairies had us. But we did not encounter Whammyboy that night. Having simultaneously missed another load of interesting acts, we looked into Shellbeach, a Hungarian band of the hardcore persuasion and while the fans seemed to enjoy both the show and the music which were grand, it was not quite our cuppa. Should have gone to see Kara Jackson instead or Sorcha Richardson for the finest tunes but we hang around the Spielbudenplatz, sucked in the vibes and eventually made our way to Nochtspeicher where in downstairs club Nochtwache, Vanity Mirror from Toronto gave us the true late sixties experience (complete vintage clothing included) but also genre-spanning and field-recordings abounding, a very enjoyable gig but lamentably with truly shitty sound. Saying that, for some this might have added to the atmosphere. And off to bed the ladies went to greet another day at the festival fresh-faced.
Thursday offered quite a few interesting conference events as I grumblingly read over breakfast, including AI, sustainable travel - sailing (really interesting, that one, bearing in mind that Émilie and Yann Tiersen are at present sailing on their "Ninnog" to countries for concerts, torchbearing sustainable touring) and, another subject, the future of the Reeperbahn - not everyone in the red-light district is happy with the increasing development of theatres, venues and hip eateries.
Dog-tired I miss the jazzy thing I had wanted to attend but I am more than ready for the offerings of Terry Uyarak (announced as Uyurak unfortunately) who in a soft-spoken Inuit language performed folky, americana, dreamy to ambient songs, with the meditative drumming on his big drum but also electric guitars, rock and even throat singing are found on his new album Unnuaq. Such a lovely set and what a shame that it took place so early and Terry Uyarak could only be enjoyed once during the festival. The whole band (Terry, Andrew and two "borrowed" musicians) were ever so friendly and enjoying the set. Terry Uyarak lives above the Arctic Circle, in Igloolik, and was also part of a circus troupe as well as of course part of the local Nunavut music scene. I recommend his new album "Unnuaq" warmly.
Being kindly co-invited to a label event for a drink (and no, one does not spent the whole festival on nibbles and drinks for the sake of it...we just like to really meet the small labels whose artists' music we love), we then quaff a a couple of delicious galettes and crepes at Breizh and en route to the bard from Essex we pass the wonderful Zardoz Records Shop and happen to hear the dulcet tones of Angela Aux emanating from inside and dare to listen for a couple of minutes. This must have been an event outside the official programme and we are very grateful, also for the moments of quietude. At the Grosse Freiheit then it is heaving inside and outside. Reeperbahn revellers galore outside and inside the venue I am amazed how packed it is, also with young people. Billy Bragg appears and I must say, the man has aged well and so did his music. It is mostly older music he presents, us Billy, ending even with a seventeen minute rendition of the complete "Life's A Riot With Spy Vs Spy" album. In-between, Billy gets political and that is no surprise at all. Surely retired activists should get off their behinds and support trans rights, he demands to much applause. Billy Bragg has me in stitches, in nods and a lot of tears to the gorgeous "The Man With The Iron Mask". Woe betide though to the gaggle of men at the bar who absolutely must talk loudly just during that quiet song and also to the people who ram into me. True, when Billy Bragg started to play we were stuck between bar and toilets and remained there. It truly feels like sitting in the aisle seat of the plane and the flight attendants keeps crushing the trolley into your elbow. But nothing diminished the joy of Billy Bragg's performance tonight.
We have missed a lot of alternative gigs but there you are. No Reeperbahn festival is complete without having a look into Molotow Backyard, another meeting point at the festival, this time with Superbloom on stage whose grunge sounds are supposed not to be rehashed. I am no expert in the grunge field but like my Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Foo Fighters like the next person and find nothing new here. It does even get a bit boring and at times annoying but that is maybe my tiredness speaking. The initially responsive audience diminished but could also be heading for other gigs. So do we. Maybe not the most uplifting experience: Kathryn Joseph sits, plays the keyboard and sings. She laments and whispers and the music is spheric and a bit foreboding. Subjects are her own tragic experiences as well as on the new album stories of all sorts of abuse experienced by acquaintances and friends. You get the drift. I like it, others may not. It touches me deeply, others may not feel reached. Thankfully Kathryn knows how to lighten the mood a tad in-between the songs. And with that the Friday is over.
Saturday comes bright and early (did I mention that it is quite warm in Hamburg, never mind the venues. I wish I could have gone to a park or the port for a bit of a walk, fresh air and beauty, but despite an extra day, there is no time really. Another reason of course being that I am staying in a hotel right round the corner of the Reeperbahn). Today is www.byte.fm station meeting, so I am preparing for that and looking forward to seeing everyone and having a good natter and hearing all the news. But afterwards there is still some time for two gigs, the most popular spots in the timetable of course demand heart-breaking decisions as where to go. It is goodbye Teleman for Sandra and off to Arab Strap - thank you, Sandra! I would not have minded to see Welsh harpist Cerys Hafana either. I pay in sweat...Grünspan venue is boiling and I must be losing about six pounds in water alone. Not the only one but it does make the event slightly uncomfortable. Also seeing the Rolling Stone banners on the gallery...well, maybe the founder is no longer relevant, or what he was saying about women and people of colour in rock music, is not relevant to today's magazine staff or the contract with the festival could not be cancelled. Or Rolling Stone Germany has nothing to do with it at all. Still, feels a bit weird. Arab Strap lyrics of sex, only sex, mostly though no sex to be had, but still thinking only of sex, is a bit harsh to some and does kind of not fit with the age of today's Arab Strap's Aidan and Malcolm. Saying that, the two performed 1998 album "Philophobia" plus that album also shows a love for detail and a keen observation of conversations and a lot of dark humour. Either way, there was no dancing, just swaying to the magical sounds of Malcolm Middleton's Gretsch guitar.
The evening ended for many with The Pretenders. Would have loved to see Chrissie Hynde perform but hearing from others who attended, I am glad after all that we trekked to see This Is The Kit. As beautiful as the setting of St. Michaelis church is, simply gobsmackingly astounding even, the reverb is something else and the reason for This Is The Kit only playing slow songs. Also the distance to the band kind of lets the connection suffer a little which is a shame, in particular as Kate Stables does not talk a lot between the songs. Nevertheless the performance is exquisite and also enjoyed by the audience in the church. Wonderful to see Rozi Plain on bass too who had a great album out this year in her own right ("Prize").
The prize we pay for loving music is lack of sleep, often. At the same time, music soothes us, energises, lifts us up, saves us even. I love to share my best musical experiences with you and hope you do enjoy the radio shows but also maybe this little insight into the festival. Boohoo, it is over again but early bird tickets for 2024 are on sale now!