Festival Season 2013: Berlin Festival + First We Take Berlin (DE)

"Nobody has the intention of building an airport", as (almost) spoken by Mr Ulbricht (© D. Prahl)
“Nobody has the intention of building an airport”, as (almost) spoken by Mr Ulbricht (© D. Prahl)

INTRODUCTION

Belle Brummell: After last year’s Berlin Festival was more than a success, we returned this year for one of the younger and most exciting major festivals in Germany. Now in its 8th year, Berlin Festival has made a name for itself both with its original location in the disused Tempelhof airport, which is conveniently located in the Eastern part of the city (instead of outside town, as most airports) and its line-up consisting of renowned headliners (Björk, Blur, The Pet Shop Boys and My Bloody Valentine led the bill this year) and hot newcomers (from Bastille to Savages). Of course, the musically diverse line-up contained its slips, with inexplicably hyped German rapper Casper being sold as a “headliner” (as if a no. 1 debut album was that much of a big deal, pffff) and the horribly out-of-place Pet Shop Boys alienating the crowd with playback and an overloaded stage show. But Blur’s excellent set more than made up for that, just like the rare pleasure of witnessing a live performance by 50-somethings My Bloody Valentine. But more of that later. Because first, we took Berlin. Meaning: We went to the capital two days before the festival started to visit the Berlin Music Week showcase First We Take Berlin, which featured tons of upcoming artists, some of which would also be playing Berlin Festival, but others, such as our highlights Jagwar Ma and Balthazar, as well as comedy-rapper MC Fitti and surprise guest Johnny Borrell, wouldn’t. And all of that was free with a two-day pass for Berlin Festival, so of course we couldn’t resist, threw uni work out of the window for the time being, and rented a flat in Kreuzberg for four days. And we must say we didn’t regret it at all.

FIRST WE TAKE BERLIN

Wednesday
Australian wildcats: Jagwar Ma putting Kulturhaus under their spell (© J. Zielke)
Australian wildcats: Jagwar Ma putting Kulturhaus under their spell (© J. Zielke)

We started our Wednesday at Bi Nuu with slightly too trendy and thus predictable electro/soul duo Moko, whose performance we left midway to stroll over to Lido and witness our fellow Hamburgers Pool play an enjoyable – and highly dancey – set reminiscent of the likes of Norway’s Kakkmaddafakka or Two Door Cinema Club. Nothing new, but nicely done. After a lengthy hunt for food and the remote Astra Kulturhaus, we had sushi on a wall outside the latter and almost didn’t make it in time for our first real highlight of the day, Jagwar Ma. Having seen them supporting Foals in spring, we already knew that the Aussie newcomers, who released their debut LP ‘Howlin’ this summer, were addictive live with their unique mixture of snotty vocals, an overwhelming wall of sound and hypnotizing looped melodies.

Two out of five wise (wo)men from Belgium: Balthazar crowned a perfect evening at Kulturhaus (© M. Weiher)
Two out of five wise (wo)men from Belgium: Balthazar crowned a perfect evening at Kulturhaus (© M. Weiher)

Afterwards we stayed to watch Belgium’s Balthazar, whose second album ‘Rats’ greatly pleased us this year, and they were even better live. Haunting melodies and harmonic duets give their music that special something, as well as the blend of guitars, piano and violin. Next chance to catch them in Germany, by the way, is supporting Editors in October.

Thursday
Reason to listen up: Glasgow's Holy Esque were worth the walk (© M. Weiher)
Reason to listen up: Glasgow’s Holy Esque were worth the walk (© M. Weiher)

Thursday was a little less packed with highlights, but held a quite unexpected finale. First, we made it rather late to the forgettable performance by Kid Karate at Lido, then went to Bi Nuu to have a look at the sadly quite overrated Claire, some kind of female-fronted German Bastille-copy with a major-label contract whose frontwoman, like every second lead singer these days, banged a single tom on stage. (That was cool when Florence did it in ’09, but these days every idiot thinks it makes them look like they were able to play an instrument. It doesn’t.) Holy Esque were a step up from that, fortunately, and gave us some quite mesmerizing, dark indie-rock tunes, the singer’s rasp voice at times reminding one of sadly-defunct WU LYF. We left Privatclub to return to Lido once more and see New York’s Parquet Courts – rather out of a lack of alternatives, as they would also play Berlin Festival – who tried to summon some kind of early Kings of Leon/Strokes vibe but remained quite mediocre throughout. (Or maybe I’m just not one for songs such as ‘Stoned and Starving’, which is about, well, being stoned and starving.) Still, they weren’t half bad and we were in a good enough mood to stay for the late-announced surprise act of the night, ex-Razorlight bigmouth Johnny Borrell.

Has the circus come to town? Johnny & band were unable to awake former "glory". (© D. Prahl)
Has the circus come to town? Johnny & band were unable to awake former “glory”. (© D. Prahl)

We were in a kind of gloating anticipation of his performance, seeing as his freshly released debut album failed to enter the UK charts. The more positively surprised we were that the former radio star personally helped manoeuvering a piano onto stage with about six other people. His set, though, was a rather embarrassing affair. With three funnily dressed musicians on drums, saxophone and said piano, Borrell sang jolly, kind of circus-esque songs that were a far cry from Razorlight, but – unlike his former band – not even half bad for my personal taste. However, most of the about 100-people-strong audience were standing around rather awkwardly as Borrell babbled drunkenly on stage. When the music started bordering on reggae, we decided to call it a night; after all we had two long days (and nights) ahead of us.

BERLIN FESTIVAL

What's an airport without planes? Rather shit, as the decorators realised. (© D. Prahl)
What’s an airport without planes? Rather shit, as the decorators realised. (© D. Prahl)

There’s no denying it: The location really is the secret star of Berlin Festival. After entering the airport building, which was closed in 2008, but looks like it has not been renovated since the 70s, one had to walk through long lanes past the check-in counters, with “Departure” displays showing the stage times. The festival itself actually took place on a large concrete outdoor field, adjacent to Tempelhofer Feld, a kind of park were people were flying kites, with three of the four stages being located inside the open hangars.

Of course, the notorious "creatives" weren't far: The Art Village with its much-used dancefloor. (© J. Zielke)
Of course, the notorious “creatives” weren’t far: The Art Village with its much-used dancefloor. (© J. Zielke)

One would have thought that the location would offer advantages such as actual toilet facilities, but those were not made available to the festival-goers, who had to use mobile toilets or flushable festival-toilets where one could even wash one’s hands (!), but no free drinking water was provided. Needless to say, everything was fucking expensive. The range of food was incredible (lots of veggie stalls, much to my liking), but hardly anything could be had for under 4 or 5€, and beer was 4€ as well. At least everyone would be allowed to bring one 1L tetra pak of non-alcoholic drink, but that obviously didn’t last through the day. Bringing food was also a no-no. Apart from those ridiculous rules, the festival was quite a treat. The audience was not as over-hipstered as expected, with several older music fans drawn by acts such as My Bloody Valentine, and quite well-behaved, apart from the occasional tosser elbowing their way to the front during Blur’s set. The vast area offered some nice spots for withdrawal, such as a shisha-café where one could sit on pillows and have chai tea. One of the hangars also contained an “Art Village”, which didn’t fascinate me much but held dance performances as well as the legendary Silent Disco (“Leise Disco”). But more of that later.

Friday
The beating of a single drum: This year's most popular sport demonstrated by Dan Smith of Bastille. (© D. Prahl)
The beating of a single drum: This year’s most popular sport demonstrated by Dan Smith of Bastille (here the advanced version with not one but two toms). (© D. Prahl)

Bastille opened the main stage at 2.30 pm to a semi-sized crowd, due to the early time of day (half of Berlin was probably still partying at ‘Frühclubs’ …). It’s probably no exaggeration to call them the shooting stars of 2013, though opinions on the francophile group, who irritatingly pronounce themselves with an ‘l’ at the end instead of a ‘ye’ sound, as done in French, vary. Yes, they have taken everything that was popular in the indie scene of the past five years and cooked it up into a mainstream-suitable soup, yes, they have an annoying London accent that has luckily been absent from music since 2008, yes, the singer bangs a tom on stage. But they do a good job up there; front-quiff Dan Smith runs relentlessly across the stage, goes close-up with the audience, and seems genuinely humble and likeable despite their bombastic success in the past few months, which would be suited to make anyone lose ground. They were a perfectly fine opener, both in size and in performance, unless you completely hate their music, in which case you were free to just show up later.

At least the beards were impressive: Capital Cities performing their one song. (© D. Prahl)
At least the beards were impressive: Capital Cities performing their one song. (© D. Prahl)

While the others watched Parquet Courts, whom I didn’t need to see again, I had a glimpse at LA’s Capital Cities. Their 2011 single ‘Safe and Sound’ had surprisingly hit number 1 in the German single charts in May after being used in a Vodafone ad, but the rest of their songs were similarly forgettable. The four musicians had matching jackets and a saxophone player on stage, but not much more remained in the memory afterwards.

The socks were not the only remarkable thing about Bosnian Rainbows' performance. (© P. Slyusar)
The socks were not the only remarkable thing about Bosnian Rainbows’ performance. (© P. Slyusar)

Dumdumgrrl: The main reason why I wanted to see Bosnian Rainbows was because I heard that it was the band of former members of The Mars Volta. I remember listening to them by the age of 17. I didn’t dig them 100% back then but still they left a very strong impression in my mind. Before seeing the recent project of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Deantoni Parks, Bosnian Rainbows, I gave them a listen of course. Their music seemed to be less experimental than The Mars Volta’s but very interesting though. The voice of the lead singer Teri Gender Bender also sounded very much like Marina of Marina And The Diamonds, which isn’t quite original in my eyes but still I was very expectant to see them without knowing at the time how unforgettable the whole performance would be.

When the band appeared on stage the crowd got very joyful. I saw a guy wearing a ‘Bosnian Rainbows’-shirt right next to me. That band had some support, that was for sure. In the beginning Teri, who does the vocals, stood very quietly in the middle of the stage breathing slowly in and out. I thought that she was nervous cause of performing in front of so many people, which made my heart melt and she had all my sympathy right in that moment but I was proven wrong. The more intense the music got the more I could see the change in her facial expression and suddenly she made a very unexpected move. It was a sort of jumping in a very specific way. Then she started singing in a very strong and confident manner. Yes, she was not the only person on stage but it was very difficult to not pay attention to her the whole time. Her perfomance was magnificent. Her moves were not very professional or artistic but they seemed to be her own. She was just herself in all the weirdness and avant-garde of her personality. Teri touched herself various times, it almost looked like masturbating. She jumped randomly on stage, touched her stomach as if it hurt, pushed her arse in all directions, grabbed her bra and her panties. I felt like she wanted to take her clothes off but it didn’t happen. Instead of that she peed on stage. Yes, she did. I had to look twice to make sure I wasn’t wrong and I wasn’t. Also she tried some stage diving almost in the end of her performance. And there was the ‘Bosnian Rainbows’ shirt guy to catch her, what a surprise. When going back on stage I saw her leaving some blood prints on the floor. Looked like someone was having her monthly period. I feel so bad not mentioning the rest of the band so much since in my opinion they did an incredible job and they did so without being provocative. But well I don’t blame Teri for being so extraordinary. It’s her job as the lead singer and performer to entertain the audience but well she definitely stole all the other band members’ thunder, who ‘just’ played their musical instruments. Also I noted that her voice definitely sounded better live than on recordings. With all her dramatic gestures and random screams she gave the songs a very emotional and lively note. When singing ‘Cry For You’ she randomly pointed into the audience. I was also someone she pointed at. Yeah a girl who sang about girlish feelings. Nothing new but still something you can identify with as a girl about her age, as I am. Now back home listening to Bosnian Rainbows over and over again I just can’t get the same feeling that I got when I saw them in front of me. All the emotions of their performance art are not present in my room and it is kind of sad. ‘That was fantastic, I can’t believe what I’ve just seen’ – random guy at the end of the concert. That is probably what everyone felt like after they had finished. No matter if they were great fans of the band or just came to see them since they probably heard the lead singer put on a great show. This is also how I felt though I am still not convinced by their music completely but seeing them live was something unique, unexpected and unforgettable. I will definitely remember it for a long time. Thank you for a great trip.

A competitor for "best dressed": Tahita Bulmer of NYPC charmed the audience with gifts and flowers. (© D. Prahl)
A competitor for “best dressed”: Tahita Bulmer of NYPC charmed the audience with gifts and flowers. (© D. Prahl)

Belle Brummell: The next act, NYPC, formely New Young Pony Club, were quite the success. The trio, fronted by the extravagantly dressed Tahita Bulmer, were in a good mood, their catchy synthpop anthems (such as my personal favourite “We Want To”) had everyone moving their limbs, and many a spectator was rewarded with band shirts tossed into the crowd.

We stayed at the Zippo Encore stage for Fenech-Soler, who were, as usual, quite flawless, but also lacking charm due to that. They always kind of look like those stylish modern-day post-hardcore bands, but their personal blend of indie-electro-pop-rock is actually nothing but a more clinical version of Friendly Fires or Delphic. So we got a bombastic light show and lots of big poses, and mercilessly catchy hits such as “Demons”, but the special something wasn’t really there.

The lightshow was alright, but still Fenech-Soler's energy didn't quite catch on. (© M. Weiher)
The lightshow was alright, but still Fenech-Soler’s energy didn’t quite catch on. (© M. Weiher)

I then managed to catch the last bits of Get Well Soon‘s performance at the Pitchfork stage. I hadn’t really listened to Konstantin Gropper’s music before and was more than impressed to find we had a kind of Conor Oberst/Patrick Wolf lovechild in Germany who made fucking sophisticated orchestral adult pop music. This might sound horribly boring to some but it was sublime live, and I wished I had caught more of his set.

"I'm dressed up as a gnu, your argument is invalid": Neil Tennant to his style counsellor prior to the show. (© P. Slyusar)
“I’m dressed up as a gnu, your argument is invalid”: Neil Tennant to his style counsellor prior to the show. (© P. Slyusar)

After that, we made our way into the crowd during Pet Shop Boys‘ performance at the main stage to secure good spots for Blur, who were up next. To be fair to them, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe probably did what they had been doing for 30-odd years, and of course it was kind of a privilege to be seeing these two live – who knows for how long they’re gonna be up there, both being in their 50s. But they were entirely out of place at this comparably young, fast-forward festival, with hits our parents had already sung along to and a stage show consisting of weird costumes, background dancers and playback music. To most of the audience they were probably just two old men making a fool of themselves. But still, I think there was something to it when the whole crowd chanted along to “Go West”. It’s not a band I would have thought I could someday say I had seen live, but now that I can, I quite like the thought.

"Lol, why is everything so blur-ry?" (© D. Prahl)
“Lol, why is everything so blur-ry?” (© D. Prahl)

Finally, Blur were definitely the highlight of the day. I hadn’t seen them before and only knew a handful of songs, but boy, do they know how to lay down a show. You didn’t have to know every song by heart to have a great time; despite being forty-somethings by now, the band were lively and energetic, the setlist well-chosen without a boring moment, and Damon Albarn wasn’t afraid to climb halfway into the crowd and borrow a pair of glasses from a fan and was generally being a charismatic and down-to-earth frontman. To round off this great experience for me, I totally unexpectedly – we were way in the middle of the crowd – caught Dave Rowntree’s drum stick. It was also the first one I ever caught, and I suck at catching, so I swear it wanted to come to me 😉 Anyway, this was the perfect ending to a great first day at Berlin Festival for me.

Saturday
The clothes couldn't betray us: England's Ruen Brothers were not exactly the new black. (© D. Prahl)
The clothes couldn’t betray us: England’s Ruen Brothers were not exactly the new black. (© D. Prahl)

I hit the festival ground in quite a hurry to catch some of Ruen Brothers, whose ‘Walk Like A Man’ had rather caught my ear beforehand. Unfortunately, my expectations weren’t quite met. The English brother duo, whose last name, confusingly, is not Ruen but Stansall, played their Buddy Holly-esque sixties rock with precision, but lacked that certain spark. I still danced a little, for the music was alright and I was pleasantly day-drunk, but I can’t really see them making it big in the near future.

Amazing hair vs. a less than impressive album no. 2: the pros and cons of Is Tropical. (© D. Prahl)
Amazing hair vs. a less than impressive album no. 2: the pros and cons of Is Tropical. (© D. Prahl)

We basically stayed at Pitchfork Stage for almost all of the day, with Is Tropical being up next followed by Savages and My Bloody Valentine. Sadly, their second album could not really live up to the smashing debut ‘Native To’ – apart from the grandiose single ‘Dancing Anymore’, for which they got the female singer (whose name I sadly didn’t get) on stage. Overall, on “I’m Leaving” they seem to have removed all the angst and anger from their debut in favour of the same meaningless sunny sound everyone is doing these days, which obviously took a lot of energy out of their performance. Which ended up making one of our most anticipated acts of the festival a rather disappointing affair.

Jehnny Beth's Savages set the mood for MBV's following set. (© D. Prahl)
Jehnny Beth’s Savages set the mood for MBV’s following set. (© D. Prahl)

My highlight of the day was the following performance by French/English outfit Savages. After they had to cancel Parklife, I was even more thrilled to finally see them after all. To be honest, they turned out to be nothing less than the band I always wanted to form: all female, all dressed in black, all with a bamf attitude and soundscapes evoking Joy Division and the like. Eccentric frontwoman Jehnny Beth laid down a dramatic performance and gave the audience life lessons in her French-accented English. Despite the gloomy atmosphere of their sound, it was an incredibly energetic and fun gig. The music was so gripping that I danced a lot even without knowing the songs, and this just says a lot for their performance.

Quite the trip: My Bloody Valentine, nearly invisible against the lively projections. (© M. Weiher)
Quite the trip: My Bloody Valentine, nearly invisible against the lively projections. (© M. Weiher)

Then came one of the most-awaited acts on the festival: My Bloody Valentine. Having unexpectedly released their third studio album “mbv” in February after a twenty-year break, the shoegaze legends were quite an unusual sight up there on stage, all of them being around 50 now and kind of giving the impression of two married couples (though they aren’t), but you could still tell those were the cool kids back then. Backed up by psychedelic light projections, they really put their audience under a spell with their walls of distorted guitar noise, stoic repetitive patterns and very few vocals. Occasionally the four seemed to get confused about the setlist or rearrange it, once interrupting the show for at least five minutes, apparently due to uncertainties what to play next. But that laid-back attitude kind of added up to the fun: They weren’t taking themselves all too seriously and it was definitely cool to see them still up there on stage, still doing their thing. Especially women that age are incredibly rare in rock bands, so thumbs up for Debbie Googe and Bilinda Butcher for still being the bamfs they are.

Do they even still make those hoodies? Klaxons brought some '07 vibe. (© D. Prahl)
Do they even still make those hoodies? Klaxons brought some ’07 vibe. (© D. Prahl)

We caught some glimpses of Björk from the distance as well, but it’s really not my thing and I didn’t have the attention span anymore. All I got was that she had a children’s choir or something on stage and had her head turned into some kind of dandelion. So we used her set to relax and then stroll over to Klaxons‘ gig. The former new rave heroes were apparently there to promote an upcoming third album, and they’re a totally ok live act and everyone seemed to have heaps of fun. And yet. Isn’t Berlin Festival better than that? Isn’t the agency behind it, Melt! Booking, known for bringing the hottest new shit into the country? Just take a look at their current tours, which include King Krule, London Grammar, Chvrches and Disclosure. And you’re bringing us a band that no one has cared about since 2008? Or maybe I’m just upset because they didn’t play “Totem on the Timeline”. But as happy as I am that Berlin Festival is great at the peak, I wish it was also great in width. But I guess they’re leaving that to Melt! Festival, which therefore has to do without actual headliners. You can’t have everything, right. (To be fair to Melt!, they had Atoms for Peace and The Knife this year, as well as *chuckle* Babyshambles. Of course there was nothing of interest there when I went last year, ha ha.)

Quiet my ass: The "Leise Disco" turned into a sing-along party. (© D. Prahl)
Quiet my ass: The “Leise Disco” turned into a sing-along party. (© D. Prahl)

We chilled a while listening to Pantha du Prince at the Pitchfork Stage while Fritz Kalkbrenner was occupying the Main Stage, then spent the rest of the night screaming our lungs out at the “Leise Disco”, which was seriously one of the highlights of the festival. Simply because there is no weirder and more exhilarating experience that a hundred people singing along at the top of their voice to “Smells like teen spirit” or other smash hits while listening to it over headphones only. Take yours off and hear them let it all out. It’s beautiful.

Conclusions? It’s like Melt!’s more relaxed, more mainstream and less druggy little sister. Basically perfect for me. And most importantly, one does not need to camp – I sure shall be back another time.

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