Now in its eigth year, Reeperbahn Festival keeps growing: 400 music acts, artists, performers and exhibitions could be experienced in 70 locations around Hamburg’s St. Pauli district. Plus, this year’s festival was extended from three days to four, the Wednesday only being open to those with a three-day wristband and not available as a day ticket. So logically, as Wednesday was “free”, only few locations were open, but as always there was plenty to discover.
Hamburg welcomed festival-goers with heavy rain showers so typical for the northern German city – luckily the two open-air stages on Spielbudenplatz had been merged into one, their roofs forming a comfortable shelter from the rain. Due to the bad weather I decided to stay at Molotow, with only a spontaneous trip to Prinzenbar in-between. After a short peek at Stabil Elite, whose set was almost over when I came, not leaving them enough time to impress, I went upstairs to the bar where I caught a bit of Naked as we came before fellow Hamburgers Der Ringer were on. The quintet had recently released a quite accomplished first EP, “Das Königreich liegt unter uns”, on newly formed label Euphorie, and their live performance once more underlined that Foals-esque soundscapes and meaningful German lyrics actually do go together. The night at Molotow Bar was rounded off by a storming performance by Munich’s Elektrik Kezy Mezy, who I hadn’t heard of before. Their steaming rock’n’roll with Motown-influences left no foot in the room standing still. After that I met up with a friend at Prinzenbar where I caught the rest of Roosevelt‘s set. With his electronic project, Beat! Beat! Beat! man Marius Lauber has notably matured and also drew a respectably sized crowd for a Wednesday night. We ended the night at the 60s beat disco at Molotow Bar, but still needed our reserves for the three days ahead, so it didn’t get too late.
As tradition demands, we started our Thursday with some high culture: “Zeit für Zorn” (Time for rage), the bouncers’ reading, took place at Pearls Table Dance Bar like almost every year. The place was packed as always when the three comedically talented bouncers leave their place at the door to take the stage instead and read their typically dark-humoured stories about working in the Hamburg nightlife.
Following up was New York singer-songwriter Gambles aka Matthew Daniel Siskin, whose debut EP and album had been through the hype machine of countless music blogs (including ours). With his raw voice and haunting songs as well as a lot of charm and jokes in-between, he won the audience over in no time. We can only recommend to check out the freshly released first album, “Trust”.
After this, Smith Westerns delivered an ok performance at Molotow, but their sunny indie-pop was a bit too carefree and meaningless for my liking that moment. We thus traveled to Uebel & Gefährlich for The Boxer Rebellion, whose set was mostly a lot of bright lights and bombastic radio-format rock, but it failed to touch me entirely. Neither could Born Ruffians, a kind of less famous Vampire Weekend who failed to make a mark for themselves in the wide sea of oh-so-quirky indie bands.
Luckily the evening found a more than satisfying ending in Jacco Gardner‘s set at Imperial Theater. The Dutch singer-songwriter performed his catchy indie pop with a full band and lots of charm among the props of the current play, as logistics demand from every band playing this theatre during Reepfest.
There was a headphone disco on at Molotow afterwards, which wasn’t quite as good (and well-visited– it was a Thursday after all) as the one at Berlin Festival, but still something else for a change. Thanks to the insufficient traffic service on week nights and two of our friends catching a coach home at 7am, we had to go strong until the morning hours before recovering from this eventful day.
The evening started with what would turn out to be one of my personal highlights of the festival: Breton made up for their cancelled gig last year with a stunning set at the recently re-opened Mojo Club. Backing up their mesmerising sound with video projections, the Londoners definitely knew how to suck a crowd in. They may look like Physics students but are capable of mixing hip-hop beats with strung out post-rock sequences and the kind of working-class accent that’s suspiciously absent from most of today’s neatly combed indie bands. What’s so rare about their equally fearless and intellectual blend of styles is that the result is genuinely interesting – an attribute that I’ve been hard put to find in anything released in the indie rock genre in the last couple of years. In this sense, they were really the kind of exotic flower one always hopes to find at festivals like these.
Another exotic flower, without any doubt, was Berlin-based songstress Marla Blumenblatt (literally: Marla Flower Petal; hopefully not her actual name). Performing at the publicly accessible Reeperbus on Spielbudenplatz to promote her set later that night, she and her band brought back the vibe of German popular music of the 50s and 60s with coquettish lyrics evoking the idyll of bathing resorts and garden pavillions and a quite unique, though shrill singing voice (with a distinct southern-German or even Austrian accent – so much for the Berlin myth) accompanied by guitar and double bass.
After lengthy queuing for James Vincent McMorrow at Mojo Club, I found that his soporific slow songwriter-pop was definitely not what I needed this relatively early in the night. At least I managed to catch that one song that used to wake me on the radio when I lived in England in 2011, the only reason I actually wanted to go see him.
Unfortunately I now had virtually nothing on my list to see instead, so I went to the nearest club – Molotow once again – and caught bits of This Void at the bar, but they were just another of those German indie bands who are decent at copying US or UK role models but fail to bring their own ideas to it – the main reason why there is no decent indie scene here apart from over-intellectual uni graduates frequently classified as “Hamburger Schule” (Hamburg school) who all sound pretty much exactly the same.
Luckily China Rats were about to start in the basement club – I knew the name because they had played at Molotow before but I hadn’t actually been or listened to their music for that matter. So what happened was basically a picturebook Reepfest experience: You walk into show without expecting anything, and you’re just blown away. When the lads from Leeds unpacked their Clash-like singalongs, the crowd didn’t need to be asked twice to engage in a wild pogo. Unbelievably, the band appear to be unsigned – even if their sound is nothing particularly new, it’s undeniably fun and they’ve got some hooks that would make most songwriters blush with envy.
After this brilliant performance I went to Docks to have a short glimpse at Laing, one of the few interesting pop bands to emerge in Germany lately. The girl quartet bring back the sound of the 80s’ New German Wave – catchy electro-pop with uncomplicated singalong lyrics. Paired with matching outfits and perfectly choreographed synchronous dance moves, one could easily think Laing were some cunning major label’s product, but on the contrary: They are the brainchild of lead singer Nicola Rost, who writes the songs, makes up the choreography and even sews their own stage outfits. This DIY spirit quickly made them the darlings of the more indie-oriented music press, but sadly, their performance was too stylized and soulless for my liking. Also they seemed to play more covers than original songs, but I was really only present for a couple of minutes to be fair, because I wanted to make sure to get in at The Strypes‘ gig at Grünspan. Equally loved and hated, these Irish teenagers have a reputation of being an incredible live band, but their mainstream-conformity and underage obviously make them little attractive to all those who take their taste in music super seriously. With a debut album full of potential chart hits, they obviously had a little help from professional songwriters, but a performance like that can’t be mass-produced. The fifteen- to seventeen-year-old pocket Beatles chased each other across the stage like young dogs, swapping instruments, sharing mics, flirting with the crowd or acting so over cool it was obviously self-parody (in the case of the sunglasses-clad lead singer). Not to mention that they played a fucking one hour twenty set with just one album up their sleeve – and without the popular break before the encore (which is not usually done at festivals anyway).
After this perfect way to end the night, I only had to kill three more hours until I could get home, which were passed at the Molotow as usual.
Now with three days of festival in my bones, I was little more than a wreck and had also caught a cold by Saturday. Luckily, the line-up held nothing urgent today apart from Viktor & The Blood. The new band by Sugarplum Fairy’s Victor Norén and Jonas Karlsson alongside ex Mando Diao drummer Samuel Giers opened the night at Grünspan with some reliable radio rock’n’roll, as you would expect. Their gig was significantly overshadowed, though, by the recent death of Sugarplum Fairy member Kristian Gidlund, to whom the band also dedicated a song. Surprisingly, the three only performed with a guitar, drums and vocals – no bassist. Still, their sound didn’t lack power and was made distinguishable by Victor’s charismatic voice.
After having watched their set in full, I joined a friend at New Desert Blues‘ gig at the Rock Café, in the rooms of the former Silber, a place you’d never get caught in except at Reepfest. The UK newcomers played slow, dusty Americana, which was nice for the while, but couldn’t catch my attention for too long, especially as I wanted to make it in time for Beliefs‘ gig at Grüner Jäger. Canadians Josh Korody and Jesse Crowe and their band played a trendy blend of grunge, surf and lo-fi, of course with the matching thriftstore look. Maybe it was in part thanks to the extreme volume that you really couldn’t pull yourself out of their noisy guitar walls and distorted vocals. The packed Jäger was dancing, anyway.
A small snack later, we traveled back to the Reeperbahn to squeeze ourselves into the Hörsaal while The Zolas still played. We were there for our discovery from earlier in the morning, Fake Shark Real Zombie!, who had seemed fun on the festival website. Making ourselves comfortable in a seating area, me having a peppermint tea for the by now unignorable illness, we could still see the stage, but unfortunately what happened there was a dude with fake blond hair and a tie-dye shirt jumping around to a crude mixture of pop-punk and metal, which was wannabe original and plain annoying. In the end I didn’t even catch the last bus but the one before that because I could hardly stay awake at this point. So it wasn’t really a spectacular ending to this rather lovely festival, but the thing with Reepfest is that you can be very lucky about the bands you pick, but sometimes you just aren’t. In this way it is like the much-quoted box of chocolates. And probably the best thing is that you never have to watch the same old bands as every time, although they too keep booking the same bands but there is always so much on you haven’t seen yet that it doesn’t matter.