Festival Season 2015: Lollapalooza Berlin (DE)

The first European Lollapalooza looked to be a success: The two-day festival on Berlin’s defunct Tempelhof Airport –former site of the Berlin Festival– sold out shortly before opening its gates on September 12th. And that despite raising its ticket price quite spontaneously to 139 Euros, making it more expensive than e.g. the Hurricane Festival, which lasts three days and offers camping. Of course, Berlin’s Lollapalooza differs in size from its Chicago counterpart: Four stages instead of seven, two days instead of three, a capacity of 50,000 instead of 160,000. Obviously the headliners Muse and Macklemore were not exactly Metallica and Paul McCartney (Lolla’s 2015 headliners) either, but still it was an overall good line-up (especially if you had only paid the early bird price like myself).

Show women walking on stilts across the festival site
Show women walking on stilts across the festival site

Apart from the music programme, Lollapalooza attempted to stand out from the German festival landscape by offering a special kids’ area, a ‘fun fair’ (with showmen, can knock down and a glitter make-up stand where you could queue for hours), a ‘Grüner Kiez’ (green neighbourhood) with charity and environmental stalls, and something they called ‘Fashionpalooza’, which turned out to be one (1) sponsor stand by a fashion online shop.

One of many games of skill on the fun fair.
One of many games of skill on the fun fair.

While the ‘Kidzapalooza’ was clearly embraced by the visiting families and the special kids’ tickets sold out as well, I still don’t really see why it has to be encouraged to drag your little child along to an event like this. It’s loud, people there get drunk and ruthless and throw things, and crowds are generally not a safe place for children. I think festivals should allow the audience to “go wild” without having to fear that they might trample on a child.

I suppose enough has been written about the disastrous  water-pipe burst which led to insanely long toilet queues on Saturday, and about the insanely long food queues as well, so I won’t linger on and finally get to the musical performances.

Colour-coded goodness: Everything Everything.
Colour-coded goodness: Everything Everything.

After a quite strenuous procedure of trying to enter the festival site at the same time as thousands of other visitors, we caught some glimpses of Joywave and Parquet Courts, the former sadly having to replace the dropped-out San Cisco, who I’ve never seen and was really looking forward to. The first band we actually watched, though, were Manchester’s Everything Everything, who I’d lost track of a bit despite quite liking their 2010 debut albumIt turned out their third and latest LP had spawned at least two venerable hits, Regret and Distant Past, and they were drawing a reasonably sized crowd as well. As ever, the quartet appeared in matching stage outfits – luckily these ones were a step up from the beige overalls I saw them perform in the last time. Like any good girl group’s outfits, these ones were not uniform but differed in details. The set was good fun and the perfect way to open our festival, the crowd was into it and even though I only recognized two of their early songs, I could also dance to the rest of them.

I saw James Bay while passing the main stage and was surprised he didn’t sound whiny and instead really ‘rock’, knowing him only from his detestable radio hit Hold Back The River and for being a shameless Jamie N Commons cosplayer. Also a 3 pm slot seemed kind of shitty for a successful bloke like him, but that was only one of many weird running order decisions.

MS MR did not, however, match their outfits in advance.
MS MR did not, however, match their outfits in advance.

Up next for me were MS MR, a New York electropop duo that I completely missed out on until I heard their melancholic 2012 song Hurricane on the radio quite recently and instantly liked it. Unfortunately I hadn’t listened to anything else by them, and didn’t know virtually all of their tracks were apparently lively, upbeat 70s/80s style synthpop. The members Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow were both extremely outgoing and self-confident and danced around crazily in their 70s/80s glitter outfits. I didn’t even know they had a huge following as well. Unfortunately I had to leave right before they were about to play that one song that I knew, which would maybe have made me enjoy at least a little bit of their set.

Then we attempted to get food. Oh my. I thought there was enough time – like 45 minutes – until Hot Chip would start. In the end, I missed almost their entire set queuing. There were tons of food stalls really, but it just wasn’t enough for 50,000 people (who couldn’t just go to the non existent campsite and make some canned ravioli). Hot Chip also had a really shitty 5 pm slot, which made me feel a bit sorry for them, but I can’t really talk about their set because I spent the rest of it sitting on the floor eating. (It should be mentioned that even the headliners already started at 9:30 pm, as the curfew was 11 pm due to noise reasons, so I suppose there was little other choice than cramming even high profile acts into the afternoon.)

Ron Mael (70) of Sparks showing Franz Ferdinand's Nick McCarthy and Paul Thompson that he's got the moves.
Ron Mael (70) of Sparks showing Franz Ferdinand’s Nick McCarthy and Paul Thompson that he’s got the moves.

Finally, FFS, the supergroup consisting of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks, formed one of my personal festival highlights. I have to admit I didn’t know Sparks before at all, and I did not expect the two members to be 66 and 70 years old – which one would never have thought, with how agile both of them still were on stage. Singer Russell Mael looked like an aged emo kid, only really cheerful, in a funny looking poncho, while his brother Ron Mael sat stoically behind his keyboard just to suddenly get up at one point and perform crazy dance moves. Franz Ferdinand, on the other hand, don’t seem to have aged a bit, physically, since appearing on the scene 10 years ago, and with the self-titled FFS album they have once again proven themselves incapable of writing a bad song. Their stage performance was fun as ever, be it four of them playing a keyboard at once or inviting the crowd to tell the person next to them to “Piss off” when the track with the same title came on. They even performed a few songs from the respective bands, which were especially celebrated by the crowd.

I then tried to watch some of Chvrches‘ set but I only knew ca. two songs – one of which I also saw – and quickly lost interest, trying to find a toilet instead and almost freaking out at the size of the queues (but it was possible to sneak into the broken ones and use them, because security was apparently unable to block access to them).

Deichkind crowdsurfing in a giant barrel.
Deichkind crowdsurfing in a giant barrel.

Of course we couldn’t miss out on Deichkind, the Hamburg hiphop/electro collective known for their spectacular live shows. It was already the third time I saw them perform at a festival and they never disappoint, whether presenting perfect boygroup-style choreographies, dressing up as old ladies, wearing Daft Punk like LED helmets or giant brains (to illustrate song title Denken Sie groß – ‘think big’) or surfing the crowd inside a giant barrel waving a “Refugees Welcome” flag and wearing sweatshirts with the same slogan (which are also sold in their online shop to support refugee aid organisations). The themes in their music range from dumb party-and-booze songs to criticizing the status quo, the latter being done quite cleverly in recent hits Denken Sie groß and Like mich am Arsch, however trying to fashion an entire song out of advertising slogans and then declaring that ‘We only want your money’ is kind of like the musical equivalent of Banksy.

Finally our Satuday ended with The Libertines, who had to play the third-biggest stage for some reason – presumably because the Main Stages 1 and 2 were so close together that the sound would have interfered even more than it already did (halfway through the set Carl Barât asked if ‘those German hiphoppers’, meaning Deichkind, were still playing, as he had probably heard Macklemore & Ryan Lewis all the way from Main Stage 1). The Libs had had to cancel their previous two gigs due to health issues – they later released a statement that Pete Doherty had suffered an anxiety attack – and indeed the scandal-ridden singer seemed a little unfocused for someone who is allegedly clean, so he might have been on meds. Also his microphone was turned off for large parts of the gig, so often one would only hear the crowd chanting along. They mostly dismissed their new album Anthems For Doomed Youth, their first in 11 years, which had only come out the previous day, making this their first gig since the release. Their comeback single Gunga Din, however, was celebrated just as frenetically as classic hits such as Time For Heroes, Boys In The Band or Can’t Stand Me Now. Due to the set being obviously packed with bangers like these, their performance was one big party, with a very dedicated crowd singing along loudly despite the competition of the headliner playing at the same time (but then again I doubt their fanbase intersects much with that of Macklemore).

After all three final acts ended at exactly the same time, the entire festival attempted to leave the site to either get home or to somewhere where you could party. Of course, the underground stations got blocked and an atmosphere of hopelessness spread. Somehow we managed to get to the next crossing and escape in a bus, but it was clear the organisers had not put any thought at all into how to get everyone away from the festival site. For Sunday it looked like there would be shuttle buses to replace the U-Bahn, but I had still prepared routes of getting home with the help of regular buses, as it would take years to try and get on one of the train service replacement buses anyway.

On Sunday the toilet situation had been resolved, and we got food quite early on so I only needed to get a snack later for which I didn’t have to queue so long. Unfortunately the running order for Sunday left us with hours of nothing to do (apart from watching Stereophonics or something), and the lone fashion stall had run out of colours to design gym bags with, so we couldn’t even burn time on that.

Wolf Alice opened the Main Stage on Sunday.
Wolf Alice opened the Main Stage on Sunday.

Our day had begun with Wolf Alice, who I’d seen previously at the Libertines’ 2014 gig at Hyde Park long before their album was released. Knowing most of their songs now, it was definitely more fun. The stage presence of the young Londoners was still quite timid but their grungy sound and singer Ellie Rowsell’s witch-like screams definitely made it an interesting experience.

Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch had fans dancing on stage.
Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch had fans dancing on stage.

After a long period of doing nothing much, we headed over to Belle & Sebastian, a band that I had never seen, but that I appreciate in a  kind of passive way because the amount of albums they’ve put out is too intimidating for me to really start listening through them. The Glasgow collective, which has been around for two decades, definitely turned into a highlight for me despite not really knowing any songs. But singer Stuart Murdoch’s stage presence was so endearing and their calming, cute indie pop simply matched the sunny afternoon perfectly. At some point Murdoch decided to get a female fan on stage to dance with him, and then continued to bring at least a dozen people up there who all seemed to be having the time of their life. He also talked quite a lot, among other things about how embarrassed he was that the UK didn’t take in any refugees.

Afterwards the Beatsteaks were on, a popular Berlin band who play punk-infused rock with English lyrics. I watched most of their set from the ‘Grüner Kiez’ area, which offered stacked pallets with grass on top and flowers growing in the bottom, allowing you to sit on them and still watch the Main Stage 2 sets on the screens. And sitting was definitely necessary whenever possible after  standing/walking almost for the entirety of Saturday. The Beatsteaks are famed for being a great live band, but I’m kind of indifferent towards them so I didn’t feel like moshing in the crowd. I could however enjoy their set as I recognised most of their songs.

Due to lack of alternatives (the only other option really being Sam Smith, another of those abominable radio people taking away slots that could be filled with like actual good acts), we ended up watching Little Dragon next, a quite crazy Swedish indie-electro act, but I didn’t know anything by them and their flashy live show didn’t really convince me at all.

Again due to lack of alternatives, we then attended Seeed‘s set, another hugely famous Berlin act playing dancehall with mostly German lyrics. I have to admit that while I never cared about their music, they put on a really good live show. The three frontmen were accompanied by a large brass band, the sound was great and they threw in some clever cover versions/remixes – e.g. their own Berlin anthem Dickes B to the tune of Justin Timberlake’s Sexy Back – that really spiced the thing up.

"I love big black balls." - Ariana Grande
“I love big black balls.” – Ariana Grande

I left Seeed’s set earlier so I would have enough time to queue for toilets before Muse came on, but somehow I didn’t have to queue at all and ended up sitting in front of the main stage for over 20 minutes. Well at least I could see a little bit of the stage like this and not just the screens… Muse is another tricky band for me. I mean, I could have watched Tame Impala, who for inexplicable reasons were playing at the same time despite target groups definitely intersecting, and many fans being mad about this, but I had seen them several years ago, other than Muse who I’d been waiting to see since 2005 or 2006, so I had to take that chance. In the ten years since, I had however gradually lost all interest in them as their musical quality seemed to steadily decline. But as they are famed to be such a great live band, of course I had to form my own opinion. At first, I have to admit I was a little underwhelmed; partly for sure because I didn’t know a lot of songs, but also because in my opinion there are many major bands who put on a just as good light show (but maybe a festival gig isn’t comparable to their own headline show). Well, that was before they let the toilet paper rain down on us (actually just long strips of white paper, along with a bunch of confetti, but it looked awesome). And let loose gigantic black balloons into the crowd. And this massive crowd singing Our Time Is Running Out and Starlight. I will still hold up that Muse are not a ‘better’ live band, show-wise, than say The Flaming Lips or Deichkind. But it was definitely fun to have seen them once, and I will surely meet Tame Impala a second time in my life. So in the end I stayed for Muse’s entire set, and then hurried to that bus stop where I managed to get on one that was less than half full, because apparently no one wants to go west anymore, and got home by a super long detour, but I was glad I had made it at all.

Despite some organisational mishaps, I still think the festival itself was neat (at least for the early bird price I paid), but not so great that I would blindly buy a ticket for next year. In parts the line up was too mainstream for me, but this can be said for the US Lollapalooza as well. Still a good alternative to the completely-gone-electro Berlin Festival.

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