A Musical Odyssey: Hamburg’s Reeperbahn Festival 2013

Picture of Robert Hugill
Updated: 27 January 2016
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Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district has long been renowned for its combination of late night debauchery and cultural and musical significance, the latter mainly due to the time The Beatles spent in the city in the early 1960s, before they were global icons. The Reeperbahn Festival continues this tradition, bringing an array of young musical talent to the area every year. Robert Hugill of Planet Hugill shares his thoughts on the 2013 edition.

The Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg is a remarkable manifestation, a three day jamboree full of music and art. There is a broad selection of bands, appearing at over 60 venues of all sizes in the Reeperbahn area of the city. The Reeperbahn is a street in Hamburg which historically led from the city towards the Danish border, in an area which was outside the city walls and by the docks. The name in fact means rope-walk, and refers to the rope manufacture necessary to any shipping port. The area became notorious as the red light district, but in the 1960s it also housed the clubs where the Beatles played during their Hamburg years. For the last eight years the Reeperbahn Festival has been helping to reclaim the area for music.

For three days every September the area is taken over and around 250 bands perform. The festival’s programmers have no preconceptions about style, genre or nationality. Instead they focus on quality, so part of the charm of the festival is serendipity, wandering into a small bar and seeing a band playing to a packed room knowing that next year you may see them in far bigger venues. The event acts as a showcase and many attendees are music professionals and journalists, but for 35 euros you can buy a takeskarte, or day ticket, and 70 euros gets you a three day pass. The festival provides daily timetables but there is also an app to enable you to keep abreast of what is going on where.

Spielbude Platz is the hub of the festival with venues like the famous bar Molotow (currently under threat of redevelopment), Docks, Schmidt Theater, Angie’s Nightclub as well as the open stage, the Flatstock Europe Poster Convention and a whole variety of food stalls. By day the area is a bit grim looking, but by night it comes alive. The whole area is throbbing with a remarkable mix of people of all ages and styles who are there to see bands or simply to enjoy the food and atmosphere.

Robert DeLong
© Robert Hugill

A rather pleasant way to start the evening is to have a glass of weissbeer and stand listening to whatever bands are on at the open stage in the middle of Spielbude Platz. I caught the Italian showcase, with a group of Italian bands including the Artificial Harbor and A Toys Orchestra. The performances were terrific and it made a great relaxed start to the evening. Alternatively, if you want to catch what is hot at the festival, each day at 5pm there is Ray’s Reeperbahn Review at the Schmitt Theatre presented by Ray Cokes. A rather crazy event which mixes bad jokes with live appearances from bands: your chance to catch an act to see later in the evening.

The wide choice of music on offer is reflected in the acts that I saw on my first two nights. There was Sven Helbig and the Faure Quartett at Fliegende Bauten playing Helbig’s Pocket Symphonies, short classical compositions performed in stunning style by the amplified quartet with Helbig on synthesizer. This was followed by a serendipitous visit to a tiny Pooca Bar where there was a Lithuanian and Latvian showcase, and I caught Gjan, a Lithuanian singer who has been called a rock version of Ke$ha, a cheeky mixture of pop and electronic sounds.

The following evening, we started off hearing Laing, a German girl band from Berlin. They combine electronic sounds with smart German lyrics and slick choreographed presentation, sounding a bit like the Andrews Sisters gone techno. They made a very strong impression when they appeared at the festival in 2011 at Angie’s Nightclub, and their career has since taken off. Later on, we journeyed to Knust, a club some distance from the centre of the Reeperbahn, to hear Californian Robert DeLong. Friends had heard him earlier in the day at Ray’s Reeperbahn Review, and were keen to hear his full set. Robert is one of the freshest talents around, a solo performer who mixes Midi-Patterns from his computer with live drums, looped guitars and percussion, adding multiple layers and putting it through a sound program using a Wii console with joystick. The result is some of the most amazing sounds that I have heard in a long time, it was difficult to imagine that one man was controlling all of that multi-layered sound. It was an intense, hyperactive and mesmerizing performance and, not surprisingly, the club was packed.

A performer I managed to miss on the Saturday evening, regretfully, was the singer-songwriter Anna Calvi who combines influences as diverse as Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, and opera. She was performing at Fliegende Bauten where she was preceded by the British Indie-Pop band Fanfarlo, another performance which was highly rated by the audience.

Spielbude – A Toys Orchestra
© Robert Hugill

I managed to catch acoustic sets from two other British singer- songwriters, Benjamin Clementine and Douglas Dare. Both performed in the main hall of the Schulmuseum, a 19th century school now converted into a museum. They attracted capacity audiences, diverse ages all sitting attentively on the floor of the school hall. Clementine reminded me a little of Nina Simone in the way he combined powerful but smoky vocals with lively jazz/soul influenced piano. Douglas Dare had a rather Neil Simon-like high tenor voice and inventive piano accompaniment, with his songs being more wistful. It was definitely cool late-night entertainment.

Other performers included Kate Nash performing at the Docks, a huge 1300 capacity venue. She was showcasing her new Indie-Rock sound with an all-girl band in a set that friends found disappointing. A hot tip was Roosevelt, a new band formed by Marius Lauber the drummer from the German Indie band, Beat! Beat! Beat! performing at the nightclub Moondo, which used to be called the Top Ten Club and hosted the Beatles in the 1960s. Another returnee to the festival was the Danish band Efterklang who brought the distinctive brand of experimental Ambient-Indie-Pop to Grosse Freiheit 36.

The festival includes a diverse selection of visual arts too. The exhibition Jürgen Vollmer Photography showed a cross-section of the work by photographer Jürgen Vollmer. He met The Beatles in 1960 in the Hamburg club Kaiserkeller. They hung around together, and Vollmer started photographing them. His photo subjects also included Madonna, Isabelle Adjani, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and Tom Cruise.

One of the joys of the festival is meeting up the next day to talk over with friends the hits and misses of the evening before. The area round the Reeperbahn is well supplied with bars and eateries, so you can combine talking about the previous night with refueling for the next one. I can also recommend taking Hempel’s Beatles-Tour, which combined musical entertainment with a tour of the sites associated with the Liverpool band.

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