Okay, cards on the table time. The Berlin Festival is not a true festival. At least not in the traditional sense. There’s no camping area, only hostels, cheap hotels and the couches of your friends’ friends. There’s no mud, no dirt, only concrete. And it’s not located way out in the sticks but right in the heart of Europe’s most vital (according to some sources) city. During the festival you are constantly reminded of where you are: from the “raisin bomber” airplane parked outside the hangars to the view over the former runway-now public-park, this could only be one city in the world. The Berlin Festival is more of a two-night happening with many bands and the musical experience distilled to it’s essence. You can get off the U-Bahn, check out a few bands and leave again – head home or out innumerable clubs. Even as individual. Well, we’re still not sure about this in general.
What’s not debatable is this year’s line-up. Besides the usual newcomers from indie and pop music scene (a large portion of the acts played in showcases during the Berlin Music Week) there were some big news headliners this year. Especially if you’re a fan of the nineties, like this writer. While Britpop legends BLUR, elder statesmen PET SHOP BOYS, shoegaze legends MY BLOODY VALENTINE and art pop queen BJÖRK might not appeal to the younger generation out there, it’s mind-blowing seeing such big names on the main stage. They define showmanship and genius… and highlight the lack of those traits in some of current music’s acts. Nothing But Hope and Passion went deep at Berlin Festival and took plenty of notes, so let’s just begin at the beginning.
Friday – “Run with the dogs tonight”
The first act we managed to catch on the main stage (which has moved locations the past 3 years) were CAPITAL CITIES. A year ago, around the time when NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION interviewed them, they were unknowns. A few things have happened in the meantime, like their hit single Safe And Sound (which also caught the attention of a lot of festival audience.) These two guys make decent electropop. It’s nice and they have a lovely trumpet sound – but it’s also far from being exciting. The duo deserves its victory lap this year. The same might go for Omar Rodiguez-Lopez whose new band BOSNIAN RAINBOWS might come closer to the concept of pop music than his last band THE MARS VOLTA ever did. But when we speak of pop in a Rodriguez-Lopez way, it’s still as an abstract and weird definition of it. Especially lead singer Teri Gender Bender, who gives the psychedelic show more fire. She seemed a bit possessed – which might be a hiring criteria when you join a band by Rodriguez-Lopez. Definitely a cool experience.
BOSNIAN RAINBOWS provided a good counterpoint to all the hipster-themed electro-pop bands like NYPC or FENECH-SOLER. Not that those bands are bad but there’s the element of originality and risk missing. Berlin Festival offered a decent selection of diverse acts. Later on, Irish folk musician Conor O’Brien and his band VILLAGERS electrified the stage just like his German equivalent Konstantin Gropper aka GET WELL SOON did.
Throughout the day anticipation grew for the first two big headliners. Synth-pop legends PET SHOP BOYS are a brave choice as headliners. Although Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have earned their place in the hearts of music nerds, journalists and feuilleton folks in the past years there’s still far too many people seeing these two as washed up left-overs from the 1980s whose entire cultural contribution can be summed up with their big hits Always On My Mind, Suburbia, Go West or It’s A Sin. The PET SHOP BOYS may not have had a Number one hit in two decades but they managed to be prolific in terms of output. Great records – like the recent Electric – managed to please fans and critics. They might not have beards, skinny jeans and mobile commercial tunes like the CAPITAL CITIES, but these two single-handedly defined ‘electronic pop music’ in a way no other act of the past thirty years has even come close to. The set on Friday night was filled with the hits and a few serious fan favourites, along with lasers, dancers, video screens, projections and costume changes. The PET SHOP BOYS were and are still absolutely fabulous. It was sad and more than a little aggravating for band and fans alike that the Berlin Festival sound system was on the verge of collapse during a few songs, with the sound actually cutting out at points.
While the audience at the main stage grew during the PET SHOP BOYS performance, it swelled to capacity as Britpop heroes BLUR took the stage. No surprise since this night’s performance marked their first gig in Germany in a decade, and the first since reuniting in 2008. Fans from all over the country and beyond have come to experience this. You could feel the rising level of passion and intensity in those 90 minutes. Damon Albarn and his lads kept it quite simple: no big and fancy stage design, just them, a few additional musicians and all the hits you’ve loved and missed. There’s the joyful nonsense of the opener Girls And Boys, the coolness of Beetlebum or the unfortunately still important Out Of Time. Albarn wrote ten years ago about the impending Iraq war, and reminded the audience to take a moment to think about Syria and the likelihood of history repeating itself. But this moment marked the only serious and somber moment of the show. The rest is just pure nostalgic fun and a celebration of past glory from BLUR. Coffee And TV is sill joyful fun, Tender a great gospel moment, and Country House is pure entertainment. You can’t mess with the earth embracing chorus of The Universal and the indestructible Song 2 which also closed the set. The crowd went mental throughout – no surprise, of course.
After seeing this, we’re still not convinced if the rumoured new album is a good idea. Albarn and Co. clearly enjoy revisiting the past and the only new track during the set was the passable Under The Westway. Maybe administrating the legacy could be the best thing BLUR could do, at this point. If the past looms too big, the present might have trouble facing it. But on the other hand, there may still some hit-making fire in BLUR. You can’t help quoting The Universal: “It really, really could happen…”
Saturday – “State of emergency, how beautiful to be”
Day two starts in the afternoon around 4pm – and what a better way to start the day with beloved Welsh electropop duo MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY. With the songs from last year’s stunning debut Foe and material from the upcoming Entropy Pt. 1 EP these guys once again proved their potential. They’ve got the hits, now they just need the attention but we’re optimistic that it’s gonna happen. Pop singer ELLIE GOULDING already got plenty of hits besides having released only two full length longplayers. She was next on the main stage but her show was far more weaker than expected. Her sweet voice isn’t the problem but the sound on the stage was very dull and bad mixed which destroyed a lot of her potential. It was a bit of a general problem on the second day – the main stage sound.
It got a bit better with WHITE LIES who were up next. Playing a good selection from their three studio albums these guys have a good fanbase over here. And frontman Harry McVeigh is definitely eye candy for all the ladies … well, and men. Still, it’s kind of a thing with the WHITE LIES and their music. They can’t decide whether they wanna be an edgy post-punk band or a fulltime radio friendly pop group. They seem to be happy with their state anyway. A band that definitely decided to take the first path is British quartet SAVAGES. Their noisey and engergetic punk spirit shook the hangar on the Tempelhof airport. Lead singer Jehnny Beth is as charismatic as she is strong on vocals. There is a rough urgency in the music of SAVAGES. Something pure and true. They are not pretentious as others, they live their music. And while dozens of bands trying to relive the late 70s post-punk spirit by acting like a lame JOY DIVISION coverband these girls actually come pretty close to it. A wonderful alternative in the line-up. Maybe Mr. McVeigh should meet Mrs. Beth in private.
Next act on the mainstage was longtime NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION friend CASPER. No matter if you like the music of the German rap sensation you can’t deny his ability to control large festival audiences. Even if you don’t speak German you see the close connection between fans and artist. CASPER‘s songs deal with everything from teenage angst to pure desperation, from dreams of escapism to the absolute dedication to passion. Something a lot of people can relate to. We’ve experienced people getting goose bumps without having ever listened to him before. That’s a strength only a few artists can create. A lot of goose bumps might have been also involved during the performance of MY BLOODY VALENTINE. With their first album in 22 years and their first performance in Berlin since … well, we don’t actually know … a lot of people were desperately waiting for the shoegaze legends around mastermind Kevin Shields to finally show up. And here they were – loud and lush just as you might expected them. Guitar walls build on guitar walls. It’s like always with this band – hate it or love it. At this point the author of this article isn’t afraid to join the first group of people but of course he’s got plenty of respect. And several MY BLOODY VALENTINE fans seemed to be satisfied with their performance. Thumbs up for it.
At this moment the sun has already set and it was time for the day’s highlight in form of headliner BJÖRK. Not only are performances here rare (her last show in Germany was the MELT! Festival in 2008) they are also brilliantly choreographed and amazingly designed. You can never be disappointed in BJÖRK‘s costumes. Two musicians, a large women choir/dance group and BJÖRK herself in a neon green costume with clear spikes sprouting all over her head. Where acupuncture meets art is the best description. It was the last show of her concert series for the 2011 record Biophilia and it seemed like everybody on stage and in the audience enjoyed it. While the start of the show was very quiet and demure, the show gained momentum as it progressed. Minimalistic beats team up with heavy synthesizer experiments – especially in the classics Army Of Me or Mutual Core. There were video screens, wild tribal dancing and even pyrotechnics during the pumping Náttúra. A big arty rave concluding in the always thrilling Declare Independence. What a stunning finish from extraordinary artist.
That would have been a good note to end on but someone decided to give German electronic producer FRITZ KALKBRENNER the honour of closing the main stage. And don’t get us wrong – this guy is really nice and makes great music with a certain soul note but it’s kind of hard to follow the mind-blowing BJÖRK. But he did his job way better than his brother PAUL last year. Hilariously the set’s second to last song – as in 2012 – with their collaboration Sky And Sand. This one never gets old it seems. A nice alternative marked STEPHAN GRAF VON BOTHMER in the hangar. We were able to catch the final minutes of his live silent movie scoring of Walther Ruttmann’s movie classic Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis from 1927. Stunning stuff and it would be good for BERLIN FESTIVAL to display similar artistic bravery in the future.
Conclusion – “Shoulda’ used my head and not my heart”
So here’s our impressions of the last few days. What’s left after Berlin Festival? Mixed emotions. Although we clearly witnessed some highlights and rare opportunities to see a few of these acts, we can’t help but feel underwhelmed, especially compared to other festivals this year. Maybe it’s the end of the season or the fact we mentioned at the beginning. The Berlin Festival is set in an urban environment which doesn’t allow any illusion of escaping everyday life. Although many people in the audience seemed to be fans, it seems liked more attendees didn’t pay much attention to the musicians (and, to our annoyance, weren’t afraid to show it.) There is a certain ‘business’ and ‘showcase’ veneer to it. This festival seems to involve a bit more dressing up, a bit more need to show off your hairstyles and smart phones. There’s patronage by a lot of big business companies from all kinds of different economic spheres. It’s hard to put your finger on it: while it’s not bad, it’s also not quite spectacular – Berlin Festival is nice and it definitely wins with a good line-up and a phenomenal venue. But it lacks a certain vibe.
But hey, before we sound too negative, there are good memories. If you walked past the ridiculously crowded VIP area you got the chance to find the silent disco in the Art Village. Dancing everywhere with your headphones on while the DJs play all sort of different hits? The only effective way to avoid lawsuits about noise disturbance, it’s also a good place to break free while dancing to I Want to Break Free by QUEEN. This core of music fans who stuck around after the last band played – they enjoyed the music, they sang along, grinning and laughing like maniacs, bound together by the power of music. Even if it wasn’t music live. No iPhones taking pictures, less tweeting and talking – just the music and the fun. In an somewhat cold and superficial environment, these moments of purity are rare and golden. And maybe a role model for whatever might come next year for Berlin Festival.