Maybe it’s the age. As I recently took one more step away from 30 and towards 40 I found myself thinking way more about ways of life and which role I should ‘play’ within it. I know, what an existential opening, isn’t it? But in the wake of an aching planet, increasing political instability and a generational divide when it comes to a solution on how to deal with all this I really question a lot of old ‘rules’ and the concept of ‘traditions’ right now. Why choosing a certain way of life when those rules don’t apply anymore? Alright, so what does this premature midlife crisis got to do with a cosy indie music festival in the countryside of West Germany? Well, everything and nothing and I’ll do my best to explain it. It’s been my first visit to Haldern Pop Festival, a placeI always wanted to do. The festival which was ironically founded in the same year like I was born is one of the longest lasting constants in the European festival landscape. In fact, if you ask me what’s special about it, it’s actually the tradition itself that makes it truly unique. They built themselves a unique international reputation among bands, bookers and the local audience which regularly leads to pretty stunning line-ups. And apart from that they keep it quite personal. Various artists thanked festival head Stefan Reichmann throughout the weekend and that’s something you barely witness on other events. The heavy involvement of the city Haldern and its surrounding villages and towns is the other unique element that plays a part here. Plenty of locals help out, mostly on a voluntary basis. There is a deep connection between the city and the festival that was shaped in the past 36 years. It’s pretty much comparable to Germany’s metal institution Wacken.
As a rookie you immediately sense that connection everywhere. What was a new festival experience for me was probably a pretty familiar one for many visitors. And trust me, once you grew up at Haldern Pop there’s a high chance you’ll grow old at Haldern Pop. I can only imagine how many repeat offenders are among the 7.000 visitors. By know the generational circle fully came around.
People that used to be teenagers in the late 80s or early 90s are now attending with their own children who are now also becoming teenagers.
It’s the festival you can attend with your parents (if you love to do that) and overall I’ve never been to a music festival with such a relatively high average age. I’ve also never seen so many small children and pregnant women on a music festival which is a refreshing thing to experience as well. The Haldern Pop Festival is a family-friendly comfort zone and there seems to be a mutual respect for that. I remember somebody joking that they’ll probably open a Kindergarten in 2020 but I’m pretty sure there are already plans laying around for that. The audience grew up with the festival and might also grow old with it which is – in a world where nothing appears to be safe anymore – quite a comforting thought. Younger people are still there, of course, but let’s just say that people under 30 are a minority here.
Never change a running system
There appears to be a reason why they return every year, why they keep their old “Haldern Pop 2002” shirts and wear it. Germans love their traditions and this is – in the end – a pretty German festival. The cosy festival site on a field next to small forest is one aspect why they return. The fact that there aren’t many cultural alternatives in the area might be another but of course – in the end it’s the music. Haldern Pop was and will remain a musical festival in its core, even if it partly also feels like the local fair where you just hang around with your neighbours to drink lots of wine while some band is playing in the background. But this more annoying kind of people remains the minority. The rest gets blown away by the festival’s exquisite musical selection which once again combined crowd-pleasing favourites along with some of the hottest new bands in the scene. They get rare exclusive festival shows from Father John Misty, IDLES and Michael Kiwanuka, simply due to their reputation. At least, that’s how I see it. And on the other hand we have chaotic rock phenomenon Black Midi, punk ruffians The Chats and Australian riot pop grrls Haiku Hands which will all get way bigger within the next years. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Whether you like comfortable and not-harming indie folk/pop or edgy rock sounds – you can and will find it at Haldern Pop Festival and these worlds can indeed work right next to each other and for the audience. As a fan of more adventurous music I obviously would embrace a few braver choices here. The furious dance anthems of Haiku Hands would have worked way better as Saturday mainstage closer than Balthazar.
So, here’s a quick round-up of my personal musical highlights which are pretty close to what I hoped for before the festival. IDLES were the most anticipated band of the festival (judging from the number of people wearing their shirts on the area, me included) and of course they delivered as mainstage closers on Friday. After one year on tour they still play every gig as if there lives depend on it and that’s why you gotta love them. Their messages remain important and if they make one more record like Joy As An Act Of Resistance they’ll probably become one of the world’s biggest rock bands (which is okay, because they are good lads). Shortly before that Josh Tillman played quite a low-key Father John Misty set (at least, compared to the solo shows I experienced before) which is still way better than 80% of all other artists around. In my current love for louder and aggressive sounds I highly embraced the appearance of Dublin’s Fontaines D.C. who will probably become ‘the next IDLES’. US noise rock icons Daughters and their charismatic leader Alexis Marshall were another furious live experience and although there is apparently already a Black Midi back clash happening these guys remain a group you have to see live to … well, probably not understand them but to get a better thought of their musical attempt which can be both – frustrating and fascinating – for the listener. German noise avant-garde trio Gewalt was a pleasant discovery and it was a really joyful experience to see leading man Patrick Wagner shaking up the German comfort zones of the audience.
My favourite show – if I have to narrow it down to that – might have been the one of Khruangbin which I only discovered (at last) a few months ago and which I’ve been heavily listening to throughout the summer. The sun finally came out when they performed on Saturday, psychedelic love was flowing through their air (and the smell of weed) and they really enjoyed playing their song August 10 live on the actual date. Yes, I love the subversive and raw power energy that edgy post-punk delivers but it’s the love a band like Khruangbin spreads which gets me every time. I also have to give props to the wonderful Whitney right here who managed to deliver a similar love-packed show on Friday. I probably missed a few artists here but it was actually quite tricky to keep track. Next to the two venues on the festival ground there are also smaller ones in the city but it’s pretty much impossible to get in there if you don’t like waiting in lines. The local Haldern Pop Bar is a great spot but the times when I spend one hour waiting to get eventually in to see a band are long gone. It’s a bit the same with the famous Spiegelzelt on the festival ground. It looks great and the shows are always intense but apart from the afternoon show it’s way too crowded and after a while the air gets really sticky. At least, they present the shows on a big screen outdoors which is a nice feature but I personally think such small and closed stages aren’t really a good solution on a festival for 7.000 people. But on the other hand, it seems to work and the old saying ‘never change a running system’ really comes alive here.
A larger field of competitors
Haldern Pop Festival is quite a conservative affair and I mean that in a non-judgemental way. We live in a time when a traditional music-only festival isn’t en vogue anymore. Everywhere else music festivals extend their cosmos, trying to add new content to their programme to fulfil the need for an increasing feel good/ escapism vibe. Whether its readings, talks, art, yoga and meditation workshops or other – many festivals have to offer more these days to attract a younger audience who appears to be way less interested in specific bands and music in general but seeks for something to expand their horizons. Traditional music festivals trying to react to that, something I already mentioned during my visit of Melt Festival last year. Haldern Pop Festival is still a success story although the days when they quickly sell out the event without even announcing one act belong to the past. People are less determined these days and over the past three decades countless competitors appeared in the festival landscape which doesn’t make the whole thing easier. Yes, keeping your regular audience is something you can’t take for free. And that’s something every event is facing in the age of digital information overload.
However, it appears to be a conscious decision by the festival to not head for that direction and follow partly obscure ‘let’s have a craft beer brewing workshop”-trends. It longs to be a constant in a world where so many things are changing right now.
So, what does that all have to do with the whole existential questioning I mentioned at the beginning? Well, for me the attendance of Haldern Pop Festival also comes with the realization that I simply lost interest in traditional music festivals of that size. I still love the really small ones, like the already mentioned truly great Alinae Lumr which will happen next week, but once you hit a critical number there’s just too many people in the audience who distract my personal music experience. I know, that’s always the thing with festivals and I don’t know about you but it really annoys me when multiple people in front of stage talk through a heart-warming Michael Kiwanuka ballad or discuss their work life issues while Fontaines D.C. are playing their angry post-punk (yes, that really happened). Again, this is a personal thing. Apart from that there are aspects which now happen on other festivals which I really come to love and which I didn’t find here. And yes, we should also discuss the equality aspect.
Female artists are heavily underrepresented within the line-up. Haldern Pop remains a ‘boys with guitars’-festival but I’m pretty sure we can work on this, right?
During the so-called ‘Haldern Pop Conference’ (which is literally just three talks happening during the festival) the great German sociologist Aladin El-Mafaalani said that festivals shouldn’t be apolitical anymore and that it could be a clever way to extend their horizons. And maybe, right now, for a variety of reasons I’m simply more interested in events which offer that. So, let’s sum it up this way: If you love to have a family-friendly weekend of high quality live music in the field of folk, rock and soul pop that you can attend with your parents and/or kids this is your personal feel-good safe space. I absolutely understand why one would return to this event year after year; it’s escapism within a certain comfort zone. It works for many, but probably not for me anymore. So, in an ironic twist this has been quite a revealing experience for me for which I gotta say: Dankeschön, Haldern Pop Festival!