Reeperbahn Festival 2017: The Review

Ah, Hamburg. The original sin city – an annual haunt in my youth but not visited for many a year. When a friend suggested I should go there and waxed lyrical about ‘the greatest festival on Earth’, I was sufficiently intrigued to give it a go, and eternally grateful I did.


Reeperbahn Festival was first conceived 12 years ago and has evolved into what is now a world- leading series of conferences, meetings, award shows, industry training sessions and hundreds of live performances, spread over four days and most of it in a small area probably half a mile wide by a quarter mile deep. This year there were 40,000 visitors, including 4,700 professional guests from 57 nations.

It truly is the northern equivalent of Austin, Texas’ SXSW, more so than any other competitor and those that have grown with it will tell you that in commercial terms it is actually more significant than SXSW in that there is less showboating and more deals are done. The sort of deals that get recording and publishing rights for up and coming musicians, for while the festival is not dedicated solely to them by any means a lot of the performers do fall into that category – and gratifyingly many of them have been covered already by TMB.

The last time I passed that way Hamburg was still a major port and carried as an appendage no less than 4,000 prostitutes plying their trade the half-mile length of the Reeperbahn, Grosse Freiheit and the surrounding streets. Its port operations severely diminished, their numbers have shrunk to around 400 now but that didn’t stop me being collared by three of them, separately, in the space of a couple of minutes and just 100 yards. Neither was I prepared for having to duck to avoid a full vodka bottle thrown forcefully for no apparent reason from the open door of a bus – at 10 o’clock in the morning – or to see a couple of local cops from the St Pauli station in the heart of the Reeperbahn apparently relaxing with a shared joint. But that’s the Reeperbahn for you. It hasn’t lost any of its colour.

What it has gained, or more properly regained, is what it had in the 1960s, when it was the musical city par excellence, where The Beatles and countless other bands learned their trade. In fact part of the fascination of attending this festival is to watch contemporary performers in venues that have survived since those days such as Indra and Kaiserkeller at 36 Grosse Freiheit; two venues within yards of each other that The Beatles played frequently and both still bursting with energy. Or Molotow, around the corner, where the Rolling Stones played early shows and where the original owner is still in charge.

The sheer variety of locations for the musical events took me by surprise. Apart from the clubs (and there are many of them), performances take place in theatres, art galleries, school buildings, shop fronts, outside bars, within converted double deck and yellow school buses, on top of Transit vans and, in the area known as Spielbudenplatz in the centre of the Reeperbahn, on the pavement, one after another so that you can often be within earshot of four or five separate performances at any one time.

Speaking of industry training sessions, I attended two. The first demonstrates the real value of the conference side of this festival; the second perhaps indicates where it can still improve. The session hosted by the Music Cities Network was fascinating. This organisation is attempting to set up – as its name suggests – a network of cities that are connected by how important music is to the fabric of the city. Originally set up in Hamburg but with input from a London-based organisation, Sound Diplomacy, the initial members include Hamburg, Sydney, Aarhus in Denmark (which I am informed is the true centre of the Danish music scene, not Copenhagen), and Groningen in the Netherlands. It seems talks are under way with some British cities about membership and London, Liverpool and Manchester were mentioned.

One objective is to establish a venue exchange programme so that artists would have the opportunity to commit to a supported and well promoted tour across multiple venues internationally. In another direction, co-operation in the implementation of a venue security strategy is also on the agenda, a very important item that is often dismissed as “something we can’t influence”, which is not really the case.

That session was hosted deliberately in English because, as the Chairman said, “English is the international language of music”. A session the next day, on ‘the Music Universe” had some fascinating slides, replete with data on how the industry functions and on how data analysis/big data/Blockchain etc are becoming increasingly important in a business  that has so far not really moved with the times. But it was presented verbally in German with no translation facilities and before too long about half the audience left.

I was bombarded with emails once I’d received accreditation for the event. It really needs at least a month to attend all the events and see all the acts that they want you to experience in four days (and the performances only really get going on the third day). So as is often the case it was a question of running quickly from one to another – through heavy traffic rather than muddy fields – and cursing the scheduling. And my own schedule limited me to the last two days. But those performers I did see included:

The Bongo Club, a guitar band from southern Sweden. The singer is Liam Gallagher (more about him later) while his guitarist is Mick Hucknall. Lots of attitude, and plenty of stage action. They’d taken the trouble to decorate the entire area with their little posters; the most proactive of all the artists there. Good luck to them.

Fink. The Berlin-based Fin Greenall, originally out of Cornwall, is probably better known these days in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia than the UK. His ambient guitar sound can make you sleepy but when his band worked up to a crashing finale it woke up a packed 36 Grosse Freiheit. Definitely worth seeing.

Adna, another Swedish performer – though originally from Bosnia and now based in Berlin – who plays alongside a percussionist of whom she seems to pull the strings.  Quiet (she’d lost her voice though that wasn’t apparent during the performance) and with a melancholic touch to most of her work, she is quite enchanting.

Ary, from Norway, has been reviewed here recently. One of many artists playing a short set out of the N-Joy Reeperbahn bus before their main set, you could let her voice serenade you all night long. She’s tipped for big things and is signed to a label that has a terrific record of success for their artists. She actually started crying when she saw people singing her lyrics with her. Aw, bless.

There were plenty of Scandinavian artists and next up was Sløtface, who are just starting a UK tour if you can get a ticket. I caught their afternoon session about a kilometre away from the Reeperbahn in a trendy area of St Pauli, close to a huge vintage clothing store selling items in bulk by the kilo. In what seemed to be a converted school building with no a/c or fans the 30 degree heat restricted their set to a stripped back one of just five songs (including Pitted) and a lot of crowd conversation along the way, though none of the surfing that was encouraged. It isn’t what Sløtface is all about. The pop-punkers as Haley Shea describes them need to be in full in-your-face mode as Shea promised they would be for the evening show that I unfortunately couldn’t make. But even the slower almost acoustic afternoon set was a vehicle for her sublime attitude.

Liam Gallagher was a late headline secret set announcement for the Festival and played a packed out show at the Reeperbahn’s biggest venue, Docks. The full show is up on YouTube now if you want to watch it. I didn’t see it but an acquaintance whose opinion I trust did and his was … “No voice. No tunes. No attitude. Nothing.  Had to end the set with a terrible, but crowd pleasing slaughterhouse version of his brother’s song Wonderwall to make ‘the Oasis in the mid-nineties’ nostalgic boys in the audience satisfied “. I’ll leave it at that.

One of the principal reasons behind my decision to risk a Ryanair flight cancellation and attend this festival was that an artist I recently reviewed was scheduled to make her debut live performance as a solo artist. The artist is Sol Heilo, whose band, Katzenjammer, is in temporary hiatus, thus permitting her to record songs she had written during her time with Katzenjammer but which did not fit that band’s style. The album comes out in October; I’ve heard it and it is exceptionally good. The show was even better.

Of Sol Heilo’s many skills her ability to arrange those songs is paramount; to inject different instruments into a band line-up which might bear no relation to those that recorded the album version, and to produce a finished adaptation which sounds at least as good. There is a lot of harp on the album for example, which is replaced live by instruments that include an accordion that sounds like a church organ. A particular example is America, which she moved more upbeat, almost to dance status, and changed the ending, adding in an extra verse and one of her celebrated and quite startling Katzenjammer-style trumpet solos before it to rapturous audience applause.

Indeed, standard Katzenjammer equipment was evident throughout the evening: the toy guitar, piano and glockenspiel all put in an appearance at one stage or another. Some habits are hard to break.

At the opposite end of the scale to America is Closer to the Sky, which I had misinterpreted as a song about a suicide pact when it actually deals with our unwillingness to talk about death. The backcloth is the terminal illness of her “beloved “cousin and their final meeting during which she failed to acknowledge the forthcoming finality, joking with him while leaving that “she’d see him again soon”. She never did. The story was as touching as the song – remember it while you are listening to it – was received with rapt attention and in total silence, and proved to anyone who’d ever doubted it that she can work within whatever musical or theatrical milieu she likes, with consummate ease.

After a couple of Katzenjammer songs and a quaint cover of London Calling there was one song, I didn’t note its title, that was so spectacularly powerful  I had to wonder why it wasn’t on the album. Then it hit me that she’s on her way to a second one already. She’s had 12 years to write these songs that weren’t quite right for that band. If they are all this good it will be a wondrous thing.

Whether or not Sol Heilo plays in the UK in the near future is open to question – Germany is her priority market as it was with Katzenjammer – but in the event she does, cancel your trip to the Cup Final, or your wedding, even your funeral. Do not miss her!

The Anchor Award ceremony was a highlight of the Festival. It is a little like the Mercury Prize in the UK in its stature though quite different in that it is judged on live performances at the Festival itself and honours the most promising emerging music talent from its programme. The judges go to the performers rather than the other way around.

This is one of the many attractions of the entire event for a visitor, the opportunity literally to rub shoulders in the bar for pre-show drinks and afterwards with judges that have the industry gravitas of Tony Visconti (Bowie and T-Rex’s producer) as well as many of those 4,700 ‘professional guests’ from all over the world. The other judges were Emily Haines [Broken Social Scene]; Shirley Manson of Garbage; BBC Radio One jock Huw Stephens and Boy, a German female duo that is massive there though not so well-known over here.

There were eight nominated artists this year (and some disappointment expressed that there were not more). Intriguingly, exactly half of them were British – Joseph J Jones, Matt Maltese, Jade Bird and Fenne Lily. The Award went to Londoner Jade Bird – and I have to say both her composure and her ability when she performed a song immediately afterwards was astounding.

The only issue I have with the Award Ceremony is that there is no live performance from the nominees other than the winner, just a 60-second video sequence for each one. Having said that, the two bands that did play, The Amazons (Reading) and Songhoy Blues (Timbuktu!) were tasty. Songhoy Blues’ guitarist has the most effortless playing manner you could wish to see and makes his guitar sing.

And I draw much the same conclusions about the festival. If you can go, you must. It was an eye-opener for me. Just the sight of tens of thousands of people in the Reeperbahn and Grosse Freiheit each night sends a shiver down the spine. While we have great city festivals in the UK, there’s nothing like this and it must give food for thought to our ‘musical cities’ here that they should try to do something similar

And I have to add that it was surprisingly cheap. Even booking just a week or so in advance I was able to pick up a reasonably priced flight ticket and an airbnb for £30 a night just five minutes away by the S-Bahn, which runs all night on Friday and Saturday at least. For sustenance, if you can survive on the excellent and filling Bratwurst, you can get by on 10 euros a day. Drinks are surprisingly inexpensive for a city considered to be the exact opposite, typically 3.5 euros for a beer, with the bar at the 4-star conference hotel selling bottles for just just 1.8 euros.

Nothing’s perfect of course. The weather was, as it happens, but Hamburg has the same ‘grey rainy city’ tag as Manchester. If they moved the festival back by one week it would put it into the off-season for tourism to the city which in theory would reduce prices. But then again it might rain non-stop. This year was, as our German friends say ‘just so’. Alles klar?