Having lived in Hamburg for a little over a year, I’m kind of over the Reeperbahn by now. The neon signs along the sinful strip advertising table dances and travel agencies have long ceased to entrance me as they did in my days when I was new in the city. After just a few months of exploring the bars and clubs and sex toy shops of Hamburg’s red light district, competing with the crowds of tourists and keeping a running tally of how many bachelor parties I’d see in one night, barhopping along the Reeperbahn slowly lost its appeal. For nights out, I started getting more interested in cozy pubs with friends (or, if I’m being honest, bottles of wine in the bathtub).
So by the time I got the opportunity to cover the Reeperbahn Festival for Indie Republik, I hadn’t been out clubbing on the Kiez in a while. Although I was excited for the music, I didn’t expect to discover anything new – and I was soooo happy to be proven wrong. The festival turned out to be a great experience, not just to hear some up-and-coming new music artists, but also to discover some great little clubs and bars right here in Hamburg.
As far as concert locations were concerned, there were the usual suspects: Docks, which often holds shows with fairly big-name artists, which is a nice venue but is on my shit list because even after buying €30 concert tickets you still have to tip the Putzfrau when you use the toilet. Molotow, the popular dance club, which I try to avoid because one time the bouncer wouldn’t let me inside wearing tennis shoes and made me miss a Tinder date. Große Freiheit 36, creatively named after its address, known to me for its bad student parties. And of course, multiple stages set up on the Spielbudenplatz itself, outdoor, impossible to miss and at the center of everything.
There were the lesser-knowns: Pooca Bar, on the Hamburger Berg, one of those hipster places where after midnight they push the tables aside to form a dance floor. Häkken, whose neon sign is literally the entire side of a building and lights up the street at night. Alte Liebe, a typisch alt-Hamburger Kneipe sandwiched between two clubs.
And there were clubs I’d never heard of before: Mojo, a swanky establishment located literally underground at the base of the Tanzende Türme. Knust, a former (occupied?) slaughterhouse in Schanze. And two clubs past the end of Große Freiheit, Indra and Gruenspan, that turned out to be excellent music venues. I even attended a documentary film screening at a cinema I never knew existed, located literally inside of a hotel and doubling as a wedding chapel (East Private Cinema, if you’re wondering).
Because some of us don’t get BAFöG or money from our parents, I had to put in a few hours at my desk job in the morning, so I only hung out at the festival in the evenings. I arrived Wednesday evening, a beautiful sunny early-autumn day in St. Pauli. Spielbudenplatz was full of makeshift bars and food trucks, the sun was glistening off the Tanzende Türme, and the area was full but not crowded. I settled down with my Relentless Energy Drink and gin and surveyed the scene.
As the sun went down, St. Pauli came to life. The entire Kiez was taken over with festival goers and street musicians. Masses of people stood outside in front of the clubs, waiting to get in. It was a nice break from the endless tourists and aggressive drunks who usually inhabit the Reeperbahn late at night – tonight was just lots of people in a good mood, hanging around, trying to hear some good music.
My biggest impression of the whole event was a weird mixture of corporate commercialism and indie culture. On the one hand, you had corporate sponsors handing out swag and VIP areas roped off with a guard to keep the plebs away. On the other, you had this huge array of up-and-coming young artists, underground bands, punk rockers with irreverent lyrics and ripped jeans, playing in grimy dive bars in the Red Light District.
I hadn’t heard of a single one of the 30+ artists before the festival began, so I based my decisions on which shows to attend solely on the bands’ info I found in the app. The festival armband meant I had entrance to all of the clubs participating in the festival without paying any entrance fees, so there was no reason not to go to a random show and leave five minutes later if I didn’t like it.
The event organizers had developed a useful little app complete with a timetable, festival information and an interactive map. It sent me updates on schedule changes and reminders before my favorite bands played, steadily eating my battery as it chugged along in the background.
July Talk, a sultry, sassy rock-pop band from Canada who my Canadian says always plays in huge venues to sold-out crowds back at home. Their music was in-your-face, rock and roll high on attitude and sex appeal. Dueling male and female vocalists spat out snarky lyrics over catchy melodies and rock guitar riffs. Bluesy baselines and minor melodies added a sexy edge to the songs. Their performance was a mixture of sultry and goofy and included lots of slithering around, hip-jerking dance moves and even some provocative face-licking. I don’t know why I thought at first the two singers were brother and sister.
The Courettes, an angry, energetic punk duo from Denmark, who played at Pooca Bar to a full crowd. “Is it feminist?” a skeptical friend asked when I told her about the show. “I only like punk if it’s feminist.” “It’s a female singer,” I said hesitantly, not sure if that was enough to qualify. I needn’t have worried – the pair played in true riot grrrl style, just a drum set and a guitar and some very angry lyrics. Flavia was an excellent guitarist and tore complicated riffs on her fretboard without looking down. Their performance had lots of jumping around, crazy eyes and unnecessary f-words. A group of almost worryingly-enthusiastic fans dominated the area right in front of the stage, bouncing up and down and at times trying to start their own five-person mosh pit. I wondered if they came down from Denmark to see the band play.
With a similar style came Schmutzki, a three-man German punk band that was also very angry, sweaty and sang about important things like waking up next to an ugly stranger or the word “bam.” Their music was a bit more pop-punk at times, with catchy melodies and witty lyrics.
Wallis Bird immediately won me over with her Irish accent and her sweet, raw, authentic everything. You know those memes that show couples doing cute everyday things with the caption “relationship goals?” Her music captured that perfectly. She sang about love, not typical pop ballads and waxing poetic but rather a celebration of the little things in life and the joy of doing them together with somebody. At least that’s how I interpreted it. Her backup musicians were multitalented, seeming to just pick up random instruments from the stage and adding them to the music – violins, guitars, egg shakers – and their backup singing added a rich depth and harmony to the sound. At one point, she captivated the crowd with an a capella piece, tapping the mic to keep time. The backup singers joined in and began to harmonize, filling out the chords to add surprising depth to the sound.
Christian Löffler’s set was by far the weirdest performance I saw. As the crowd thickened in the super-loud Häkken bar, a quiet-looking man with disheveled dirty blonde hair in a wrinkled white t-shirt and hoody climbed onto the stage and began messing with the soundboard. I thought he was trying to get the equipment to work. He took no notice of the audience and continued pushing buttons and twisting knobs, one here, one there. An ambient wall of sound rose in the club, adding to the din and the background noise. I stared at the man, wondering when the show was going to start, when I realized it already had.
A full ten minutes into the set, Löffler finally introduced some beats, and what had sounded like background noise morphed into recognizable house beats. Slowly, he drew in more beats and more sound, until the music filled the club and enveloped the audience in its ambience. People closed their eyes and let the music overtake them, swaying along as the intensity plateaued. The whole experience was very surreal, but very cool.
Biffy Clyro – my London friends raved about this British rock band before they came on. There was a lot of hype surrounding them, which I somehow didn’t pick up on until after they had performed. “They’re so good,” my friend assured me. “Like, they’re really really good. Just go. You’ll be like a fangirl afterwards, I swear.” Entrance had already stopped by the time I arrived at Docks. I didn’t get in, but I did listen to them from outside of the club a bit – hard rock, definitely some metal influence in there. I moved on.
The other stuff
Besides all the live music acts, the festival also included an open air cinema, an outdoor art gallery, spoken word performances and indie film screenings. The most visible artwork was that of the so-called Pollockopter, a Jackson Pollock-inspired piece created by a remote-controlled drone hurling bags of paint at a wall.
I attended a film screening, an art exhibit and a Lesebühne, which were all nice ways to break up the festival. But if I’m honest, I was more into it for the music.
Something new this year was the introduction of the Anchor Award, a new, internationally-recognized award to the best band as chosen by a jury. This was definitely one of the more corporate parts of the festival. The award ceremony was invite-only, and I wasn’t on The List, so I didn’t get in. Out of the eight nominees, the jury chose the Swedish solo artist Albin Lee Meldau, who I had never heard of and whose performance I missed. Whatever. Congratulations, Albin.
Over the course of the festival the Kiez slowly transformed back into the Reeperbahn I knew. The working girls on the Davidstraße, absent during the day, returned to their posts at night. With each passing day, the crowds grew larger and the parties lasted longer. Although on Wednesday after 1am the area was pretty dead, on Friday after midnight the party was just getting started. Friday night I wound up dancing to some electro-pop remixes at Sommersalon for a while before heading home for the night.
By Saturday, it was hard to tell there was a festival going on. In the early evening, the Reeperbahn was already crowded with the usual soccer fans, tourists and bachelor parties, which only increased in number as the night drew on. I darted from venue to venue, trying to squeeze in as many artists as I could during the last night of the festival (with a pauses to catch my breath over a cheap beer at Gretel & Alfons). I grew annoyed at the tourists dawdling along, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to gawk at the strip clubs and sex shops.
As the last shows of the festival ended and the festival crowd disbursed, the Reeperbahn at peak Saturday-night madness, with hardly any evidence that a four-day music festival had just taken place. I ended up at Golem, one of my favorite clubs at the Fish Market, where I had to pay entrance to get in. I reluctantly accepted that the festival was over, and stayed out dancing until the sun rose over the harbor.