With The Duke Spirit, Friendly Fires, Ed Sheeran

Three days of unforgettable music from the freshest acts in the world in one of Europe’s most liberated cities? You’d be crazy not too, right?

It’s difficult to talk about the Reeperbahn Festival, a glorious weekend long musical celebration that takes over an entire city, without touching on the host location itself, the German city of Hamburg.

This place, which has perhaps suffered from a perception that it’s Berlin’s uglier, less hip little sister, is swiftly building itself an enviable reputation as one of the most forward thinking destinations for music and arts in mainland Europe, helped in some way by a network of passionate local promoters, cultural organisations and well organised events like Docklands Festival and the excellent Reeperbahn Festival.

Hamburg is the place where The Beatles ‘grew up’ – and that rock and roll pedigree echoes down the decades and onto the very streets you walk down today. From a dedicated Beatles museum to a musical tour of The Beatles’ former homes, hovels and hotspots, where the band that changed our world forever learned their trade and lost their virginity. If you get the chance, you should check out singer Stefanie Hempel’s unique Beatles tour, where as well as listening to her expert knowledge on the band, you can also enjoy the sweetly surreal experience of having their greatest hits played live in front of you by Stephanie and her trusty ukulele.

There’s a new opera house springing up in the docklands area, and designer outlets crowded together in one area of the city, but it’s over in St Pauli where the beating heart of Hamburg exists, with its counter culture atmosphere and graffiti covered streets giving it an indescribable buzz that can be a spectacle in the day time and a sensory overload by night.

The mainline for frivolities is the Reeperbahn itself, a long strip that feels like a mash up of Amsterdam’s Euro-sleaze and the grime of 1970’s New York, with two outdoor stages in the centre and different venues, streets and alleyways cutting off the main drag.

If you’ve never been before, it can be a nightmare to navigate, and will no doubt mean that if you do little planning (as we did), then you could end up missing half the bands you wanted to see (as we also did). But then again, that’s meant to be part of the whole festival experience.

Thursday night involves venue hopping without a programme between us, so the evening slowly descends into madness after our visit to as yet unfinished nightclub Mojo. Scribbled notes speak of hazy memories of watching nameless bands in sweaty venues, surrounded by hipsters and journalists, and generally having a great fucking time. A journalistic duty, don’t forget…

Friday however, is where we take our foot off the gas in terms of alcohol intake, and manage to catch UK’s own Ben Howard getting a standing ovation in what seems to be a huge circus tent. With the help of cellist India Bourne and a drummer, he turns out an excellent set that echoes Iron and Wine and Damian Rice, and by the time he plays The Wolves from the album, Every Kingdom, the entire place is singing along in unison.

Next up it’s a venture into a WW2 overground bunker for Friendly Fires. Lead singer Ed is still a snake hipped maniac onstage, even punching himself in the side of the head with excitement, but it’s hard not to think that the songs from the latest album just don’t stand up against the likes of the shuddering funk of Climbing Aboard from their debut. But when they get into their groove, they are still a brilliant, brilliant live band.

He might be top of the album charts in the UK, but Ed Sheeran is a craze that has washed over me completely, until now. Seeing him take to the stage for his first ever gig in Germany, armed with nothing but a mic, guitar and Loop Station, and then create a textured, undulating set that makes you forget their isn’t a band behind him, is impressive. Personal issues with some of his album hits aside, when he does a hushed cover of the Jamie Woon cover ‘Wayfaring Stranger’, and then plays an emotionally charged version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ as his encore, we leave with nothing but respect for this nutty ginger genius.

Other highlights from the weekend include a typically stunning performance by The Duke Spirit, packed out sets by the likes of War on Drugs, Wilderness of Manitoba, SCUM, Brooke Fraser, Apparat Organ Quartet, Dry the River, and Darkness Falls.

Also worth noting is the fact that the 2011 Reeperbahn Festival also included a varied programme of arts and music industry events, which had the place teeming with record label bodies, promoters and journalists from all across the world.

All in all, Hamburg felt like a brilliant destination for this kind of ‘Camden Crawl’ style in-the-city event, with just the right mix of seedy rock and roll glamour and open minded locals to make it a success.

Words and Live Videos by Mark Millar
Photo by Helen Boast

View a full accompanying photo gallery from Reeperbahn Festival 2011 HERE.

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