We wouldn’t know about the third part of the triumvirate, but if you’re looking for sex and / or rock ‘n’ roll, the Reeperbahn Festival is the right place to go. Set in Hamburg’s notorious red light district, all of human life is here. The succession of gaudy sex shop fronts sit in stark contrast to the string of sad looking women lining the side streets looking for business, as they do with the area’s staunchly left wing and bohemian vibe (Saturday sees a mass, at times violent, demonstration against the plan to pull down a number of local buildings, some of the festival venues included), not to mention the many guided tours. There’s football too, with FC St Pauli having been adopted by the punks, squatters and anarchists in the area (the Clubhouse even serves as one of the multitude of venues) and many of the locals sporting the team’s skull and crossbones logo.
State, however, is here for the music. The Reeperbahn has history in this department of course (although we would cite Jerry Lee Lewis’ Live At The Star Club Hamburg album as the one to seek out) but the festival is all about looking forward, a collection of new acts from all over the world that can rival any such event in Europe or the US – plus, rather bizarrely, James Blunt. Here’s how we spent our three nights….
Benjamin – Imperial Theatre, Friday
One of the best features of the festival is that the range of venues (from dingy punk clubs to cultural centres and purpose built street stages) means that acts are largely matched with rooms that suits their music. That means that Faroe Islander Benjamin is playing the luxuriant surroundings of the Imperial Theatre, with an audience of weary gig goers sinking into the seats and letting his solo performance wash over them. The sight of a bearded, waistcoat wearing man wielding a banjo initially sets alarm bells ringing but Benjamin reveals himself to be more of a one man Sigur Ros than a Mumford without his Sons. The best moment comes when he sings in his native language, yet throughout he displays a welcome touch for light and shade that keeps the set fresh.
Grand Analog – Horsaal, Friday
Part of a sizeable Canadian contingent in Hamburg, Grand Analog are here to bring the funk. Despite being reduced to a core line-up of drums, decks and vocals, they have no problem getting the small venue moving. Rapper Odario is an engaging presence, his good natured banter adding to the atmosphere. Grand Analog believe in changing the world but through the use of killer bass line, a catchy hook and some old fashioned good vibes. With DJ Olfield and drummer adding vocal harmonies, they have more than enough to make them stand out from the crowd.
Heathers – Prinzenbar, Saturday
To be honest, State was expecting to pop along to Heathers’ Saturday night show, offer our support amongst a meager crowd and then move on. The fact that the venue is so full that squeezing through the door takes a good ten minutes’ perseverance is the first indication that we had got this all wrong. The second comes with the realisation just what a fine live act Heathers the band have become. Where last year their seemed a disconnection between the sisters McNamara and their two fellow musicians, here they function as a tight unit . Powering through material mostly from Kingdom, they seem to have struck a balance between the polish of their new incarnation and the raw energy of the Hideaway House days. Judging by the response they receive, we’re not the only ones who are deeply impressed.
Hey Ocean! – Spielbude, Thursday
It’s not all plain sailing being in a band. Watching Hey Ocean! Start their European tour with technical problem after problem is an occasionally heart wrenching affair, as you wish luck would give them a break. That their set turns out to be hugely enjoyable is nothing to do with luck, however. On the surface an upbeat, sunny pop band they reveal far greater depths as the evening wears on. Aishleigh Bell counters her sweet vocals with flute, with her band mates adding extra layers. Throwing in a cover at an event like this might seem a bit risky but their restrained, subtle reading of Arcade Fire’s ‘Sprawl II’ is a gem – as is their own ‘If I Were A Ship’ – and they leave us having conquered all the crap that has come their way.
Highasakite – Imperial Theatre, Thursday
Part of the joy of mainland European festivals is that you get to experience acts that wouldn’t necessarily get to see in our part of the world. From Norway, Highasakite are the perfect example. As off the wall as their name suggests (two members are wearing what seems to be their pyjamas) they take the dream pop template and throw in some extra, strange elements. Singer Ingrid Havik remains almost motionless behind her zither, unpleasing a voice that belies her stature. Despite all their Nordic coolness however, Highasakite have a smart pop touch that means this is an exercise in affection rather than just admiration.
Hundreds – Fliengende Bauten, Thursday
Flying the flag for the local music scene, Hamburg brother and sister duo Hundreds find themselves in the cabaret style environment of Fliengende Bauten. In some ways it’s apt, in others not. Eva Milner’s elegant onstage persona owes much to the classic era and you almost expect her to climb onto brother Philipp’s piano – except that the space is already taken with extra keyboards, laptops and bits of kit. Instead she dances in and out of the spotlight, lost in the sweeping melodies and driving beats. Seated around tables, the audience is unable to follow suit and you suspect that they may be more at home elsewhere. Still an absolute treat.
Kate Nash – Docks, Thursday
If Reeperbahn is anything to go by, life post pop stardom is treating Kate Nash just fine. The festival’s largest room is comfortably form and the singer (and now bassist) is in fine fettle. This includes offering her thoughts on the sexual politics of the music industry, as well as inviting a succession of excited young girls up on stage with her. Sure you don’t suspect that she’ll be troubling the charts again any time soon but there’s something quite thrilling about seeing an artist taking control of their own destiny.
Kill It Kid – Rock Café, Saturday
Even after three days and nights of almost continuous music, there are still moments to be had that stop you in your tracks. UK four piece Kill It Kid arrive with a new album in the bag, a new deal and a sense of ambition that is tangible from the moment they fight their way through the crowd to the stage. What follows is simply incredible, as raw and vital a live experience as they come. Far from the indie kids they might appear, the band dig deep into rock history and emerge with a sound that is vintage yet also bang up to date. Chris Turpin and Stephanie Ward are almost as one musically and exude a chemistry that fizzes with energy. The new songs are further proof that their roots go a good deal further than just listening to Led Zeppelin II a couple of times and by the end you’re convinced that this a band who would take a bullet for rock ‘n’ roll. After an hour in their company, you might just do the same.
Marques Toliver – Mojo Club, Thursday
State is in love. Not the human emotion that we expected to find on the Reeperbahn but there you go. The object of our affection is Marques Toliver, the singer and violin player who first caught the eye through his work with Grizzly Bear and TV On The Radio. He plays like a virtuoso but it’s his voice that has us hooked, a rich soulful combination of Marvin Gaye and Antony. It seems that everybody here feels the same, especially when he joins us on the floor for a final, astounding unplugged version of ‘White Sails’.
Múm – Ubel&Gefahrlich, Saturday
Come Saturday night the seedy glitz of the Reeperbahn itself is starting to lose its appeal, so we decide to venture to more far flung corners of the city site. A fifteen-minute walk from the main area, it feels as if a festival within a festival is taking place. More experimental sounds are the order of the day and, having climbed four flights of stairs in a large concrete building filled with design studios and music schools, yet another impressive venue reveals itself. Any Icelandic band are going to face unavoidable comparisons but Múm have been at this long enough to be masters of their own destiny. So while it’s hard not to reach for the phrase ethereal the combination of electronics voices and instruments has a character and style that makes the trip out here worthwhile.
OK KID – Ubel&Gefahrlich, Friday
German hip-hop may not be at (or near) the top of your list of things to check out yet OK KID are an intriguing proposition. Named after their two favourite Radiohead albums, the trio are as out of step with the tired old clichés as that might suggest. Musically inventive, we have no idea what they’re talking about but the local next to us says it’s all “pretty dark”. Go find them out, you won’t regret it.
Sheep,Dog&Wolf – Hasenchaukel, Friday
The alter ego of New Zealander Daniel McBride, Sheep,Dog&Wolf find himself faced with noise restrictions so strict that at times it feels as if he and his drummer are treading on musical egg shells. It can’t help but hinder him, although enough of his eclectic musical approach shines through to make it worth squeezing into the tiny venue. Looping his voice, saxophone and anything else that comes to mind, McBride emerges hushed yet victorious.
Willis Earl Beal – Gruenspan, Friday
And so the WEB story rumbles on. We’ve lost track of what his actual backstory is so let’s concentrate on the here and now. This is some pretty mad shit. Wearing an eye mask and backed by a three piece band, the singer certainly commands your attention – throwing himself and equipment around, as well as coming out with bizarre pronouncements. The crowd don’t seem sure what to make of him, the conclusion of each song being greeted with an awkward silence, perhaps apprehensive of what’s to come next. Musically it’s not all that but we’re glad we saw him. We think.