In the chill of early November at the seaside resort of Weissenhäuser Strand, North Germany the odd little Rolling Stone Weekender festival takes place. For the third year running this German Butlins pitches a big tent and takes over various cabaret halls and clubs in the beach resort structure and has an embarrassment of riches contained within its lineup in its two short days. Thinking our festivals for the year were behind us, the State team, aided by the very helpful promoters, rallied ourseves within a few days, piled into a car in Copenhagen on a Friday morning and in three hours, via a fast ferry, were swinging up to the resort front desk to check in for the on-site holiday apartment accommodation.
Unusually, we find ourselves walking around this resort looking for the festival site before realising that this galleria with the bad pizza restaurants and ad-hoc record stalls actually is the festival site but with regular people on a winter break also milling around. It’s not until you enter one of the four venues that you need to show your wristband meaning there’s an odd mix of festival goers and holidaying Germans constantly hanging out in the common area. It’s unusual that if you want a beer before the acts begin you have to sit at a restaurant but quickly we accept the oddness of the set up and get an early cheese-tastic lasagne and local brew in before Germany’s own The Notwist kick things off in the Zeltbühne tent.
The tent is well laid out with a bar facing you as you enter, some bench seating and then walking either side of this bar takes you into the relatively cosy 2-3000 person festival tent. As we are in Germany beer is easy to find and cheap, a reasonable €3 with no queues. It’s a superb venue in its own right, sound and lights are consistently excellent and are well tested out by The Notwist. Grown-up guitar pop with atmospheric electronic elements, they are a flurry of instrumentation on stage – drummers changing roles and a gentleman at the front left playing a bank of electronics operated by two Wii controllers. They’re both moody and friendly, dark and poppy and in a massively pleasing move they take half their set from 1999’s untouchable Neon Golden album. Every minute just gets better and when they build and then burst out ‘One With The Freaks’ it seems that you could close the festival now and every punter would be happy to leave, elated.
We’re rooted to the tent until we are sure there is no more and by the time we get to the stairway up to the Baltic club for an eagerly awaited Portugal. The Man there’s a long, unmoving queue. Only our photographer has squeezed in to a room clearly too small for the enticing acts booked for it. We make a fair stab at getting in the stage door but to no avail so we take in a song or two through the wall and get some refreshments in early so we can be front and centre for Seattle’s Death Cab For Cutie. Well able to fill a stadium in north-west America, there’s probably 1500 here tonight making it amazingly intimate. They stick to a poppy setlist and Ben Gibbard is doing his trademark rocking side to side with his guitar for most of it. The few songs from the recent Codes and Keys album stand well alongside the back catalogue and the set is perhaps notable for its singular, albeit cheery, tone. Until the genius closer they have in ‘Transatlanticism’. Gibbard takes to the piano and silences the polite tent with a few simple keystrokes. His crafted tale of love and loss across an ocean gathers pace ever so slowly, the band obvious past-masters of it at this stage. When he grabs the guitar back and hits the front of the stage again for the building crescendo it’s all hands in the air shouting “so, come on, come on” to the peak of its eight minutes. With a closer that perfect you don’t want an encore just some fresh air, perhaps even a stiff drink if you actually do have a lover on the other side of an ocean somewhere.
A round wooden hut-like building is appropriately enough housing Timbre Timbre and while some of the State team enjoy a short game of bowling in the nearby centre others squeeze into this unusual room. The middle of it is a solid circular wall so the gig is only visible if you’re in one half of the circle. Timber Timber is sitting far back on a low stage so all that can really be seen is a lady on violin and keys to the left but with some manoeuvring we get almost side-stage for a proper view. Both the sound and the room are ideal for his echoey, warm, yet unsettling folk. Live, the music is filled out much more than on record and the set successfully stirs up Twin Peaks-coloured emotions.
The overlap means we make a quick run across the 50 metres to see Fleet Foxes warm into their set. The previous night we witnessed a disjointed performance in Copenhagen – long, unnecessary gaps between songs, the huge backdrop and lack of front lighting killing any sense of the personal. Tonight the backdrop is a quarter of its size and with the sound and lighting the best you’ll find in a tent, plus with the relative urgency of a time-sensitive festival gig, the game was raised ten-fold. Robin Pecknold wilfully hides behind shyness but once at the mic on this evening he banished those demons, his voice delicate and heart-piercing especially on the epic four-movement ‘The Shrine/An Argument’. It’s the sort of performance that makes you want to revisit the album, and never more so than when the acoustic intro to ‘Helplessness Blues’ breaks down at the half way point and everything just goes widescreen. Seen live, on a night as this, the song just spreads out in front of you, in all its earthy shades. Literally stunning.
Using all our blagging skills and relative charm we somehow skip the consistently huge queue for Baltic to see Anna Calvi. Crowd safety is clearly a priority as, despite the queue outside, the venue isn’t over-packed. It’s a small square room with a low stage and you feel like you could just stroll onto it if you didn’t keep an eye on where you were walking. The room is a little brighter than Calvi normally enjoys but she’s still as commanding as ever. In trademark red and black she’s polite to a fault, and very English rose-y between songs but rips the throat out of her twang-heavy southern gothic stories once the guitar is struck. The John Barry-esque ‘Susanne And I’ shakes the small ballroom and while ‘Love Won’t Be Leaving’ deserves a much darker, sweatier and frankly David-Lynchian setting, it’s still a massive, sprawling curtain closer, way bigger than the room we’re boxed in.
Wilco are all that remain of the bands tonight and their allotted hour and a half seems to run to two or three with front man Jeff Tweedy hardly taking a breath in the set. Worn out already from the non-stop action of the last eight hours of solid music, it’s a treat to just lean against one of the bars at the side, the tent ideal for viewing from all angles. Each one of the main acts draws almost the same sized crowd so there’s no feeling that there’s a headline act by any means. It is ideal, however, to top the night with the the hat and suit-wearing Tweedy and co., lifting us out of the delicate Fleet Foxes moment and bring an alt. country liveliness back into the night.
The last of the four venues to be visited is the Witthüs nightclub where the ‘After Show Party’ is basically an endless club night, reserves of energy being topped up by Red Bull, and the night ends with a melee of stolen jackets, lost friends and an an almost impossible reunion on the misty, empty streets of the complex at 4.30am.
Cruel fate decrees that we don’t make it back for Elbow, Heather Nova, Archive and Nada Surf on the Saturday but for a ‘they think it’s all over…’ late festival experience for people who don’t do camping, this bizarrely located weekender has an amazing line-up in small venues where everything except the queues into the Baltic club and to check-in for an apartment is easy. Plus if you’re really brave (yes, in fact, we were), a morning dip in the icy ocean clears the head and sets you right up for each evenings festivities.
Photos by Jakob Bekker-Hansen.