"World War II bunkers, barges and strip clubs..."

The Germans do radical politics, social activism, ‘kult’ football teams and government subsidized arts quite unlike anyone else. Sprinkle a creative crawl through a not quite yet gentrified red light district into this already heady mix and you have Hamburg’s Reeperbahn Festival, now in its 8th year.

Operating along the lines of a small scale SXSW, it unites new and established artists with the creative industries and the public. There are keynote speakers (this year, Dave Stewart) and opportunities for interaction with records labels, promoters and PR’s aplenty. In addition there are photographic and visuals art exhibitions, workshops and films screenings. There’s literally too much to do, so we focus on the music, which ranges from electronica, jazz and techno to neo classical and folk, being performed in venues as diverse as diverse World War II bunkers, barges and strip clubs. Clash brings you the highlights of our weekend in Germany’s second city.

By a fortuitous co-incidence, our favourite performances of the weekend are the last we see every evening, allowing time for reflection and unusual post gig indulgence. On Thursday in Moondoo, an unexpectedly exclusive club situated directly on the Reeperbahn itself we bustle in to catch a busy set from ‘Roosevelt’; Cologne based, songwriter and producer Marius Lauber (signed to the Greco Roman label). His blushing electro pop spills out across the stage like the unbridled froth from an ice cream float. A mix of spiraling shoegazey vocals, languid Teutonic techno and beatific Balearic beats conjure inevitable comparisons with Caribou. It’s this chillwave musical foam party that officially ends our aural evening. We should go home at this satisfying juncture. We don’t.

A mild case of food poisoning coupled with a battering hangover is exorcised in an inexplicable but pleasing turn of events the next day, which leads us to the Staatsoper Hamburg Opera for a performance of Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’. Johannes Erath's production is earnestly contemporary with overly austere set design, which we suspect does nothing to enhance the acoustics of the performance. Overall it’s an uneven production, conductor Alexander Joel struggles throughout to reign in his musicians but Ailyn Perez’s soprano carries it beautifully; her acting and emotional interpretation are nothing short of extraordinary. Spoiler alert. Violetta dies at the end.

With full bellies and a palette cleansed by cultural endeavors we head along to Knust, a club located in a former slaughterhouse to see Robert DeLong. Even if he doesn’t inspire fandom, he certainly engenders respect for his ingenious use of loop pedals and unusual samples alongside Wii remotes and joysticks to create dubstep and house influenced, multi textured indie electronica. He’s a touch distracted, a bit like a teenager with attention deficit let loose on stage. But when he starts to batter his way through some real percussion, it ratchets up a notch to become exuberantly exciting and unpredictable. A colleague leaves due to the dance crush, no longer wishing "to have sex with a fat ladies bag" which is fair enough and probably the only complaint from anyone regarding this exhaustingly flushed faced set.

The following day we have a well-informed tour of the Hills district, near St Pauli, which is now a burgeoning cultural quarter featuring artist studios, restaurants and markets. A semi-derelict former theatre on Schulterblatt (Shoulderblade) an inhabited squat until fairly recently, remains a riotously colourful reminder of the cities anarchistic, countercultural history.

Many rides in custard coloured taxis and conversations with drivers in surprisingly successful Genglish later, we arrive at the Uebel & Gefährlich; situated inside the old bunker at Heiligengeistfeld. We’re here to see Icelandic band Múm, who mesmerize with their cyclical, glitch ridden indie-folk. An array of unusual instrumentation unfolds to create experimental ambient music as if made by precocious children. Under glitter-ball refractions both singers make small epileptic falls to the stage and wrap themselves up in their hair. It’s a slightly bonkers but wholly endearing display. One moment we’re underwater, next high in the trees surrounded by birdsong. It’s beautiful music played in an incongruous venue, which would have benefitted from being more intimate. And who isn’t childishly thrilled by a melodica (you? go stand on the dour step).

By way of an impromptu disco in a lift and Polizia tape limbo dancing, we wander side streets to find Pooca bar, which smells faintly of piss but has ‘nice’ sofas outside allowing for impromptu parodies of DFS adverts. The ambiguous, avant-garde, electric chanson of Kirin J Callinan has brought us to this place. Lithe of body and lascivious of eye, wearing sandals, a silk two piece and latex gloves, his visceral onstage persona is sinister, sexual and humorous to equal degree (inspiring, ‘he’ll disarm us with laughter, fuck us, kill us and arrange our bodies in beautiful tableaux’s’ kind of thoughts throughout the audience; it’s true, we asked afterwards). For the first time that we know of he’s bolstered onstage by two alluringly sphinx faced boys on drums and keyboard.

As a performance alone it would be captivating but the songs from his recent album ‘Embracism’ are tack sharp; both poignant and jarring narratives of masculinity and romanticism, lust and lies, delivered in an invigorating Aussie brogue come croon. Dissonant Scott Walker-style vocal histrionics, masturbatory face pulling, shotgun guitar and affected sheepish banter between songs create an inconsistent yet thrilling impression. Detractors aside us demur but this level of sincerity appears real and hard won. He’s slippery, surprising and uncompromising. From the sublime Associates style slickness of ‘Halo’ to the devastating tremolo guitar and pained sentiments of ‘Thighs’, this ungodly spawn of Roy Orbison, Depeche Mode and Roland S Howard is nothing short of magnificent. He will go far; his merchandise is tea towels.

A period of ill advised 90’s hip hop dancing and a visit to the historic Molotow club ensues before we’re guided home by the sun at 8am. We hope it’s not the last time we’re able to visit this infamous institution, which has been under threat of closure for some years. But redevelopment concerns aside, all is well with the world. Gracious hosts and the incessantly engaged and interesting artists we meet throughout the city inspire surprising interactions and incessant laughter. Hamburg, you’ve been a tonic for our grubby souls.

Words: Anna Wilson
Photography: Lena Meyer

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