When: 19th to 22nd September 2018
Where: Hamburg, Germany
Another year, another trip to the sleazy Reeperbahn for what has become, in the 13 years since its inauguration, the second biggest musical festival-cum-conference-cum B2B event in the world after SXSW, with 45,000 visitors this year, 5,500 of them industry professionals, from 56 countries – a record in all categories. I might have added “-cum circus” there, because in some ways that is what it has also become.
A couple of decades ago there were still 4000 girls working the Reeperbahn, Grosse Freiheit and the surrounding streets; now reduced to around 400 courtesy of a port business that has been in severe decline. Ironically, those that remain are only allowed to work David Strasse now, right next to the Polizeistation and the squad cars lined up like an F1 Grand Prix. The ladies zeroed in on David as if he were a rich Brit in town, the fools. Rebuffs are met with “Englisch!…Ja, natürlich Englisch”. It seems the Englisch just aren’t keeping their end up the way they used to.
The festival was set up, along with other such events, partly to help improve Hamburg’s image. This year there were 300 meetings, in the form of short conference sessions, speeches, and ‘business mixer’ sessions and 600 individual musical performances from complete unknowns to the likes of Stormzy and Muse, who were the ‘Very Special Guests’ on Friday, announced only on the day. (Last year it was Liam Gallagher and he bombed). Most of them take place within a walk-able area around half a mile square while many of the main venues, including Docks, the Schmidtchen complex, Klubhaus St Pauli, Angie’s and Glanz & Gloria are on the same short strip known as Spielbudenplatz, which runs parallel with the Reeperbahn.
Several shows used the impressive Elbphilharmonie auditorium and the even more impressive St Michaeliskirche, the city’s most famous church. But more about that later. At the other end of the scale, aspiring newcomers are often offered an initial slot at the N-Joy Reeperbahn Bus, which means performing out of a hole cut in the side of a double-decker.
It’s well organised overall, but in some ways it isn’t. For example, the business sessions are intended for networking but not a lot of that goes on. Whether it was the Aussie BBQ, the Swiss Business Mixer, Finland Day Party or Meet Korea! the delegates almost to a man and woman were nationals who’d crowded together to talk about home over a bottle or two. Any foreigner trying to bust in might as well have gone and talked to the River Elbe.
Then there were all the other events which had been organised at the same time, as if there’s one week in the year rather than 52. They included the Elbfestival, a European Poster Convention and – I kid you not – !! SpezialMetalMentalKonzert !!! – which took place outside the Rathaus (Town Hall) over the weekend. Together with the myriad of other music and theatrical events that are taking place all the time it is very easy to find yourself in the wrong queue, as I did many times.
But the most glaring mistake I came across concerned Soccer Mommy, who, as it happened, I’d seen only a couple of weeks beforehand. I think everyone knows Sophie Allison is going to be a big star. So they put her in a room (Nochtspeicher) too small to host a table tennis match. When I left the queue 15 minutes into her set there were 250 people waiting patiently to get in on a one out-one in basis. Some are probably still there.
Reeperbahn is so huge now that it was not possible to attend 90 events (10%), never mind 900. So all I can do is sum up the best and worst of what I saw. At the end I’ve appended some comments on three of the more interesting conference sessions, for those that like that sort of thing.
Just about the first event was ‘Meet the Nordics’, a bumper one at Schmidtchen, featuring 24 songs specially written for the occasion from across the Nordic countries (but strangely not performed live) with a couple of German ones thrown in and all intended to showcase ‘rising stars’. Owing to my connection to GIITTV’s ‘Nordic Music Scene’ this attracted me but I regret to say that I found far too great an electro-pop similarity between them. The one exception was a loud British guy who’d found his way on the playlist and who introduced himself with “I’m only here for the motherf*****g weed, where’s the motherf*****g weed?” Not an auspicious start.
Up the next morning for a couple of fascinating conference sessions and then, at the Dutch Impact Party at Molotow (one of the first venues ever to host The Rolling Stones), the impressive neo-classicist pianist Pieter de Graaf, influenced by everyone from Miles Davis to Chopin, who plays his instrument like he’s in love with it.
Incidentally, while mentioning Molotow, the famous Beatles statues are very close by, at the junction of Reeperbahn and Grosse Freiheit. The Fab Four kick-started their career at Kaiserkeller, Grosse Freiheit 36; and at Indra, both just a few yards away. The steel statues are a disappointment. From a distance they look like parking meters. Ringo isn’t mentioned, while there is a statue of his predecessor Pete Best and, some yards distant, one of ‘Fifth Beatle’ Stuart Sutcliffe. It isn’t exactly hallowed ground. Half a dozen dropouts had made it home for the day; someone had thrown up over George Harrison, while ‘Desirée’ had plastered her calling card on John Lennon’s metal bonce.
The La Fiesta Italian showcase at Klubhaus St Pauli featured Aquarama, an experimental band of some musical quality but who were somewhat brought down to earth by “you can fuck me as hard as you like, I won’t even notice it” from the female vocalist as her eyes lasered mine. I moved swiftly on, taking in Korea’s Life & Time on one of the outside stages.
Forget ‘K-Pop’ and ‘Gangnam Style’, this is an experimental band led by Im Sang Wook, a jazz drummer, and he does lead it, with some impressively complex rhythms. The only problem is that the guitarist and bassist don’t seem quite at the same level and the focus remains solidly on In sang Wook. When they get their act together they will be a force to be reckoned with.
More conference sessions then back in the evening to Docks for Sigrid. I got the timing wrong and ended up watching Tom(my) Gregory, from Blackpool and his band. Who? He did appear on The Voice a few years ago without doing too well. He writes middle-of-the-road pop songs of the sort that the Germans lap up and, to be fair to the lad, he’s carved out something of a niche on the Continent. His debut single, ‘Run to You’ got to #26 in the German charts late last year. A sizeable crowd was rapturous at times. His songs are two or three chord, common-time affairs, for most of the time his guitarist’s hand barely moved on the fret board. Then for a brief moment in one song he was Jimi Hendrix.
In comparison, Sigrid is in the Bundesliga, unlike SV Hamburg, who were relegated last season, to the city’s eternal embarrassment. She will be a global superstar one day, but on the basis of her live show I suggest, rather than her recorded material. As I’ve said before when reviewing her she has three great songs – ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe’; ‘Strangers’; and ‘Go to War’. I’m yet to be convinced by the others. But in her trademark white T-shirt, pale blue jeans and white sneakers the 21-year old knows how to command a stage and hold an audience like a seasoned pro, ably supported by a high quality band, some of whom I’ve seen with other top Norwegian artists . Even then she isn’t perfect. “Let’s have some music to dance to” she says and then offers one that is only danceable in its final quarter.
One little benefit arising from the Soccer Mommy debacle was that I was able to take in Mikaela Davis, whom I’d intended to check out for some time. The dainty 26-year old blonde from New York State is quite extraordinary and played one of the shows of the festival for me, in Angie’s which is a nightclub with, unfortunately, two huge pillars blocking the ad-hoc stage view from some angles. Her style is country and western meets indie-folk.
She appears to have giant fingers like those on a contestant in World’s Strongest Man. Actually it is an illusion. To play the harp in the way she does – she even launches into harp solos – she’s had to develop something akin to a guitarist’s five-fret stretch. It has pedals attached and she wields it around like a guitar, but between her legs rather than in the air. She can play tasty electric piano too, and there is plenty of syncopation as the harp and guitar both cut across, and complement, each other.
Friday morning brought the Aussie BBQ (Bratwurst in a bun) and a delightful find. Dandelion Wine from Melbourne is the first band I’ve seen that combines electronic beats, synths, guitar and medieval instruments such as an Appalachian Dulcimer, which is picked at like a guitar rather than hammered. One minute they’re experimental, the next they’re rocking the house down.
Tempesst is a Gold Coast originating folk-psych-rock band which now spends much of its time in the UK. They work up a head of steam and are always entertaining, live.
I wish I could say the same about Mijo Biscan, a respected Melbourne trio who told us they were about to perform a new song which “gives the finger to Trump.” That was enough for me; it was time to sling my wallaby or whatever it is they do Down Under. I’ve heard it all before, ad nauseam. It isn’t going to change anything, everyone from Robert Mueller to Stormy Daniels has given the finger to The Donald already, in more ways than one, and in any case they’re two years too late. (Ditto Brexit, which is why I stayed well away from Goat Girl and their endless tirades).
Geowulf suggests a metal band with eco-tendencies but is in fact a lovey-dovey boy-girl duo who appeared to be in lurve. Bless. She looks like Kylie in early Neighbours. They write pleasant songs with strong melodies but won’t bring the house down on you. Highlight was a respectable tribute to Aretha Franklin, ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ of course.
Much is said about the Australian invasion of Europe. To be honest I find too many of the bands to be Men at Work or INXS, transported into the 21st century. But there are gems, such as my personal favourite Gordi, who wasn’t here, and Dandelion Wine do have a certain class about them.
On to the Swiss Business Mixer as Storm Ali arrived, extinguishing the BBQ, and a band I thought was called Marie’s Bear though I can’t find them online, on YouTube or streaming sites. It could be a band or it could be the singer, with a backing band. For some of the time the band was redundant as the singer went solo. Before he started he took off his shoes and socks to reveal puffy size 12 feet. But the guy can sing, I’ll give him that, and in a deep George Ezra-style voice.
The Finland Day Party was in full swing when I got to Molotow. The Finns love to party and they had turned out in force to support their Sigrid, their Great White Hope, Lxandra (say El-exandra). Some of her songs are not fully formed and one at least, a birthday tribute to her mother, was cloyingly soppy. But she sings with a genuine passion and her repertoire is a little more varied than that of her Norwegian counterpart. I was sufficiently intrigued to check her out again at Knust the following night, where the much bigger room was also packed, and I suspect we shall hear more of her in 2019.
One fascinating Q&A session with Harvey Goldsmith and a couple more bratwursts later I was back in a live room with another highlight of the festival, Norway’s Pom Poko. The room in this case was the Official Fan Club Shop of Hamburg’s other football team, Sankt Pauli FC, whose Millerntor Stadium broods over the festival site.
The best way I can describe Pom Poko is ask you to imagine The Who when they first started, with Keith Moon behind the kit, but all able to play their instruments to a much higher level. With most of Pom Poko being classically trained at the Trondheim Conservatory they could have gone on to join symphony orchestras. Instead they put together a band which delivers the most dynamic live act I’ve seen in many a year. Their brand of complex driving rock, heavily influenced by a jazz upbringing and punk tendencies, is like a runaway train, with the singer, the delightfully named Ragnhild Fangel Jamtveit, consistently pogo-ing around the shop then collapsing suddenly as if possessed. Even though their music isn’t really dance-able as such you can’t keep still and even Sankt Pauli fans who had just popped in to buy the latest team shirt were drawn into the mayhem.
At one stage they segued three songs through two improvised jams of the highest technical order. They are all characters but my favourite is the bespectacled drummer, Ola Djupvik, who looks like the archetypal seven-stone weakling but boy can he find his way around the kit.
Unfortunately I couldn’t make their second show at Knust the following night but they are pencilled in already for their first visit to Manchester.
A fairly tame live version of ‘It’s a Trap’.
The last time I saw John Metcalfe was a couple of years ago and he played a similar set, with pretty much the same band, including Rosie Doonan on vocals, this time in the Resonanzraum, which is located in a huge, 70ft-high wartime bunker. Judging from the bullet holes in the solid concrete ceiling it looks like peace hasn’t been declared here yet.
Metcalfe, if you don’t know him, set up Factory Records’ classical music label and is highly respected in the marriage of classical performances using violin, keys and guitar, with various samples and loops to create a unique sound. A top class, highly individualistic artist with few peers and with a new album out (Absence) there should be some UK shows early next year. Don’t miss them.
The lateness of his show meant I missed the ‘Very Special Guests’ Muse at Docks, but they did play several live debut songs off their new album. This is one of them.
The final day is dominated by the highly anticipated Anchor Awards Ceremony for emerging artists, in the St Pauli Theatre and the pre-show drinks and canapés where you don’t know who you are going to be rubbing shoulders with. Anchor is unique in that the five judges go to the eight artists, watching them perform in whatever venue they appear in. They then congregate in the official festival hotel around midnight on Friday, and often talk through the night to reach a decision on a winner.
For the third year in a row the judges were led by industry legend Tony Visconti (Producer of the majority of Bowie’s albums including Blackstar for which he won a Grammy)/T Rex/The Moody Blues/Sparks/Morrissey etc etc) together with Cassandra Steen of Glashaus, who is about 7ft tall, Morcheeba’s Skye Edwards, Jason Bentley of L.A.’s renowned KCRW radio station and Linda Perry of 4 Non-Blondes fame, who is a fascinating and hugely entertaining character. She also has some strong opinions on the committment or lack of it, of some younger artists to their profession and on their preference for “fame” over producing good music.
For the first time ever there was a tie, between Belgium’s Faces on TV (a male soloist) and his countryman Tamino. The former was irritating, seemingly trying his best to embarrass the show host/interviewer while the latter did not even appear on the stage during the introductory proceedings though I acknowledge he has an exceedingly good voice.
Personally, I was rooting for one of the two British representatives, Freya Ridings, (it was won last year by Jade Bird), but it wasn’t to be.
An extremely slick show was catapulted into a different dimension though, not by one of the contestants but by Linda Perry, who is now a record producer although it is often overlooked that she wrote ‘Beautiful’ for Christina Aguilera. It was already agreed that she would perform her signature song ‘What’s Up’ after the event was opened by Metronomy but at the last moment she re-arranged it as a half-speed ballad, with her on piano, Steen and Edwards sharing vocals with her, and accompanied by the Kaiser String Quartet.
I want to put on record that it was the finest performance I saw from anyone at the event and I’m not embarrassed to admit that tears were trickling down my cheeks because I know for sure I wasn’t alone by any means. The video of it has just been released as this goes to press.
But the fun wasn’t over yet. The final show for me was a midnight one featuring Ane Brun at the magnificent, imposing Lutheran Michaeliskirche Sankt Pauli, Hamburg’s most famous church. The view from the pews, if you like. To put it in perspective it was like Adele singing in St Paul’s Cathedral or Vanessa Paradis at the Sacré Coeur de Montmatre.
In fact, I just caught the tail end of Freya Ridings show there. She has the sound and looks of Florence Welch, only better and without the histrionics and I wish I had caught more of it.
Ane Brun was immaculate and charming, as ever. She’d probably run a mile if offered some “motherf*****g weed”. Presenting an acoustic set backed just by piano and (again) a string quartet, taking advantage of what she described as the church’s “natural reverb”, her repertoire encompassed many of her albums with a significant number of covers thrown in, including, strangely, ‘Big in Japan,’ while she closed with A-Ha’s ‘Hunting High and Low’.
Her equipment had been delayed until one hour before the show and she lost the use of her guitar during the first song and for about 15 minutes but nothing fazed her. A fitting end to the proceedings.
Incidentally, Michaeliskirche has three pipe organs, the largest the size of a house. All of them are played at 12 noon each day as part of a short service; it is well worth the effort to hear them. It will get you thinking, “which bands would they complement best?”
Whenever I review a foreign festival I always pose the question “is it worth it?” After all, there are many here. The answer again is yes. Hamburg isn’t that expensive in my view, you can travel all over it on the ageing but efficient metro and rail network for about £6 a day. Restaurants appear to be cheaper than in the UK and service standards higher. A beer at the bar of the official 4-star festival hotel bar is about £2. I stayed in an airbnb in the trendiest part of town, Ottensen (but mercifully devoid of joggers and bearded hipsters) for £25 a night, two S-Bahn stops from Reeperbahn. There must be a downside you’re thinking. Yes, many places don’t accept credit cards for some reason. As a local music journalist said to me, “we’re a little behind the times”. But that’s about it.
More to the point, if you don’t go you’re denying yourself access to the quirkiest, funkiest music festival on the planet.
The remainder of this review, following the ‘Aftermovie’ video below, is a brief overview of three of the conference and speaker sessions, for those that are interested in such things.
Visions of Africa was the first time an African delegation had visited the festival and comprised a number of movers and shakers, mainly from South Africa and Kenya and including a female Kenyan artist, Phy, and a Los Angelino, Colin Gayle, who quit California to set up the Johannesburg-based African Creative Agency.
Right from the start, the premise was that African music is going to be the Next Big Thing globally, and in some ways already is. But of course they’ve been saying “it’s only a matter of time before an African nation wins the World Cup” for decades and they have still got nowhere near it.
The problem seems to be that they can’t decide amongst themselves whether there is one ‘African music’ or whether all the individual countries should be doing their own marketing, with their own Export organisations, which of course will never happen. The debate lasted most of the session.
Big western artists are playing Africa now; Drake was given as an example, while rapper ‘Nasty C’ (seriously) heads the home-grown talent. The biggest single in Germany in 2017 was written by an African, in Africa.
The rapid growth of music consumption on the continent is apparently driven in some countries (and mainly Kenya, which is a hotbed) by cheap telephone downloads of music, a mobile banking system that supports it, a surprisingly fast internet and a growing Middle Class that demands live music on a Friday and Saturday night as a minimum. Meanwhile, it was claimed that ‘Nollywood’ in Nigeria is bigger than Bollywood. Africa suddenly has disposable income.
But the industry is still backward in many ways. Colin Gayle claimed that there isn’t a tour bus in the whole of Africa, despite the fact you can now drive anywhere in the continent, north-south and east-west, while old stadiums where big events are held require serious maintenance.
The conclusions I drew are that Africa is certainly a growing market but they have to improve the marketing – individually or collectively -before it takes the next step. I asked how I, as a reviewer, could access new releases. Who are the artists? How do I find them? Who’s doing the PR? I’m still waiting for the answer.
But for European artists and their managers, there is a one billion strong continent that wants to hear their music.
A&R Strategies – between Gut and Algorithms was the venue for a battle between traditional A&R people, who still listen to vinyl records and select and nurture artists very carefully based on empathy and gut reaction, and companies such as Musiio, a Singapore-based company that has developed an ‘artificial intelligence’ programme which can listen to 30,000 new songs on Spotify in four hours and select the “most promising,” presumably trashing the rest.
Its criteria seem to be “what the latest diva sounds like”, and what the production quality is, but of course it cannot take into account live performances. The moderator insisted this was just a case of creating playlists, not developing a performing artist.
On the other hand, Jörg Tresp of Germany’s DevilDuck records, who argued the traditionalists’ case, insisted he has “to stay ahead of the time” and that no programme can do that for him.
Eventually both sides saw some merit in the opposition’s case and the consensus was that some sort of weeding out was going to be necessary in the future if the volume of music production continues to grow, but only as a first base mechanism. Ultimate decisions would still have to be made by humans for humans, not machines for machines.
The session restated what is now a well-known fact that the skip rate for tracks on New Music Friday on Spotify is five seconds. If you don’t make an impression by then, you’re history.
This prompted me to wonder out loud if a new ‘genre’ might be on the way – the 10-30 second track, as the ultra short story was once popular in literature.
The Q&A session with Harvey Goldsmith, probably the world’s best known Promoter, was fascinating, though strangely sparsely attended, and with, can you believe it, no other promoters in the audience.
His clients, as a promoter, producer or manager read as a Who’s Who of the business. Like several big names in the entertainment business there is a strange dichotomy between his small physical stature and the way he dominates the room. He reminded me of Max Clifford, whom I once saw in a similar setting.
Much of the conversation revolved around secondary ticketing, for which Goldsmith has a simple solution – a ticket is simply per-person, per-event and it should be illegal to resell it. He waxed lyrical about the Fanfare Alliance organisation, which is attempting to tackle the problem and which is “doing the business”.
The biggest “villain” he said, is Google, which he claims is directing naïve users to re-selling sites first, for its own reasons.
All he got from MPs when appearing before Select Committees, he said, was “if we stop this, how do we get our Wimbledon tickets?”
I have to disagree however with his support for Ed Sheeran’s decision to refuse entry to thousands of people who had bought tickets for his events through re-sellers, without warning. Firstly, legally, could Sheeran do that? Who is the Principal? Does he have his own ticket company? I see a test case coming in the courts if he does it again. Secondly, by doing so he shafted many super fans who were prepared to pay well over the odds to see him and who might have been unable, for a myriad of reasons, to buy through the ‘normal channels’.
On festivals, Goldsmith doesn’t touch them now if he can avoid them. The workload is “too much for the return and you’re paying top dollar for artists because there are more festivals than artists.”
He described promotion generally as “like betting on the 3.30 race every day of the week”.
The real fun started when he got onto the subject of his really big promotions, notably Live Aid and Live 8 (2005). Not a single act wanted to do Live Aid he said, including the Boomtown Rats (Geldof had to make them) and Queen who were told to do it while in New Zealand and didn’t have a clue what it was about right up until the day.
Live 8 was quite the opposite. Madonna, U2 and many others told him “you have to do it”.
Could it happen again? Possibly. But there has to be a reason and the world seems to be running out of reasons. Where is the artist writing about “the plight of the Rohingyas?” While I agree with that I couldn’t do with his generalisation that “artists aren’t writing about issues any longer”.