Arriving at Reeperbahn, you rarely experience an overwhelming sense of doubt as it’s quite clear where you will find what you need. And let’s be honest, there are many different needs that can be fulfilled at this particular location! As with most well-organized festivals, it doesn’t take long before you run into a colleague, a friend, a business associate or simply someone you know because he or she threw a killer keynote speech at the last festival you went to.
One of the hot topics this year was the merger between Universal and EMI or, in other words, the former’s acquisition of the latter. It was a big part of Ben Challis’ introductory keynote speech, and it was the object of much attention in general: Whispers in the corners, heated discussions and quite frankly a certain amount of fear from a lot of people.
We won’t bore you too much with the business side of things. We met some great people, had some interesting meetings and went to a few conferences of which one of the best was on transparency in the music business. A topic rarely discussed but very central to many of us. But let’s focus a bit on the music now, yeah?
The first day:
Whenever you arrive too early at a festival you have a lot of time to build up expectations. When you combine that with the restless impatience of a coffee addict (guilty), you better be treated to something good when it all kicks off. Yours truly has been a fan of Einar Stray for quite a while, so when I heard the Norwegians were playing a semi-acoustic show on the outdoors Stage East, I had to go. The small venue is slightly odd with its limited visibility and tropical vibe (were those palm trees?!), but all the bands I saw there did quite well – Shiny Darkly being another highlight – in spite of the difficult outdoors conditions with the street contributing with quite a lot of potential background noise. Einar Stray himself sings in a somewhat withdrawn yet very present voice, with an airy, mysterious feel to it, which works well with the rest of the band’s backing vocals. The long instrumental parts are quite brilliant and somehow, meant in the best way possible, live up to the old cliché of the ‘Nordic’ sound.
Next up was Berlin-based band Mighty Oaks at the small and cozy Imperial Theater. The trio excels in their own personal interpretation of folk and Americana traditions. The band used to live in Hamburg and did indeed play like they felt at home. They put their acoustic guitar, bass guitar and electric mandolin (later exchanged for an electric guitar) setup to good use and occasionally combined it with singer Ian Hooper’s kick drum and tambourine with great effect.
Curiosity got the better of me, and I had to go see how Swedish youngster Amanda Mair had developed since the world first heard about her after signing to the strong Stockholm indie label Labrador. An interesting thing about her show at Schmidts Tivoli was the demographic diversity, underlining the broad appeal in her music. When her band finally entered the stage, it was, indeed, the band and not Amanda herself. Instead, she let the band kick off things before casually strolling in; despite her young age she knows how to make an entrance, and though not a diva she has the potential to become one of the more sympathetic divas out there. Her voice is still her biggest asset, but her songwriting is very mature for her age. A somewhat obvious example is the song House, which was the first she ever wrote and also her first single in Sweden. At times, the oft-heard comparisons with Kate Bush made sense, but Amanda Mair may very well be, well, Amanda Mair in all her underplayed theatrical glory.
One of my favourite venues at the Reeperbahn Festival is Café Keese, and the first band I caught there was one of Copenhagen’s finest bands, The Rumour Said Fire. Their folk-pop is based around the songwriting of Jesper Lidang who seems inspired by acts such as The Decemberists, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and other contemporary American bands. The band has evolved greatly and is now a wonderful live band, having added a keyboard player for their live shows. The band started with a couple of songs off of their first full length, The Arrogant, before playing new song Voyager from their forthcoming sophomore album, Dead Ends. They tested their new material successfully but, quite wisely, didn’t forget to play some of their earliest songs – of which the audience responded quite enthusiastically to the radio hit The Balcony.
At this point it was indeed time to test how quickly one could get from one end of the Reeperbahn to the other as I was only minutes away from missing the beginning of the Dad Rocks! show, an old NMO favourite. Born in Iceland, based in Denmark, Snævar Njáll Albertsson often plays shows alone but occasionally has up to eight people with him on stage. This time around there were four of them to accompany him and his trusted, acoustic guitar with which he never ceases to amaze his listeners with fingerpicking and clever chord progressions. Add some violin, trumpet, upright bass and a very competent backup singer, and what do you get? The best Dad Rocks! show yours truly has seen to date with a very attentive audience, supplying the room with a warm atmosphere.
Two days to go:
With so many people and so many shows, it can be difficult to keep up and get enough sleep. At this point we could simply conclude that we had a great couple of days following the first evening of concerts, but there are certain shows that I simply have to mention.
Another old NMO favourite is Ewert and the Two Dragons from Estonia who played at the aforementioned Café Keese on Friday. The place was packed – and with good reason. The show started with a steady beat that caught everyone’s attention, and the band simply didn’t look back. This is pop music with a folk twist, not the other way around. Ewert and the Two Dragons understand this important distinction and make it work to the fullest.
You know that need to be blown away by something loud though? That’s where I was at this point. Luckily, all I had to do was walk a bit down the street, turn right and follow the noise. Luxemburg’s finest purveyors of noisy rock and post-hardcore, Mutiny on the Bounty, played (as always) one hell of a show at Kaiserkeller. Pure power and ultra-tight, one couldn’t ask for friendlier noise!
But the best was yet to come: I’d be lying if I said that I expected my best concert at Reeperbahn Festival 2012 to be Spring Offensive, mainly because they haven’t yet released enough for me to be able to form a proper opinion. The Oxford-based quintet played in the small Molotow bar to a dedicated crowd eager to hear every single chord, sound, syllable and detail coming from the stage. The five band members could barely fit the cramped stage, but they somehow seemed comfortable, sending out one emotionally overwhelming song after the other. They don’t play math-rock per se, but you do sense that they’re hailing from that tradition (Oxford has had quite the math-rock scene the past six years or so). The set was incredibly tight and seemed, above all, sincere. The lyrics are an important part of the band’s identity, and the way in which the entire band sang along was a testament to the honesty manifested in their all-out aesthetic. The beautiful harmonies came to full force when the band played an acoustic, stripped-down version of Carrier in the middle of the crowd. Breathtaking.
Amongst the Saturday highlights were Foxes (UK) and Indians (DK). Whilst the former was pure pop pleasure for those of us with no time for feeling pop guilt, the latter was well-executed dream pop based on beautiful synths. No wonder 4AD snatched him up recently!
There were downsides as well, the luxury of not being able to choose between great concerts being one of them, whilst some problems were bigger: The big Stage West, outdoors, had horrible sound and seemed a difficult stage for many bands who had problems creating a good atmosphere. At the end of the day, though, The NMO had a great time at Reeperbahn Festival 2012. Thanks for everything, Hamburg, and see you next year.
text: Martin Hjorth, The NMO