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FESTIVAL REPORT: Reeperbahn Festival
Andy Thomas , October 8th, 2014 12:21

Andy Thomas visits Hamburg for four days of musical overdose. Photos by Stefan Malzkorn, Lena Meyer and Nina Ivanov

Billed as Hamburg's answer to South by Southwest, Reeperbahn Festival is now in its ninth year. Over four days more than 450 events covering music, film, art and literature take place in and around the historic and infamous street. We arrive out of St Pauli station to unseasonal warm sunshine and after grabbing a Weissbier and Pannfisch flick through the programme. As well as the 450 events it appears that there are more than 60 venues for us to navigate over the weekend – from churches to record shops to old military bunkers.

We begin at the Spielbude, the main-tented stage at the Western end of the Reeperbahn, curious to hear a band named after a Nick Drake song. Black Eyed Dog are in full flight when we arrive, bringing to mind both Mark Lanegan and White Stripes. The Facebook page of the Sicilian band describes them as "punkromanticpsychoblues" and that just about nails it. Around the Spielbude, sits a Ska Bus, Flatstock poster exhibition and various wurst and beer stalls. Here music industry executives and confused tour parties mingle with serious music fans finding their bearings. The overpowering smell of sausage and German beer has us searching out some of the more interesting corners of the festival.

Up a small side street just before the red light district of Reeperbahn, we find a hidden entrance to Prinzenbar. Down some dark stairs we turn a corner to look up to a disco ball hanging from a stuccoed ceiling. The venue is an old cinema and its Art Nouveau details and old mirrors makes for a brilliant live music space. It's packed when we arrive to the warm, electronic disco pulse of Coma from the Kompakt label. The New Order leaning 'Missing Piece' the highlight of a set only blighted by the overuse of a vocodor. Another venue we are keen to check out is Schmidt Tivoli, an old Theatre near the street's famous Police Station. We head there straight from Prinzenbar to find Ólöf Arnalds charming the crowd with her Icelandic folk. The sparse, glacial and haunting 'Hypnose' and 'Innundir Skinni' have us melting into our velvet seats in the old art deco music hall. But there are more sides of this diverse festival to explore.

Having seen a young festival crowd getting seriously into the modern classical of Carlos Cipa and Nils Frahm at the City's Dockville Festival back in August, we are keen to check out a night of strings and piano at the Mojo Club. One of Hamburg's most famous venues, in the 1990s the club spawned the Universal LP's Mojo Club Presents Dancefloor Jazz. The venue closed in 2003 but last year reopened in a basement next to the original venue. It's one of the more interesting entrances to a club we have seen. Come night what looks like a large manhole in the ground opens up to reveal the stairs down to the club. Inside the Ensemble Resonanz are making the most of the room's great acoustics with their minimalist chamber music. The Ensemble have been doing much in the City to introduce younger people into classical music and to bridge the gap between the orchestras and DJs. The group's urban string events have brought classical music into a club setting, and following them is another German artist with an even more genre bending aesthetic.

Looking down from the balcony above we see a piano hooked up to various pieces of electronic equipment. Inside the piano, resting or jammed between the strings and mallets are various foreign objects: chunks of metal, ping pong balls, bits of wood and what looks like old clothing. It's the prepared piano of alternative classical artist Hauschka. Reaching into the innards of his piano before returning to the keys, he creates a huge wall of sound. He name checks Cage and will be compared to other artists working between classical and electronic music, but his is a dirtier sound than most. Discordant, brilliant and at times brutal his heavy, sonic assault sends us to the Jazz Café for some aural therapy. We find it in the form of an acoustic set from Brazil's Rodrigo Amarante. With a glint in his eye, the Orchestra Imperial man has the small crowd spellbound playing songs from his new LP Cavalo. With a glass of red it felt like the prefect end to the evening. That is until we hear that Public Service Broadcasting are playing at midnight in the old military bunker that rises rather menacingly North of the Reeperbahn. As we approach the bunker it's an awe-inspiring sight, the brutalist architecture making Berlin's Berghain look kind of quaint. Inside we learn that the building now houses various creative companies and two clubs. The one we are heading for is on the 5th floor and is called Terrace Hill.  After checking the view from the rooftop we head back into the venue to find the band in the middle of 'Spitfire'. The band are at their playful best ending each song with various vocodored messages in German much to the amusement of the crowd.  

After such a musical overdose on the first day we are ready to begin Friday by taking in some the art displayed in various venues in the area. Heading East of the Reeperbahn to the tranquil Kohlhoefen we head past Pure Soul Records to the Feinkunst Krüger Gallery. Exhibiting in this lovely space is local artist Heiko Müller. Interested in "dark goings-on behind the façade of nature" his magic realist paintings and darkly enticing pencil drawings are as menacing as they are beautiful. We leave inspired and eager to find out more about the City's art scene. Past 'The Point Of Paradise Sex' 'and other Über tacky establishments that line the street, we eventually find the doorway to No.110-114. Up some graffiti covered stairs of an abandoned block of flats we come across two floors scattered with contemporary art and photography. The pieces include the portrait photography of Hamburg's Hanna Lenz and Berlin's digital art of Andreas Karaoulanis and Christian Sonntag. Another artist who has made his mark in Berlin is Nicolas Fremion who has recently designed a flyer for the Berghain club. The French artist's Minwha exhibition at the Affenfaust Gallerie in a quiet street North of the Reeperbahn mixes Korean naïve art with scenes of debauched erotic acts between animals and humans. After a stop off at our favourite Hamburg Falafel joint hear Schanzenviertel station, we decide it is time to head back to hear some music. Such are the extracurricular distractions it's early evening when we arrive back on the Reeperbahn.

We had avoided the dubiously titled Cowboys and Indians bar until now but the motorik beats emerging from the venue as we pass draw us on. There we find Klaus Johann Grobe a Swiss trio pounding a neo Kraut sound full of inventive analogue twists. Inhabiting the more disco end of kosmiche, tracks like 'Kooordinaten' and 'Raus' have us heading back to see the group later than night at the Imperial Theatre. The hook laden new 7" 'Traumhaft' now sounds like an old classic to our ears. Another venue we are keen to check is the St Pauli church. We arrive just as Melanie De Biasio appears on an unlit stage. It proves a perfect setting for her blues inflected jazz. A single light cats a glow around her silhouette as she evocatively swirls an arm to introduce 'The Flow'. It's a stunning performance and we find the Belgian singer and flautist much deeper and melancholic than on record – kind of like Abbey Lincoln meets Beth Gibbons. We have other gigs planned for the night but sometimes you just have to sit back and soak in what you have just experienced. Deep, dark and transcendent.

On our way around the quieter streets North of the Reeperbahn on Saturday lunchtime we find a small Gallery holding a record shop photography exhibition. The DJ spinning seventies soul introduces to the photographer behind the exhibition who points us in the direction of some of the City's best stores. Hamburg is crammed with more vinyl record shops than any other European City and we spend a good few hours skipping between them. Two of our favourites we find are Pure Soul specialising in funk and soul 7"s and Rekord where we pick up Le Dusseldorf's Viva and Holgar Czukay's Der Osten Ist Rot for €8. Most of the rest of Saturday is spent exploring the thrift stores and flea market around Karolinenviertel. Various records stalls with a healthy selection of MPS Jazz and Krautrock keep us occupied until well into the early evening.

We've passed the Hasenschaukel bar a number of times over the weekend and we've been told it's one of the city's best little venues. In what looks like a small converted bathhouse with tiled walls and toy dolls converted into lampshades, Buriers (aka James P Honey) has strapped on a guitar before a packed crowd. Kind of like Leonard Cohen meets Tim Booth the London singer might just warrant the hype.  The highpoints are 'Dim Half Light' and 'Slides spine tingling pieces of urban folk. His rather ominous delivery a perfect fit for this sweaty little place with old dolls hanging down eerily from the ceiling. We plan to spend the rest of the night flitting from one venue to another. However, one glass of Rielsing leads to another in the Jazz Café as we reflect on all that Hamburg has thrown at us.