The Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg has grown up fast and just celebrated its 18th anniversary at the end of September. Around 49.000 attendees took over my old neighborhood St. Pauli in search for networking events and to celebrate fresh talents. Once again, the festival presented an ambitious program and tried to explore important topics like sustainability and diversity, AI and parenthood in music. And yes, it’s true: navigating the sheer number of events and showcases can be a little overwhelming. But there’s never anything wrong with just going with the flow.
During the four days and nights of the festival, I mingled with international colleagues and had many interesting talks to old and new friends. And of course, I saw all sorts of showcases. Here’s a handy round-up of the best of them:
The first pleasant surprise was the French shooting star Zaho de Sagazan. Her music is a hybrid of soulful nouvelle chanson and dark electronic pop. As I already heard her debut album „La symphonie des Éclairs“, I was curious to see how the young artist would translate this on stage. It was simple, but effective: while in the back two guys each enthusiastically turned the knobs of cabinet-like modular synthesizers, the 23-year-old artist swept across the plain stage in normal everyday clothes. Her announcements in English were absolutely charming and within no time the club was fidgeting and sweating. A great performance by Zaho de Sagazan, even for people like me who don’t particularly like dirty techno beats.
Clever and witty German lyrics, a foot-tapping rhythm and jazzy arrangements is the package I received from Noth playing a tiny place upstairs of Grüner Jäger. The stage was way too small for the six-piece ensemble, well equipped with saxophones and flute. There’s something special about this band, not only because of the great musicianship. Although Linus Kleinlosen and Luis Schwamm are from different cities, they collaborate on all songs and lyrics. They filled the room with a wide musical range, rooted in jazz, avant pop and in crisp indie rock – and every nuance sounded great. I would like to see Noth get a bit more recognition (at least in the German-speaking world) abecause they have already released two fabulous records. Well, my old colleague Carol v. Rautenkranz of L’Age D’Or fame stood next to me during the whole live set. And I can tell you: he was sceptical at first, but quite impressed in the end. No doubt, Carol still knows what is good.
It was a huge disappointment that the Canadian songwriter Julie Doiron had to cancel her shows on the Reeperbahn Festival due to personal matters. But her slot was taken over by a fabulous three-piece from Wales: The Bug Club play catchy songs with so much verve and fun that it’s hard not to fall for their infectious harmonies from the start. Two-minute pop hits like „Little Coy Space Boy“ set the bar, new songs from the upcoming double LP were also included in the setlist, all in the not too busy backyard of the famous Molotow club. Dressed in 80s jeans and white T-shirts, the power trio played on with irrepressible energy, driving and dizzying. Drummer Dan Matthew wiggled his head like Ringo Starr while bassist Tilly Harris pulled some moves as if she was playing with AC/DC. And guitarist Sam Willmett showed some incredible work on the fretboard. Like fast and crazy country licks that I can’t quite put my finger on. Definitely something you don’t hear very often in modern day indie rock.
In the 19th century, the unique red bricks housed a schnapps distillery. Today, the vaulted cellar called Nochtwache is a popular venue and served as the stage for the festivals best-kept secret: Vanity Mirror have released the fantastic debut album “Puff” and they wear their influences on their sleeves. The band consists of singer and songwriter Brent Randall hailing from Toronto and drummer Johnny Toomey, who lives in LA. In tow they had two guest musicians who stepped in with style on bass and analog keys. And immediately I felt transported back into the late 60’s. Not only because Vanity Mirror create perfect pop in the vain of the Kinks or Emitt Rhodes. From using vintage equipment to wearing original outfits from the 60’s, every detail seemed authentic. The venue was dark and slightly too warm, and it could have been a brilliant show, if only the sound would have been less muddy. But no matter, Johnny kept twirling his drum sticks and Brent casually chewed his gum, while Vanity Mirror delivered an impeccable performance. Another hit from their other group Electric Looking Glass rounded off the set – and I was more than satisfied.
Although the Reeperbahn Festival is a great spot for discovering the next big thing, there’s also space for a couple of well-known names: Chrissy Hynde was in town and performed with The Pretenders. Arab Strap played a stripped down, but solid showcase as a two-piece with material from the old “Philiphobia” days. And then there was Billy Bragg.
I’ve never considered myself a fan of Billy Bragg and would probably have missed this wonderful show full of inspiration, solidarity, laughter and great songs if my dear colleague Alice hadn’t been so keen to go. (By the way: Alice is well known for her hand-picked radio shows “Off Beat” on Novum.fm and “Kaleidoskop” on ByteFM and I can only recommend her detailed recap of the festival here). We both agreed, that Billy Bragg has aged well. It’s hard to believe he’s 65, as he has the energy and enthusiasm of a young person. His career is built on the foundation of being a protest singer for the working class – and he still has a lot to say. He is absolutely on top of his game, talking about trans rights and the Nazis in suits (referring to the German right-wing Party AfD). And yes, it sounded like a sermon when he spoke about his activism and the power of music: “Maybe it can’t change the world, but it has the power to make you think that change is possible.”.
Braggs setlist was mostly focused on welcome classics and the night was closed with one of his biggest hits “A New England”, which got the enthusiastic festival audience singing along.
One of the best things about this club festival is that alternative spaces open their doors to host different showcases. For me, the grand finale of the four-day festival was This Is The Kit in Hamburg’s St. Michaelis Church on Saturday evening. The building is considered one of the most beautiful Hanseatic Protestant baroque churches and has 2500 seats. Not all of them were occupied when This Is The Kit played their set with a full band. What is immediately noticeable is the enormous delay in the sound. Even normal speech is difficult to manage in such a space. Paris-based bandleader Kate Stables was keen to play it safe and chose some quieter songs for the setlist. And although the intimacy suffered and was lost in the large building, the magic of Stables‘ swirling vocal melodies won the hearts of everyone present. At the latest shortly before midnight, when the audience sang along a mantra-like „be okay“ to the song „Dibs“, the warm feeling of good company and community came up. What a perfect ending for the second post-pandemic year of the Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg.