Hamburg’s Reeperbahn region attracts a certain type of music fan throughout the year, due to The Beatles’ many pre-fame months in the venues along that infamous street, a lengthy boot-camp that many scholars believe was a crucial factor in their future success.
But over the last decade the area has been breaking new musical ground via the Reeperbahn Festival, which brings well-established and buzz-worthy acts to this hectic part of Germany’s second city, and beyond. Indeed, this year certain artists get to play in much grander venues. It’s an increasingly splendid mix of people and places.
The Venue: Elbphilharmonie
Hamburg’s hottest ticket generally since January has been pretty much whatever is playing at the Elbphilharmonie, the city’s spectacular new concert hall. It cost $900m to build, houses exclusive apartments and hotel rooms, plus a spectacular public viewing platform and an impressively cutting-edge performance space.
And now it’s also a Reeperbahn Festival venue. The Brazilian/German singer Dominique Dillon de Byington — aka Dillon — usually records for an edgy German techno label, Berlin’s BPitch Control. Here she fills the main hall with electronic beats, but also live drums and horns from a brass section complete with conductor, all arranged to enhance her hugely distinctive voice — a career-defining show.
The Venue: Michelle Records
This is one of the smaller venues that encourages wristband-holders, and regular passers-by of wildly varying ages to more central bits of the city. The pleasingly well-stocked Michelle Records has been flogging vinyl since 1977, and the front-of-shop stage has hosted Reeperbahn Festival gigs for a good few years now.
Much-loved Torontonian duo Death from Above 1979 have a fine time taking requests, browsing the CD racks between songs, then rattling them with their soul-stirring drum-and-axe fury. They don’t even mind when an eccentric old guy wanders right across their stage halfway through the final song — an occupational in-store hazard.
The Venue: Gruenspan
The Reeperbahn’s history-steeped old music venues are almost as famous as its red-light joints, and Gruenspan is right slap-bang in the middle of the gaudiest part of town. A one-time cinema, it became a rock club in 1968 and remains a terrific two-tier spot to watch bands.
The well-travelled Yasmine Hamdan was born in Lebanon then soaked up sounds from Dubai, Kuwait and Greece before settling in Paris. She then worked with CocoRosie and Mirwais, made her name with exotic electronica, and now brings a psychedelic rock band to Reeperbahn: while they riff and pose she broods and chants with captivating intensity.
The Venue: Klubhaus St Pauli
The façade of this still relatively new Reeperbahn hub remains a wonder: a bank of jutting hi-res screens, like something from The Lego Movie crossed with that new Bladerunner flick. And inside is the famous Hamburg club Kukuun, which set up its new permanent home in Klubhaus after years of room-hopping.
Canada is the focus country for Reeperbahn 2017, and Grand Analog are one of the first arrivals on Thursday evening: an organic hip-hop crew from Toronto who certainly don’t sound jet-lagged, as they rip through genres. Frontman Odario Williams is a radio host back home now: on this form, it’s hard to imagine him keeping still.
The Venue: Festival Village Fritz Bühne stage
New at Reeperbahn this year, the village offers an outdoor-festival air to this city affair. It’s a little Reeperpalooza, with several venues, including this platform-based stage with some iconic sights behind it: St Pauli’s iconic soccer stadium, the huge Hertz TV tower, and a mighty WWII bunker.
As the sun sets over those background behemoths on Saturday evening, the shimmering melodies of Canadian indie-poppers Close Talker provide a melancholy reminder that this year’s fest is nearing its end. Good programming.
The Venue: Uebel & Gefährlich
That aforementioned concrete bunker remains intact despite post-war efforts to blow it up: nowadays there’s a nice garden terrace at the top with epic city views, and plans for a full-on garden up there in the years to come, almost doubling the height. This excellent gig venue is a flight further down.
Icelandic rockers Sólstafir have the most epic intro music imaginable — strings, choir, action — but their own stuff then lives up to it, and is oddly suited to the surroundings: mighty metal contained within deep concrete. Their latest album is called Berdreyminn, which translates as ‘Seasons of Mist’. If you thought it meant ‘beardymen’, well, that would work too.