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Hamburg: Germany's Port of Rock 'n' Roll

Karen Zarker and Sarah Zupko
Hamburg harbor

PopMatters shoulders its backpacks and treks to Hamburg to check out Germany's pop music capital, to partake of four days of Kunst und Kultur, historical wanderings, and indulge in a bit of Gemütlichkeit.

Rockin' on the Reeperbahn

First stop, Josefine und das Meer at Angie's, a small, upstairs space of with a popular reputation. There are saxophones on the bar that serve as beer taps and a wisp of Weimar era glamour in the air. Surely this cozy space was a cabaret in another time. The small stage is empty. We snag the last available table and wait. Eventually, a fellow comes on stage and begins setting up. His jeans fall halfway down his ass, showing his boxers. Sigh. One of the worst aspects of hip-hop fashion has infected the Germans. He and another guy on bass began their set. Their sound, non-descript indie.

Grosse Freiheit / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

Nneka, a singer-songerwriter who mixes rap and soul, is at the top of our must-see list. We find her at Schmidts Tivoli. We make our way to this medium-sized but intimate-feeling theatre space (it's very easy to walk from one venue to another on the Reeperbahn). Small circular tables with glowing candles fill the ground floor. The balcony above is empty. It's a good-sized audience, but the space could hold more. There's a light dustiness to the air that gives the theatre a delicious, aged taste. Ute Lemper would look good in this theater. Well, Ute Lemper looks good anywhere, but that's another matter.

The cozy vibe of Angie's / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Angie's has saxophone taps / Photo: Sarah Zupko

We each order a glass of delicious Weiss and watch a young fellow and his small band with plenty of room left on this stage. He sounds like Radiohead, albeit he's singing in German. It's a nice crowd, they're truly listening to and appreciative of the three musicians on stage. A few tables over, two young men cuddle close, clearly feeling safe here, and no one raises an eyebrow. We don't see that too often in America in mixed spaces outside of gay neighborhoods. It's a lovely sight. The fellow on stage keeps singing. We check our watches and whisper. Isn't Nneka supposed to be on, now? Puzzled, Karen slips away and finds a fellow near the stage who looks like he works there.

"Hallo," she whispers, "Sprechen Sie Englisch?" "Yes, yes," he says, and leads her to a hallway beside the stage, away from the audience. "Thank you. Uhhh …" she opens her program and show him Nnneka's circled photo and write-up. "She was already on," he says, "She was really good." It seems our dinner had run over, into the starting time of the festival. We were seeing Phillip Polsel, who came on well past Nneka.

Phillip Polsel / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Back outside on the Reeperbahn, somewhere between the two outdoor stages and the milling but manageable crowd, we slowly realize that our timing is off – we missed Pete and the Pirates – and the schedule had changed a bit, as is normal at such events, and in our fatigue we had misinterpreted the German custom of providing itineraries on a 24-hour time schedule. We check our watches, adjust our brains as best we can in this state, and make our way to the crowded and very sweaty Molotow for The More Assured for some Britpop. Molotow is the place to be during much of the festival for new British bands and judging by the crowds, they may want to move these bands to a larger venue next year.

Neidklub is a techno bar, but it feels rather like a stripper club, with plastic chains hanging from the ceiling, and neon strips of light along the walls. The place is packed with rude, pushy indie kids – quite unlike the better manners experienced at other venues thus far. Here, the normally rule abiding Germans and whomever else is there ignore the No Smoking Indoors rule ("you can get arrested for that", a native tell us) and puff away with iniquity.

Our personal space grows tighter as the bouncers outside, "Russians", we're told (oooh), keep letting people in. Surely our numbers have exceeded legal capacity. Beside us, a strawberry blonde woman stands close to her date, a half-Asian-looking fellow with dreads. Pretty as nearly every German woman we've seen, she looks suburban with her long straight hair and nondescript outfit, but she wears long, pink leather gloves -- somewhat incongruous with the rest of her look –a tinge of Reeperbahn kink. She presses close to her man, they gaze at one another, oblivious to the elbows and shoulders of the pushy crowd.

Many sets of young lips, noses and ears are pierced with small pieces of jewelry. The dread-headed fellow is the most radical and "different looking" from the others we've seen, thus far, but to our urban eyes his style is mild. Throughout our entire stay there are no garish or spiky/"scary" punk haired people, maybe a streak of pink or purple in a brunette or blond, here or there, but nary a seriously goth girl or mohawked guy, no tattoos peeking beneath shirt sleeves and collars. But for the aforementioned gloved girl, the overall fashion is indie with some "slacker" overtones and not terribly colorful.

At Neidklub the crowd gets tighter and pushier, the air smokier and hotter. The band was supposed to have started 30 minutes ago. Claustrophobia sets in, and we set out. An acquaintance stayed on for a song or two before making his way down the crowded stairwell, into the night. We'll see him the next day. Crystal Castles, he says, is awful. The size of that crowd indicates most feel otherwise.

A happy Reeperbahn Festival crowd / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

On another night out, it's all about soul for us. We basically camp out at the Mandarin Kasino for the Sweet Vandals from Madrid and Nicole Willis and The Soul Investigators from Finland. The crowd here is Mod, so we feel at home. One can imagine this dance club packed to the gills night after night, sweating away to old Northern Soul tunes. On this night of the festival, the club stays true to this sensibility with the Booker T. and the MGs-ish groove of the Sweet Vandals. Lead singer Mayka Edjo is no Aretha Franklin, but she's an engaging stage presence and her roughish voice suits the Stax style tunes and brings a welcome heat to the room. Befitting her Helsinki home, Nicole Willis is a cooler sort, generally more Motown than Stax, more North than South, but she can mix it up, too, and set the dance floor alight.

Ultimately, the real charm of this festival is the simultaneous tight focus and genre variety. Within a small geographic area, you can go from indie to soul to Britpop to emo and discover new European artists across a broad range of styles. We hope the organizers keep the festival at its current size and don't feel the urge to expand to the size of a SXSW. As it is, it's quite possible to visit many of the clubs in a given night and sample all sorts of sounds.

See the full list of bands at the 2008 Reeperbahn Festival here.

The crowd at Prinzenbar / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

Appended quite appropriately to the Reeperbahn Festival is the Flatstock Poster Convention, which has appeared at various American music festivals and this is its first appearance on this side of the pond. Featuring silkscreen poster art from more than 50 artists, the prints on display are diverse in artistic style while headed squarely at the tastes of the indie crowd. The posters are on full display nestled closely to the wurst stands in that center meridian between clubs on either side of the street. Only a busy night of club hopping kept us from stocking up on the reasonably priced street art that would have surely been crushed in some of the night's sweatier clubs. (Readers interested in rock poster art might enjoy Stacey Brook's "Hung Up: The State of Rock Poster Art" .)

At the end of one long evening, jetlag begins hammering at our brains, and we flag a clean, 10€ cab ride which feels like a bargain. When we enter the cab, the driver turns the music on her stereo down. Was that gypsy music? "Turkish music" she says, in her Turkish/German-accented English. "Please, turn it up," we say, and sit back to enjoy the ride to our hotel, which happens to be just around the corner from a Turkish neighborhood filled with tempting restaurants and sweet shops which daily lure us in with trays of baklava and other Middle-Eastern treats in the windows.

A wurst shop on the Reeperbahn / Photo: Sarah Zupko

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