Hearing someone say, “Against racism, against fascism, and against exclusion, I want to see your middle finger up!”, during a pop concert today may sound trivial (still, one shouldn’t point a finger at another’s good intentions) if you find yourself in a remote field with daisies in your hair, surrounded by little else than glorious nature and a flock of like-minded, kind and liberal festival goers. However, Berlin’s Olympiapark, with its (literally) monumental Olympiastadion, completed in 1936 for the Summer Olympics hosted by Adolf Hitler’s regime, is anything but a benevolent venue. The gargantuan concrete marvel, consisting of 132 acres of cement checkered with plains of grass and various sporting facilities, used to be the epitome of the Nazi ideas about the Aryan ubermensch and their strength. Several elephantine forts ominously tower above the spectators, complete with colossal statues of horses and Olympians atop a staircase.
These reasons alone make it all but necessary for the German-American rapper, Casper, to shout these words at a crowd comprised of over 30,000 eager festival-goers, who promptly erect their middle fingers and start shouting. Never again will this glorious, unique venue be used for the propaganda of violence and death, we hope.
On a brighter note, after four years of continuous logistical problems (imagine anything, from the refugees needing shelter on what were at the time festival premises, neighbors complaining about the noise made around residential areas, or attendees passing out en route to the event because of inadequate traffic planning), Lollapalooza Berlin, an otherwise great and greatly-necessary event for the German capital, seems to have finally found its long-term home. Today, Olympiapark is a fully renovated, national treasure of a venue, home to the Hertha BSC football team, the Olympias stadium being the largest in Germany used for international football matches. Sitting comfortably in the Ruhleben area, close to the border with Spandau, Olympiapark has all the prerequisites for an optimal festival venue – it’s less than 45 minutes from the city center if you use public transportation, it is vast enough to host several stages, sufficient food and drinks stands and toilets, and it is surrounded by nature, as opposed to buildings full of agitated residents.
According to local media estimates, around 70,000 people (though the Weekend’s official Twitter account says 83,000), some 10,000 fewer than last year, came to the first day of Lolla to enjoy a slew of pop and electro performers plus the National and the Weekend, depending on how you classify his music. Due to an 11:00 pm curfew, the programs start at 11:00 am, a noble idea from the organizers, who wanted to maximize the amount of content during the brief, two-day festival. Still, most attendees started showing around 2:30 pm, ourselves included, and some growing pains became immediately evident. We waited more than 45 minutes in the line to get our press passes, and other people on the guestlist faced the same problem. Once we managed to get in, the lines to top up our balance for the cashless-only payment systems were so long we abandoned the idea immediately and powered through with nothing but tap water for a few hours. None of this is the end of the world, merely a trial-and-error indication of a still young festival trying to determine the right measures for everything, though it did prove an inconvenience because we missed most of the Years and Years’ show.
By the time we arrive at the Main Stage, Olly Alexander is all smiles, dripping sweat and chatting with the ecstatic audience relentlessly. The 28-year-old frontman is comfortable onstage in a tight pink top and baggy jeans, and does his honest best to put on a show for everyone. By now, his pop bunch have made several anthemic hits and there are tens of thousands frolicking around the plane among the two stages, most of them singing at least intermittently. Unfortunately, we missed the opening “Sanctify” and “Take Shelter” but if the end of the show is anything to go by, the band have succeeded in satisfying the crowd’s need for an energetic pop performance to warm them up for the rest of the day.
Seldom have I seen a band so grateful and happy to just perform and be heard, and seldom have I witnessed a crowd so relaxed and at ease with themselves. A staggering amount of LGBTQ+ people are in attendance and they are unafraid to express themselves, snog their partners or just dance feverishly. It is a beautiful sight, made even better by the fact that we were all standing on what was once Nazi grounds. The world seems a little better now, baby step by baby step. The very end is reserved for the band’s first hit, “King”, and Alexander leaves it to the audience to chant, catching his breath between choruses and smiling the broadest smile of pure joy. Acceptance is paramount to all the young people trying to be themselves in a still-conservative world and here everyone is contributing. It’s a great start to the event.
Lamentably, with four prominent stages presenting acts concurrently, it is all but impossible to cover the festival with a 360 overview. We make a brief pit stop in the press section, located in one of the lounges of the Olympiastadion, the venue’s centerpiece, and glance at the early afternoon frenzy brought about by the English DJ Jonas Blue. About 20,000 people scream incoherently and dance all over the stadium (save for the seats, which were off-limits); it’s not even 5:00 pm but the party has already started. Otherwise, Perry’s Stage, located in the stadium, was chosen to host exclusively DJs and other electronic acts and would soon turn into an inferno of sunglasses at night under the influence of David Guetta. But more about that later.
Elsewhere, at the absolutely packed Alternative Stage, Sofi Tukker are officially preparing to take over the world, though they may not know this themselves, yet. Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halper comprise this two-act show full of glorious jungle pop tunes, with frequent nods to world music and harder electronica overtones. Their debut album, Treehouse, released in April of this year, is a glorious mishmash of dance tunes guaranteed to get one’s hips moving, and the crowd knows this, screaming with their hands in the air as if they were witnessing a performance of a multi-platinum pop star. Perhaps soon this will be the case with Sofi Tukker as well, since the two of them dominate the stage with great charm, motivating the crowd to join in on the fun, one crazy tune after another.
The opener, “Energia”, is a stripped-down club tune which sees Sofi tirelessly bounce around the stage, prompting the spectators to do the same (they do). The highlights of the set are “Awoo” and “Best Friend”, both of which elicit a singalong from the mass of young people who have already taken to the band. The atmosphere is marvelous and the performance is beyond satisfactory. Sofi Tukker have stolen hearts; the next time around they will need a bigger stage.
Soon enough, however, everything goes downhill, and by design – the National are set to descend on one of the Main Stages. At the very end of their Sleep Well Beast support tour, the Ohio quintet are as solemn and heartbreaking as ever. Matt Berninger is dressed in all-black, bringing his business-as-usual aching melancholy baritone to the open fields casually, like we’re not supposed to cry (we do, many of us). The band opens with “Nobody Else Will Be There”, and follows-up with “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, allowing for some playful orchestration to appease us before lurching into, well, total darkness.
At the beginning, the sound is a bit off, and the lush arrangements do not reach full effect, touring member Ben Lanz on trombone and Kyle Resnick on trumpet being almost inaudible. This is soon amended and the band delivers several spectacularly sounding tunes, among them “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Day I Die”. As always, Berninger is dignifiedly despondent as that rare lyricist who seems to rarely make any demands of the listeners, both in the audience and on the other side of his pen. His straightforward delivery is devoid of pretense or aggressiveness, making it that much more calamitous as a result.
The calm, acoustic sound of “I Need My Girl” gets the tears rolling across the plain – “Remember when you lost your shit and drove the car into the garden, you got out and said “I’m sorry” to the vines and no one saw it” is the breaking point Great American Verse, evoking memories and fantasies we all have about someone special to us, someone we need by our side but possibly don’t know how to express that need. Two young ladies next to me cry in another another’s arms. “That was so beautiful!”, says one of them, sobbing. “I know!”, replies the other, hugging her tearfully. This actually happened.
The great shame of this concert is that barely 5,000 people are present in the attendance, making for a terribly empty open space all around the stage. Unfortunately, this wasn’t unexpected – the entire edition of Lollapalooza 2018 (save for Kraftwerk) is dedicated to pop music and DJs and it was unfortunate to place such an idiosyncratic, middle-aged rock band among them. While everyone at the concert appeared transfixed, enjoying a good performance by a great band, the majority of all people at the festival opted to go see Armin Van Buuren’s DJ set at the Stadium instead. I heard they had a great time over there, too.
Even before the National were done, a critical mass of about 20,000 youngsters squeezed together in front of the other Main Stage. No wonder, as it’s minutes before the Weeknd arrives to take the night program over. At 8.17 pm, Abel Tesfaye emerges from the darkness, in casual black jeans and an oversized, deliberately ragged denim jacket; he is met by screams surpassing the threshold of what the average human ear can stand. Some 100-plus lasers behind him, the only scenography necessary for the spectacle we are about to witness, light up and start darting around, and he immediately launches into “Pray For Me”, covering the single he made with Pulitzer Kenny (Lamar).
Make no mistake, the Weeknd is an earnest rock star and, at 28, already a legendary performer. Accompanied by a properly rocking supporting band, never shying away from using heavy bass, guitars and vicious drums, Tesfaye boasts an aesthetic completely unrelated to the simplicity of most of today’s chart-topping pop: much more raw, influenced by genres ranging from funk to Middle-Eastern folk song, and incorporating a multitude of styles in his delivery, he is an astonishing singer who is also, miraculously, fundamentally unpretentious (and all the better for it). Over a mere 75 minutes, the Weeknd and his band manage to deliver a medley of no less than 22 songs, among them nearly all of his most prominent singles. The crowd of more than 60,000 people is hypnotized and stays in trance throughout, singing to nearly every tune and swinging in ecstacy.
With so many hits under his belt, it’s futile to try and say which song gets the biggest singalong or the loudest scream, but the entire show is like a massive energy drink, without the sugar, though. Tesfaye’s falsetto is angelic and the ease with which he sings while moving and dancing is seen only in the world’s most legendary performers such as Bowie or Freddie Mercury. While non-believers may say it is too soon or inappropriate to compare Tesfaye to them, I believe that the time is absolutely right and that he has already earned his place among the greats. Speaking of his body of work, there is a lot that could be said about his lyrics, teeming with inarticulate sexually charged behavior, self-loathing, anger and despair, but this is not the right place for what should be a comprehensive analysis.
On the surface, Tesfaye doesn’t seem to be the right choice for the voice of the generation of millennials struggling to cope with the world’s many challenges, but dig deeper and you will see it, all of it – the crippling self-doubt, the poor’s desire for power and wealth, the need for achievement and status. When Tesfaye shouts, “Look what you’ve done! I’m a motherfucking Starboy!”, it seems not as if he is bragging condescendingly, but as if he is deeply frustrated by what the fame monster can do to a person. Whatever you take away from his seemingly banal lyrics, make sure to pay close attention – there is nothing trivial about the way he handles the issues of today’s youth, even if he can be satirical at times.
It is 9:30 and thousands are trying, to no avail, to breach the fort that is the Olympiastadion – David Guetta is on and countless people fill up the arena, with literally thousands left outside for security reasons. The teenagers are furious, shouting profanities at the security and lining up at every imaginable entrance to the stands, trying to get at least a glance of the spectacle going on in the grotto. And down there, it’s mayhem – the French DJ superstar pulls no punches, playing all his greatest hits to a sweaty and berserk crowd, hellbent on getting the most out of the experience before the 11:00 pm curfew. On our way out we catch a glimpse of the Wombats show at the (again) packed Alternative Stage. They sound wonderful and the show seems to be great, but there’s no strength left in us and we pack our bags to get a good night’s sleep before the second round.