For reasons not fully understood by the general public, Berlin has had a rocky relationship with festivals over the decades; nevertheless, it seems that the freshest attempt at a summer open-air event in the German capital, Tempelhof Sounds, will efficiently break this curse. The first day saw more than 25,000 people in attendance and no shortage of homey atmosphere among a diverse crowd that’s clearly excited to be back at a large-scale occasion after two years of coronavirus lockdown. With great performances from the Libertines, Mighty Oaks, Two Door Cinema Club, Molchat Doma, and the stupefying Florence + the Machine.
To be fair, there have been plenty of reasons to be excited since the get-go: a lineup consisting almost exclusively of distinguished pop-rock acts, an affordable price for three-day admission (slightly above €190), and especially the location. Being situated in spitting distance from the city center, Tempelhof Sounds offers marvelous convenience for the attendees – folks can treat themselves to a spectacular night out right after work (plus an entire weekend out, as the music starts at 1 pm), no exorbitant travel, no convoluted logistics, and no feet in the mud.
Speaking of work, Friday starts slowly. Capitalism sees younger Germans working until 6 pm (and beyond), so critical mass doesn’t form until around 6:30 pm, despite the festival kicking off at noon. Unfortunately, for the same reason, we are forced to skip Sleaford Mods, and only make it in time to catch the last couple of songs by Two Door Cinema Club. The defunct Tempelhof Airport is a magnificent venue, its gargantuan main building enveloping the expansive park (plain field) behind it, with trimmed grass stretching as far as the eye can see. It is to this day utterly fascinating and praiseworthy that Berliners have managed to keep this largest inner-city open space in the world as a park. Having opened in 2010 and stretching over 355 hectares of land, the former airport and its adjoining parade grounds survived numerous attempts at privatization. Thankfully, at least for the time being, we get to enjoy its vastness as a communal good.
While we expected a large portion of the park/field/airport to be used as festival grounds (this was the case with the Berlin Festival in 2013, where the main stage was positioned across a runway, while auxiliary stages were put inside hangars), this isn’t the case; emerging between the facilities after passing the main building, we see a tall fence, with only a small portion of the field dedicated to the festival. This soon proved to be a smart move – the many food and drink stands are all conveniently located close to one another, while the three stages, with the main stage, Supersonic, sitting in the middle, are but a couple of hundred yards apart. Better yet, there is an abundance of toilets and seating spaces, and a healthy lack of cheap fairground ecstasy; the few merchandise stands sell shirts and posters, but not much more. It is a carefully thought-out affair and a wholly human-friendly experience. The food is good, the prices are fair, and the many bands taking over the stages Echo, Vibrations and Supersonic, fit well in the summer pop party atmosphere.
Supposed to work elsewhere until 6PM (it’s not even a 9-5 world anymore), but managing to end our corporate weeks just an hour early, we arrive just in time to catch Two Door Cinema Club with “Sun” and their best-known single, “What You Know”. A couple of thousand people dance while the Irish band end the show on a high note, setting the mood for what’s to come.
This works like a charm since the festival is organized so that the festivities never let up – all performances go back-to-back, without a minute of pause. Either there are two concerts from thematically (somewhat) diverse bands on the two auxiliary stages, or one more high-profile band takes over the main stage. During the Parcels and Together Pangea performances, we take a brief stroll between the stands to replenish our fluids. I’m thrilled to see there is also ice cream on offer. Nothing beats ice cream on a hot summer day. Among the many stands with beer and other alcohol, it is a pleasant surprise to see there is also a kiosk selling (ice) coffee and even cocoa. For an on-duty professional in their 30s, this is heaven-sent, though my photographer sneers at the idea and opts for a large beer.
Admiringly, there’s something for everyone here, but the diversity doesn’t end with food and beverage. Of the 16 acts, seven feature, or are led by, women. When announcing the festival, the organizing team was all about diversity and sustainability. It is genuinely refreshing to see they put their money where their mouths were. The crowds are phenomenally heterogeneous as well, typical for Berlin; it is comforting to see the age average of well over 30.
At 6:30 pm, the Libertines are welcomed by a crowd of about 10,000, many of them adolescent girls with posters of the young Pete Doherty held high. It’s a stark contrast, as the 43-year-old looks nothing like his former emaciated self with dilated pupils. At least 100 pounds (you read that right) heavier, he sports a grey suit and a hat with a brim just wide enough for a non-sartorialist like me not to know if it’s a fedora or a trilby. On the other side of the same microphone stands his lifelong frenemy Carl Barat, the “rockier” of the two, wearing a leather jacket and a bowler hat (this one I’m sure of). The show kicks off with “What a Waster”, followed by “Up the Bracket”, and hordes rush to the stage while the girls in the front scream.
It’s lovely to see a whole new generation warming themselves up to a band that rose to glory 20 years ago and hasn’t released an album in seven years. Frankly, it’s a small miracle to see the Libertines are still around. After two wildly successful albums, earning them the nickname “UK Strokes”, the band had gone into disarray with Doherty’s highly publicized drug abuse and fight with Barat. Since 2004 and numerous side ventures, the Libertines managed to put out one more album, Anthems for Doomed Youth, in 2015, but haven’t been doing much as a band since.
Never mind that, though. The masses are still very happy to see them, and the old hits still pack a punch. The 60-minute gig ends with “Time for Heroes” and “Don’t Look Back Into the Sun”, while many sing along. Exactly one minute later the majority of those in attendance run over to the Mighty Oaks show. The folk-rock trio, though deriving from the US, UK, and Italy, are based in Berlin, so the locals love them. The frontman Ian Cooper speaks fluent German, which is immediately greeted with loud applause, and 60 minutes fly by to their weekend-friendly tunes.
Meanwhile, on the third stage (Vibration), a goth electro-rock from Belarus enthralls. Molchat Doma, a postpunk sensation out of Minsk, doesn’t hide their influences. Robert Smith, Ian Curtis, and Dave Gahan all live inside Egor Shkutko, the hunched frontman delivering a monotone croon over dark synth progressions. The lyrics are no more joyous than the tunes – if you endeavor to translate them from Russian, you will encounter narratives about attempted suicide and life under oppression. Still, the spirits remain high as the synth hooks provide plenty of opportunity for dancing.
Speaking of dancing, the highlight of the evening comes with everyone’s favorite platinum-selling fairy, the indomitable Florence Welch, who (as usual) runs onto the stage barefoot, in a light silk undergarment, her fiery red hair let down. This tour’s setlist is a pure delight, with songs from the band’s five releases more or less evenly distributed. With a moon on a massive screen as a backdrop, Welch opens with “Heaven Is Here” and there’s not a soul who isn’t screaming or convulsing with joy.
The lead single off of the new album Dance Fever, “King”, sees Welch graduating from witch to a ruler and keeps riding the rapture high. With the rise of right-wing ideologies across Europe, just weeks after Poland, an European Union country, introduced the pregnancy register rule, it is incredibly important to be able to sing to the verses such as, “I am no mother, I am no bride, I am king”. Welch has always been a champion of female agency and integrity; coupled with her pastorally mesmerizing overtures, her songs elicit more than just joy and dance (something she insists on) – they bring comfort.
Welch’s performances are traditionally a safe space, and there is no lack of appeal to freedom of movement and expression. She asks the audience members to hug one another, celebrating that at least in this part of the world, the worst of the pandemic seems to have passed, and she talks about the imperative of letting go and celebrating life. Naïve as that may sound, it is a welcome reprieve, and those in attendance are grateful for the opportunity to participate in Welch’s rituals. A dance fever of sorts.
The night ends with a bang, as the band close with “Shake it Out” and “Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up)”. It is only 10 pm, but a curfew is quite understandable, and the majority of attendees will end up going out anyway. The second day promises to be even more intense, with Muse headlining.