With Blur, Björk, Pet Shop Boys, Savages and Klaxons…

The imposing façade of Berlin’s historic Tempelhof Airport provides the backdrop to 2013’s Berlin Festival. Now in its eighth year, the two-dayer (September 6th-7th) attracts an energetic 20,000-strong pilgrimage of hipsters and globetrotting festivalgoers to the German capital.

Bastille open the festival’s Main Stage on Friday, with frontman Sam Smith’s triumphantly bittersweet anthems enticing the gathering crowds into the airfield area. Soon enough, a sizeable gathering is swaying to soaring choruses and infectious beats.

It falls to electro-pop magicians Pet Shop Boys to warm up the stage for the weekend’s biggest attraction, Blur. Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant amplify their typical pomp and theatricality substantially, utilising frequent costume changes and employing dancers garbed in goats-head masks. The dazzling sparkle and shimmer of an epic laser show wows onlookers.

The pair plays an hour-long greatest-hits-style set, with ‘Suburbia’, ‘You Were Always On My Mind’ and ‘Go West’ proving the most rousing numbers. The on-stage dancers come attired in complementary colours, mirroring Tennant’s own sartorial selections, which at one point means the singer is decked in a bright tangerine suit.

The closer is an ecstatic take on ‘Vocal’, the final track on this year’s ‘Electric’ LP (Clash review). It’s just one of many moments in the Boys’ set that, despite veteran status, confirms that they’re anything but pop remnants from a bygone era.

Blur take to the stage with a minimum of fuss: a denim-clad and floppy limbed Damon Albarn launches straight into the perfect opening triple-whammy of ‘Girls & Boys’, ‘There’s No Other Way’ and ‘Beetlebum’. Inevitably, this goes down rather well with the audience.

Albarn provides the only precipitation of the day by continually launching water from the bottle he’s drinking from over the front row. Not that anyone there seems to mind too much.

Things take a sombre turn when Albarn asks the crowds to think of Syria before launching into a particularly melancholic take on 2003 single ‘Out Of Time’, written due to Albarn’s disillusionment at UK participation in the Iraq War.

The bouncing immediacy of ‘Coffee and TV’ sharpens things back into focus, and before long Blur reach the encore. Inevitably, it’s ‘Song 2’ that sees Tempelhof transformed into a boozy, open-air cathedral of flailing arms and wide-eyed joy. It’s a fitting and rapturous end to Friday’s Main Stage shenanigans.

Saturday dawns, cloudless and gloriously bright. White Lies enter onto a stage decorated with the artwork from the band’s third LP, ‘Big TV’ (Clash review). They’re on spirited form, but system issues – similar to those experienced by Pet Shop Boys the day before – return to comprise a gremlin in the works. On occasions the bass builds to apocalyptic proportions, entirely drowning out visibly frustrated frontman Harry McVeigh.

Savages ensure that disappointment doesn’t linger by bringing their spectral brand of gothic post-punk to Berlin, on the Pitchfork Stage. Clad in black and wreathed in shadowy clouds of dry ice, theirs is the standout performance of the festival.

Vocalist Jehnny Beth mesmerises the crowd as she whispers, wails and yelps her way through proceedings, sounding like some gorgeous unholy love child of Ian Curtis and Siouxsie Sioux. The highlight is the screeching atmospherics of the perfectly contextual track ‘Flying To Berlin’.

Contrastingly, Björk’s headline set translates as a somewhat lacklustre experience after such intensity. The Icelander brings her penchant for stagecraft and exhibitionism to the Main Stage, recalling the costume extravaganza put on by Pet Shop Boys 24 hours previously.

Finally, Klaxons overcome a rather hit-and-miss festival reputation with a scorching performance resplendent with the emotive hooks of their debut album, ‘Myths Of The Near Future’. Playing the smaller Zippo hangar, Jamie Reynolds looks elated with the fans chanting back every word of ‘Golden Skans’ like manic, hyper-intelligent parrots.

The verdict: Berlin Festival 2013 is a fantastic two-dayer, marred only by some sporadic sound issues on its Main Stage.

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Words: Benji Taylor

Photos: Stephan Flad (Björk, Damon Albarn, Pet Shop Boys, White Lies), Clemens Mitscher (Blur group shot), Thomas Quack (Berlin Templehof)

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