A true port town, Hamburg is a mesh of contradictions, of influences carried by ocean currents from all around the world. A wealthy city – the port is the second largest in Europe – the area’s reserved, considered Hanseatic architecture makes for a stunning experience. Take a lengthy, ambling wander there sometime: there’s a surprise on every street corner.
The surprises that lie in wait on the corners and alleyways of the Reeperbahn, though, are not quite what the city planners had in mind. Famously an area devoted to sin, avarice and other delightful topics, it’s where The Beatles were de-flowered, turned from five unassuming Scouse teenagers into the Fab Four.
Sprawled across the area’s myriad streets, the Reeperbahn Festival is an annual celebration of new talent. Our journey opens with a boat tour of the vast harbour – the second largest in Europe, no less – with German soul crew Rhonda on hand to supply entertainment. The current boom in gritty soul brings about its own comparisons, but the group has a vivid, unique voice: Hammond organ trills underneath Milo Milone’s delivery and we’re beginning to understand just how the Reeperbahn can be so seductive.
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St Pauli’s local church is used as a venue, with its simple, unfussy yet moving interior serving some of the weekend’s most imposing performances. Belgian artist Melanie De Biasio is on intense form, with her spiralling, enchanting take on blues and jazz recalling Nina Simone but with the quiet veracity of Cowboy Junkies’ fabled ‘The Trinity Session’. Accompanied by some spider-like guitar lines, the singer’s voice is only augmented by the occasional ferocious blast on her flute, with each note billowing up into the rafters.
Part of a wider showcase of Israeli music, Buttering Trio supply some deft hip-hop production with rather neo-soul overtones. Reminiscent of Belleruche or elements of the Ninja Tune stable, their fluid, almost jazz-like ability to shift and morph with a second’s notice makes for a hugely impressive live performance. Switching between live instrumentation and samples, their cut ‘n’ paste methodology may have its antecedents – Gang Starr, or A Tribe Called Quest, for example – but it’s an approach that results in brave new sounds.
Signed to Polydor and with their profile blossoming, Years & Years arrive in an atmosphere of remarkable confidence. It’s easy to see why: an arena show condensed to an intimate venue, the group’s soaring synth-pop symphonies are imposing and nigh-on impossible to resist. A few more sets like this, and their rise will be almost assured.
Charting a brisk pace to walk off the previous evening’s excess, St. Pauli’s Millerntor Stadion sits just a few hundred yards away from the Reeperbahn itself. In many ways emblematic of the area – left leaning, socially liberal, joyously eccentric – the ground embraces street culture, with enormous graffiti murals draped across the stands. Outside stands a little piece of home: two German kids wearing Celtic tops, a mark to the link between the two clubs.
Charlie Cunningham opens our day with an emotive performance in St Pauli Kirche. The rising songwriter’s youth belies his obviously blossoming talent, with wavering acoustic guitar lines sitting underneath a strong, strident voice. It’s the material that impresses most, though: mature, fully formed and eerily contagious, there’s a directness here that continually intrigues.
Francesco Yates is – on paper – somewhat of an unlikely pop star. A curly haired Canadian teen, the newcomer fits in somewhere between Justin Timberlake and Prince. Rather incongruously, he manages it – a natural showman, Francesco alternates between wailing guitar and wailing vocals, while his material matches the hype. Debut single ‘Call’ is an out-and-out summer jam, at once recalling R&B greats of the past while looking confidently ahead to his own emergence. An impeccable showcase slot.
Kwabs is, in this country at least, rather established. A critical touchstone, his take on R&B is both smooth yet emotionally gripping and – faced with a rather alien crowd – the London performer does his best to win them over. It’s more than enough. Blessed with huge amounts of natural charisma, the endearing modest singer charms his way into their affections, with standout cuts such as ‘Wrong Or Right’ or the recently released ‘Walk’ embraced almost instantly by the crowd.
Given the enormous range of talent on show – Clash took in showcase events from French, Icelandic and Middle Eastern artists, for example – it’s fairly impossible to distil the Reeperbahn experience into one report. But then, perhaps that’s only apt. Hamburg as a city is continually in flux, with its latest shipment of voyagers adding something new, something intangible to St Pauli as a whole. The visit ends with a journey to Hamburg’s Philharmonic Hall – afforded a stunning view of Hamburg, the city stretches out in all directions, the enormous industrial cranes of the port lowered for a day’s rest. It’s a city that seems unable to come to terms with itself, continually in a state of unrest. And long may that continue.
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Words: Robin Murray