Berlin's Best: 10 Highlights from Berlin Festival 2013
Photo: Bjork at Berlin Festival 2013 by Stephan Flad
Berlin, Germany -- This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending my first Berlin Festival. Now in its eighth year, the two-day event boasts remarkable headliners, a hefty amount of up-and-coming talent, and everything in between. These were my takeaways.
10. The daytime venue is counterintuitive, but appropriateSituated less than ten kilometers south of the city center, Flughafen Tempelhof (“Tempelhof Airport”) served as Berlin Festival’s home base. In the last five years, what was once used as a commercial airport has become a playground of sorts, for cycling on the runways, use as an event space, and more. Passing through festival security leads you into the main airport building (complete with “Departures,” “Arrivals,” “Passport Control,” and other signs,) and then on to the hangars and runways. It’s wonderfully bizarre, and infinitely better than the typical arena-type festival venues.
9. There’s more going on than just musicInside the Art Village, there was a performance space underneath a massive disco ball; art vendors and DIY craft booths; a poetry slam area; loads of art on display; and then some. The Art Village even had its own bar, which served up creative cocktails that offered a lovely respite from the endless Warsteiner and Red Bull-sponsored drink stands outside.
8. The food was tasty — and not just by festival standardsIn addition to basic festival fare (greasy burgers, overpriced lager, and pretzel stands galore,) there was also fresh juice, gelato, and Ayurvedic goodies to be had. The vegan offerings were particularly impressive, with the obvious star of the show being a fried slab of fake steak with a chive cream cheese-type spread, served on crusty roll. Let’s just say I will be dreaming about this for weeks. Yum.
7. Pet Shop Boys deserve their stellar reputation as kick-ass performersYeah, they really know how to put on a show. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were dressed in fluorescent orange suit jackets, and the energy on stage became infectious. Songs like “Thursday,” “I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too,”) and “Rent” were definite crowd pleasers. As Tennant and Lowe did their thing, two performers moved around the stage with an array of orange accessories on their heads: orbs, dunce caps, furry yak heads with horns. The yak heads in particular brought Miley’s unfortunate VMA performance to mind, but instead of cultural misappropriation and sad looking bears, this was incredibly tasteful and enjoyable to watch.
When they played “It’s A Sin” and “Always On My Mind,” the audience went nuts. A man next to me flailed his arms and waved a blonde wig in the air. Everyone was clearly nostalgic, either smiling, singing along, or both. “Go West” was introduced enthusiastically (“Now everyone in Germany knows this one!”) and became the anthem of their hit-filled set.
6. Asbjørn is going to blow upI hadn’t heard of this Danish artist until I saw his name on the festival bill, but I am really glad that I caught most of this performance. The music is melodic, vocal-driven pop, often with punchy drums and certain electronic elements. On stage, he gazed, a little bit seductively, at the crowd, and danced like he was having the time of his life. With the band members as well, it was very clear that they were happy to be playing, and they all stood in a line to bow together at the end, which was endearing. Standout songs were “She Is A Hurricane” and “The Criminal.”
5. My Bloody Valentine definitely caused some hearing lossFor the crowd though, not for me, because I wear earplugs. It honestly felt like they were going to blow the speakers out an any second though - like they did at FYF Fest. Even though MBV wasn’t considered a headlining performance, the crowd was one of the more packed that I stood in all weekend. The stage, which was enclosed by the giant, open mouth of a cartoonish bear, became a pulsing mass of color and wiggling lines. The visuals were explosive, and a perfect companion to the deafening, distorted guitars. They didn’t say more than ten words to the crowd, but no one cared, because we were there for the music. It’s like they were playing for themselves, unaware of the adoring, longtime fans in front of the stage, many of whom had likely been waiting years to see them play. And it was worth the wait.
4. Björk is as visually engaging as her voice is beautifully hauntingIt should come as no surprise that a woman known widely for her eclectic taste in clothing would wear similarly out-there garb to a festival. From a distance, I could have sworn that her vibrant chartreuse outfit was accompanied by a space helmet made of bunched up cellophane. As I got closer, it became apparent that they were actually fine spikes surrounding her entire head, and some must have been affixed to her face. She bobbed up and down in time to the music, as did her backup singers, which made up a sizable choir.
“Please dance with us!” she asked of the crowd, which I appreciated, because it wasn’t “dance with ME” but instead an acknowledgment that her backing musicians and vocalists are part of it. “Pagan Poetry” and “Declare Independence” stood out the most for me, but the whole set was stunning for the ears and the eyes.
3. The nighttime venue couldn’t have been any betterOnce the Berlin Festival performances came to a close, the party moved to Arena Berlin. The multi-room event space is on the edge of Treptow, siting directly on the Spree River. Buses from Tempelhof shuttled festival-goers with a special combined ticket (or those of us with press passes) to this warehouse space where music continued on until 6am. A main stage was confined to its own building, but a walk outside led to an elevated, artificial beach overlooking the river, and the pool that floats in it. The other building contained two more performance areas, the Glashaus and arenaclub. This compound was made for exploring, and allowed for three completely separate parties to happen at the same time.
2. Berliners love French electronic musicI certainly didn’t move to Berlin for French electro or French house, but the locals were loving it, and I couldn’t complain either. Over the course of two nights, Miss Kittin, Para One, Breakbot, Busy P, Justice, and SebastiAn all graced the main stage. Of the sets that I did see, Miss Kittin and Breakbot were my favorites by a long shot; both are responsible for songs that were on heavy rotation for me a few years back.
1. The Exploited label showcase was the perfect way to end the weekendImprints are a dime a dozen (and especially in Berlin,) so when one stands out among the rest, that means they’re doing something right. Thanks to releases that are varied yet carefully curated, this is a label that I rely on for consistently melodic, funky, deep, and danceable house. On Saturday night, members of the Exploited label family played at the arenaclub stage, a very intimate space that was a nice change from venues where I’ve seen some of these artists DJ in the past, like Watergate in Berlin or Marquee in New York. Sets from youngster pair Cocolores, the golden mask-clad Claptone, the Swiss duo Round Table Knights, and label boss Shir Khan ensured that I wanted to stay put at this one stage for the entire night, and that my body was aching by the time I finally went home. There was an old man dancing and blowing bubbles; bursts of confetti; some tracks that I knew, and loads more that I didn’t. It was the ideal end to my Berlin Festival experience.
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