Austin’s SXSW has, over the years, inspired many a pretender. Brighton’s version of the one-wristband-many-venues format, The Great Escape, takes the template of a daytime schedule of music business panels and showcases and pairs this with an evening gig programme focused on new and breaking acts. Purely consumer-focused versions of the format continue to grow in London, notably in the form of the Camden Crawl. Hamburg’s Reeperbahn Festival is closer in feel to The Great Escape; like the seaside event, a daytime programme of panels is scheduled and it runs over three days, showcasing a range of new music – a sizeable percentage of which is as yet unknown to UK audiences.
Over and above its UK competition, the Reeperbahn Festival has two unique selling points. Firstly, it attracts artists and punters from right across Europe, giving the event the feel of a real convention where music connects everyone regardless of mother tongue. It’s possible to spend your evening in the company of Germans, Swedes, Danes or Dutch, and their perspectives on what to see will usually be different to that of music fans brought up on a diet of Camden and Hoxton. Secondly it has Hamburg’s stunning gig venues, every one of which sports a unique atmosphere, and most of which are worth visiting regardless of who happens to be playing.
Take, for instance, the incomparable Prinzenbar, an intimate cellar space on multiple levels decked out with gilt-edged mirrors, red lights and the air of a Weimar cabaret. Or St Pauli Kirche, one of Hamburg’s many and varied churches, which proves to be the perfect showcase space in which to let acoustic acts – Lanterns On The Lake and Dustin O’Halloran amongst them – shine. There’s Gruenspan, a larger, two-tier space packed out by The Duke Spirit, and the Imperial Theater, which offers comfy seating and a small but perfectly formed stage to which Balkan-tinged Gabby Young And Other Animals, kooky Mexican Ximena Sariana and John Vanderslice take. Uebel & Gefhrlich, a favourite of many, is the opposite; a huge World War Two concrete bunker, it offers a spacious club venue on the fifth floor, where Friendly Fires and Apparat show off their latest wares. And there’s bijou Indra, where The Beatles played… a few decades ago.
The Reeperbahn itself is, with help from this festival, beginning to change its image from the seedy red light district of one of Germany’s largest cities into a place in which culture and the arts can thrive. Hamburg, always upwardly mobile and aspiring to greater things, is large enough to sustain the festival with its own citizens, but it throws its arms open to visitors and makes life easy for them. A wristband for this festival entitles the wearer to use the S-bahn, U-bahn and bus services, and with only a couple of exceptions all the venues are in easy walking distance from each other.
The Reeperbahn Festival is careful to emphasise a whole experience, rather than a few buzzy acts. While some venues’ programming seemed a little bare, especially on the late-starting Thursday, this suggested the festival has organic space in which to grow. With 34 venues pressed into service for the 2011 version, and with local hip-hop acts a short distance away from the polished French pop of Yelle or the west coast tinged songs of Denmark’s Treefight For Sunlight, the programming already ensures there really is plenty to suit anyone prepared to experience new things.