Hamburg’s iconic annual Reeperbahn Festival’s organisers said right from the start of the pandemic that they would go ahead with this year’s event come what may and true to their word they have. The largely indoor festival, held in Hamburg’s plethora of music venues including the famous Beatles ones such as Indra and Kaiserkeller at Grosse Freiheit 36 (although there are more outdoor shows this year) kicked off on Wednesday 16th September and continues until Saturday 19th when it concludes – traditionally – with the Anchor Award ceremony for the best new artist/band at the event.
As one of the world’s leading showcase events, second only to SXSW in delegate attendance with over 45,000 accreditations last year, it isn’t to be sneezed at, if you’ll pardon the pun, and kudos to its organisers for persevering with this year’s festival, bending over backwards to accommodate the ever-evolving demands of the German government, which changed them every five minutes like all governments have been doing. And in doing so they drew up safety guidelines which will be benchmarks for the rest of the industry probably for the next year or so as they offered an event that is both ‘in person’ and ‘virtual’.
Of course the festival is on a smaller scale this year. There are normally over 600 conference sessions and 900 performances over the four days, the shows whittled down to around 120 this time with similar slimming down of the talks, lectures and panel discussions.
Three key aspects of Reeperbahn remained. Firstly, there is always a designated focus country, which this year is Denmark. Secondly, there are many country showcases, with from half a dozen to upwards of 25 artists performing. Coming from all over the world, you can see and hear artists you would never otherwise encounter.
Thirdly, I was glad to see the retention of the Anchor Awards, which traditionally takes place on the Saturday evening at the historic St Pauli Theatre. The Anchor is unusual in that the six judges go to watch the eight nominated artists perform their individual shows rather than the artists going to the judges. It then culminates in a frantic all-night Friday/Saturday morning session as they decide the winner.
The chief judge for the last five years or so is Tony Visconti, David Bowie’s main producer (and who won a Grammy for ‘Blackstar’). Tony has stayed in New York this year (he is getting on a bit after all) and the celebrity judge (there is always one) is Mel C of the Spice Girls.
A couple of years ago, the last time I was at Reeperbahn, the celeb judge was Linda Perry, best known for 4 Non Blondes, and of course, ‘What’s Up’ although her writing credits for other artists are legendary. It was one of the most remarkable events I can remember as Perry rewrote the song in 30 minutes prior to the award show as a slow ballad, and for a string quartet. With no rehearsal possible she, they, and fellow judges Morcheeba’s Skye Edwards and Cassandra Steen of Glashaus performed that song on the hoof in a way no-one who saw it will ever forget. Fortunately, there is a video record of it.
I couldn’t make it this year which is disappointing because while I love all the festivals I attend (they are usually foreign ones) Reeperbahn is without doubt the quirkiest. And I return to my original point. They said it would go ahead, and it did, the first western hemisphere festival I believe since Oslo’s By: Larm, which ended on 29th February and which came preciously close to being shuttered part way through.
There’s a message there for many other event organisers and governments who have dithered over getting their own events on, the former sometimes whingeing about not being able to cover costs on limited audiences. I’m thinking about Iceland Airwaves for example, which was culled three full months before it was due to take place, with the Icelandic government changing its mind on quarantine and other regulations frequently (they have since been relaxed). Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
I’ll finish off with two videos from the event. The first is the ‘Doors Open’ event which is mainly a conference but which raises many pressing issues.
The second is a country showcase from Korea. I caught some of the Koreans in 2018. Forget K-Pop, there is some real talent out there. The first band here, OurR, has a singer who could be the Korean Björk.
The event continues to be streamed live each day, without charge.