While my trip to Berlin last weekend wasn’t my first (see here for a review of Arctic Monkeys’ show in the city two years ago), it was the first time I’ve spent a lot of time in the city on my own. So here are some thoughts on the things I did and the gigs I saw during my trip there last week.
It seems that the people of Berlin are really keen on encores, if their reaction to Savages‘ excellent performance at Lido was anything to go for. They must have spent nearly 10 minutes clamouring for more, and who can blame them – free of the technical hitches that threatened to derail their set at Live At Leeds, it was the kind of show that’s nearly impossible to tear your eyes from. People may sneer at the perceived lack of originality on display in Savages’ music, but honestly, when was the last time you saw this sort of propulsive, menacing post-punk done this well? Of course, an encore was never going to be forthcoming – not only do Savages not really seem like the type for such indulgences, they’d also pretty much played every song in their catalogue by that point. Aside from killer album cuts like ‘City’s Full’, ‘She Will’ and ‘Husbands’, other highlights included ‘Flying To Berlin’ – let’s be honest, they couldn’t really skip that one on their first trip to the city – and the extended version of the propulsive, scathing ‘Fuckers’ that they closed their set with. The demand for encores became a recurring theme, with the crowd going wild for both The xx and Sóley even after they’d already returned to the stage once.
Speaking of The xx, their Night + Day festival at the abandoned Spreepark theme park in Berlin ultimately turned out to be a triumph despite Saturday being the one day that the weather decided to take a turn for the worse. While some sections of the park were cordoned off, there was still ample opportunity to view the strange spectacle of the run-down rides and garish props that are now overgrown, while the looming, ancient ferris wheel provided a constant reminder of the park’s history. In terms of music, the day kicked off with the bizarre spectacle of watching an androgynous, cross-dressing black rapper strut his stuff at 3pm on a rainy afternoon. The man in question is Mykki Blanco, whose show would arguably have been more fitting for some late-night, seedy club. Kindness attempt to change the weather with their laid-back, funky vibes, and the sun does briefly make an appearance after their set. The day remains pretty overcast after that though, and while listening to Mount Kimbie‘s post-dubstep grooves and the sleek Italo-disco of Chromatics it’s difficult to escape the feeling that the supporting lineup was selected with a sunny day in mind.
Main support for the evening is Jessie Ware, who proves to be quite a charming performer, dancing around, playfully prodding her sampler and bantering with the crowd in a south London accent that’s a million miles away from her soulful singing voice – producing the kind of cognitive dissonance normally associated with watching Adele squawk away at an award ceremony. Her stage presence perhaps does her more favours than her songs, which, while excellently sung, don’t always make a significant connection with me. I’m probably in the minority in thinking that though, because there’s definitely some love for this lady in the air tonight – as evidenced by the group of German girls stood next to me, screaming “Jesssiiiieee!” at any available opportunity.
As the sun begins to set, anticipation for the main event rises, and finally The xx take to the stage. Tonight’s show is impeccably executed, with music, lights and setting all combined into a performance that proves that they really are the perfect night-time band, their gorgeously atmospheric songs echoing out into the dark. Their songs are mostly played straight, though at one point they bring out Jessie Ware to help them run through a brilliant mashup of ‘Sunset’ and two late 90s/early 00s dance classics – Modjo’s ‘Lady (Hear Me Tonight)’ and Stardust’s ‘Music Sounds Better With You’. One other thing you may be surprised to read is that the band’s performance was actually quite charismatic – Oliver Sim’s newly found bassist’s strut is a pleasure to watch, while Jamie ‘xx’ Smith is a silent but commandingly animated presence amongst his wide array of electronics and percussion. There’s also a lot of humility on display though, with both Sim and Romy Madely Croft proving humbled by the turnout and reaction to what has clearly been a momentous occasion for the band. As the closing strains of ‘Angels’ swoon and thunder into the night sky, there’s no doubt that this has been a very special event.
Icelandic singer-songwriter Sóley provides my final gig of the weekend, in the pleasant-looking but sweltering surroundings of Festsaal Kreuzburg. Once again, the gig provides a marked improvement on my experience at Live At Leeds, with the crowd proving far more respectful and attentive. Sóley herself is as endearing as ever, telling us about the strange themes for her songs – one new number is about a dead woman forcing a man who’s very much alive to marry her – and generally being really lovely. She even signs the CD I bought at the merch stall – I’m not normally big on signed CDs, but as she was stood right there with a permanent marker it would almost have been rude not to. If you haven’t listened to this enchanting, ethereal songstress yet, I highly recommend you do so.
Finally, some brief thoughts on the city itself. While my brother and his girlfriend sought out food at proper restaurants (I’d tell you the names if I could remember them), I found it remarkably easy to eat on the cheap. Street Food Thursdays is an evening street food market at Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg that sees a wide variety of food on offer from both permanent and temporary stalls – I scored myself a tasty grilled chorizo sandwich and some delicious cheesecake. Markthalle is also the home of Glut & Späne, whose delicious smoked salmon sandwiches I sampled at their stall at Night + Day. Kreuzburger is situated next to the legendary SO36 venue and offers some decent burgers, but the best find for cheap eats was Hühnerhaus, (again in Kreuzberg) where you can get a tasty (if somewhat greasy) half a chicken and chips (or salad or rice) for about 5 Euros – bargain!
I also managed to experience a bit of culture on the Sunday – some highbrow culture thanks to the interesting exhibits at the Bauhaus museum (the art movement, not the band), and some not-quite-so-highbrow culture at the Computerspielmuseum – a video games museum that re-opened in 2011. I could have quite happily spent another hour or two in the latter, but I had an appointment at the Reichstag Dome. Admission to the dome is free of charge, but with the caveat that you have to book in advance. After getting caught out by that policy on Thursday evening, Tom queued up on Sunday morning and managed to get us all a booking on Sunday afternoon. If you’re planning to go, you should probably save yourself the hassle by booking online, but either way it’s worth doing – the architecture is quite spectacular, to say nothing of the views across the city.
So that was my trip to Berlin – I’m sure I’ll be back again in the not too distant future.