Sunday, September 8, 2019

Torstraßen Festival 2019


Despite the name, this event isn't really a street festival like the Choriner Straßenfest. First of all, it's all about the music, and second, it doesn't normally actually take place in the street. (Ironically, it would seem it doesn't even usually take place in venues on Torstraße, but rather in venues near Torstraße.) This year, the entirety of the festival took place inside the Volksbühne, one of the nicest venues I've been in in Berlin. Apart from the main hall, both of the secondary "salons", two makeshift stages in the halls above those, and a back room even higher and further back in the building were in use as well. The foyer was used for an independent label market as well as various talks and workshops. It was quite fun to explore the many parts of the expansive building!

Event: Torstraßen Festival 2019
Venue: Volksbühne
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 7 September 2019

I arrived in time to see the end of the set by Jealous in the Roter Salon ("red salon"). The Berlin trio played a noisy, punky, gothy blend with hints of Cramps-style psychobilly. The most immediate reference point, however, was Bauhaus, especially in the spindly, Daniel Ash-inspired guitar. Nonetheless, my favorite part was the bass: it was prominent and driving, but for one song, the bassist used a slide to play most of the riffs and even played a wild solo with it. The vocals were unfortunately quite distant and mixed too low, but they had a good sound otherwise.

[Jealous.]

I went up a back stairwell to the Rangfoyer Rot ("red balcony foyer") to see Michaela Meise, a Berliner accordionist. Most of her set consisted of international, politically-oriented folk tunes from the 60s, often translated from the original languages (Greek, English, French, etc.) by herself. Several songs covered the plight of Jews during and after World War II, many were protest anthems from various European freedom struggles, and her final song was a cover of DDR band Karat's "Der blaue Planet", an anti-nuke song from 1982. Meise's vocals were plain but clear and precise, which lent itself well to understanding the words. For most of the set, she was joined by Barbara Wagner, who I recognized from seeing her earlier this year with Britta in the same building. The guitarwork was fairly restrained but was a nice accompaniment to the accordion. I appreciated their effort in keeping these older yet still relevant songs alive.

[Michaela Meise with Barbara Wagner.]

I took another back stairwell up another level into the back room merely described as the 3. Stock ("third floor", but by German counting, i.e. not including the ground floor) to see John Moods, better known as a member of Fenster. He appeared alone with just a guitar, a keyboard, and an iPhone. I had been expecting something somewhat psychedelic, but what I got was more like a cheesy, laid-back 80s pop sound with a hint of R&B. The vocals were okay, but with the dominant backing tracks, his stage presence came off a bit strange. It worked slightly better when people stood up and started to move a bit, but it seemed like he was missing his target. I was also disappointed that his guitarwork was minimal and mostly overshadowed by the backing track. There were even taped guitar parts that were louder and more interesting than what he played live! It was strange. I liked his lyric "Why do we try to be cool?", but most of the rest was uninspiring.

[John Moods.]

I left a bit early and went back to the Roter Salon to catch the end of Swoosh's set. They were an instrumental five-piece (three guitars, saxophone, and drums) playing free jazz or noise rock. The music sounded mostly improvisational, and the three guitarists were well-trained in making small rhythmic patterns and noises that fit together to built up a bigger sound. However, most of what I saw was fairly sparse, and the saxophonist in particular was quite minimalist. Some parts did have some groove, but most sounded fairly brooding and looming. It seemed they were on to something and I wish I'd heard more.

[Swoosh.]

I crossed over to the other side of the building to the Grüner Salon ("green salon") to see Kate NV, a Moscow-based experimental electronic artist. Most of her set consisted of building up weird sound fields by looping hand instruments, keyboards, samples, and processed vocals. Her first piece started with playing a series of tuned bells and glasses that she looped to create an abstract harmonic foundation. As the set progressed, she increasingly relied on her electronics, in particular what sounded like synthesized wood percussion. (In that, I was reminded of the strangely delightful BANANA collaborative project from 2017.) Most of her songs were instrumental or had minimal, possibly wordless, vocals, but for her last song, she finally sung a longer set of lyrics in Russian. Her playfulness was enjoyable, as was watching her put the pieces together of her songs, but it was a bit slow and not always entirely successful.

[Kate NV.]

I went back to the 3. Stock to see Jana Irmert, a Danish cellist and vocalist. She also used a backing track, but it was fairly minimal and would have given her instrument and voice plenty of room to shine had she chosen to take it. However, her material was almost exclusively downbeat, droning, and tepid. She appeared to be a skilled performer, but I longed for a bit of movement, or an excuse to take a more expressive solo on the cello.

[Jana Irmert.]

At that point, the Großes Haus (the main hall) finally opened, and I went to see the first band of the night on that stage, The Chap. Their electronic indie rock was consistently upbeat and extremely high-energy. I was impressed that they basically didn't slow down at any point. They were a bit punky, but were tight and had a strong rhythm throughout. Their energy was wild and tense, yet they harnessed it effectively. One song even featured coordinated dance moves. Their lineup featured two keyboardists, a drummer, a guitarist, and a bassist/guitarist. Everyone contributed backing vocals. The balance between the instruments was arranged well; no instrument dominated, and all had their moments to shine. Their final song was somehow even more highly charged than the rest and featured a more explicitly motorik-oriented driving drumbeat.

[The Chap.]

The next act on the same stage was P.A. Hülsenbeck, who was accompanied by a drummer, a trumpeter, a bassist (on bass guitar and double bass), and another performer who seemed to be providing sound manipulation and samples. The songs were jazzy and started in familiar territory but gradually got more experimental and exploratory, particularly when the person in the back started wielding his effects. At different points, he added dub-like delay to the drums, messed with the reverb of the bass, and distorted the trumpet à la Jon Hassell. The centerpiece was a dark, haunting song about the disintegration of Europe. While the band was completely hidden by fog machines, two dancers approached each other from opposite sides of the front of the stage. They wore large veils with a blue light emanating from where their faces should've appeared. After that song, one left, but the other remained, mostly just huddled sadly on the ground. The mood was rather gloomy, but the creative use of instrumentation and effects was well done.

[The best I could do for P.A. Hülsenbeck with so many fog machines.]

I went back up to the Grüner Salon to see Chris Imler, a drummer gone solo in the vein of Robert Görl of D.A.F. He had a rig with samplers and synthesizers built around his drum kit so that he could play standing, trigger his samples, and sing simultaneously. The techno vibe risked being generic, but his humor and intensity kept it rolling, and the live drumming made a big difference as well. He regularly interrupted himself with comedic interjections before jumping back into the middle of his songs. It was all a bit bizarre, but he made it fun and the audience was finally ready to dance, so he fit the bill perfectly.

[Chris Imler.]

The festival continued with more bands and DJs until 4 in the morning, but it was after 11 when I decided it was probably time to head home. I'm sure there were even more quality acts to follow, but I was happy with what I got to experience. The Volksbühne is a great venue, and I loved the cozy salons with their color themes including matching upholstery. The festival was well organized and well curated; the variety of performers was excellent. It felt like a smaller-scale, more approachable and sustainable version of South by Southwest. I look forward to going back!

Scores:
Jealous: B
Michaela Meise: B+
John Moods: D
Kate NV: B-
Jana Irmert: C-
The Chap: B+
P.A. Hülsenbeck: B-
Chris Imler: B+

P.S. Thanks to Tim and Lutz!

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