by Philip Moss
Live music has never been as popular as it currently is. But as a result, the festival circuit has become extremely over-crowded, to the point where the plug has been pulled on a number of weekenders due to a lack of focus, originality or clearly targeted demographic.
The same cannot be said of People- the festival curated by The National’s Dessner brothers, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and Tom and Nadine of The Michelberger Hotel on Warschauer Straße, in the trendy Berlin borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.
So who was on the bill? Well, to look at the ‘lineup’ would be to totally miss the point. For example, Justin Vernon’s name is on the list, but he does not play any Bon Iver songs and the same goes for the Dessner brothers. Instead, they perform new collaborative pieces – in some cases with other artists they’d never worked with previously. What you’re witnessing is also a one off performance that will not be replicated again and was more than likely written, conceived and rehearsed for the first time in the five days that led up to the festival’s opening. The entire lineup of 160+ artists, together with organisers, technicians etc, all lived at The Michelberger Hotel for the five days prior to the doors opening publicly.
Also unlike a ‘traditional’ festival, the majority took place indoors despite the magnificent weather, deep inside the spectacular Funkhaus Studios which is just a ten minute bus (or boat) ride from the East of Central Berlin. The most magnificent of these spaces is Saal One – an architectural masterpiece built to absolute specification by the DDR; so much so that the reverb time of 2.9 seconds that was originally commissioned didn’t feel right once it was completed, so they re-built the whole thing to remove 0.6 seconds.
Across the weekend, set times were limited to just twenty minutes. Big Thief guitarist, Buck Meek, and former múm frontwoman, Kristin Anna, both performed a set of solo material with Shahzad Ismaily on drums – the pair only met with the multi-instrumentalist just minutes before they went onstage.
Alex Somers built an installation using 36 guitar amps that saw a number of artists, including Leslie Feist, collaborate with him on his siblings project. Across In Saal One, an emotional Adam Cohen played a track that he’d been working on with Damien Rice using the last ever recording of his late father being interviewed – while Rice, Erlend Øye, Sam Amidon and Justin Vernon, plus a choir – added live backing vocals and harmonies. A performance that still sends the hairs a shootin’ just thinking about it.
Aaron Dessner (who said he’d performed at least five shows just on the Sunday) and Justin Vernon (who I saw in four different acts across the weekend) performed as Big Red Machine – their new project that was used to launch the free People player on their website. Nick Zinner – who played in ten different acts – even put together a ten piece Black Sabbath tribute act with super-drummer, Greg Fox. Beirut’s Zach Condon made a rare appearance with s t a r g a z e, as did Polica’s Ryan Olson who backed up Bon Iver trumpeter, CJ Camerieri, with a cacophony of beats to perform a new track they’d been working on with Sufjan Stevens.
Arone Dyer led a drone choir that I’m almost certain is still spiralling around in Saal Two. Holly Blakey choreographed the most stunningly deep piece of performance art, while on the Forest Stage – a tiny space slotted into the woods and just a few metres from the River Spree that runs alongside the formerly disused studios – the Dessner brothers backed up Lisa Hannigan and Heather Woods Broderick.
This is just a snapshot, but the fact that very few of the artists even announced who they were added to the community vibe. They, like the audience, were just there. The usual celebrity status of the festival circuit had been stripped away and very few of the spaces had elevated stages, putting the audience on a level. After all, the performers are just ‘people’ too.
A week after returning from the festival, I ran into Big Thief guitarist, Buck Meek, and both of us beamed at the mere mention of ‘People’. And I doubt we’d be the only ones. Yes, Blogotheque’s Vincent Moon was scurrying around all weekend capturing as many of the performances as possible – and judging by the quality of his previous works I’m sure the footage will be aesthetically stunning. But the organisers requested that mobile phones be kept in our pockets and for the audiences to be in the moment. Because much of what happened over that weekend was as spontaneous as it was special, and it will be seared into the minds of all who attended forever.