Tag Archives: festival

Sunshine & Good Times: Folk Weekend Oxford 2018

The recent heat wave coincided perfectly with the seventh Folk Weekend Oxford (19-21 April 2018), which seems to get better every year. It’s one of those festivals where you might not know very many of the bands on the line-up beforehand, but which always delivers in terms of quality, fun and a friendly community feel, something many of the larger festivals simply cannot offer.

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Before my first stewarding shift on Friday night I had plenty of time for a pizza in the sunny backyard of The Rusty Bicycle pub and a leisurely stroll around the Cowley Road charity shops. Then I was off to St. Barnabas church in the Jericho neighbourhood, just north of Oxford City Centre. The ceilidhs always draw quite a crowd (up to 200 dancers) as the festival puts on fantastic live bands every year and this time was no exception. I was very impressed with the sound of Banter, one of the most quirky ceilidh bands I’ve come across so far, whose sound goes far beyond English traditional music including jazz, pop and soul influences. Unsurprisingly, they were a huge hit with the dancing crowd. The night also included a performance by local rapper (sword dance) team Mabel Gubbins.

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After an incredibly sunny Friday, I woke up to more sunshine and met up for breakfast with a friend for coffee and exceptionally good cake at Barefoot Café on Walton Street before checking out some of the morris spots around town for live dancing with sides from various traditions, including Black Annis Women’s Morris and their adorable canine mascot Hattie (see pic further down). Around lunchtime we headed to one of my favourite Oxford venues, the airy hall of the Quaker Meeting House for a concert of traditional folk music, which included Dan Evans and Rebecca Hallworth (see pic below). Dan is a renowned fingerstyle mountain dulcimer player who also held an interesting workshop on the history and different styles of instruments on Sunday afternoon.

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There was just enough time for dropping into Blackwells bookshop’s Norrington room for a set by young contemporary singer-songwriter Martha Bailey (see pic below) and a quick burrito dinner before my shift at the Wesley Memorial Church. The line-up consisted of Oxford vocal duo Hoverhawk, traditional singer Nick Dow and a solo set by one of the festival headliners, Eliza Carthy, who obviously drew the crowds for this event.

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On Sunday morning, during breakfast at the Nosebag restaurant, I got talking to another festival goer, who told me their Appalachian dance team, Cornucopia (see pic below), would be performing around lunchtime in the pedestrian area on Cornmarket. Their spot was one of my favourite performances all weekend and got a lot of positive reactions from locals and tourists alike. I then made my way over to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Centre where I caught half of the Topette workshop, a French-Anglo collaboration including Andy Cutting. They played some very beautiful dance tunes and spoke about the joys and challenges of working together across cultures and borders.

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As I had not managed to join any workshops yesterday, I decided it was time for some dancing on the festival’s last day. So I took part in the Harlequin Morris Cotswold morris workshop (hankies and bells) for an hour. After we had warmed up for a few minutes we got taught a routine of various steps, jumps and hanky movements accompanied by accordion music. Let’s just say it was an ‘interesting experience’ and is a lot harder than it looks, but I think I’ll stick to Irish set dancing in future. It was great to see, however, that the class attracted people of all ages, including some enthusiastic youngsters, and we did manage to learn a whole routine in the short time we had.

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My last event of the festival was a great ‘Meet the Artist’ session with Ross Couper (from Shetland, now based in Glasgow) and Tom Oakes (from Devon, now based in Edinburgh). I had last seen the pair play one of the BBC Seirm recording sessions at Celtic Connections back in January and had been well impressed by their energetic performance and expert use of fiddle (Ross) and guitar (Tom).

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Of course, I managed to only catch a fraction of the huge programme for all ages, which was on offer during the weekend. I love supporting smaller festivals and I’m always amazed at how entirely volunteer-run events, such as Folk Weekend Oxford, manage to pull off such a big event so well. It’s usually down to a lot of hard work by a dedicated committee and many volunteers (like Jo, Rosie & Penny in first picture) throughout the year.

I highly recommend visiting the beautiful city of Oxford (picture above is Christ Church) during the festival to see for yourself what a positive impact such a community event can have. You might come back with a new idea what grassroots arts are all about, get a more in-depth understanding of local heritage and culture and have a lot of fun with like-minded people!

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Maverick Festival 2018 Preview

Maverick 2018 Logo

The Maverick Festival launch event in London always feels like the start of summer festival season! Every March, the festival organisers present some great live acts, who this time included previous Maverick artists Don Gallardo (see below) and ‘The Living Bluesman’ Tom Attah (see last pic), to press and industry and you get to catch up with what everyone is up to over the summer months. Having said that, it’s hard to imagine summer ever coming back with the weather we have had here in the UK in the past few weeks. But I trust once June and July roll around, we’ll be in the mood for cocktails and ice cream again and some great live Americana from the UK, the USA and further afield.

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This year’s line-up is as tempting as ever. In just one weekend you can listen to lots of quality Americana, folk and country artists you already love and find some new favourites you had maybe never heard of before. I was really happy to hear to that the following singers and bands are all joining the line-up this year: Jonathan Byrd (US), Lachlan Bryan and The Wilds (OZ), who I somehow managed to miss last time, Anna Tivel & Jeffrey Martin (US), Southern Avenue (US), Bonnie Bishop (US) as well as awesome UK live bands like Danny And the Champions of the World, The Mountain Firework Company and The Vagaband.

There will also be a special feature with music from Hawaii, which I’m already super excited about, including the Hawaiian singer and dancer Kehau Kahananui. Other highlights include Nashville cult favorites The Cordovas, native Tennessean pianist and  songwriter Hans Chew and Arkansas-based Dylan Earl.

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The Maverick programmers always manage to book artists that had been on my list for quite a while and find Americana jems that I was glad I discovered at the festival. This year is no exception. I’m already looking forward to getting a chance to listen to The Local Honeys (US), Bonnie Bishop (US), The Most Ugly Child (UK), Imogen Clark (OZ), Arkansas Dave (US), and many more live at the farm this summer.

I’ve been to the festival quite a few times now and it’s been one of the most relaxed and  enjoyable outdoor events on my summer calendar ever since. Read my previous reviews and my top 10 reasons to attend to get an idea what the atmosphere is like. You can buy day tickets or stay for the whole weekend, which I recommend, of course, as it’s just a lovely place to hang out for a weekend.

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If camping is not your thing, you can book a nearby B&B, the closest train station is Woodbridge and Easton Farm Park is not too far from the sea and nestled in beautiful rural Suffolk countryside. On top of all that, it attracts a super friendly crowd, dogs are allowed at the festival site and there is some yummy food and drink on offer (think Suffolk cider and local ales), so you definitely won’t go hungry or thirsty.

Make sure you keep an eye on the Maverick Festival website for the full line-up so far and for any additional acts, which are likely going to be announced in the coming months.

Disclaimer: All photography in this blog post was provided by Sophie Boleyn Photography.

Sense of Place: Aye Write Festival Glasgow 2018

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When I left Glasgow in January after another excellent Celtic Connections Festival (see previous blog post) I was looking for a reason to return sometime soon. Luckily, Aye Write, which I’d had my eye on for quite a while, was taking place from 15-25 March 2018, so it was the perfect excuse to hop on a train back to Scotland.

I only had a couple of days to get a taste of the festival, but it was well worth it. All events I attended were fantastic with intriguing guests and cheerful, helpful staff and volunteers at every venue. Glasgow is one of the friendliest cities in the UK, so you’ll have a great time no matter whether you’re travelling on your own or with friends. Plus, all the city centre festival venues are walking distance from each other and you can do some sightseeing before or after the events.

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The first session I attended was in the Strathclyde Suite of the Royal Concert Hall. It was a celebration of Orain Ileach: Gaelic Songs of Islay, a brand new collection of songs from the Scottish island. The large room had more of a conference venue feel to it, but as soon as the two choirs, including the Glasgow Islay Gaelic Choir, and various solo singers got up on stage, it was almost like being back at Celtic Connections. Speakers included Ishbel MacTaggart from Islay, Kenneth Thomson, the conductor of Scotland’s oldest Gaelic choir, Ceòlraidh Ghàidhlig Ghlaschu, and Lynn McDonald, the editor of the book. I absolutely loved learning more about how musical traditions are actively being kept alive on the Scottish islands and are actually thriving through community efforts and engaging the younger generations as well.

The event which followed was completely different, but equally intriguing. Sarah Winman, author of Tin Man, who I’d last seen at a reading in Vancouver several yeas ago when she was promoting her bestselling first novel, When God Was A Rabbit, and Gail Honeyman, who lives in Glasgow and whose first novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was an instant success. The two novelists were interviewed by another author, Zoe Venditozzi, and the hour allotted for their conversation just flew by. I was particularly intrigued by Gail mentioning that she wanted her novel to be set in Glasgow as she felt it is an immensely kind city, but often isn’t portrayed that way, which really struck a chord with me as I’ve also come to love Glasgow for that very reason.

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On Tuesday night I headed down to the Glasgow Film Theatre, a beautiful historic cinema in the heart of the city for a talk by Nick Triplow, author of Getting Carter, followed by a screening of the classic 1971 British crime movie. While the film had been a cult classic since the 1970s, the author of the book it was based on (Jack’s Return Home), Ted Lewis, remained an elusive character with a mostly troubled and tragically short life. I was in the minority of people on the night who had not seen the film before and must admit, it will not become one of my all time favourites. I can see its appeal to others, however, and very much enjoyed the interview with Nick Triplow, who had to overcome various obstacles in order to get this fascinating life story researched and published.

My last day at the festival also included lots of crime writing. I was at the Mitchell Library for two sessions, which each featured three crime writers, all new to me, and, as it turned out, all with very different writing styles and subject matters. I’m not a reader of crime novels ( just yet), but have been a big fan of crime drama since someone recommended ‘Shetland’ to me a few years ago, so was looking forward to getting an overview of the latest publications.

Both talks on the night included short readings from all authors, which gave us a real flavour of their style, subject matter and sense of humour. The main thing all of them had in common was how much real life influenced a lot of their writing. Either things that had happened to them personally or to people close to them or issues they deeply cared about. Ex-police woman Clare Mackintosh writes about ordinary people who deal with extraordinary circumstances in their lives, for instance an apparent suicide of both parents of the main character in her latest book Let Me Lie. Former news reporter and political correspondent Sarah Vaughan wrote Anatomy of a Scandal centering around a husband being accused of a terrible crime while serial killers and obsessive personalities are the topics ex-journalist Fiona Cummins successfully focuses on.

Aye Write Crime Authors 2018

The last session with Claire MacLeary, whose two female detectives ‘of a certain age’ are definitely some of the most quirky characters you will come across in the world of crime fiction, as well as Owen Mullen and academic and former solicitor Angus MacAllister centered around a sense of place and a connection to Glasgow. All three authors are either from the Scottish city or have lived there at some point and wrote books set there and had lots of fascinating anecdotes on their research and writing process for their novels.

During my whole time at the festival I tried to avoid sneaking a look at the pages in the programme with all the many tempting sounding events I was inevitably missing and everyone I met seemed to have a great time at the readings they attended. Apart from the main programme, Aye Write also includes a children’s festival, Wee Write, with lots of exciting events for all ages, as well as a number of complementary sessions, such as creative writing classes. It’s a book festival which reflects the city it takes place in: it’s down to earth and warm-hearted with a great sense of humour!

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with review tickets for select events. Opinions expressed are those of the author. Photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival with the exception of the Orain Ileach book cover photo. 

Getting into the Festive Spirit with the Hyper Japan Winter Festival 2017

I attended Hyper Japan for the first time in July this year (review here) and loved everything about it, so I was keen to see what the Christmas edition would have in store. The Japan-themed event was again taking place at Tobacco Dock in London (24-26 November 2017) and was brimming with craft stalls, a Japanese food court, and lots of traditional Japanese products, such as handmade pottery, colourful chopsticks, speciality tea, sweets and clothes, including lots of cosplay outfits.

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Japan is a fascinating place to visit and after two visits I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what there is to see. It was great that there were a lot of lesser known travel destinations represented at Hyper Japan and I enjoyed learning about them from their enthusiastic local representatives. The guys in the picture below, for instance, are from Susaki City on Shikoku Island and had mini versions of their mascot ‘Kochi’ with them plus the human-sized version appeared on the Hyper Live stage.

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Probably my favourite part of the winter edition of the festival was a fantastic Illuminight exhibition, a display of traditional and modern illuminated objects, which ranged from a room filled with giant paper fish (made by local residents and first displayed at the Yanai Goldfish Lantern Festival in Yanai in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Honshu Island) to tiny, fragile ‘akari’ (light) pieces made from real autumn leaves. It was just beautiful!

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I also loved the ‘geta’ (sandals) and other intricate ornaments made from glass.

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Of course, it wouldn’t be a Japanese event without lots of pastel-coloured ‘kawai’ (cute) items and it was great to see that even the staff working at the event – like these two Japan fans from Tofu Cute – were having a lot of fun.

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The food court was back, too, and fans of Japanese food were again spoilt for choice with numerous both savoury and sweet options available, from steaming bowls of ramen to ‘Takoyaki’ (ball-shaped snacks filled e.g. with squid) and even mulled sake as a winter warmer. There was also a chance to sample some sake concoctions created by professional mixologists as part of the Sake Cocktail Awards.

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Those who had a bit of time on their hands and who felt like creating some original Christmas presents for their loved ones, were able to join various paper craft and felting workshops with expert teachers. But don’t be fooled, it is a lot harder than it looks and takes a lot of patience and precision. The results look impressive though, like the framed artworks in this picture.

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When I visited on Friday, the opening day, the Hyper Live stage again hosted a variety of Japanese acts, from the very modern, Dream Stage Idol Competition Runner Up Aimi Ikenaga (if you’ve never heard of ‘Idols’ before, BBC Storyville recently did an interesting documentary called ‘Tokyo Girls’ on it), to the more traditional, but with a modern twist, e.g. a live performance by calligraphy artist Taro Fukushika.

If you missed Hyper Japan this time around, don’t worry, it will be back from 13-15 July 2018 and visits to the Japan Centre and various London-based Japanese restaurants and pop-ups should tide you over until then.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a press pass for Hyper Japan. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

Essential Tips For Making the Best of the Iceland Airwaves Off-Venue Gigs

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the past two decades, you’ve probably heard or read some rave reviews about Reykjavik’s Iceland Airwaves Festival, which took place from 1-5 November 2017. It’s a music lover’s indoor festival dream come true plus it takes place in one of Europe’s tourism hotspots (literally, given all the geothermal activity there!), so it’s the perfect combo for travellers with a love for live music. What you might not have heard of is that the festival has a large number of fringe events, half hour sessions taking place in venues around town, which don’t require a festival pass and are completely free. Amazing, right? In order to make the best of them though, you need to come prepared. I’ve done all the legwork for you this year and compiled this list of tips for getting the best out of the Airwaves off-venue gigs. Here we go:

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Pick a Strategic Place to Stay

As most of the off-venues are right in Reykjavik city centre, it makes a lot of sense for your temporary digs to be as central as possible, so you can get everywhere on foot, especially if the weather is terrible (I had four rainy days out of six with one proper storm). There are no options like Uber and taxis are dear, unless you can share with friends. After speaking to a couple of long-time festival goers, I opted for KEX Hostel, which is also one of the off-venues (see pic below, Högni) and has a self-catering kitchen. I had been a bit worried it would be more of a party hostel, but a lot of other folks where there for the festival, too, so everyone was friendly and laid-back plus the dorms had good heating and comfy beds. Loft Hostel (even more central) and Oddsson Hostel are other good alternatives and also off-venues. There are also plenty of airbnbs, hotels and apartments you can rent, but they get booked up really fast during this time and most of them are not exactly very budget-friendly.

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Come Prepared – Apps, Deals & Special Events

Download the excellent festival app, which lets you sort the schedule by all events or off-venues only, has maps and notifications for special deals and venue changes. The second app you need is Appy Hour, alerting you about the cheapest drink (and some food) deals around town as a pint is normally around 7-9 pounds and simple meals start at around 15 pounds. The Reykjavik Grapevine (English-speaking news about the city) also publish a great festival special, a free magazine, which you can pick up at venues around town with schedules and additional offers. This is also how I found out about a special venue on Laugavegur street run by Reykjavik Grapevine (keep an eye on the #GrapeWaves hashtag), which was like a pop-up art gallery, where they displayed festival magazine covers and organised special performances by cool musicians like Soley (pic below) plus a fridge with free beer (while stocks lasted) and goodie bag giveaways. Again, make sure you get there before it opens, which on the day I went was 5pm.

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Get recommendations From Those in the Know

As I knew zero of the off-venue bands, my strategy was to discover as many different venues as I could fit in and hopefully find some great bands along the way. I started (very conveniently!) by walking down the stairs to the KEX hostel bar where the fab Seattle radio station KEXP was live streaming gigs every day. All their sessions were excellent and I was glad I’d made the place my base. In between the half-hour shows, it was easy to get talking to music fans from around the world and asking them to help you figure out which bands to see next. So much fun!

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Awesome Music from All Sorts of Genres

In no particular order, these are some of the bands I discovered at Airwaves and really enjoyed listening to this year. Quite a few of the bands sang (at least some songs) in Icelandic, which sounded beautiful and I was also pleased to see that there were lots of great up-and-coming female musicians in the off-venue line-up.

Between Mountains (young female Icelandic duo, beautiful harmonies), Groa (three female Icelandic musicians rocking out),  Emiliana Torrini & The Colorist Orchestra (probably my fav performance all week, beautiful sound), HAM (if you’re a metal fan, one of the singers moonlights as Iceland’s health minister), Bangoura Band (world music, the first gig I caught, groovy and fun), Fox Train Safari (Icelandic Soul Music, so great), Hatari (crazy show, worth it just for that), I Am Soyuz (Swedish singer-songwriter), JFDR (experimental Icelandic pop), Myrra Ros (Icelandic singer-songwriter), Kiasmos (Icelandic electronic group), Mammut (great live show), Snorri Helgason (very humorous songwriter and storyteller), Soley (beautiful Icelandic alt-pop), Graveyard Club (American melodic synth-pop band), Högni (Icelandic singer-songwriter, also in electronic group GusGus).

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Great Quirky Venues from Book Shops to Cinemas

These are some of my favourite off-venues around Reykjavik:

KEX Hostel – beautiful bar setting and great sound
12 Tonar – tiny but great record shop (see pic above)
Boat Andrea – on an actual whalewatching boat in the harbour, seating and good sound, one of my fave venues, see pic below, stunning, right?
Solon Bar – stylish bar on first floor (restaurant downstairs)
Kaffibarinn – quite small bar, so arrive early
IDA Zimsen Bookshop Café – cosy bookshop café with seating
Aurora Reykjavik – by the harbour, gigs in room with Northern Lights video on giant screen behind musicians, quite magical, quieter music
Bruggjan Brugghus  – this place is quite big (by the harbour) and it was packed when I got there for a pretty popular band, a good place to have food while seeing a gig if you can grab a table early in the day
Loft Hostel – take the lift to the 4th floor and enjoy music and a nice Swiss mokka in one of the cosiest places in town (spent half a day there when the storm was raging outside)
Kaffi Vinyl – great vegan food, records and nice seating, arrive early
Bio Paradis – the lobby of a local cinema, always space to join for a gig a bit later, some seating, coffee/bar
Dillon – great attic space in a whiskey bar
Reykjavik City Library – I love libraries, so I made an effort to make it to this one, music on downstairs, some seating

The off-venue gigs usually ran from around lunchtime each day until about 8pm and most of the spaces had free wifi, hurrah. There are lots of additional venues I didn’t have time for, which even included kindergartens, fashion stores, gyms, barber shops, museums, churches, hotels etc., so it’s great fun to do a venue crawl!

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Hunt for Cool Souvenirs

In most countries, you can pick up a handful of small souvenirs for family and friends pretty cheaply. Not so in Iceland. While on Reykjavik’s high street Laugavegur every second shop seems to be selling overpriced puffin stuffed toys, magnets and Icelandic scarves, you’re much better off bringing home CDs or vinyl by a brilliant Icelandic band you just discovered, a 12 Tonar tote bag or some official Airwaves merch. That way you’re supporting independent musicians and help keeping the lively Icelandic music scene alive, which in turn helps them putting on great events like the one you’re attending. Win, win!

Extra Tips

If you want to see some of the official bands playing at an off-venue, get there super early! Seriously, most of the off-venues are tiny bars or cafes and they fill up extremely quickly. You don’t actually have to consume any drinks or food in the venues, but of course it makes sense to buy something here and there to support them. This year the festival also included two days in Aykureri, which is a nice excuse to explore the North of Iceland, too (about an hour’s flight away).

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What is the Festival Like for Solo Travellers?

My Airwaves visit was one of the easiest trips for getting to know other travellers. Everyone is a music lover and it’s like the United Nations, I met lots of people from the UK, the US and Canada (some very cheap stopover flights from there) but also festival goers from as far as Jordan, Ukraine and Israel. All the people I met were happy to share festival tips and pass on music recommendations and I kept messaging with people I’d met at shows or at the hostel about what bands to catch next.

Was it worth it and would I do it again?

Absolutely! Apart from finding lots of awesome new music, it was also a revelation for me to get exposed to live bands from genres I normally never listen to. It did feel a bit strange being at a festival and not actually attending any official gigs. Having said that, buying a full festival pass would have not been worth it this time around as I did sightseeing tours (Golden Circle, South Coast, Northern Lights) on all the good weather days. So you can have a great time at the official festival, just the off-venues or both. I’m definitely considering getting a full pass next time around, as they also had a conference with films, discussions on the Icelandic music industry and networking events.

Don’t forget to check out my other Iceland post for additional tips on outdoor activities, cold weather clothing, walking tours, eating out and how to save money during your first trip to Iceland.

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Maritime Vibes at Hamburg on Tour Festival 2017 in London

The first thing that greeted me when I arrived for Hamburg on Tour in London last weekend were a couple of smiling, oversized sailor statues outside the Boiler House venue in Shoreditch. Hard to miss! As was this free festival put on by the marketing team of the German port city of Hamburg for the first time in the UK.

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I had been invited to Hamburg in September for a visit during Reeperbahn Festival and thoroughly enjoyed my time exploring the creative, down to earth Northern German city. The London event aimed to present the best of the city’s festivals, sport, film, street art and beer and coffee culture on 20 and 21 October 2017 and by Saturday night, I felt like I was back in Hamburg for the weekend, what a great party!

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But let’s start at the beginning, which, for me, was a speciality coffee cupping session with Speicherstadt Kaffeerösterei in the workshop corner of the Boiler House venue. At that time, there weren’t all that many visitors yet and it felt a bit like your usual travel trade show, with stalls to browse and tourist brochures to pick up.

As soon as the first band, the Nathan Ott jazz trio, got on stage, however, things started picking up and more and people came through the doors to celebrate Hamburg and its many cultural offerings. I had invited a number of friends (from the UK, Germany, USA) along and we had a great time tasting some German craft beer (them) and making my own lemonade from fresh limes (me) at a charity stall.

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One of the highlights of the weekend was Stefanie Hempel’s Beatles Tour, the London version (pic above). Her longer, actual tour takes you through the streets of Hamburg’s red light and music club district where the Beatles had their first break as a band and spent two years in their late teens in the early sixties. Stefanie soon had our group singing along to ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and other Beatles hits, accompanied by herself on ukulele and we got talking to lots of other Hamburg fans from around the world afterwards.

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Hamburg and its surrounding area are also a great hub for festivals of all kinds: music, film, arts, literature. The London event included sample sets by bands such as Hundreds (see pic above), Odeville and UK-based To Kill a King. In addition, you could watch short films about Hamburg and get up-close to the brand new Elbphilarmonie concert hall by putting on virtual reality glasses for a 360 degree tour, which impressed my friends, who hadn’t been there before. Definitely worth a visit on your next trip to Hamburg!

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Another fun session which was offered at Hamburg on Tour was a street art workshop with award-winning artist and illustrator Macha (pic above), who taught participants to create their own graffiti stencil designs, which were then transferred to a wall near the festival venue to add to a larger work created especially for the event.

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For those not so much into art and culture, football was another topic for the weekend. Hamburg on Tour had invited Ewald Lienen, FC St. Pauli’s technical director, as well as Nick Davidson, who has recently published the first English-speaking book on the famous and quirky Hamburg football club. There is even an FC St. Pauli fan club in London, so you can watch the games with other fans in a local pub.

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All in all a fantastic event, which goes to show that this creative approach to marketing a city to visitors in such a refreshingly different way is definitely a great idea. Don’t forget to check out my Reeperbahn Festival 2017 review and my Solo Travel Guide to Hamburg for more travel and festival tips. I’m already thinking about another visit for some more festival fun.

4 Days, 40000 Music Fans, 70+ Venues: Hamburg’s Reeperbahn Festival 2017

If there is such a thing as the perfect time to visit Hamburg (also see my Solo Travel Guide to Hamburg), I probably hit the jackpot with getting to go during Reeperbahn Festival time. What an amazing weekend! I arrived on Wednesday afternoon and, after dropping off my stuff at the hotel, headed straight over to the Festival Village at Heiligengeistfeld (U3 stop St. Pauli) to pick up my press pass. Ready to go for a weekend of live music, culture and fun!

What Is the Festival Like?

The great thing about Reeperbahn Festival (20-23 September 2017), which is in its 12th year this year, is that it takes place in many of the city’s best venues, bars, theatres and clubs of all sizes, most of which can be reached on foot and a few by a short ride on the U3 underground. And hurrah, a public transport pass is included in your festival pass. Besides all the indoor clubs, there are also two large outdoor spaces with smaller stages. One is the Festival Village at Heiligengeistfeld (where you pick up your festival pass), which has access for passholders only and Spielbudenplatz with lots of food trucks, which is freely accessible even for non-passholders (apart from some areas). In addition, Reeperbahn Festival has been hosting a two-day music industry conference since 2009 as well as the NEXT conference for digital creatives and also includes a lot of art projects and a very cool gig poster fair, Flatstock 64, at Spielbudenplatz.

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It’s all a bit overwhelming – I hear you!

That’s exactly what I thought when I first arrived, especially as I didn’t know a lot of the bands. Luckily, the printed programme (you could pick a free daily one up in all the venues) had an indication what kind of genres the bands were (indie, pop, rock, folk, singer-songwriter, electronic, hip hop, soul, jazz, classical etc.) and I highly recommend downloading the festival App as it worked like a charm. It also updated you on entrance stops for particularly busy shows and any changes or cancellations, so I used it every single day. Another strategy is to focus on particular countries. The first evening I decided to head to a showcase by Project ATX6 from Austin (live music capital of the world!), Texas, and it didn’t disappoint. All six acts, incl. Little Marzarn and Mobley, were unique and excellent. It took place in a cool venue called Molotow, which had four stages (3 indoors, 1 in the courtyard) and is just off the main Reeperbahn.

What Kind of Music Can I Expect?

The festival is a multi-genre event with an eclectic line-up of both headliners and up and coming bands from all around the world. This year’s star-studded list included Portugal. The Man, Liam Gallagher and Beth Ditto (whose show was my favourite of the whole weekend, so much positive energy), but also bands like London-based 47Soul, Omar Suleyman from Syria, Amadou & Mariam from Mali and Sólstafir from Iceland. I also attended the Anchor Award 2017 for new music, which was won by UK singer-songwriter Jade Bird. This year’s festival partner country was Canada and I would have loved to see more of the bands lined up for this, but due to lack of time I only managed to catch one of my favourite Canadian musicians, Sarah McDougall, who is always amazing live. Keychange was created by the festival to highlight the fact that women are still underrepresented both on and behind the stage in today’s music industry was another interesting project. Last but not least, the amazing Elbphilarmonie concert hall (U3 stop Baumwall), which only opened in January 2017 and was lovingly nicknamed ‘Elphi’ by the locals, was definitely one of the highlights at this year’s festival. I got to do a tour with a guide during the day, but don’t worry, you can visit for free, sign up online (small fee but guaranteed entry) for a slot or just turn up and ask for a visitor’s pass, which allows you access to some of the building, the cafes and restaurant plus the viewing platforms overlooking the harbour. I also went to a midnight gig on the last day of the festival, the main hall with its 360 degree stage and many balconies is really super impressive!

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Is the Festival just for Hipsters in their Twenties?

Nope, most definitely not. I met people of all ages, locals, Germans from other parts of the country and lots of international folks, too. That’s what’s so nice about RBF, you get to mingle with music fans, journalists, bloggers, music industry insiders and people of all ages, from excited teenagers to retired architects. There is a fun and friendly vibe everywhere and it’s super easy to get talking about the best shows while you’re queueing for a gig or hanging out in the open air area in between concerts.

What other events should I catch in between the gigs?

Did you know that the Beatles started their career in Hamburg, spending about two years in the German port city, honing their skills in the local clubs and pubs before making it big internationally? Hamburg musician Stefanie Hempel does very insightful and entertaining Beatles Tours, which start on Beatles Square right on the Reeperbahn. I was also lucky to go on a tour of Hamburg’s best recordshops with DJ Sebastian Reier, including Hanseplatte, Zardoz Records (who also have lots of second hand books), Smallville Records, Groove City and a visit to the nightclub Übel und Gefährlich on the fourth floor of a former WWII bunker (the rooftop view is fantastic including the St. Pauli football stadium).  You can also do a musical harbour boat cruise with Frau Hedis Tanzkaffee, which runs year round and takes you around the harbour of Hamburg for two hours with an onboard bar and varying musical entertainment or DJing.

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Where Can I Grab Some Food and Drink?

This will be your smallest problem during the festival as there are lots of street food vendors plus the regular Reeperbahn chips, pizza and falafel places (and some proper restaurants) to choose from. Some of the street food was excellent, I tried for instance a yummy vegan hot dog with caramelised onions and goats cheese in a speciality bread roll. The Festival Village, too, had some interesting options like fries with peanut sauce or handmade sandwiches from Handbrotzeit. The Arcotel Onyx near the St. Pauli stop is the official festival hotel where you can take a breather in between gigs or meet music industry folks for a chat over a coffee.

How to Get into Popular Venues & Avoid Long Queues

You’ll be pleased to hear that the bouncers at the festival venues don’t prioritise anyone, everyone needs to queue. There is a special queue for delegates (meaning conference delegates, press and staff), but it doesn’t guarantee you entry. I even had to act as an interpreter for a band from the US who had been told to come to their venue to pick up their passes, but then were sent away by security staff as they had no badge to prove their status. I managed to get them in anyway after explaining their situation in German. Phew. So basically just turn up early if you’d like to see a particular band. For Liam Gallagher’s special appearance at Docks on Saturday night, I arrived two hours earlier and it was no problem. The other alternative is to be really patient and very friendly to the bouncers, as often people leave after each band and they play it by ear how many are still allowed in. It was defo worth it for Beth Ditto at Große Freiheit 36 (see pic below).

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Make a Game Plan – or Just go with the Flow

I’m a bit of a festival nerd, so I love festival schedules! I really enjoy working out how to see my favourite bands and events, but I also often change my mind after getting recommendations from other festival goers, promoters and band managers. What lots of people love about Reeperbahn Festival is that it’s a club festival and you don’t have to book individual concerts. You can simply walk into any of the participating venues with your wristband and sample exciting bands from all over the world. As I didn’t know a lot of the bands, my strategy was basically seeing as many different venues as possible, especially the smaller ones and to catch bands from places or countries I like, e.g. a Swedish showcase at Headcrash including Smith & Thell from Stockholm as well as Maybe Canada (a solo project by Magnus Hansson from Gothenburg). I also enjoyed being in the audience of a live radio show for NDR Blue at Alte Liebe, which included some shorter sets by three musicians as well as live band interviews. If you have a fairly broad musical taste, this is the perfect festival for you, but even for those of you, like me, who are into more acoustic music, there were plenty of gigs to choose from.

Other Tips Before You Go

There is a bag size restriction for all venues, which is roughly A4 size and yes, they will turn you away if your backpack looks a little bigger than this, so either leave larger bags in your hotel or at the nearby (6 stops) main train station (Hauptbahnhof) where you can rent a small locker for only €4 euros for 24 hours. The underground runs all night at the weekend (from Thursday onwards), so you can rest assured you’re going to get home without any problems. Also, talking of personal safety, please be aware that most of the concerts take place right in the actual red light district, but while it certainly is very crowded there in the evenings, I walked around late at night without any problems just like the thousands of other festival goers. I highly recommend booking accommodation along the U3 route (I stayed at Superbude St. Georg, a short walk from Berliner Tor), in fact I used this line for most of my sightseeing, too, it’s just perfect to get to most of the venues and also the hip Schanzenviertel for a brunch or a stroll through the many great shops. Finally, Hamburg’s airport is within the AB zone, which means you only pay about 3 euros for a single ticket and it only takes 25 minutes on the S1 to get to the Hauptbahnhof. Perfect!

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A Taste of the Reeperbahn Festival and Hamburg in London – Hamburg on Tour 20-21 October 2017

I know, unfortunately it’s another 12 months until the next Reeperbahn Festival, but don’t despair, Hamburg on Tour is coming to London in October and best of all: it’s free! Yep, free music with bands from Hamburg’s most awesome festivals, such as RBF, MS Dockville, Elbjazz, Hurricane, Hanse Song and Wacken, free films courtesy of Internationales Kurzfilmfestival, a free Beatles ‘tour’ with Hamburg musician Stefanie Hempel, free coffee workshops with Speicherstadt Kaffee and a free 360 degree experience of the brand new Elbphilarmonie concert hall. Plus you get to taste some German beer and find out all about Germany’s second largest city. See you there!

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival visited Hamburg, the Reeperbahn Festival and stayed at Superbude St. Georg as a guest of the nice folks at Hamburg Marketing. Prices are as of September 2017, please confirm them online before you go. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival with the exception of the last photo, courtesy of Hamburg on Tour.