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Berlin Festival 2013: Hardly a shock

Was Björk's Tesla coil the only really electrifying part of this year's festival?

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Photo by Tania Castellví

Rachel back again to close out the Tempelhof portion of this year’s fest. First off, Strauss, we didn’t need Ellie Goulding shred-syncing with her lead guitarist to make a case for (as you say) Feminism. If yesterday was for the blokes, then today was for the birds, with as gynocentric a lineup as you’re likely to see at one of these things. Savages turned in a fierce performance, containing all the shredding that Ellie’s didn’t. Though that name’s really a misnomer: far from savage, their set was as chiselled and laser-sharp as Jehnny Beth’s cheekbones. Then My Bloody Valentine, now 60 percent female thanks to new touring keyboardist Jen Marco.

And of course there was Her Björkness. Existing as she does on a completely separate plane of space-time from the rest of us, Ms. Gudmundsdottir chose to materialise onstage 15 minutes before the end of MBV’s set, thus prompting Sophie’s Choice-level agony in many an attendee, myself included. In the end I skipped out on the fabled “noise holocaust” breakdown in “You Made Me Realise” in favour of catching the opening strains of “Cosmogony”. (In retrospect, I made the right call as said breakdown was apparently reduced to five minutes, more a misdemeanour than a holocaust. I guess you’ve got to be careful about these things in Germany.)

From there Björk was as great as I could’ve hoped, so transcendent that photos could not possibly do her justice. Actually, there were no photos allowed, with the reasoning that it’d be “distracting” to our Icelandic guest. Much as I welcomed the lack of tiny screens in front of me, especially after having had to witness most of Blur through other people’s phones yesterday, I had to wonder how much of a distraction cameras really would’ve been to someone wearing a  metallic Koosh ball on her head. But any negative thoughts vanished around the time a room-sized Tesla coil descended from the top of the stage to crackle in time with “Thunderbolt”.

In total, she played about half of Biophilia, accompanied by visuals I recognised from my Ipad and utilising the same customised instruments as the recordings (Tesla bass, some sort of xylophone harp and a massive “gameleste”, plus an Icelandic women’s choir. I pity her roadies). She filled out the set with standbys like “Army of Me” and “Pagan Poetry”, closing with a literally incendiary “Declare Independence”. Basically, give or take a choir, it was the diametric opposite of last night’s Blur show: zero guitars; zero Big Choruses for the punters to sing along to; zero contempt, real or feigned, for the audience.

However! Both acts were equally practiced, polished and professional, and here’s where I must voice my disappointment with this year’s festival: it all ran so goddamn smoothly. The biggest surprises came before the fest even started, with a spate of cancellations including EXB interviewee Le1f, but the gaps were filled in quickly and quietly with nary a complaint from the masses. Otherwise: no temper tantrums, no spontaneous special guests, no just-for-this-one-show deep cuts or covers (that one might be GEMA’s fault). The big names were too big to bother, and the small ones were too afraid of fucking things up. Everything was as predictably satisfying as a plastic cup of Warsteiner Pilsner on a toasty late summer day. But maybe sometimes that’s all you need.

Other notes from the (air)field:

Ah right, so about half the audience left for home or piled into the Club Xberg shuttles post-Björk, but the evening’s proper closer was Fritz Kalkbrenner, beloved by Germans for no discernable reason. The beer vendors at the Warsteiner booth by the stage went crazy for this one; it was probably the most fun they’d had all weekend. He finished up with “Sky and Sand” and a streamer drop that might’ve actually been kind of cathartic if the wind hadn’t immediately blown all the streamers behind the stage.

Other acts who were inevitably a letdown following Björk: The Klaxons, sounding even douchier than they do on record; Pantha du Prince, doing the comedown-y minimal thing and attracting a sleepy, head-nodding crowd; and Graf v. Bothmer live-soundtracking the silent classic Berlin: Symphony of a City.

Unsung hero of the weekend: the sun, coming back for one last go-round before the autumnal equinox again renders it into a figment of our imagination.

Total number of free Tic Tacs consumed by me over duration of festival: approximately 5,173.

Most notable festivalgoer: No outlandish outfits or colourful characters this year – despite Pet Shop Boys’ myriad costume changes and Björk’s Big-Bird-wearing-a-disco-ball getup, it was a pretty staid crowd – so this’ll have to go to the big inflatable shark crowdsurfing during Fritz Kalkbrenner.

This year’s perimeter fence placard attempts at capturing the zeitgeist: “Free Pussy Riot” and “Something with Instagram”. Nice try, guys.