You can't help but feel for the organisers of Berlin Festival, who had to cope with a nightmare scenario midway through last year's event. With the depressingly real spectre of Duisberg's Love Parade disaster just a few weeks previous, a 2 AM bottleneck situation at the main door led to a panic cancellation, a complete evacuation of the venue, and the confusion of thousands of festival goers. The following day's programming consequently had its wings clipped via a raft of cancelled performances and a rigid 11 PM closing time. This year, however, nothing was left to chance. There was a new entrance and ticket procedure, plus a new onsite curfew of 12 AM, offset by a carry-on program at "Club Xberg" (an open-door event encompassing Arena, Badeschiff and Glashaus in Kreuzberg) that went on until the wee hours. There was also access granted to more than 60 Berlin venues for festival ticketholders, and shuttle buses to connect all the aforementioned dots.
Although everything seemed to accounted for, anticipated and designed to ensure that nothing but a good time was had by all, Berlin Festival 2011 was lacking that one frustratingly vague but utterly essential ingredient: "vibe." The location, a decommissioned airport, was impressive and grand, and the entrance deposited you in the middle of the festival's Art Village, which featured installations like a chap making a large scale mosaic of Amy Winehouse's face entirely of pieces of burnt toast—but to get there you had to pass an obnoxiously floodlit luxury car on a promotional dais. Tempelhof Airport's most frequent current use—art fairs, trade shows and the odd papal visit—was immediately apparent, and somehow that corporate conference feeling was never entirely shaken off.
Photo credit: Katrina James
The music went some of the way to lifting the atmosphere, but not as consistently as was needed; Hercules & Love Affair recycled the set that endears them to festival goers year on year, and the sensitive vocals and lullaby melodies of Apparat and his accompanying band were mawkish at points. But Battles provided a compelling set, with most eyes drawn towards the animal drumming of John Stanier and his raised crash cymbal, when not distracted by Garry Numan, beamed in on screen for his vocal turn with "My Machines." Despite a lengthy delay, Santigold's all-singing all-dancing entrance was an instant injection of energy, and the legacy trifecta of Primal Scream, Wire and Suede drew old fans and a sing-a-long spirit out of the woodwork.
Saturday fared better, minus the wet weather of the day before. The young, trendy and mostly German-speaking crowd were spellbound by The Black Angels' swampy dirge rock, and they swayed and swooned to Beirut's brassy love songs. Pantha Du Prince's melodic techno was perfectly timed to slice through the muggy twilight air, and judging from the amount of people milling about and clad in Boys Noize paraphernalia, his closing set was the flashpoint gathering of the entire weekend. Berlin is one of the world's most mythologised cities when it comes to music, but despite all the organisational panache and generally solid programming of the Berlin Festival, the overall feeling is that although it shares the city's name, it's the festivals that take place very much outside of Berlin's borders—Melt, Fusion and Nachtdigial—that have succeeded in capturing its character.