As I think Tom Hanks may once have said, “PEOPLE festival is like a box of chocolates.
You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Which is the beauty of it, and perhaps for some people the annoying aspect of it at the same time. I guess you know, you just gotta roll with it. It is what it is what it is what it is.
Back to the beginning.
2015 saw Bryce Dessner, one of the two guitarist brothers of The National, coming across the ex-DDR radio station complex Funkhaus, on the banks of the Spree in darkest deepest East Berlin. In between takes he wandered around the place, marvelling at the huge live rooms, multiple smaller studios, weird architecture, buildings that can’t but have ghosts in them. Which is when the germ of the idea was born, apparently, if indeed a germ is born or I’m way off base here.
Ripples spread, friends were brought in, late night chats turned into daytime meetings, turned into transatlantic skype calls, until from that germ, born or otherwise having come into the world, a decision was reached, a plan made: 2016 would see some 80 artists together with the crew from Michelberger, in their role as central organisational hub, take over the entire Funkhaus complex for an entire week. Monday to Friday would involve the musicians cleaving themselves off from their usual setups and strictures and they would be free to experiment, to enter into unusual collaborations, to do a song with that bloke that they always thought it might be nice to do a song with, to match and marry and intermix with wild abandon or sleepy pre-coffee yawns, whatever and however they wanted to do it, so would it be done.
The names, of course, the names made sure that it wasn’t simply a bunch of people who played music going somewhere to jam out and play music with people that they don’t usually play music with: Justin Vernon and the rest of Bon Iver; both Dessner brothers; Damien Rice; Erlend Oye (sorry I don’t know where that weird Norwegian O is on my keyboard); Lisa Hannigan; the Staves; and tons more. On the weekend they would open up the doors and the public would be able to come in and have a listen.
They wanted to have a festival, but a different kind of festival
Instead of people turning up and staring at their idols 2cm high, playing the same songs in the same format the same way etc etc, they would instead be invited to wander from space to space, with no idea of who they would see or what they would hear. It would be a different experience; they required that the (paying) public leave their expectations at home, open their minds, and just enjoy.
So it was; there was a bit too much queueing, a bit too few food trucks; a little chaos. But otherwise a damned fine time was had by all. So much so in fact that they decided to repeat what had been billed as a unique, one-off event.
Which brings us to 2018
Once again it is PEOPLE festival. Instead of 80 artists, this time it’s 160. Lessons have been learned and will be applied.
Well, so yeah. It was, I have to say, just an extremely nice experience. There were still some issues with queueing. But I guess that that’s the nature of the beast. Also, while I’m having a minor gripe, some of the food trucks were annoying. There were more of them this time, it’s true – but I found myself faced with buying a bit of essentially bread with a bit of cheese on top for 5€ or a 7€ cheeseburger.
Of course I opted for the 7€ cheeseburger. I mean.
Was it a special cheeseburger? No, just a cheeseburger. Tasty, but still. It’s a cheeseburger.
Oh yes and there was a small (vegan) donut wagon, Brammibal’s which I ignored at first since I wanted something with a bit more sustenance. And later on, after the cheeseburger had become memory, I tried the donuts and MY GOD JESUS YES those were some tasty donuts, but I mean seriously the best donuts I have ever eaten. Forget any other donut you’ve ever eaten and go to their shop, one is on Danziger Strasse, the other on Maybachufer, I believe and just eat those donuts (they are not paying me for this, I just want you to be happy).
They ate their cheeseburgers uncomplainingly.
But I digress. We were there Saturday and the vibe was really pleasant. The festival’s visitors encompassed a broad section of society whose main mutual definition could be summed in the word “nice”. They were nice. People queued patiently; they ate their cheeseburgers uncomplainingly; they hung out on the wall on the edge of the river, where small craft drifted equally lazily past.
There was a stage outside – the “forest stage”, so that you could also chill outside without queueing and enjoy some music, where Lisa Hannigan would later perform with the Dessner brothers. There were various other outside performances too, including two drummers playing furiously off each other and a guy with a guitar.
The staff were without exception helpful, friendly, enthusiastic and, well, yes, nice. The artists were all obviously hugely enjoying themselves, which is always nice. There was a free water tap, with a coconut filtration system. Nice! The weather even played along. Not too hot, not too cold. Just…you got it.
Great to hear the Kings of Convenience
Suffice to say that a fine time was had by all. Our personal highlight was the Kings of Convenience doing a song circle with Feist on Saturday afternoon. Apparently they’d all three brought snatches and bits and pieces of new songs to the week of experimentation, and helped each other finish their songs. Great to hear the Kings of Convenience – and of course the legendary Feist too – for the first time for ages; and there was that little frisson of knowing that you were hearing these new songs before anyone anywhere else had heard them.
The afternoon consisted of studio and live room performances, and the evening saw everyone assemble in the huge main stage area. Darkness fell, music was played, drinks were drunk, there was dancing, gyrating went down, people left happy.
Well done, PEOPLE! My hat goes off to the Michelbergers, the incredibly pleasant hotel crew who have once again pulled off an event that ticks all boxes (special nod to Zoe who was on top of things and calm, helpful and focused throughout). Well-organised, a lot of fun, and definitely that sense of having taken part in something special.
Hell, even that cheeseburger left a warm glow. And did I mention the donuts?
All photos by Graham Tolbert