Thursday, 12 July 2012
Wednesday, 4 July 2012
So it was that the announcement of beloved San Francisco psych-merchants Wooden Shjips' summer schedule caught my eye, when it featured no gigs in the UK that were particularly convenient for us to get to, but rather one on a Saturday night in Hamburg, which is a short hop from our local airport on a cheap Easyjet flight. It was irresistible. A bit of a grim 4am start meant we were checking in here at 11am, a bit bleary eyed but very pleased with the hotel (huge rooms! Helpful staff! Big comfy bed!) which was sited in a quiet residential neighbourhood that still managed to be only 15 minutes' stroll from the heart of the city.
We were straight out to explore, sweltering in warm sunshine that defied the weather forecasts but was a welcome treat after the months of Bladerunner-like rain we've been enduring here in England. Hamburg is a city best explored on foot; whole neighbourhoods were bombed to ashes by the RAF during WW2 in a series of appalling firestorms, and the architecture changes constantly as a result, new developments slotted in between salvaged churches or handsome merchants' houses that somehow managed to stay standing. We ate lunch at the spud-friendly Kartoffelkeller, a restaurant devoted to the delights of the tuber and doing a fine job of serving it in as many incarnations as you could need. I put away a massive salad of fresh herring with three varieties of potato thrown in, and it got me through and afternoon of heavy pavement-pounding with no problem. And the sweet Potato Dumpling in Blackberry Sauce was truly delicious, although I suspect my Irish blood makes me predisposed to the starchy charm of my national vegetable.
The docksides and wharves have been carefully maintained and make a lovely space in which to wander, though of course Hamburg is a huge working port and there's plenty of heavy action going on as massive container ships arrive and leave constantly, tugboats wailing and belching black smoke on either side. You get a real flavour of what's been going on here for centuries; vigorous, bustling trade and all that goes with it - the growth of the Reeperbahn with its fleshly temptations was an inevitability in a city regularly deluged with sailors on leave or merchant seamen seeking a bit of release before their next stint at sea. And of course you have to see it - it's a huge thoroughfare, for a start, scything through the middle of the city and bisecting a couple of sedate, seemingly unconcerned neighbourhoods in an explosion of hedonism.
That's at night, though. The Reeperbahn with the morning sun in its face really shows its age. Aggressive drunks thrust plastic cups in your face and demand money ("Du! Ein Euro!"), junkies dribble and piss themselves in doorways, and a certain kind of speciality prostitute that would be known as a 'Traditionelle' in Paris wearily works the corners. After dusk it explodes into life of a far more vigorous kind, though it's still all about sex and substances. At midnight on a Saturday it's a thronging, heaving, panting procession of over-aroused but basically good-natured humanity, shoals of hen parties desperate to clop round a pole in their best thongs meeting packs of pumped-up lads head-on outside bars, in which 70-year old women in silver bikinis can be seen writhing arthritically on the counter. There's every variety of sex you could ever hope to buy on sale, the purveyors wearing practical little wallets on belts over their silver hot pants, and reciting their rates in bored but polite tones to the sniggering 17-year old boys who've been dared to "go over and ask" by their mates. It feels pretty safe at this time of night, though I suspect by 2am the drugs will all have kicked in and there will be a lot more casualties and ill-temper around as disillusion sets in or some of the lads check their wallets and find them mysteriously emptied.
I'm long asleep by 2am, really only having ventured there so late (for me) in the first place because Wooden Shjips were on nearby, at one of several Hamburg clubs where the Beatles apparently played their first ever gig. For all that, Club Indra is an excellent venue - perfect size, great acoustics, and a stage you can see properly wherever you stand. There are some fantastic old 'heads' in the audience as well - real old Deutsche Kosmische rockers with grizzled faces and thinning but defiantly long hair - and Wooden Shjips rock up a storm, belting out their hypnotic, driven riffs overlaid with eerie lysergic vocals like they've just come home. I have no idea how long they play as I'm totally absorbed, as are most of the people around me, and they get a rapturous reception that almost seems to surprise them. Afterwards we stand in the beer garden and have a chat with them (I never chat with bands! Way too shy) and they're a lovely bunch of blokes, warm and unpretentious and surprisingly un-stoned ("I don't know why everyone assumes we're on acid", reflects the drummer, after a hugely excited Hamburger has just announced his intention to come back and see them "on a load of LSD!" The atmosphere is relaxed and amiable, and we stay drinking St Pauli beer until fatigue and our age gets the best of us. I will go back there, some time.
Overall, then a brilliant weekend in a great, fascinating, hospitable spread of a city. If you go, take some time to wander round St Pauli itself; not far from the naughties of the Reeperbahn, but again very much a residential neighbourhood with a strong identity and a fascinating mix of people and trades. It's what Brighton would like to be if it could lose its self-consciousness. And don't neglect the museums and galleries - Hamburg is full of them, and we spent a fine afternoon roaming around the Kunstverein where we were amazed to find an exhibition of photographs featuring one of the most horrifying places I have ever passed through in my life, a town called Trona in California - a whole other story. Odd how bits of your life join up. I never want to see Trona or anywhere like it again, but I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of Hamburg. More please. Oh...and here's the sort of thing. As with Moon Duo, you will love it or hate it. I love it. LOVE it!