How a U2 Concert Changed My Perception of Techno

I spend most of my nights out DJing at dark, cramped Berlin clubs, but two weeks ago I ventured out of my techno bubble to attend a U2 concert. In high school I played in a band with Bono’s nephew, and he helped grant me access to one of the megaband’s recent shows of the worldwide iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour, many of which are documented on this YouTube channel. The one I went to was the third of four dates at Berlin’s Mercedes-Benz Arena, formerly known as the O2 Arena, which sits conspicuously across the train tracks from Berghain. I’m more comfortable in basements than arenas, so I was a little cynical of the occasion. But I was curious to see what I could glean from a Premier Rock Music Experience in 2015, and the following is my account of how it went down.

Before the show I’m standing in a well-positioned, cordoned-off VIP zone at stage right, and I immediately notice that almost everyone around me is American or Polish. This might have been an illusion, because representatives of those nations were quite inebriated and vocal well before the show began, and perhaps the Germans were shamed into silence. Meanwhile, a crumpled little man slowly shuffles between patrons, bent double by a backpack of beer. He has the countenance of a biblical mule. A Polish guy grabs him by the shoulder and drawls emphatically, “I’ll give you 2,000 Euro to stay right here all night.” An equally sloshed American overheard this proposition and chimed, “Dude, you’re speaking my language!” The duo strike up a charming rapport as the hobbled beer dispenser ekes out some frothies. Unfortunately, one cup is filled only with foam. The beer supply is gone. The Polish guy looks down at the cup, back up at the sky, closes his eyes and delivers his best Bono impression: “One love…One beer!”

The really serious impersonators of U2’s frontman are German executives, who seem to have a mania for parading around in Bono-esque regalia. I spotted a guy direkt von Buro in a pair of fluro-green cyber alien sunglasses, which nicely offset his trim baby blue shirt and expensive nondescript jacket. In contrast, an old, hefty, white-bearded truck driver in shorts was hoisted 30 meters into the air via a system of pulleys. He will be triggering lighting cues while sitting on a precarious metal beam for two hours. He’s nonchalant as he slowly disappears up into the rafters.

It’s strangely cool in the Arena. I’m used to sweating in a mosh pit or the club, so I found the curiously-manicured climate unsettling, like we were lettuce in a vegetable crisper. At one point the crowd fired up the wave, and it circumnavigated the venue a staggering eleven times. I counted.

When the band finally appeared I was taken aback by the sound. It was like the arena was filled with hissing, sizzling metal, and it sounded curiously like a band playing, which I hadn’t expected. A few hours before I’d been treated to a tour of the stage so that I could gawk at the severe technical majesty that is a U2 concert. Here’s some details that will give you a sense of the whole mechanism: They have a fleet of engineers, each of whom has a huge digital mixing desk with which to perfectly tailor the sound going into the ears of each separate band member. After having a look at the Edge’s guitar collection I tried to do the math and estimate its total worth, but I lost count somewhere above a million. There’s a pile of books that included A Clockwork Orange and a lot of Yeats, and it’s sole purpose is to allow Bono to rip out pages and throw them into the crowd while thousands of other pages descend from the rafters. The crew bulk buys thousands of copies of the same books so they can have their wisdom shredded and dispersed on people around the world. Looking at Larry Mullen’s drum set, I remarked on the lack of digital triggering devices (for playing electronic samples and such) but then a tech guy politely corrected me by saying, “they’re invisible.” Another engineer gestured at a pile of subwoofers and said, “One of these can destroy the foundations of a small building,” before pointing to innumerable other stacks of sonic firepower. I expected the most immaculate sound, yet the venue itself wouldn’t allow it, despite the fact that U2 has every possible resource at their disposal. It’s literally a case of being too popular to sound good.

After the first song, an American guy next to me turned to his friend and remarked, “It’s an unbelievable mix of old and new…I’ve never felt it like this before.” Bono introduces the next number with a touching homage to his prematurely deceased mother while the wasted American is escorted out by security, much to the chagrin of his new Polish friend. 

Later the band disappeared inside a giant screen for about 15 minutes, leaving audience members confused and the energy deflated. I heard someone ask their friends, “Is this the intermission?” before they scurried out. After a while avatars of the band appeared on a screen and the crowd got a little bit more excited. U2 mediated through a screen is better than no U2 at all.

A key tenet of this tour was location specificity and here it was in action. Following a stirring video montage of destroyed Middle Eastern cities, Bono praised Germany’s response to the refugee crisis. A digital Berlin Wall complete with signature solidarity graffiti symbolically splits the crowd in two. The Mercedes-Benz Arena lies directly opposite remnants of the actual Wall, and the effect of the band’s gesture was quite something. “See how easily established and arbitrary such boundaries are!” said the famous band to the city that lived through it. As the music gained intensity, U2 finally reappeared from within the Wall; indeed their energy seemed to trigger its disintegration, leading to a jubilant multimedia moment of unity.

Then Bono pulled a young woman onstage. He gave her an iPhone whose camera was linked to the giant screens in the venue and live to the Internet. The crowd’s attention is transfixed on the screen while she films the band up-close-and-personal. There’s something about seeing U2 through the lens of a ubiquitous mass consumer product that feels paradoxically intimate. Seriously, you could feel the mood of the crowd change like this was a unique and special opportunity. It was as if seeing U2 through an iPhone brought them closer than ever before. I felt it too. Once the young woman filled her allotted stage time, Bono graciously invites the Edge to “take this lady out.”

My personal highlight of the evening, and perhaps its defining moment, occurred during “Bullet the Blue Sky”, which is basically U2’s version of “When the Levee Breaks”. There’s a spoken-word section in the original that was extended and altered for this live show that Bono used to enter into an interior monologue with his 19-year-old self. “I can see a boy,” he says, gazing into the depths of arena. “He looks a lot like me. He’s 19 in Dublin, and he’s angry.” Bono’s internal projection berates his current self about his life of excess. “You’ve got too much money!” Young Bono chides. “What happened to your principals? You’re a fraud.”

Bono can only protest as his youthful double touches on the crux of U2’s much-discussed descent into hyper-capitalism. He says something about being separated from his younger self by barricades—he’s describing some chaotic street riot scene. But then the band gets louder and more intense, Bono’s exhalations become more fevered and rapid, the clamor builds, he sprints down a runway yelling indecipherable phrases and then BAM! The song is over, Bono assumes a Christ pose and all is resolved. It’s clear that there has been some sort of positive resolution to the tension between past and present Bono, but all the finer points are lost in the spectacle and only the emphatic gestures of stadium rock remain. The details are clearly of no import. Bono concludes, “I’m not dangerous. I’m endangered!”

After the show I stood on one of the arena’s viewing decks and looked out across the tracks at Berghain. I thought of the few thousand people who pass through its well-guarded doors every weekend. Then I thought about this sold-out, 15,000-capacity U2 gig. Then I thought of the other three U2 shows happening in Berlin. Then I thought about how this tour will run for three years and all the other cities it’ll visit. Add U2’s multiple decades of decadent globetrotting and you’ve got a juxtaposition that puts things in perspective. We get so wound up about the possibility that Claire Danes might ruin our unsecret subculture that we forget how small and insignificant we really are.

Continue Reading

This Obscure Lithuanian Festival Won’t Be a Secret For Long

In 2008, Ben Klock played for a few hundred ravers deep in the Lithuanian woods at a small gathering called Sūpynės. Since then, the festival has grown considerably and moved to a location that can host its swelling numbers: Pakretuonė, a 5,000-capacity remote camping site and water mill in Eastern Lithuania near a beautiful lake often referred to as “Monolake.” Last week, Klock returned to the forest to perform at the event’s 10th edition. This time he arrived with several of other Berghain and Panorama Bar resident DJs for an Ostgut Ton showcase, which spoke to Sūpynės’ prosperity so far as well as its future potential (and perhaps that of the Lithuanian scene as a whole). Although it’s already a big festival by Lithuanian standards, Sūpynės remains a secret to most, and foreign visitors still see it as a boutique electronic music event. But it’s not just for minimal heads anymore.

Pakretuonė itself is truly spectacular, both for those seeing a real Lithuanian forest for a first time and for those who come every year, so it’s enchanting and surprising every time—especially during dusk and dawn. Having a car is a luxury, but the best, safest and swiftest means to reach the woods is the train from Lithuania’s capital city, Vilnius. Think of the 20-minute walk down the forest from the train station as a bonus hike or warm-up exercise. Deciding where to pitch your tent might be tricky, as there’s no single camping field, just a few spots are scattered around and between the festival stages. Collective experience holds that more trees above your head means less killer sun in the early hours. Food and drinks are available around the site, so you don’t have to travel miles and miss your favorite artist because you’re hungry. The selection is huge and generous and the prices are fair, which is especially delightful because attendees don’t have any other options; the closest shops are very, very far away.

8

The organizational team behind the event, Minimal.lt, lives by the principle “less is more,” and they named the stages accordingly. MORE is situated in a big clearing and dedicated to big-room house and techno, as well as some of the more high-profile imports. LESS sits on a small hill in front of the lake and is specifically designed to augment the beauty of dusk and dawn, as the backdrop of the stage is transparent. Due to increased ticket sales, Sūpynės has introduced a few additional spots, like the afterhours HIGH area and LOW, the zone dedicated to slower beats. All four are pretty far apart, so it’s impossible to catch everything and everyone. But Sūpynės is as much about love, friendships and nature as it is about music, so missing a headliner or two doesn’t hurt.

The inaugural night, Wednesday June 24, showcased the talents of local DJs on a new camping site on the other side of the lake, reachable by boat. Thursday was much busier because many festivalgoers asked for a day off on Friday, and many artists also arrived to give themselves a day to settle in before their sets. That’s one of the great things about Sūpynės: many performers stay for the whole weekend and don’t just swing by for their gig. That’s especially handy on Sunday when the official line-up is over but people still want to dance. There’s always someone with a crate of records onhand.

50

On Friday, LOW hosted a showcase for Eternia Music, an aspiring Lithuanian drum’n’bass label. Meanwhile, dubby rhythms prevailed at the LESS stage. Friday dusk was adorned with skillful ambient and dub techno grooves from Sraunus, a local Sūpynės hero, and Profile, an emerging Estonian talent. Both laid perfect ground for the after-midnight madness at the MORE stage, where Ryan Elliott opened the Ostgut Ton showcase. Considering how out-there the rest of the festival was, physically and musically, Elliott’s choice of tracks felt a bit too safe.

Vessel delivered a brutal yet mesmerizing live act, shredding everything and waking everyone in the LESS area. But Ben Klock still owned the night back at MORE. His selection was absolutely warranted but, like Elliott, he could have been braver given the crowd at hand. Function, whose set time was was pushed till the early morning, kept everyone going till the sun came up with an unblemished live performance, and the HIGH stage promptly opened when he finished. There, local talent Manfredas kept it rolling past lunchtime.

22

20

Other highlights from abroad included hypnotic techno selections from Berlin-via-America Xosar, who performed at the same time as solo experimentalist Inga Copeland. The latter asked the technical support to make the LESS stage as dark as possible before answering a stream of emotional questions in a meditative voice and a reserved sonic palette.

Although the relatively high-profile imported artists on the lineup drew crowds, local acts made a strong impression. Many agreed that the Saturday evening set from Lithuanian indie-electronica band Without Letters was probably the most special concert-based set of the year. It took place after a day of performances from other local acts—mellow loops from Paulius Kilbauskas, synth anthems from Darbo Džiaugsmai and back-to-back sets from Lithuania’s Despotin Beat Club—and a series of daytime workshops. A rising Lithuanian talent who currently resides in Denmark, Darius Vaikas delivered one of the most memorable dance floor sets of the weekend. Although he had a difficult slot—9 PM, which is a time many choose for a nap, pint or snack—Darius managed to make the most of it, and quickly attracted a considerably big crowd around the MORE stage with his lush, live grooves.

Sūpynės’ 10th year was extremely polished, from the selection of music to the visuals, installations and stage designs—but it still felt raw and DIY. That’s the festival’s greatest and most beautiful asset: it provides the most basic means for human needs, but it also encourages you to immerse into the nature and remember how to live in peace with it. All this makes it very hard to come back to the real world, and after a mere two or three days in the forest, asphalt starts to feel weird under your feet. Thankfully, Sūpynės hosts a party back in Vilnius on the Monday following the blowout so that all the revellers and local artists can wind down together.

15

All images by Tautvydas Stukas.

Continue Reading

How Weather Festival is Revitalizing Parisian Nightlife

When I told some festival-loving friends that I was heading to Weather Festival in Paris, I got puzzled looks that said, “I go to festivals a lot, and I’m clearly supposed to know about this. Why don’t I?” But when they learned that it was co-run by the founders of the local boat-as-nightclub Concrete, their looks softened. In the few years since it first moored on the banks of the Seine, Concrete’s international reputation has mushroomed thanks to its storming All Day Long techno and house parties. Its collaboration with a hometown festival with similar tastes, then, is not just fitting, but necessary.

The dance music festival circuit in Europe is now less of a circuit and more of a marathon, so clubs-as-institutions ground homegrown scenes in a crowded market, and Concrete gives Weather a much-needed edge. The closest point of comparison is Amsterdam’s Dekmantel (which I reviewed for EB last year), where a crew of promoters and DJs took their ethos out of the club and into the fields of the Amsterdamse Bos. But the relationship between Weather and Concrete is perhaps more pragmatic than romantic, because Paris has had a hard time standing out as a world-renowned clubbing destination alongside other European dance music cities, like London and Berlin.

The struggle can be traced back to Baron Haussmann’s top-down “rational redesign” of Paris in the 19th century, which contemporary critics maligned as a military-minded architectural imperative to disrupt social gatherings and push the working classes into underdeveloped banlieues. The project has had an incredibly long-lasting impact on the how the city socializes; a 2010 study by the French School of Economic Warfare (snappy, right?) detailed the issues facing Parisian nightlife, such as how crowded neighborhoods fall victim to mounting noise complaints without permanent and legal clubbing spaces, a situation that worsened thanks to the 2008 ban on smoking in commercial entertainment venues. Other detrimental factors include a complicated web of licensing laws for venue owners and promoters, a lack of late-night public transportation for revelers, rapid gentrification exacerbated by the high cost of inner city living and the perceived risks of traveling to the outer districts in search of bigger, less restrained spaces. It’s all doubled-down on the electronic music scene to the point that, a few years ago, French national newspaper Le Monde declared Paris a city in the throes of clubbing death.

But more recent years have shown promise. The Paris episode of Resident Advisor’s Real Scenes video series in late 2012 showed a new breed of producers, DJs and promoters teaming up with enthused veterans to hunt for new spaces, open up dialogue and push the image of Paris as a city on the mend. In 2015, Concrete is perhaps the most visible example of how those efforts have worked to the scene’s benefit, and a festival like Weather has duly positioned itself as a hub for local fans and artists, as well as a tourist destination that will bolster its reputation abroad. Now in its third year, Weather’s got its work cut out, so as my friends and I headed to opening night, we deliberated on how the festival might carve out a unique space for itself.

Rather than wrestle with the issues that would come with hosting an inner-city festival in the style of Barcelona’s Sonar, Weather is situated in a field clearing on the edge of a nearby town called Joinville-le-Pont. The site is entirely open air, with five stages of varying sizes and production value dubbed Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and—oddly out of theme—Modular, which are spread along the outer reaches of a large central thoroughfare. The organizers took measures to keep the grounds as unspoiled as possible: the toilet facilities are “dry,” (let’s not go any further with that one), and drinking cups cost 1€ each in a bid to cut down on ubiquitous festival litter. Beyond that, though, the overall set-up is fairly unremarkable to the point of cutting back on expected facilities. There’s nowhere to charge your phone, there are criminally few bars for a site planning to host tens of thousands, and the food on offer is limited and rushed compared to the more considered offerings at comparable European events. Woe forbid if you’re a vegetarian—you’ll be eating fries for days.

The best indication of a festival’s mood—besides the music, of course—is the crowd, and the Parisian one is particularly young. People in their late teens to mid-20s seem to dominate, and at first it seems that age is all that unites them. There’s little trace of the techno Death Eater aesthetic popular among Berlin clubbers, nor the aspirational streetwear sensibilities of various UK-centric scenes. In fact, for a city globally acclaimed for its easy but refined style, any sense of youth fashion is low-key to the point of becoming forgettable. I got the sense that Weather is a more of a big weekend out for locals rather than a musical destination for ardent followers from the city’s underground.

But the bookings do glow. The opening night was headlined by a performance of Derrick May’s legendary techno material as conveyed by the 60-piece Orchestre Lamoureux, and it was one of the finest manifestations of live techno instrumentation I’ve ever seen. Helmed by May and conductor Dzijan Emin, the orchestra did away with the vast cheeseball brass that can overpower the bass-driven core of similar projects. The xylophone in particular was a masterstroke, and its subtleties chimed beautifully through the deep 4×4 heartbeat. Nearing the end of the hour-long performance, pianist Francesco Tristano teased the crowd with a five-minute solo, riffing on the melody of May’s most famous track, “Strings of Life.” Emin took a confident, baiting pause before the whole ensemble launched into a 10-minute explosion that made the previously measured crowd scream. It was classical and techno music rendered vital and modern, and we left on a high, pumped for the Friday and Saturday onslaughts to come.

WEATHER FESTIVAL 2015 - OPENING - DERRICK MAY & DZIJAN EMIN feat. FRANCESCO TRISTANO & ORCHESTRE LAMOUREUXDerrick May and Orchestre Lamoureux. Photo by Jacob Khrist.

Since Weather ran from late evening until 8AM on both nights, we committed ourselves to the long haul, but the mood of the music on offer tested our sense of pace as well as our patience. Paris, it seems, is in the thralls of deep and dark techno, as if nipping at the heels of a Berlin calling card. When we walked onsite at 9 p.m. to see Ricardo Villalobos’ three-hour set of wriggling post-punk, trippy house and techno oddities, we knew these would be the most relaxed and varied vibes we were likely to experience that weekend.

Wringing out my clothes in dark rooms to punishing techno is a hobby that I’ve cultivated over the years. But due to premature summer sunrises and unpredictably balanced open-air sound systems that often lacked chest-rattling low end, sets that should have torn the festival apart occasionally felt stifled. The depth and power that DVS1 and Rødhåd are capable of was somewhat lost in the chattering of the wider crowd. Xosar’s playful selections of abrasive, psychedelic techno—including cuts from her excellent new LP, Let Go—were rid of nuance because of the criminally quiet sound levels. And one of the prize billings, the world premiere of a collaborative live set by L.I.E.S. labelhead Ron Morelli, The Trilogy Tapes’ Low Jack and noise god Vatican Shadow (who screamed and leapt on tables), was battered so far into the red that it made our ears glow purple.

After repeatedly inconsistent experiences with sound on the various stages, we relaxed our pre-planned schedules and wandered across the site to catch acts less beholden to mass appeal. One such act, and perhaps the most rewarding of the entire festival, was a live modular performance from Minimal Wave’s In Aeternam Vale. While the far larger Autumn and Winter stages boasted top-tier, large-scale lighting and visual production value, the smallest Modular stage had the most consistent, bass-heavy sound and comparatively studied bookings across the weekend. Before Blawan’s brand-new live set (which was more languid than his usual hard-as-nails style, tumbling around the mid-to-high 130BPM range) and the founders of Britain’s cult festival Freerotation, Stevio and Suzybee, In Aeternam Vale subtly stunned the crowd into submission. Live modular techno has become a by-word for relentless abrasion in the recent “industrial” techno revival, but this was a varied and absorbing articulation of how bass can be a gravitational pull, rather than a tool to keep tired feet moving.

Brice Robert PhotographeAntigone and Abdulla Rashim. Photo by Brice Robert.

In fact, barely a body moved throughout the hour and a half he played. Instead, awkward New Wave vocals were distorted past androgyny and into hypnotic streams of thought, with low-slung, smutty struts of electro peppering the bass with long-studied practice. It rinsed us of our high, but left us with a steady flow of adrenaline that lingered throughout the night. The Modular stage kept those who wished to slam through the night to harder offerings like Antigone, Abdulla Rashim, Mr. G, or the glorious pairing of DJ Deep and Roman Poncet separate from the bodies who just wanted to float in the modular weirdness and warm, mid-morning ether.

Heading home in the baking Saturday morning sun, after Jeff Mills inexplicably played “The Bells” twice in his three-hour set, my team compared notes. We heartily agreed that, musically, Weather Festival and Concrete did a fantastic job booking some truly strange electronic music in a huge public setting; nearly 50,000 people attended across the three nights-into-mornings. Considering that its critically acclaimed counterpart, Dekmantel, hosted 10,000 per day last year, it’s a testament to not only the appetite that Parisian crowds have for quality house and techno music right now, but the sense of scale, ambition and investment in this underground music as a tourist draw. The ease with which we could float from stage to stage, from memorable set to equally memorable set, shows that the crews behind the operation have excellent, on-the-money taste.

We observed no violence among the huge crowd, appreciated the watchful but mercifully subtle security presence and couldn’t help but smile to see young teenagers re-group—with bubbling energy, even after 12 hours of relentless fist-pumping—to playfully argue about who really was the shit. If Weather organizers can hold down their tastes next year while honing some of the more logistical aspects of the overall festival experience, particularly the consistency and quality of the sound, then it won’t be long until international audiences start flocking more readily to a city revitalized, once again, by the techno-loving masses.

Header image by Jacob Khrist

Continue Reading