The Berlin Festival had signs marked "arrivals" and "departures," not to help spaced-out partygoers but because the two-day event took place at Tempelhof, a decommissioned airport in the center of the city. To say the least, it's an unlikely place for a concert: a paved field partly enclosed by an immensely imposing semicircular building about three-quarters of a mile long that was designed by the Third Reich. Imagine Woodstock with set design by Albert Speer and you'll get the idea.
Like Berlin itself, the two-day concert was packed with history, divided into two parts, and run with impressive efficiency. Friday featured sets by Wire, Suede, and Primal Scream, which played its smiley-faced dance-rock masterpiece "Screamadelica" all the way through. Although frontman Bobby Gillespie remains a charismatic stage presence, it would be hard to think of a weirder place to present an album-length ode to the UK rave scene's summer of love. With the sound muffled by the roof of an outdoor hangar, Primal Scream sounded a little like it was trying to levitate the Pentagon - the good vibes were there, but it never quite took off. Suede connected more with the audience, perhaps because its songs have always had a more cynical tilt. But neither band sounded as striking as Wire, the oldest of the three, which retains its angular immediacy without living in the past.
Each day's shows ran until midnight, when double-decker buses would take revelers to a Kreuzberg club complex for DJ gigs that ran until 7am. The scene there could not have been more different: One massive room, two smaller ones, and an outdoor stage by a swimming pool set in the Spree River. The Austrian duo Kruder & Dorfmeister put on the best show, with enough visuals to keep things exciting for a crowd that came from a rock show. And although the idea of one event in two different areas might sound unworkable, the festival ran smoothly. At one point, a programmable billboard advised attendees that Santigold would go on 15 minutes late - which in most countries is basically considered on time.
As in Berlin itself, efficiency never came at the expense of quirkiness. Along with the usual array of tchotchke shops and promotional booths, the midway featured bumper cars, an array of weird visual art, and an area where concertgoers could challenge a foosball "professional" (an occupation I was unaware of until now). By far, the coolest distraction was a "Silent Disco," DJs played songs that could only be heard by dancers wearing wireless headphones with receivers. Dozens grooved to music that was in their own heads - literally.
If Friday belonged to reunited English acts, Saturday was about German beats and art-rock. On a smaller stage in a smaller hangar, the German minimal techno auteur Pantha du Prince (Hendrik Weber) dazzled with stark beats from his album Black Noise. On the main stage, the Hamburg-born Boys Noize (Alexander Ridha) played a much more accessible and uplifting set of disco and electro. But the biggest response of the night went to Beginner, the recently reunited German hip-hop act. A decade ago, the trio helped prove that German rap could be more than a Dieter-und-Sprockets joke. But although just spitting some of those syllables counts for flow, the performance felt bombastic, as though the rappers were trying too hard to play to the back of the airfield.
The smaller stage presented weirder bands - the Belgian band dEUS played some of its older material, which has a dissonance influenced by Captain Beefheart, along with newer tunes that pack their musical experiments into more traditional song structures. Mogwai played at the same time as Beginner, and they could not have been more different, with enthralling instrumentals that seemed to promise more complexity to listeners who paid attention. Majestic and spooky, this was music that gained power from its haunted surroundings, then surpassed them entirely.