About Songs Festival (Hamburg): Review

J.N. May 25, 2018

Let’s state the obvious before you continue reading this review: I’m not the usual singer-songwriter fan, in fact I’m and indie rock/electro/drum & bass/shoegaze/post-punk person but with a very open mind to music and music genres. Of course I have my favourite singer-songwriter artists as well and the major one of those artists are Blaudzun.

Blaudzun is also the reason why I learned about the About Songs Festival due to a Blaudzun event notice on Facebook, and since I have bought his albums ever since he released the amazing “Heavy Flowers” in early 2012 I just knew that this was going to be something good. However, to me Blaudzun is more pop than singer-songwriting and I can’t always find a clear connection to such a categorization (nor can Blaudzun himself).

Just keep this in mind when you read the review since I don’t know the music genre in particularly good, thus meaning I don’t know the right terminology of the genre (yes, every music genre has its terminology – I know it’s stupid but that’s how it is). 

About Songs Festival occupies Knust for the sixth time to pay tribute to the singer-songwriter genre and have had an impressive lineup through the years such as Gemma Ray, The Dead South and this year three-times 3FM Award winner Blaudzun. DevilDuck Records, one of the more prominent labels on the scene and a major actor in Hamburg, organize the festival and do it with a high level of professionalism combined with creating a very relaxed feeling; I’ve probably never met any more friendly and lovely staff members at a festival event before, both at the interview of Blaudzun and at the festival later in the evening. Professional and friendly is an amazing combination that you rarely find today – lovely guys!

First act on stage was American artist John van Deusen who explained that he usually has five or six other musicians with him on stage – the usual argument if everything craps out. However, it didn’t. Rather the contrary because van Deusen reminded me why you should keep an open mind to everything in music. His voice operates on a completely different level of the vocal spectrum and I would never have thought that one lonely man with an acoustic guitar could be that exciting on stage, but I was taught different this time. 

True artists embody their music on stage and go into their own creative bubble during the show and won’t come out until the sound technician pulls the plug. However, most artists are rational and have some kind of rational conscience present combined with their artist role on stage. Johan van Deusen seemed to be in his own bubble, not aware of the surroundings. From time to time he made a peculiar impression by laughing at points where no one understood what was funny, just like having his own sense of humour in the creative bubble he built on stage; and these peculiarities became fun because he brought them to a sarcastic point at times, in particular when he asked the audience “Is anyone going to break up tonight […] there’s a good chance that it’ll happen” and then continues playing a song about when he broke up with his wife. 

I’m also a fan of artists that know how to handle their gear and still stick to an artistic approach on stage. Too many musicians today are concerned with playing the chords correctly and mostly stare at their gear pieces, concentrated in the same sort of way like those people walking down the sidewalk staring at their phones. But not van Deusen. The guitar is more of an accessoar used to assist his voice, nothing else. I don’t even know if he ever glanced at it, he just made it sound like another layer of music adding to his beautiful voice. Perfection was reached when he made everyone sound like cats singing along to one of his songs.

John van Deusen is a perfect start in many ways and he will for sure get more listeners after this show – at least one new fan – but he also made it difficult for the next two bands to reach the same level a level of artistic quality.

The second band on stage was Barbarisms which should’ve appealed to my Swedish heritage since two out of three members in the band are Swedish. It’s not bad, actually not at all but I just wanted more John van Deusen at the moment (and another beer) and Barbarisms was quite a difference from van Deusen with their four-piece – or was it five? – live setup.

Yet again it’s not that much of singer-songwriting, rather Barbarisms deliver some excellent Americana with tiny fragments of college rock (yeah, my colleague thought like that but my ears weren’t set for college rock and I didn’t hear it). In fact, I managed to get hold of a digital copy of their latest album “West to the Head” prior to the festival and would highly recommend you to listen to it. Someone said far-fetched but to me I hear many references to bands like Phosphorescent but again, I’m not a singer-songwriter dude and don’t like to do reviews away from home-turf – listen and decide yourself!

Concerning the live show it works out well with the music. If I hear Americana I would love to see two front-dudes with long beards – that’s authentic! Backed-up by Robin von Ekenstam at drums and some hired guns at other instruments, they embody the image everyone should have of Americana. Would be great to see these guys doing a headliner show; being the second band with a bad time slot usually means less people in the crowd and although some more turned up to Barbarisms than attended the van Deusen show most people would come later.

A few minutes break and discussing with our Italian photographer about Italian festivals, how it feels to get their asses kicked by Sweden in the play-offs to the World Cup in football and finding a strategy for the final two concerts – you know, the usual pep talk – Me + Marie enter the stage. Unfortunately I missed much of their concert since I ended up in a discussion with some of the organizers entailing lots of music stories and some backslapping. However, I managed to get myself together and attended the last four songs – just to realize that I need to go to their show at Nochtwache in October later this year. 

What first strikes me is the performance. Drummer Maria de Val is awesome! Not only is she a great drummer but the performance – yeah, drummers out there, you need to work on it (including my own sad drum acting role) – is amazing. Sure, there are some fragments of singer-songwriting in it but the songs that made an impression is the indie rock/alternative rock side of their sound in which guitarist Roland Scandella breaks the social codes on the singer-songwriting scene and goes Dave Mustaine (Megadeath), headbanging his way through the songs – refreshing (but stay away from the whiplashes, ok?)! I’m just a bit sad that I needed to state a case of Swedishness – the football thingee – between Barbarisms and Me + Marie and missed most of the show but I will be one of those attending the show at Nochtwache in a few months.

Last dude on stage – yes, it was primarily men performing tonight, maybe something to have in mind to next year – was the reason to pay a visit to About Songs Festival, Blaudzun. It’s not fair to compare performances considering that Blaudzun is a three-time 3FM Award winning artist in Holland. It comes with the advantage to bring your own lights adding to the overall impression of the performance. And it’s professional on a completely different level than during previous shows (keep in mind that I’m biased) where Blaudzun sets the bar a few meters higher.

Musically, it’s perfection. The band have performed together for years and work as well together as Mario and Luigi in Super Mario Bros. Prior to the show I was told that the drummer and the keyboardist are quite recent additions to the band but you can’t really notice any newcomer’s dilemma. The keyboardist Linda van Leeuwen – I actually don’t know if it’s correct but I was told that this is her name – also added vocals, and by adding a female voice to the songs it adds a new feeling, a missing layer of music, since her voice were perfectly integrated and harmonized with Johannes vocals. Johannes Sigmond himself always makes an impression, not only because he’s one of those musicians that embody his songs with body gestures giving you the feeling that he re-lives the pains he is singing about but also that he is kind of a tall person thus taking the focus from the band just by standing in the middle of the stage – and even more when he was running around on it!

The strength of Blaudzun is the combination of a long list of great songs and a great voice. Johannes Sigmond voice sounds just like a carbon copy of the album recordings but with a higher level of vulnerability on stage. Most songs are, naturally, from the latest album “_UP_” and I count that five out of the first six songs is from the album – “islands_”, “juno_” and “_ghosts” for instance – and to me who still is in “listen through” mode of the album the songs are coated in beautiful arrangements that goes beyond the impression you get from listening to the album – an accomplished sense of performance dramatics that keeps his music from ever becoming boring.

Some of my favourites turn up at the end of the concert. “Elephants” and closing song “Promises of No Man’s Land” complete this perfect evening and direct me towards the merch stand to buy some collectables to put in the record collection. 

So, what’s the verdict of About Songs Festival? Will I come back? Yes! Did I found something new? Yes, John van Deusen and DevilDuck Records, you have a new fan! The overall impression? Great event, lovely organizers, perfect location – more Knust to the people – and great sound (the sound is always the most important thing on concerts, just have it in mind Sporthalle). Something to change? Maybe more female artists, Marie in Me + Marie is not enough – and there are quite many of them out there.

A concluding note; having trouble organizing your event? Book the dudes from DevilDuck; they’re great organizers and will do it with a smile.

Photographer: ©Teresa Enhiak Nanni
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About The Author

Music researcher with an unhealthy passion for music and music festivals. Former studio owner, semi-functional drummer and with a fairly good collection of old analogue synthesizers from the 70's. Indie rock, post rock, electronic/industrial and drum & bass (kind of a mix, yeah?) are usual stuff in my playlists but everything that sounds good will fit in.