From the start, People Festival billed itself as a highly unorthodox live-music experience. Their initial announcement stated “There will be no line up. You won’t know who you’re going to see until the artists come on stage.” This was a bold choice for a fledgling festival, only in its second incarnation. With Berlin’s already crowded cultural calendar, would concert-goers really shell out 160 euro for a secret festival? Perhaps ticket sales reflected this sentiment because the organizers soon released a list of 160 names, including heavy-hitters like Justin Vernon and Damien Rice, in addition to dozens of mostly anonymous artists. The plain text document is a decent summation of the festival’s ethos: performers are listed alphabetically, the famous are not lauded over the faceless, there is no hierarchy and no fanfare. And this was extent of my knowledge as I arrived at Funkhaus on Saturday morning, ready for anything.
As the audience filed in, they were affixed with a standard festival wristband–only these wristbands would determine the specifics of their experience over the next 48 hours. Each patron was allotted a color and a number. This system dictated when you could visit each of the eight stages set up over Funkhaus’ massive complex. For example, my first concert was a solo piano recital from French multi-instrumentalist Katia Labeque, whereas my friend saw a dance recital in a larger venue. Already, rumors circulated that Justin Vernon had played an intimate set to a crowd of 20 people in a smaller studio. This rumor was later debunked, but I think it’s indicative of the inherent nervousness that People initially fomented. When the course of your festival is determined for you, the question always lingers, “Am I missing one of my favorite artists for an amateur act?”
After a few duds, I wandered into a songwriter set with Justin Vernon, Sam Amidon and Damien Rice. They traded heartfelt acoustic ballads, ranging from Johnny Cash covers to brand new songs. The set culminated in a choir rising from the audience to sing harmonies on Rice’s last tune, which swelled to a triumphant peak. When the house lights went on, the audience was noticeably invigorated. This is what they signed up for: spontaneous, one-of-a-kind performances with celebrated artists in an intimate setting. The organizers seemed to anticipate this and spread the big names liberally throughout the festival. By the end of the weekend I (and most other patrons) had seen Vernon, Rice, Dessner, and Poliça at least three times respectively. Other Saturday highlights included Helado Negro, Astronautilus and the Dessner-Vernon supergroup Big Red Machine.
The general sentiment going into the second day was pretty mixed. If you lucked into great performances the day before (and many did) the second day was just a bonus. If you missed your favorite artists, Sunday was the time for redemption.
My Sunday started with a bang when a People employee tapped me on the shoulder and politely asked if she could “kidnap” me. I agreed, brimming with curiosity. For the next hour I was shuttled from employee to employee, each one as reticent as the last regarding my fate. Finally, I was blindfolded and guided through a labyrinthine set of halls and stairways, past the bustle of musicians and finally into a silent room where I was seated in a chair, blindfold intact. My impression was that I was in a massive concert hall and that I was the epicenter of the audience’s attention.
As I tried in vain to comprehend my scenario, a gentle finger-picked guitar began by my right arm. Moments later, a voice that belonged, unmistakably, to Leslie Feist almost startled me out of my seat. I cannot stress enough the vicinity of this famed Canadian songwriter to my person. With each plosive, I felt her breath on my neck and the hem of her dress rested on my bare arms and legs.
Though I was blinded, I had the impression that Feist was squatting over me and singing directly into my face. As her voice grew in volume and pitch, I almost writhed from the intensity. I tried in vain to remain composed for my perceived audience but inside I was experiencing an ineffable mixture of euphoria and panic. My first realization when the blindfold was finally removed was that we were not in an auditorium but rather a tiny, makeshift studio, with cloth walls, a bedside table and a four-track tape recorder, hissing away. Feist and I shook hands, made perfunctory small-talk as if we had just met at a party and, before we had finished speaking, my blindfold was reapplied and I was hustled to my next destination.
I had no time to process this experience as I was deposited in a room with Macaulay Culkin, Angel Deradoorian (Dirty Projectors, Slasher Flicks, etc.), Channy Leaneagh (Poliça), Brenda Song and Har Mar Superstar. I quickly learned that I had been granted access to an exclusive recording session of Culkin’s podcast, Bunny Ears. The session was as manic as you might imagine, as Culkin and co-host Matt Cohen jumped subjects frantically, interviewed several audience members (myself included) and gifted the interviewees with rabbits feet.
The night concluded with un-billed performances from Francis and the Lights, Boys Noize and Marijuana Death Squads. While I can only speak for my own experience, I believe the festival accomplished what it intended to do. I witnessed a number of highly-personalized, one-of-a-kind performances, without the pomp and circumstance of a standard festival. I should also mention the small but meaningful subversions the festival offered. For example: free water, reasonable food prices and the ability to keep the cap on your drink. These seemingly minute variations on the often-exploitative summer festival circuit felt oddly radical. The concept of a music festival neglecting to price gouge me was altogether alien.
And in general, the atmosphere leaving the festival was jovial. People chatted by the Spree, children ate ice cream, groups sang in unison around a communal piano. No one was strung out and no one seemed jilted. Though no one shared an identical festival experience, I had the impression that everyone gleaned something profound and satisfying from their own unique iteration of People Festival 2018.