On December 31st I flew from Cologne to Berlin to perform with the German / Cologne band the Höhner, in a Sylvester show of the WDR. We were picked up from Berlin’s brand new airport with a shuttle that would take us to the hotel. It was a strange time, masks, lockdown, fear and most of all, silence. At the airport in Cologne there were already few travelers to be found, but here in this huge airport, which had just been opened for several months, it seemed to be empty, not a person. The rule was that we kept our (medical) mouth masks on the seven-person shuttle bus.
It was a 40 minute drive to the hotel and I got a good impression of Berlin, it was the 2nd time I was there. The first time was in 2019, also with the band, then it was in and out, rush, rush, sound check, eat, perform, sleep, rush back to Cologne, quickly from the airport to the rehearsal room, rehearse and continue rushing to the next gig… Little received from Berlin, but did visit the Chancellor!
Then we got a (far too long) tour of the fortress, castle, castle or what was that huge building called again? Our guide paused at every painting, sculpture, banister, tile, spoon, glass, plastic cup, actually everything that was in the building (at least that’s how I experienced it as a non-German…) and then set off about the history of the object discussed. It seemed never ending and my ADHD started to bother me!
To make matters worse, I also forgot my medication in the hotel! I decided to do an accelerated tour on my own, did not understand everything our guide said and moreover he was very long, actually very boring.
I got deja vu from my elementary school days. Sitting still, not talking and listening to how much 2 plus 2 is. A feeling of unrest overcame me, I started to gasp and walked on, looking interestingly at all the pomp and circumstance. But that’s not how it works in Germany! It’s a bit Follow the leader, or am I saying something crazy …? Several times I was called back because I played as a guide on my own. In the end I explained that because of my ADHD I was probably not going to make it to the end of the tour and apologized to our guide. He seemed to understand.
When I stood outside it felt like I could finally breathe again after an hour and a half. Then I waited more than an hour when the rest of the band came out …
The midnight performance from New Years to New Years was at the Brandenburg Gate. A very special location. I wondered how the WDR managed to place a mega light show, set and stage here, it was an insanely large production. The whole area and square at the Brandenburg Gate were hermetically sealed, and it looked like a military zone. It was swarming with police and you couldn’t get in without a pass. Initially, 22,000 people would come to this event to celebrate New Year’s Eve, but Corona spoiled the party.
It was not clear in advance whether every artist who would play there would also show up as demonstrations and riots were expected. With us there was also a lot of consideration whether or not to go, but a few days in advance it was decided to do it. The policy was super strict. We were allowed to enter slowly and had to keep a distance of 1.5 meters, put on mouth masks, register, etc. We were guided to everything and finally arrived at the artist’s residence after the umpteenth Corona test. As for testing, not once did I know in advance that we would be tested. You ended up in a trap and before you realized it you had a cotton swab in your nose!
We played twice during the show. At 10 p.m. and just before New Year’s Eve, after which we continued to play after the toast.Playing is a misconception in this context, everything was playback! That is really something that has not happened in the Netherlands for 20 years. This is still very common in Germany. There was even a transmitter with cable, the plug of which went to the input of the guitar that you get before you go on, by the so-called guitar technician of the WDR! So they do have an eye for detail.
The performance was absolutely special. The location, the Brandenburg gate in full light, fireworks. Everything big and perfectly arranged, I have to give them that!
It just didn’t give me a warm feeling. That had nothing to do with the cold, because it was freezing a number of degrees in Berlin! As beautiful as it was, it pales in a performance where a steaming crowd stands in front of you in a small dark cave with poor light and the smell of beer! Making music is inextricably linked to the audience in front of you. One cannot exist without the other.
We are nowhere without an audience. It breathes, it feels, reacts, screams, sings, laughs, cries, screams, applauds and appreciates! The energy that comes about in this interaction is magical and, like so many things that we have been missing for a year, belongs to the elixir of life of man. There can never be a surrogate for that. We stood on a mega stage with ditto light show with large LED screens. Where initially 22,000 people would stand, we stared into a black hole and all that stood in front of the stage were the so-called Mojo Barriers, which are crush barriers where the audience stands on a steel plate so that they cannot fall over when moving forward. a large crowd at concerts. (Incidentally, a Dutch invention). Sometimes cameras on a crane and cameramen with steady cams flew by. Other than that, it remained quiet and empty, apart from the applause that was started via an I-pad.
Fake, keep up appearances. Something that has struck me more and more in recent years since I mainly work in Germany.
Could it be because I’ve played in the Netherlands for most of my career for more than 25 years? With Dutch artists, bands and musicians. There are always cultural differences, which can be inspiring and educational.
What makes a big difference for me personally are the manners, the way of communicating, especially the non-verbal communication. That is an interesting one! It is deeply rooted in German culture and is difficult for a non-German person to put their finger on it. It has to do with the hierarchy that is much more present within the German system than in the Dutch. It plays a role in every area in Germany, whether it is a multinational or a band, a carnival association or a football club, there is hierarchy everywhere. The challenge for a foreigner like me is not so much the hierarchy itself, but the rules and codes that apply within the group you belong to. Because you have to find out first! After the whole event, 01-01-2021, we had to leave the site within half an hour and were taken to the hotel.
There, a closed hotel bar and a room without a minibar were waiting for me. The fireworks had ended, riots and demonstrations in front of the square near the Brandenburg Gate had not taken place, it was very quiet in the center of Berlin.
When would it have been so quiet for the last time in Berlin?
Joost Vergoossen is a Dutch professional guitarist. From 2003 until 2014 he was part of the successful symphonic rock group Kayak as a guitarist. He was twice voted as the best guitarist in the Benelux. Since 2018, Joost has been the regular guitarist of the German successful band Höhner, from Cologne.