Most people’s “home festival” is the one near their city. Ours is a modest (30,000 guest) festival in the east of Germany. The weather was warm and muggy as we arrived. It was Friday afternoon, so most people had already arrived and pitched camp. Luckily, we spotted a spot in the corner of the campsite, introduced ourselves to our neighbours and erected our abode for the next three days.
As we headed to the arena for the first time, three-piece punk rock band Montreal was already warming up the crowds. All the way from the security queue to the front of the stage, people were singing along. A solid block of moshers and dancers were enjoying themselves in the first wave while many people sat further back, enjoying the afternoon sunshine. My personal favourite was a cover of “Katharine” by new wave band Steinwolke. Yonas, Montreal’s lead singer, admitted that they had previously got in trouble with the band for covering their song, but figured that a) the crowd wouldn’t tell on them and b) if the crowd sang loud enough the band couldn’t be identified on the tv coverage anyway, so we’re all good to go. The audience upheld their end of the bargain and belted out the chorus with all their might. The band invited two members of the audience on to the stage to hold a large digital clock to time the song “2 minuten”. They searched specifically for a woman and a man, you know, for fairness. However, they did not consider choosing based on height as the chosen man was much taller, leading to a somewhat wonky clock. Despite the diagonal timepiece, they performed the song in two minutes on the dot. The performance was the perfect icebreaker, getting us in the mood for the weekend to come.
The evening program started with the Swedish funk-rock band Royal Republic. The large neon lightning bolt and general Miami casino vibe were promising. What it did not prepare us for was the fact the band would walk on stage in red dinner jackets, white collared shirts and pearl necklaces. The lead singer’s impressive moustache completed the ensemble perfectly. Definitely an up and coming look. It took a single bar to get the whole crowd dancing. Lead singer Adam Grahn moved across the stage with fantastic flamboyance, directing the crowd with a drumstick he stole from the drummer. For the first part of the set, one song chased the other, leaving no chance of recovery. The continued dancing combined with the dry weather meant huge clouds of dust were kicked up, especially when the intro to “Full Steam Space Machine” played and everyone went crazy. In the run-up to the festival, Grahn had given decided on a record we could break together: most circle pits. According to his logic, three is the minimum number of people required for a circle pit. So theoretically, 30,000 people can make 10,000 circle pits. After telling everyone to get acquainted with their neighbours the band was off into “Stop Movin’”. Chaos ensued. Whether we really did break any records I don’t know, but we had a damn good time.
Over on the Blue Stage Von Wegen Lisbeth were getting ready to play. Two years ago, their stage décor could be described as kitsch suburban garden, complete with fake grass everywhere and plastic flamingo. This year, they started off with a dark canvas covering the whole stage. After a few bars of the first song, “Wieso”, the canvas dropped, revealing the band and their more standard tech and lighting set up. Having just released their second full album the set was a split between old and new songs. The older songs were greeted with a chorus from the crowd, almost taking over from the band. The lead singer was clearly overwhelmed by the response, recalling their last time here at two in the afternoon.
In complete contrast to the fun, bouncy, xylophone accompanied Von Wegen Lisbeth Feine Sahne Fischfilet kicked off on the Green Stage. Feine Sahne Fischfilet performances are always a dirty, high energy experience. Today’s show was no exception. The immediate, crowd-wide mosh pit made getting to the second row very easy. Within two songs, the band and various locations in the crowd had erupted with smoke flares, making the field look like an ongoing riot. Throughout the set, signal flares were set off in the crowd, keeping the high-octane atmosphere going. Lead singer Monchi had a crate of beer bottles with him at the edge of the walkway and frequently distributed these amongst fans. Famous for passing around a large bottle of peppermint liquor, this year they upgraded to pump dispensers they could spray straight at open mouths. There were two opposing reactions to this. Half the crowd wanted in and rushed forwards, because, you know, free alcohol. The other half backed off due to the combination of very sticky alcohol and the very low accuracy of the pumps. I was part of the latter. The band dedicated many songs to people working for political causes including sea rescue in the Mediterranean and people standing up to far-right groups.
Punters had two styles to pick from for their headliners on Friday night. The chilled rapper Cro, famous for always wearing a panda mask and the jazz-funk-reggae Jan Delay & Disko No.1. On the Blue Stage, Cro started off with the relaxed summer anthem “easy”. The spotlight casting his shadow on the huge, white, low poly version of his panda mask on stage behind him. The majority of the set had a laid-back feeling, with Cro sitting or kneeling on the edge of the stage, bathed in blue light as the full moon rose over the arena. The energy picked up for “Traum” and “Meine Gang”, with people dancing from the front row right back to the food stalls. The set ended with Cro standing on the giant panda head singing “Bye Bye” with galaxies projected behind him.
Straight afterwards, Jan Delay & Disko No.1 were starting on the Green Stage. The stage was covered in leopard print with pink outlines, somewhat reminiscent of Hamburg’s famed red-light district. The band played as Jan Delay introduced them from offstage before finally appearing himself. Dressed in a suit, sunglasses and a trilby, Jan Delay spent the show dance-walking across the stage, firing up the crowd. The band included a brass section and backing singers and worked various riffs into their jazz-funk songs including Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mackelmore’s “Thriftshop”. At one point he taught the crowd a “classic disco move”, two claps, two jumps to the right and the same again to the left. It worked surprisingly well, the crowd moved as one, like an oversized cha cha slide. The whole set was great, people dancing all over the arena, with some impressive moves on show.
As we walked back to our tent the gazebo-rave we had walked past 8 hours earlier was still going, or perhaps going again. We could hear the beach stage playing favourite after favourite and so we drifted to sleep accompanied by the soothing sound of Backstreet Boys “Everybody”.
The overcast Saturday morning sky was threatening rain, but it was still very warm. After a decent breakfast of eggs and bacon, we threw ourselves back into the fray. Walking around the arena, the lively trumpet riff of Talco caught my attention. The Italian Ska-punk band had everyone dancing clapping and chanting. They won me over, so I stayed. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one as more and more people danced up and into the crowd during the set. A fun and loud way to start the festival day.
Monsters of Liedermaching provided a new take on the traditional “man with guitar” by going in the “6 men with guitars” direction. The band sat in a row of two benches, any number of them playing acoustic guitar and singing at any given time. What the crowd lacked in physical volume they made up for with vocal volume, singing along with everything. The band encouraged and celebrated audience participation, handing out cups of beer and promptly turning an audience thrown toilet roll into a fashionable scarf.
As we got lunch and sat to watch the Green Stage, Skindred played “Out of Space” as a tribute to The Prodigy who were meant to headline Highfield this year before the tragic passing of Keith Flint.
Die Orsons bought their hyperactive rap to the Blue stage accompanied by a giant inflatable moth-squid (?). The four frontmen had outfits matching the eccentricity of the show: one in a suit jacket, purple leggings and a green open-faced ski mask, one in a red suit and white shirt, one in matching, brightly patterned shorts and shirt and one in a bright pink jumper and tracksuits. The crowd jumped and moshed, fired up by the contagious energy of the band.
All members of Enter Shikari came on stage wearing matching grey-beige shirts and trousers. Within a few songs, lead singer Rou Reynolds was on a small platform at the first crowd dividers. After sitting on the bar while singing “Anaesthetist”, he ran into the crowd to dance with his fans.
On the green stage everyone’s dad, Thees Uhlmann & Band, played a homely, down to earth set peppered with new songs. Wine glass in hand, insisting we all text him when we get home safe, Thees Uhlman put his best Dad moves on show. He dedicated a song to Avicii, for whom he had a lot of love, and was overcome with emotion when the crowd started an impromptu chorus after “Zum Laichen und Sterben ziehen die Lachse den Fluss hinauf”. He even stopped the drummer, who had started paying the next song, to conduct the crowd.
The clouds darkened as we headed over to Bones MC & RAF Camora. The slow countdown on the screens interspersed with images of fast cars, pet alligators, guns and bling neatly summarised the theme of the show going forward. The 60 minutes of gangster rap culminated in fireworks and a giant animatronic alligator with glowing eyes taking up half the stage.
The penultimate band on the Green Stage today were AnnenMayKantertereit. Baby-faced with a voice like 60 years of whisky and cigarettes, lead singer Henning May’s soulful ballads were not what you would expect from the main stage at 9 pm. However, the band had paid their dues, working their way up the line up over the past years. The arena was packed for this mellow, laid-back set. A great warm-up for Thirty Seconds to Mars.
My personal highlight were the headliners of the blue stage, the hip-hop/pop duo SDP. Starting off behind a canvas, a remix of their new album opener (“Übertreiba”) playing, the band gave 110% from the moment the canvas dropped. Running and jumping across the stage, they teased out every last ounce of the crowd’s energy. Giant beach balls were released into the crowd for “Leider Wieder Da” and the set was accompanied by flames and fireworks. Things slowed down for a couple of ballads in the second half, both singers coming down into the crowd to sing “So Schön Kaputt”. The final song finished with sparks flying over the crowd and the band took their customary photo with the audience.
Jared Leto, frontman of Thirty Seconds to Mars came on stage for their headlining slot dressed in sparkly white robes with a long cape. I was expecting a costume change at some point, but he stayed with this “Glam-Jesus” look for the duration of the show. The first wave of the crowd was covered with flags, an unusual sight for a German festival. This was all well and good until a load of large balloons were released during “This Is War”. These promptly got stuck between the flag poles. It was amusing to watch, though probably not the intended effect. The same happened again with the myriad of animal pool inflatables that were thrown into the crowd a short while later during “Rescue Me”. There was a certain dissonance between the vibe of the music and the flamingos, unicorns and dolphins bobbing around in the crowd. At one point, Jared Leto was picking fans from the crowd to join him on stage before getting distracted by a red balloon hovering behind him on stage, presumably caught in the airflows on stage. Leto stood there mesmerised for a moment before returning to picking fans to join him. The show finished with a large group of fans running on to the stage behind him while he sang “Closer To The Edge”.
Temperatures reached 30°C on Sunday, so we took a break at the festival beach, complete with ice cream and a swim in the lake.
Up bright and early, Schmutzki played a wake-up gig on the campsite at 11 am, which is as good as 6 am by festival standards. There were no amps but the gathered crowd sang everything, including the guitar riffs. They even managed to get a crowd surfer all the way around the little platform the band was on. That afternoon, Schmutzki returned to the Blue Stage, as did the crowd, which had now doubled in size. I did not expect to see the biggest circle pit of the weekend in the last 20 seconds of a show at four in the afternoon on a Sunday, but there you go. The backdrop was a small, red banner with the band logo, hanging at a jaunty angle behind the stage, perfectly encapsulating the band’s scrappy attitude.
After a brief afternoon downpour, the sun was back for Frank Turner & Sleeping Souls. The smartly dressed British folk-punk band addressed the crowd in near-perfect German and encouraged them to join in by jumping and clapping along. Turner explained that at past festivals he had the issue of explaining what mandolins were to punk crowds and what circle pits were to folk crowds. Luckily, the Highfield crowd were familiar with both and duly formed the latter. As per Turner’s instructions, everyone walked slowly at first before speeding up as the song got going. Very Fun.
Old punk favourites The Offspring attracted a huge crowd as the weather darkened. They played a couple of new songs including “It Won’t Get Better” and turned the arena into a field of stars during “Gone Away” as fans held up lighters and phones. As the set moved on to fan favourites such as “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” and “The Kids Aren’t Alright”, lightning forked in the distance. The organisers declared a weather warning, but the party went on. Due to the slight overlap between acts on the two stages, a large section of the crowd started moving towards the Blue Stage during “You’re Gonna Go Far Kid”, dancing and singing along the whole way.
Just as Blue Stage headliners Fettes Brot began playing the thunderstorm arrived and the heavens opened. The performance was temporarily suspended, and the arena evacuated. The storm passed and the show was back on the row within 45 minutes. Fettes Brot put on a fun, high-energy hip-hop show backdropped by a selection of large neon signs. Like many other performers of the weekend, the band encouraged everyone to vote in the upcoming state election as well as join the upcoming Friday’s for Future event. In general, the festival had a very pro-democracy message, with large banners encouraging punters to vote and get involved with politics.
Sunday night headliner Steve Aoki’s stage design was simply a screen across the whole stage, continued across the front his decks. After the intro, he popped up in the centre of the stage and kicked off with “Bella Ciao”. Thanking everyone for staying through the rain he set off into a visually intense set including streamers and pyrotechnics. The screens created a seamless image across the whole stage with him in the middle and showed a concoction of weird and wonderful video clips. Alongside various 3d rendered visuals, he also sampled clips from Game of Thrones, Pokemon and Lion King. For the latter, he used the circle of life scene but with his face on Simba’s face. Aoki was visibly having a great time on stage, climbing on his decks and inciting a lot of audience hand waving. The show was a rollercoaster of emotions, with moving tributes to Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and Avicii as well as Aoki throwing giant cakes into the audiences face during “Cakeface”. The rave EDM style was unusual for the Highfield festival, and the crowd was a little thinner than you would expect for a headliner. But those that stayed were treated to a psychedelic party to see off the weekend in exuberant style.
Highfield Festival is a perfect little festival with a huge range of acts. The lakeside setting and the international mix of bands make it a gem in the festival calendar, and one not to be missed.