August is tourist high-season in Hamburg and they keep coming here right up through September. I can see why. It’s northern Germany, so… the weather is very changeable, the weather forecaster is wrong 50% of the time, and you never know when a rain shower might turn up. On the plus side, at this time of year it’s warm no matter what the clouds are bringing you. Many evenings turn into “lauschiger Nächte”, warm lovely nights with no wind and no regrets if you forgot your sweater at home. When you get a sunny day it seems like it will never end.
This is the perfect time of year for busking and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. Normally I only go out at the end of the week because everybody needs a day off and Mondays have always been slow for me. Hamburg weather being what it is… I keep it flexible and let the sky tell me if it’s going to be a busking day.
There are many, many busking spots on the Landungsbrücken, but there is a dramatic difference between how great the good spots are and how stingy the bad spots are. It cost me a lot of trial and error to figure out where to get the best acoustics and to be pitched up close enough to the stream of pedestrians to get the coins to flow in. I’m not going to give up my best exact locations because I want to keep this little edge I’ve earned… but I will give a few helpful tips. If you don’t earn 2-5 Euros in your first ten minutes, move on to another spot. A bad start will not turn itself around magically. If you’re in a good spot, someone will notice you right away. This is exactly the place where people show up looking for random street art to entertain them along the scenic Hamburg waterfront. If you have to pick between a spot which looks beautiful, or a spot which is closer to the flow of pedestrians, go for the flow every time. And pay good attention to the acoustics, (just like you always do, right, buskers?) It does you no good if people can’t hear you. The highway which borders the river is very loud here and I think that this contributes to the weird feast-or-famine nature of Landungsbrücken busking.
If you do show up to busk here on your travels, please do me a favor and check in with the people who are working near your spot; the ticket-sellers for the Hafenrundfahrt, the people selling Fischbrötchen, the bartenders… please make sure that your act is not too loud for them. If your music is loud, then it’s best to wait until 4pm or later, when most of the little pop-up shops are closed; or just move along the waterway a little further. There is more than one spot here, don’t despair if it takes you a few tries to set up. As of now, amps are allowed down here by the water… well…technically amps are against the law for street musicians in Hamburg but if you don’t bother anybody, in some places it’s no problem. Landungsbrücken is a place where kind and clever people can use amps and drums to good effect.
I guess this goes without saying, but please never engage in a sound war with another busker, me or anyone else. I have heard wonderful stories of busking adventures in Barcelona; but when I finally got a chance to visit I found out that the whole city had cracked down on street art and only a few furtive performers were out there lurking like scared mice. I know damn well why. Too many people who are willing to schlep an amp or a PA out to some public spot act like the street is theirs, they can play as loud as they want, they can drown out everybody else… don’t be that Arschloch, please. Germans are very tolerant people and maintaining an atmosphere of mutual respect is the key to keeping it that way. Please don’t piss in my pool. Everyone else on the street is just as important as you are, and no we don’t care if you dragged 200 pounds worth of gear around and are feeling entitled. Be nice, or get shut down, possibly with a fine. Word on the street is… if your instrument gets confiscated by a cop, it’s 80 Euros to get it back out of jail. Someone else is in your spot? Throw them a little tip and ask them when they are planning to finish. Find another spot and wait it out. Jerks stay home!
My favorite things about the Landungsbrücken:
1) Beautiful views and peaceful, open-minded vibe
2) Lots of tourists from all over the class spectrum looking for some action
3) Many inexpensive ferries and boat trips start here so it’s a fantastic adventure meet-up location
4) Many museums and restaurants nearby
5) Groups of bachelor and bachelorette parties in stupid outfits, ready to sing with you and pour you a shot if you can intuit what they want to hear. Ready to make fun of you in a laughy-friendly way if you can’t pull it off…
6) Fishbrötchen… find out why the humble herring has become my new favorite fish. Matjes is marinated herring and so is Bismark. If you want to find the freshest fish, don’t stop at the first place you see. Go a little farther until you find some out-of-the-way spot which has to be good in order to survive.
7) This is true everywhere in Germany but I still marvel at the miracle of it: drinking on the street is legal. So, if you are a wacky loud rocker like me, you can count on people being loosened up enough to appreciate it. And you can sip at your beer between songs in public and NO ONE cares.
8) It’s very easy to access this place via public transit.
OK now that I’m done with this little PSA I think I had a story in my pocket…
I went out busking Sunday and Monday evening because the prediction is that rain is coming later in the week. Sunday was off the hook. I was rather surprised by the warm welcome to my music. Why? I’ve been recovering from tendonitis this last year-and-a-half, and since my comeback I’ve been mostly using the least-offensive music I can think of to make money on the street in Hamburg; in my case that’s Irish tunes and Seemans Lieder. (German sea-chanties and pop songs from old sea-movies matey. Ahoi!) Recently though, I saw a duo of street-drummers surrounded by a huge crowd, and a dude who looked kinda like Harry Potter playing rock covers on guitar with an amp and microphone, and figured that I can take a risk and Rock the Hell Out when I’m at Landungsbrücken. I played my new grooves which I’m developing, using soul, hip-hop and New Orleans beats… and got an insane number of compliments for my playing… many of them with money attached. An out-of-work Polish guy brought me a big cold Jever so I could play a second set for him. A weird-but friendly Austrian traveler dude named Richard took a few harmonica solos which were pretty good… and then wanted to be my new band-mate. When he brought out his mini-tambourine I put an end to that aspiration. No thanks, buddy, happy travels though. If you have a tambourine don’t use it around me. Those chinga-chingas are always louder than the vocals so I don’t care if you’re the world’s greatest percussion champion, I don’t wanna hear it! Odds are that if you have a tambourine in your backpack, and you are NOT on the way to a gig, you are not any good at playing it.
A little 6-year-old Turkish boy stopped to hear me playing one of the new soul tunes… the one I was slaving over last winter. It has a heavy back beat, a ton of space in the rhythm, a minor-major thing, a solo which I still mess up… this song is called Love is Razors and I’m getting ready to record it for the Rebel Lovers first album… but holy moly that kid. He was smiling ear to ear, grabbing the railing and headbanging to that groove. He was taken to another magical place by button accordion music. His family noticed, and stopped to give me tips and take selfies with me. Something is going very very right when your song grabs the kids like that and they get lost in the music. The well-off German tourists were very happy to hear somebody who wasn’t just playing the old standards on a squeezebox. I got tips from older folks who enjoyed the boogie-woogie, Cajun, and reggae grooves from an American weirdo just fine. Shoot, all this time I thought they just wanted Seeman’s Lieder…
Now I’m smiling ear-to-ear. I have the go-ahead to get as freaky as I want with the tunes here at the Landungsbrücken. Woo-hoo! This is a very good thing for Rebel Lovers because we’re not going to be another folk band. Maybe I can get Ingo to come out with me one of these days…
Monday evening was especially fine weather and the nearly-full moon rose in this impossible shade of pink through the rigging of the Ricki Rickmers. My crappy photos never do the moon justice… this was a giant pink moon, full of romance and death. I caught the ferry back to Wilhelmsburg and watched the river sparkling in the moon-and-city light and had a very satisfying jingle in my bag on the way home. I love having busking as one of my jobs, especially at the end of summer.