Despite its reputation as a techno/electro venue, Berghain to me is the perfect location for certain bands and artists. Colin Stetson playing there a few days ago was one of them and his performance was deeply impressive and inspiring.
Holger Hiller started to play just moments after I entered the rather sparsely filled room. He and his supporting bandmate stood behind a table and besides the two musicians, their laptops and an analog synthesizer there was not much to be seen. Their set sounded pretty interesting in the beginning. Musically it was a mixture of minimalistic electronic beats and distinctive 80s elements combined with Hiller's characteristic vocals. What I liked about their set was that he managed to keep many influences of his band Palais Schaumburg vividly alive in his current music without simply sounding "retro". What I didn't like though was their performance itself. I just find looking at two people 'hiding' behind their laptops so boring to look at that I couldn't watch their whole set and went to look for some friends.
We stayed around the bar until there were first signs of Colin Stetson's show to start soon. It didn't take that much time to carry the table away and Stetson's huge bass saxophone was already on stage during Holger Hiller's set, reminding everyone of what was going to happen next. Colin Stetson came on stage, buckled his saxophone harness on and put a sort of collar with built-in throat microphone around his neck. Without any further soundchecking or intermissions he started to play and right from the beginning this was truly amazing.
There was nothing on stage besides Stetson and his two saxophones. Nonetheless his music immediately sounded like a full band performing and it filled up the whole industrial Berghain room with an atmosphere of warm drones. By now the venue and the space in front of the stage were also pretty well-filled. Colin Stetson's performance was impressive on many levels. It was fascinating on a technical level, his circular breathing technique and the ability to play without having to stop to breathe alone seemed impossible and stunning. This allowed him to create repetitive drones and melodies which he then combined with percussive sounds that he made using the saxophones valves. As if that wasn't enough he additionally sang high pitched harmonies while simultaneously doing all the other stuff. As I said, this did not sound like one person playing a saxophone but more like a hauntingly beautiful orchestra. His music is obviously influenced by well-known saxophone players such as Albert Ayler or Peter Brötzmann but it is not reduced to this free jazz side. When Statson's not performing solo he plays in current bands that are more connected to an indie pop context - such as Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, David Byrne or Bon Iver - and the most fascinating aspect of his performance to me was how coherent and integrative this combination of free jazz elements with pop melodies really sounded.
The audience obviously liked Stetson's music a lot, there was frenetic clapping after every single song and when he played his last song and left stage for good without returning for an encore, the clapping and cheering continued for quite a while. Also there was virtually no chattering during the songs, everyone listened attentively. The sound itself was perfect so that you could hear nearly every breath Stetson took and every valve he pressed. Together with the impressive architecture and the whole absurdity of this vast building and room this made Berghain again a remarkable concert venue for me.
I was glad to have seen this and the show easily made my top of the year list by now. And when you think about it, somehow it's awesome that Stetson managed to fill a techno club as a solo saxophone player.