Nachtdigital 2017: Five key performances

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  • Most people who start electronic music festivals do so for the same reason: to share and celebrate music with likeminded people. These events usually begin small and gradually expand, driven by a desire to share the music with an ever greater audience. At some point, business might become profitable, so the expansion takes on a financial bent. Before you know it, you've moved site, doubled in capacity and are fighting it out year-on-year to convince the hottest acts in the world to come and play for you. This is the path most commonly pursued, but there is another way. Nachtdigital, like Labyrinth, Freerotation and a small handful of others, has never wanted to become a big festival. The team would rather keep the site and capacity small, preserving the kind of loose and silly atmosphere you rarely find at such established events. Even after 20 years, making money is not a concern. Instead, the aim today is as it ever was: to put on exceptional music and, in their own words, to revel in "the indispensable sensation of being together." Of course, part of the reason Nachtdigital hasn't ballooned in size is because the team has never lost its love for deep and weird dance music. This year's 20th edition saw more acts than ever perform, with the usual intriguing balance of big-name guests and talented locals. Thematically, there was a focus on first-time collaborations (KLM, MON, Ben UFO back-to-back Blawan) and special projects (Morskie Oko, HW Rhapsody), while several renowned dance floor artists doubled up with sets in the ambient stage (Ital, Jane Fitz). There was even a headliner in Jeff Mills, a practice that Nachtdigital has largely shunned in the past. But as important as it is, the lineup is only one aspect of the experience. A friend of mine who cares little for house and techno described it as the best festival she'd ever been to, which says everything about the little details: the loveable décor, the way the sun sets over the lake, the unpretentiousness of running a musical bingo session fuelled by inflatables and cheesy chart hits. It's these elements that make Nachtdigital such a brilliant party. There really isn't another event like it in the world. Here are five key performances from across the weekend.
    Ben UFO back-to-back Blawan Pushed closer to the beach for 2017, Nachtdigital's Open Air Stage was a feast of colour during the first half of Friday night. While some members of the Giegling crew performed, others assembled a children's party-style set using dozens of balloons and foil chandeliers that shimmered and swayed like jellyfish in the breeze. It might've been nice to leave the décor up, but instead the remaining acts played against a standard backdrop of flashlights and the occasional strobe. The radiancy returned just before 6 AM in the form of heavenly sunshine and cloudless blue skies. As the hour struck, Ben Thomson and Jamie Roberts, AKA Ben UFO and Blawan, took the stage for their debut back-to-back. The immaculate weather was always going to feel better suited to Thomson. Over the course of three hours, he bolstered the rosy mood with the full spectrum of club sounds, from vibrant jams (LAPS' "Who Me?") and percussive bangers (Pangaea's mix of Loleatta Holloway's "Stand Up") to classic US house (Glenn Underground's "May Detroit"). Roberts was less varied, responding with deeper and gloomier techno cuts (The Analogue Cops, Eduardo De La Calle) that, at times, contrasted sharply. His selections, though, were largely excellent in their own right, which kept the set from sounding too disjointed. It wasn't the most fluid back-to-back of the weekend, but the music was so damn good it barely mattered.
    Jeff Mills Part of what makes Nachtdigital special is that, as a punter, you get a strong sense that all the acts who perform are overjoyed to be there. It's not just another gig. Because of this, the festival doesn't really do headliners—they prefer to book people with whom they have personal relationships. 20th anniversaries, though, are for pushing the boat out, and so the team locked in Jeff Mills. It was a performance that promised so much, but, for a number of reasons, was never quite the showstopper it should have been. Delayed soundchecks earlier in the day forced Mills to start an hour later than planned on the Open Air Stage. (In the end, this meant he played two hours instead of three.) The moon hung fat and yellow in the night sky, while onstage blue lights flashed in zig-zags. Head down, Mills jumped straight in, mixing lightning fast and riding the pitch control hard. It's a technique that usually whips a crowd up in minutes, but on Saturday the sound was noticeably quieter than it had been all weekend. As such, it never felt fully immersive. It was a shame because the music—spacey loops brimming with atmosphere—was timeless, the kind of techno that you could listen to for days on end. About an hour in, Mills dropped "The Bells," which got a few extra fists pumping, as did a few late, Jedi-style moves on the 909. Never, though, did he achieve full lift-off.
    Night Moves (Jane Fitz & Jade Seatle) The upside of Mills being cut short was that people could scuttle over to The Tent and catch the final two hours of Night Moves, AKA Jane Fitz & Jade Seatle. It was the London-based duo's first set since October and the place was bubbling away nicely, though nowhere near full. (I heard reports of a mass exodus after Job Jobse and Wilhelm's hit-heavy set.) Gradually, they built it up until a solid sea of ravers—some brandishing lightsabers, others twirling umbrellas—were cutting hard shapes to their sparkling percussion, blissful melodies and insanely agile basslines. Fitz, when she wasn't on the decks, smiled uncontrollably, her lips and fingers miming in time with the music. Jaime Read's "Life In The Sea" and Elements Of Life's "Dark Intervals" were just two of dozens of killer highlights. Usually when the lights go up, there's a jab of relief to soften the disappointment, but this time I wished they could roll on forever.
    Deadbeat Nachtdigital prides itself on its varied music policy, and nowhere is this more on show than at the Ambient Stage. Drop into this cosy den anytime from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon and you could hear anything from Celtic drone and rock'n'roll to Madonna and Aphex Twin. On Sunday morning, between 6 and 8 AM, Scott Monteith, AKA Deadbeat, did what what few DJs do in there and performed standing up, dolling out dub and roots reggae to a tangle of horizontal bodies and tatty furniture. He was a picture of happiness, rocking along to the likes of Culture's "Two Sevens Clash" and King Jammy Meets Dry & Heavy's "In The Jaws Of The Tiger" while singing every word. Lively puts it too strong, but it was the cheeriest I saw the place all weekend. As if to see how far he could turn up the atmosphere, Monteith ended on an all-time classic—Max Romeo's "Chase The Devil"—and basked in the heavy applause.
    HW Rhapsody The Sunday afternoon at Nachtdigital is one of the loosest and most joyful atmospheres you'll find at a festival. With the booze flowing and the sun beating down, hundreds of grubby ravers clustered together by (or in) the lake, putting their all into the final few hours. This year, in celebration of the anniversary, the team extended the curfew until 6 PM, with long-term residents Manamana given the closing slot. Billed before them were HW Rhapsody, AKA Leipzig duo Onetake and Miami Müller. In 2016, I caught Onetake laying down headsy techno and UK bass on the Open Air Stage, but here it was all about chugging electronic disco, followed by an onslaught of party bangers. In among the tried-and-tested (Robin S's "Show Me Love," The Magician's remix of Lykke Li's "I Follow Rivers") were a few less expected: Flume's seasick remix of Disclosure's "You & Me" and, most bizarrely, a live recording of Erobique singing a German version of Toploader's "Dancing In The Moonlight" at Nachtdigital 2015. At some point during this late flurry, it all got too much for one reveller. He clambered onto the wooden booth, raised both arms wide and crowd-surfed for his life. Photo credits / Christian Rothe - Lead, Jeff Mills, HW Rhapsody Ronald Becker - Ben UFO, Night Moves, Deadbeat