On Garde

Peaches performs at the Yo! Sissy festival in Berlin. (All photos: Jason Harrell)

IF IN BERLIN the days have a tendency to bleed into one another forming a sort of haze—a gray one, to be precise, punctuated with rare bursts of sunshine—then the fabric of the nights is most definitely a fuzz of whirling dance-floor lights, glitter, makeup, and bodies of every and any and no gender in various states of undress. Amid the noise, the excitement, the inner violence of our daily exercises in being and creating, it can be easy to forget that we are living among a bevy of talented creatures. Yo! Sissy, the city’s premiere queer music festival, became the first event ambitious enough to unite them all, people who have often collaborated, bartended, DJ’d, binge-watched RuPaul’s Drag Race episodes, drank, snorted drugs, quarreled, laughed, cried, barfed, and slept together—but not necessarily all in the same place and at the same time. Spread over the last weekend in July, there were three different times and three different places where sonic and performative fabulosities of all crypto-perverse shadings could be shaken out and reveled in, reminding us—and our distinguished visitors—that despite (or because of) our occasional petty rivalries, our rampant inconsistencies, and our often blazing bouts of incoherency, Berlin is still the homeland of the twenty-first-century avant-garde, and these are the people that make it so.

On Friday, I departed early from musician Ralf Thiessies’s Neukölln apartment, where most of Berlin’s legendary and difficult-to-remember weekends these days seem to begin—and end, for that matter (if they end at all). We made our way to Schwuz, one of Berlin’s oldest gay clubs, where we were greeted by Hungry (Johannes J. Jaruraak), the city’s most style-savvy drag terrorist, arriving just in time for the Hidden Cameras. The set was a welcome-home of sorts for Cameras mastermind Joel Gibb, who sat out the winter in Los Angeles, and featured the surprise debut of the Pet Shop Bears chorus—a back-up group of fur-chested bros who are also behind the beloved eponymous monthly disco soirée.

Left: Ralf Thiessies and Fridolin Körner of Dievondavon. Right: Peaches.

“I had my bag stolen today with my passport in it,” announced headliner JD Samson as she took the stage. “So if anyone wants to hang out, I’ll be here for a while.” With the cosmic fuckery prolonged further, sound problems prevented Samson and her band from launching into her set, leading her guitarist to take a stab at stand-up comedy. (“How many lesbians does it take to screw in a light bulb? ‘That’s not funny.’ ”) Once unglitched, Samson lit into an energetic electro-punk barrage that left the dance floor scuffed and sweat-drenched.

For those favoring the summer outdoor music festival feel, Saturday’s noon-to-morn at Neue Heimat, with four stages to go between, was the clear centerpiece. Two of Berlin’s biggest pop talents—Snax and Dievondavon—were given unusual afternoon slots, though those who made it out were treated to a couple of the festival’s critical high points. Analog synth-pop mavericks Dievondavon launched the day to the buzz of a small but crazed fan base; their live shows are a rarity, as the two members, Thiessies and Fridolin Körner, live in different cities. “Ralf is such a great lyricist!” La JohnJoseph accurately observed; being a fine lyricist himself (his act, Alexander Geist, would perform the following night at SO36), he would know.

With his own hybrid and always-danceable fusion of disco, funk, and electro, Snax has been a staple of the Berlin music scene since moving here more than a decade ago. His dinnertime set in the garden of Neue Heimat featured new songs from his upcoming album, as well as faves like “Hat Trick” and “Honeymoon’s Over,” before slamming the dust-kicking crowd with the definitive disco track of the 2010s, “Up and Coming Children.”

Left: JD Samson. Right: Crystal Waters.

Most of the afternoon was devoted to hip-hop, reflecting queer(-friendly) musicians’ increasing preoccupation with the genre; mainstays and up-and-comers like Black Cracker, Ricashay, Cakes Da Killa, and Dai Burger played. Among them, TT the Artist was a revelation. Twerk-worthy beats, brilliant rhymes, and backing by two stars of the Berlin voguing scene—the handsome and elegant Ray Melody and his sister-in-step Bamby Melody of the House of Melody—all made for a grand performance. Peaches arrived just in time for TT’s set, enthusing, “I want to collaborate with her!”

The choice of Crystal Waters as Saturday’s headliner seemed a bit random programming-wise, but OK . . . For me, the long day’s journey into night reached its apotheosis with Ziúr, the new electro-core solo project of Mika Risiko, who also plays in the band Crime.

The third and final day was an all-night extravaganza at the legendary club SO36 where, according to legend, Kippenberger’s ghost can still be sensed through nostrils encrusted with bad Berlin speed. If Saturday’s theme was “bounce,” Sunday allowed for more layered programming, with melancholic entrées like Dan Bodan and Evvol interspersed with the international art-pop vanguard Alexander Geist, which was introduced by the delightfully obscene, never-sober drag hag Olympia Bukkakis as an “all-Catholic boy band.”

Left: Joel Gibb of Hidden Cameras. Right: Dan Bodan.

Finally—because a festival this sugary requires two cherries on top—the fest spewed its full froth with twin appearances by sisters in salacity, Christeene and Peaches. Christeene has come so far since I clumsily did the sound for her first performance in Berlin back in 2011 at PORK, the Sunday-night exercise in conceptual slumming overseen by the mythical and much missed Brian Tennessee Claflin, who passed away last summer. As she exposed her butthole to the cheering hundreds at SO36, I almost felt a twinge of regret that I now had to share her with so many people. Silly, because of course she was never my discovery to begin with, and now that I think about it, it’s amazing and wonderful that this conceptual drag extremist parody of American female pop stardom looks like she might have a chance of actually topping the very thing she embodies so trashily.

Peaches was a last-minute addition to the program, and what better choice to bring the festival to a close than the beloved expat priestess of punk and spunk. Like Snax, Peaches used the opportunity to try out some tunes from an upcoming album, before launching into a selection of her perennial favorites, diving into an ecstatic crowd, who backed her on the finale, “Fuck the Pain Away.” Like Gibb, Peaches seems to be spending most of her time in LA these days—fair enough, those Canadians got enough of the bone-chilling cold growing up—though if anything, her set at Yo! Sissy cemented the fact that Berlin is where she will always truly belong: a city where nearly every artist and musician you meet moonlights as a DJ, where the lines among the art, music, and nightlife worlds remain as blurred as our memories of what went down the morning after.

Left: Christeene. Right: TT the Artist with Ray Melody and Bamby Melody.