One of the oldest and largest gatherings in the goth-industrial scene, Wave-Gotik-Treffen has taken place in Leipzig, Germany every Whitsun weekend for the last 26 years. Wave-Gotik-Treffen is a well established part of the cultural spirit of the city. The first incarnation of Wave-Gotik-Treffen in 1992 offered a line-up of eight bands on one stage over two days and attracted some 2,000 visitors. Only the Leipzig citizens who lived directly near the venue or camping area noticed the black clad young people with the weird hair. Today some 20,000 people from all over the world attend and WGT takes place at over 30 different venues throughout the city featuring some 200 acts. In addition to the concerts there are readings, comedy shows, art galleries and movies as well a market hall the size of a football field filled with vendors of gothic goods. The city organizes extra tram and bus services running 24 hours a day along the most travelled routes. Local shops goth up their window displays and restaurants create special menus featuring goth-friendly food such as black pasta or blood-red ice-cream guaranteed to turn the inside of your mouth vampire-red. These days the residents of Leipzig are quite fond of the goths, who are no longer all young, most certainly not all wearing black, and some who aren’t even goth.
The German scene is enormous compared to what I was used to in the U.S. Here goth is only a part of what the German’s refer to as “die Schwarze Szene”, or directly translated the “Black Scene”, which basically includes any music genre in which the fans and musicians primarily wear black. Although the word gothic, or rather “Gotik” dominates the name, the music at WGT reflects diversity of this blended scene. This diversity is even more extreme when it comes to the fashion worn by attendees, from modest and minimal black jeans and band t-shirts to trad-goths to over the top fantasy costumes reminiscent of the Cologne Carnival.
A few years after my first visit to WGT, I had the good fortune to move to Leipzig. Since 2010 my husband Holger and I have hosted a Thursday night Pre-WGT dinner at our home. This year a dozen local and faraway friends dropped by over the evening. A few came late or left early to attend the yearly gathering of English-speaking WGT-goers organized by Sadgoth or the opening club nights organized by enthusiastic fans who just can’t wait. The rest of us traded tips about new or obscure bands in the line-up. My goal this year was to focus mainly on bands which I had never seen live before. Before the schedule was published, I had marked some thirty bands as ‘interesting’ or ‘must see’ on the handy WGT-Guide app, but with stages located throughout the city it’s impossible to do it all.
One of the first events on Friday is the “Victorian Picnic”, originally organized in 2008 by Viona Ielegems as an intimate gathering for WGT attendees who also have a passion for historical clothing. The picnic has become the most photographed symbol of WGT, although the WGT does not organize it, in fact the picnic hasn’t been formally organized by anyone in years. It’s now a massive event featuring outrageous fantasy costumes, with thousands of people attending, split about 60/40 between picnic participants and onlookers and photographers. However, in the opinion of many WGT regulars, it has become an event which has little to do with goth or Victorian subculture. However, since the T in WGT stands for Treffen, German for meeting, I have a feeling that the picnic will continue for years to come as a gathering place for WGT attendees and Leipzigers alike.
I started Friday evening in the imposing Kuppelhalle to hear Nikolas Schreck’s current musical project which he describes as Schreckadelic and Schreckphonic. Then I head back to the city center for Jarboe’s acoustic performance in a performance theater. Next it was a mad dash back to the Kuppelhalle for Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio, where three friends of mine were part of the show as flag bearers. Who puts four beautiful women on stage and forgets to point some stage lights at them!? But I managed to photograph my darlings anyway. After ORE, I headed to the Agra fairgrounds, home to WGT’s largest concert hall, to meet friends for the midnight special: Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls & Edward Ka-Spel of The Legendary Pink Dots, supported by violinist Patrick Wright. The combined talent and stage presence of this trio made for an enchanting performance of new material as well as classic Dresden Dolls songs reinterpreted.
Saturday began with a brunch at home with good friends and then a stop at Monopol for the last 10 minutes of a talk about “Sonic Magic in Theory and Practice” and to check out some of the dark themed art on display. There is never enough time in the day during WGT and I was off again 30 minutes later to catch Soviet Soviet at a venue across town. I’m always thrilled to discover young bands who capture the post-punk and shoegaze sound without being clones of their heroes.
The next venue, a former municipal swimming hall, was nearly full to capacity, but Holger and I managed to get in for the start of Azar Swan. There were moments when Zohra Atash’s singing invoked Karin Dreijer Andersson (The Knife), but I was left feeling ‘meh’ because of the muddy sound. Unfortunately that issue continued with Lebanon Hanover, which is a pity, but I await great things from both of these bands who have only begun. After that experience, I was in no way prepared to call it a night, so I headed to Gothic Pogo Party, a completely separate festival also occurring in Leipzig parallel to WGT. The GPP focuses on old-school trad-goth and wave music. I drank, I danced, I laughed and suddenly the sun was up and the birds were chirping. The party was still going hard when I finally gave in and grabbed one of the first morning trams around 5 a.m.
After a few hours of rest I managed to leave the house late afternoon and it was so worth it. Soft Kill put on such an outstanding performance that I nearly considered not bothering to attend any more concerts that evening. Everyone seemed to be headed to the Agra for scene legends The Mission and Skinny Puppy, but when we arrived there were no lines to get in. I heard that the night before when VNV Nation headlined that venue, the crowd was big enough to create a long unhappy line of people who didn’t get in. There really is a rift between generations here. Sometimes when you watch the concert of a band that’s been popular for decades, the musicians seem a bit bored as if they’re just going through the motions. Wayne Hussey remains a passionate musician who ended the show with a heartfelt rendition of Marianne, which in my opinion beat the hell out of any Sisters of Mercy show I’ve ever attended. Skinny Puppy was a bit of a disappointment because half of the reason to see them live is to watch the stage show, but here the stage wasn’t built high enough to allow anyone who wasn’t in the first few rows to see anything.
On Monday I finally made it to the Leipzig City History Museum’s small installation about goths who lived in East Germany, which was really interesting. Not only did their parents think they were up to no good, the government spied on them relentlessly, convinced that the movement had secret political aims.
I only had three bands on my plan for the final evening: Der Fluch, one of the first German Gothic-Rock bands, and two early industrial legends Sutcliffe Jugend and Cabaret Voltaire. SJ provided violent electronic power noise and a vocalist who looked ready to dive into the ground to pick a fight. During the break between bands, I overheard more than one person asking if Voltaire would be performing alone or with his band. No darlings, this is not a cabaret show featuring Aurelio Voltaire! CV’s rather techno flavored performance relied on a massive deck of keyboards and control panels and cut-up projections of both human suffering and joy.
Although the concerts had ended the clubs stayed open offering a great place for one last gathering of friends from far and near, old friends and new ones. The last dance floor usually shuts down between 8 and 9 on Tuesday morning and over the day the WGT guests start to leave Leipzig. By Wednesday morning, those of us left in Leipzig are already dreaming of the next time that darkness takes over our city.