A whisper of winter snaked around the gritty parking lot of Berghain as shoulders shuffled through its heavy doors; Berlin’s temple of techno was undergoing a transformation on this unassuming Wednesday evening as San Francisco garage stalwarts Thee Oh Sees twiddled with their amps and twirled their cables, preparing to hold a rather different service to those dark and grimy weekend benders that the venue is so infamous for.
An industrial behemoth of a structure, Berghain is, in its sheer coldness, beautiful to behold. Stone columns, not curved or engraved like their Roman counterparts, stand square and foreboding, heaving the ceiling well above the ground with their palms, and providing composed, detached shoulders to lean on in times of turbulence.
Adopted Berlin local Gelbart filled the evening’s support slot, an experimental electronic act reminiscent of a video game. It was music to be held in the hands, covered in buttons, miniature bleeping scales moving up and down in a warped console soundtrack. The vibe was playful, slightly kooky—perhaps a curious choice as precursor for the guitar-drenched, writhing noise of Thee Oh Sees, but an entertaining performance all the same.
After a brief spell, it was time for the real commotion to begin. Taking to the stage rather modestly, band founder and ship captain John Dwyer was nonetheless brimming with a humble, ready-to-burst energy that spilled out into various “Dankeschöns” throughout the night. The show had, like the previous time that the band passed through Berlin, completely sold out—a considerable feat in the city of electronic worship.
It was a tight triangle of three, the band members surging together to create an ear-splitting bubble of sound that pushed out at the stone walls and threatened to make them quiver at the knees. Colored lights blinked behind the stage, first slowly, then to heartbeat time, pushing eyes and then necks to an abandoned roll. The set was a beast, head thrown back and chest bared, one to ride out like a wave—and it wasn’t long before crowd members began to lurch and throw themselves from the stage, moving with involuntary snap-drummed propulsion. It was loud, abrasive, and raucous. The security guard in the front row was angelically unobtrusive, arms neatly folded and eyes constantly scanning his periphery; even his head was pulled into a delighted nod as the night traversed its wayward territory. The set contained a healthy mix from Dwyer’s impressive wingspan of a back catalogue, including a number from the most recent album, “Drop,” a thundering, ground-rumbling record that injected a sweaty intensity into the atmosphere. At least one shoe went flying overhead in the thick of the writhing pit—more treacherous than it may at first seem, as the ground was covered in a thick layer of broken glass that made the room often times feel more like a booby trap than a venue.
After leaving the stage to thunderous applause, an encore was righteously demanded. Beer bottles slammed into the stage in a primal rhythm, rousing the crowd to a hysteria of longing that outlasted both an attempt to turn on the house lights, and another, usually infallible tactic: beginning to play half-hearted music through the stereo. Eventually the band sidled back to the fore, switching on amps once again. “I would’ve felt like such an asshole sitting out there without playing another song,” said Dwyer apologetically, “but I’m telling you, we only know how to play one more song, and it isn’t a fast one.” It mattered little; the final offering was a curvaceous slow mover that brought the show to a delicious end, one that settled sweetly on the tongue. Trudging toward the stairs afterward, hair mottled with sweat, and shoe soles crunching and collecting glittery shards, the concert felt like a true garage adventure.