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Nina HagenNina Hagen
Astra Kulturhaus, Berlin
Tuesday May 15 2012 


It's a homecoming, of sorts, tonight. Nina Hagen plays her former home town of East Berlin as part of a thirty-odd date European tour that takes in just about every part of the continent - even minor outlying islands such as Corsica.

Nina is not, however, playing that minor outlying island known as the UK. Well, you know what they say. If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountain, to use a possibly inappropriate proverb (Islam being one religion Nina Hagen hasn't embraced...yet). East Berlin it is, then.

Although the East/West Berlin divide might be purely notional these days, there's plenty of communist concrete on view inside the venue to remind us which side of the line we're on. The Astra Kulturhaus was built in the 1950s - and it's still got the decor to prove it - as an official culture bunker where the youth of East Berlin could get their party on under controlled conditions. Tonight, with any luck, things might be slightly less controlled.

A motley assortment of Hagen-heads gather as showtime approaches. With a 40-odd year career behind her, Nina Hagen's fans encompass everyone from avant-rockers of a certain age to wide-eyed young punkers who've come to witness the woman known as the Mother Of Punk (which does rather beg the question, who's the daddy?).

But even the widest-eyed young punker isn't as wide-eyed as Nina herself, whose almost supernaturally expressive face makes the stage her natural home. Here she comes, striding on with a businesslike air, casting appraising glances at the crowd. She projects her presence to the very back of the hall with nothing more than a raised eyebrow and sardonically pursed lips. She has a mesmeric quality that commands attention even when she's not rocking out like a full-throttle punker-mama.

And it must be said that tonight's performance isn't all about the punk. For much of the show, Nina totes a 12-string guitar, and installs herself upon a stool. Disconcertingly, it all gets a bit singalong-around-the camNina Hagenpfire at times. But, again, the sheer glowering presence of Nina Hagen means that even her more whimsical acoustic moments have a steel core. She's probably the only performer who could make the old Sunday school standard 'This Train Bound For Glory' sound like an act of defiance.

The more politically charged songs pack an undeniable punch - such as her quietly powerful radical-folkie take on Theodor Fontane's 1857 poem 'Das Trauerspiel von Afghanistan', which has accumulated many more layers of meaning in the years since then. Nina's voice, loaded with grim disdain, rasps over her acoustic twangling with baleful intensity.

But then again, it's not all acousticky. Nina is never reluctant to let her band cut loose, crank the guitars and bring the noise. 'Soma Koma' rumbles with suitable menace, not at all diminished by Nina's sudden production of a hat with wedding veil attached, out of which she pulls fortunes. Not for the first time, I'm struck by the notion that there are some things only Nina Hagen can get away with. In the hands of any other performer, the wedding veil 'n' fortunes routine would have simply seemed rather twee. Nina Hagen does it, and everyone is genuinely on tenterhooks to see what's next out of the hat.

What's next out of the musical hat is 'Boom' - in which the band are given their head, and in turn give it some heads-down, rifftastic punk rock welly. On 'Hava Nagila' Nina's vocal swells like a one-woman revivalist choir, while 'Jesus Ist Ein Freund Von Mir is a rollicking, jaunty thing, and if the lyrics are hardly the stuff of deep meaning  - 'Jesus ist ein Freund von mir/Ich hab ein Freund in Jesus' is about as profound as it gets - nobody can doubt Nina's sincerity. She can take material that in the hands of any other artist would have an audience scoffing 'Oh, come off it!' - and pull everyone along.

Nina HagenDepeche Mode's 'Personal Jesus' sounds downhome and bluesey in Nina's rendition, a treatment that actually suits the song rather well. And, at the very end, possibly as a touch of relief for those fans who've heard quite enough about Jesus for one night, 'TV Glotzer' comes roaring and churning at us, a righteous blast of ye old punk rock, Nina Hagen style.

The song, of course, is an almost-cover - it started life as The Tubes' 'White Punks On Dope' before Nina Hagen took the spanners to it. Which is just what Nina Hagen does, of course. She re-engineers songs to fit her own style, pushes everything into her own strange art-zone, adds a certain measure of surrealism and a hefty slug o' Jesus - and somehow, astonishingly, it all works.

It's certainly working here, on the Astra's communist concrete stage. We're all wide eyed in the culture bunker tonight.

Nina Hagen: Website | Facebook

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find Nina Hagen by name here.

Find a Nina Hagen album review here.

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