Concerts and albums of the year

Once again, time and other commitments have defeated me and I am way behind with this blog. The last concert I reviewed here took place in October; I’ve seen quite a few more since then, but haven’t had the time to write reviews of them, much to my regret. I’d still really like to fill in the gaps, but who knows if or when I’ll get around to it. Anyway, here’s some kind of list of the ten best concerts I saw in 2014, of which only a few currently have links to reviews:

  1. Shearwater, Vienna Szene
  2. Pharmakon, Vienna Arena
  3. Oliver Welter, Vienna Floridsdorf
  4. Michael Nyman Band: Battleship Potemkin, Vienna Konzerthaus
  5. Kraftwerk: The Man Machine, Vienna Burgtheater
  6. Fire! Orchestra, Vienna Porgy & Bess
  7. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love, Vienna Blue Tomato
  8. William Basinski, Warsaw Pardon To Tu
  9. Peter Brötzmann/Jason Adasiewicz/Steve Noble, Warsaw Pardon To Tu
  10. Christian Fennesz/Peter Rehberg, Vienna Grelle Forelle

I’m still not much of a consumer of new recorded music, although my new part-time job as a reviewer for The Quietus has given me some very welcome exposure to 2014 albums.   With that in mind, here are five new releases I enjoyed this year:

  1. Peter Hammill, …all that might have been…
  2. Fennesz, Bécs
  3. Neil Cowley Trio, Touch and Flee
  4. Pharmakon, Bestial Burden
  5. Fire! Orchestra, Enter

See you in 2015!

Oliver Welter, Vienna Floridsdorf, 9 October 2014

It’s not often that you come across a completely new and surprising format for live concerts, but that’s what Vienna artist, actor and director Oliver Hangl has come up with in the excellent series of “walking concerts” that he curates. The idea is simple but brilliantly effective: the performer wears a microphone, the audience is kitted out with wireless headphones, and together they wander through the streets of the city, the singer serenading the audience as they go with music beamed magically into their heads. No need to worry about noise from passing cars, or that the music is too loud for the neighbourhood – there’s only you, your fellow audience members, the constantly changing environment and the performer, whom you can be as close to or as distant from as you wish. Every so often, the performer stops at an open space to sing and the audience gathers round. It’s a uniquely welcoming and intimate way to experience live music.

Hangl has put on quite a few of these walking concerts over the past couple of years, but last month’s event with Oliver Welter was the first I had attended. Regular readers of this blog will not need reminding of my admiration for Welter and his group Naked Lunch, and I remain stumped by the fact that no other writer in English seems to have cottoned on to their significance. Critical recognition is long overdue; in the meantime, Naked Lunch continue to impress with their wintry, melancholic alt-rock.

Anyway, this was my third time of seeing Welter solo. Following earlier outings at the Radiokulturhaus and the Chelsea, temples to state-sponsored culture and Anglophile scuzz respectively, here Welter and his guitar were to be found in and around the streets of Floridsdorf, the 21st district of Vienna. Kicking off on the steps of the town hall, headphones safely clamped over our ears, we negotiated pavements and pedestrian crossings before finding ourselves outside an Interspar supermarket. I really didn’t think we were going to go inside, but sure enough we did. Bemused shoppers looked up from their browsing as Welter launched into “God” from the Songs for the Exhausted album, its tone of savage pessimism sitting uncomfortably among the mops and buckets on display.

Our next stop, equally surreally, was a small funfair outside Floridsdorf station. Following a brief, tense period of negotiation between Hangl and a carousel operator, Welter – somewhat precariously, it must be said – took up position on the sweet little roundabout, whose young passengers were fortunate enough to catch the title track of the Universalove soundtrack album. Striding purposefully through the busy station itself, Welter delivered the first of several cover versions, Phil Spector’s “To Know Him Is To Love Him”. Here, as with later readings of Hot Chocolate’s “Emma” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High”, it’s Welter’s quavery, desolate voice and tender washes of acoustic guitar that turn familiar pop standards into expressions of forlorn, burnt-out romanticism.

Lighting out for the quiet residential streets behind Floridsdorf station, Welter answered my silent wishes with a stunning version of my favourite Naked Lunch song, “Military of the Heart” from This Atom Heart of Ours. The evening’s final setting, though, was as perfect as it was unexpected: a quiet riverside restaurant on the shores of the Alte Donau. The sun having long since set, an inky gloom descended as we stepped gingerly onto the jetty. After tearing his way through All Is Fever’s epic showstopper “The Sun”, Welter, in an inspired move that did more than anything else to make this event unforgettable, clambered aboard a small boat and proceeded to give the rest of the concert from there. Floating on the dark waters of the Alte Donau with a helmsman at the wheel, Welter’s anguished rendition of “The Retainer” was a heartstopping moment. As, indeed, was the evening’s last song, the despairingly bleak “The Funeral”, sung a capella by Welter as he and his craft drifted slowly out of vision and into the enveloping blackness of the night.

oliver

Konstruktivists, Vienna Fluc, 8 September 2014

Odd, not entirely satisfying evening of post-industrial synth pop from these British veterans of the genre. Konstruktivists is largely the project of Glenn Wallis, one-time auxiliary member of Whitehouse and associate of Throbbing Gristle, aided and abetted by a revolving cast of collaborators. For the current iteration of the group Wallis is joined by Vienna’s Mark Crumby, editor of the seminal Whitehouse cuttings book Still Going Strong which was at least partly responsible for sustaining the myth of Whitehouse in my mind when I bought it sometime in the 1990s. (It also included White Stained Covers, a free cassette of Whitehouse cover versions, of which more later.)

Given this enticing web of connections I really wanted to like Konstruktivists, but the evening never really took off for me. Having long harboured an unaccountable dislike of unconventional dress in all its forms, it was always going to be an uphill struggle from the moment Wallis took the stage in a top hat, white make-up, fake black eye and what looked suspiciously like a nappy worn outside his trousers. This get-up, ridiculous as it was, nevertheless made perfect sense in the context of Wallis’s approach to performance, which was just as uncompromising and baffling as his appearance.

Wallis sings in an unvarying monotone, his default voice a kind of muttered growl that rapidly becomes irritating and robs the songs of much of their communicative impulse. Due to heavy processing many of the words are inaudible, while those that survive seem to emerge from some opaque private cosmology. Stilted and rhetorical to the last, Wallis’s texts remain wilfully, defiantly obscure.

This is unfortunate, since at the same time Crumby is working wonders from behind his set-up (as far as I could tell, a mix of analogue and digital equipment). The electronic beats and textures are warm and seductive, the occasional blasts of noise cathartic and invigorating. Crumby takes as his starting point the glassy atmospheres of 20 Jazz Funk Greats-era TG and makes of them something startlingly fresh and unexpected. The sense of mystery is enhanced by complex and beautiful back-projected constructivist graphics, forming a constantly evolving visual parallel to the shifting sands of Crumby’s music.

Over at stage right, meanwhile, Wallis continues in stubbornly declamatory vein until, with some relief, the encore is reached. Much to my surprise, the finale is a track from White Stained Covers, “I’m Coming Round Your House” by Earphaser (presumably a pseudonym for Wallis himself). I seem to remember this effort being one of the highlights of the compilation, although it’s hard to say for sure since I haven’t heard it for at least 15 years, not having owned a cassette player in all that time. Gleefully puncturing the macho postures of the original, the song’s air of cheerful insouciance stands in marked contrast to the gruelling nature of what has gone before.

Songs out of Clay: an appreciation of Al Stewart

It seems unlikely that Al Stewart will ever play a concert in Vienna, which means I’m not going to be able to write a live review of him. But I still feel the need to write something about Stewart, since by now I’ve covered most of my favourite artists on this blog but never said a word about him, and since there are times when I feel that there is no greater lyricist and songwriter.

I can remember the first time I heard Al Stewart very well. It was in 1984 or thereabouts, in the spare room of our family house in Salisbury which I had converted into a nerve centre for A-level revision. I could never listen to music while studying, it was too much of a distraction, so I must have been taking a (not exactly rare) break from the delights of English, French and Modern History in order to listen to Anne Nightingale’s Sunday evening request show, which was broadcast on Radio 1 in pristine FM sound quality right after the Top 40 show. This programme regularly served up a diet of smart, listenable music I instinctively liked, music that I couldn’t find anywhere else on the dial – not on daytime radio, not on John Peel and certainly not on the execrable Friday Rock Show (whose use of Van der Graaf Generator’s “Theme One” as incidental music was and remains its only redeeming feature).

Anyway, one evening Anne Nightingale played a song that immediately made me sit up and pay attention – one of those that, when you hear it on the radio, you make sure you’re listening to the presenter at the end, because you absolutely need to know the artist and title. This song was ten minutes long, lyrically intricate, driven by mile-high acoustic riffing and a compelling air of drama and mystery. At the end of the song Anne Nightingale helpfully told us not only that it was called “Nostradamus” by Al Stewart, but also that it came from an album called Past, Present and Future. I had never heard of Stewart, but I had to own this record, and so I set off to find it – something easier said than done, since, like most of his back catalogue at the time, it was long deleted.

I can’t remember where I finally tracked down Past, Present and Future, but it would have been some second-hand record shop in London or Brighton. I fell in love with the LP instantly, and it’s still one of my top three favourite albums of all time. (The others, since you ask, are Still Life by Van der Graaf Generator and In My Tribe by 10,000 Maniacs – another group I must write about sometime.) My taste in music at the time was clearly heading in the direction of folky singer-songwriters, with Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Vega (although not Bob Dylan) both getting repeat play on my turntable. But Past, Present and Future had something that both Cohen and Vega lacked – it rocked, and it was that delightful mix of folk and rock music that really sealed the deal for me. Like no record I’d heard before, it was brimful of winning tunes, inspired guitar work and infectious, propulsive rhythms.

And the words! Rich in metaphor and clever wordplay, yet stirred by narrative drama, these were the most literate and eloquent lyrics I had ever heard, delivered in a distinctive, coolly precise voice that made you hang on every word. “Nostradamus” was the highpoint, of course, but every song on the record was a gem, from the moving and autumnal “Old Admirals” via the witty historical rollercoaster of “Post World War Two Blues”, to the towering epic that was “Roads to Moscow”. There was something uncanny about the cover as well. Wearing a three-piece suit, leaning stiffly against a mantelpiece in a room full of antiques, paintings and fine china, Stewart looked more like a young aristocrat than a musician. Meanwhile, the Old English lettering and filigree tracery reinforced the impression of the album as a historical document rather than a mere collection of songs.

Over the next few years I hunted down the rest of Stewart’s extensive and mostly deleted back catalogue in those same second-hand record shops. Modern Times, the follow-up to Past, Present and Future, was another masterpiece, and indeed I regard those albums as two of the greatest, and most overlooked, achievements of British folk rock. I eventually completed my collection with a mint condition original copy of the first, not terribly good album, Bedsitter Images, which is probably the rarest record in my possession. Each album was replete with Stewart’s unique songwriting talent, blending personal and historical narratives in songs that resonated with striking imagery, radiant melodies and that wistful, mellifluous voice. I’ve listed ten of my favourites at the end of this article, but I could easily have named a dozen others.

The first new Al Stewart album to be released after I discovered him was 1988’s Last Days of the Century – not one of his best, admittedly, but still perfectly listenable, featuring a then unknown Tori Amos on backing vocals. On the back of this record Stewart toured with a full band, giving me the chance to see him live for the first time at the Town & Country Club (now the Forum) in Kentish Town. It was a hugely enjoyable concert, featuring a generous cross-section of his songs and also, I recall, a fine uptempo version of Leonard Cohen’s “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong”. Funnily enough I was wearing a Leonard Cohen T-shirt that evening, which I had purchased at his Royal Albert Hall concert earlier in the year. With a few other diehards I hung around by the Town & Country Club stage door after the show, and met Stewart for an autograph or two. He commented favourably on the T-shirt and told me a story of a time when he had met Cohen. The details of this encounter are unfortunately now lost to me, other than that the old groaner said to Al: “I’m waiting for Suzanne.”

Not long after that (in 1989, maybe), I made the short journey along the south coast from my home in Brighton for my second Al Stewart concert in the unglamorous surroundings of the Assembly Hall in Worthing. This was also a full-band show, but the only thing I can remember about it is that the bloke playing saxophone left the stage and wandered around the hall while taking his solo on “Year of the Cat”. I’d like to think Stewart played “Manuscript” that night, probably the only song in the world that namechecks Worthing, but I honestly can’t remember whether he did or not.

I saw Stewart a few more times after that (the Royal Festival Hall in 1991 among them), but these were all solo or duo acoustic shows and therefore bereft of the electric dynamics of Stewart at his folk-rock best. In fact, with the exception of a full-band show at the Royal Albert Hall in 2013, I’m not sure he’s played with a proper band (meaning electric guitar, bass and drums) for years. His recent albums, since 1993’s excellent Famous Last Words, have also tended to err on the side of unplugged caution. This is a real shame, since these songs are certainly at their best with the amps turned up and the pulse of a rock beat going through them.

I’ve written this article because Al Stewart has given, and continues to give, enormous listening pleasure to me, and I wanted to set down some of my experiences of being a fan of his over the past 30 years. His songs are like no others; they are lucid, moving, clever, funny and endlessly quotable. Here, for example, is a beautiful and perfectly balanced couplet: “And had I but known last summer what I now understand/I’d have never set my foot inside this bleak and bitter land.” There are so many others, but don’t take my word for it – listen for yourself.

Ten great Al Stewart songs that are not “Year of the Cat”

“Gethsemane Again”
“Songs out of Clay”
“Soho (Needless to Say)”
“Apple Cider Reconstitution”
“The Dark and the Rolling Sea”
“Rocks in the Ocean”
“Accident on 3rd Street”
“The Coldest Winter in Memory”
“Trains”
“Three Mules”

Future Islands, Vienna Flex, 28 May 2014

Here’s another group who have spent years on the road, perfecting their live act and building up popularity through word of mouth, hard work and bloody-minded persistence. And in Future Islands‘ case it certainly seems to be paying off, although their now legendary appearance on the David Letterman show can’t have done their prospects any harm either. The Flex was rammed to capacity on this occasion, and it doesn’t take a genius to predict that Future Islands will be playing much larger venues than this from now on.

So yes, I went along to this show out of curiosity and because, like everyone else it seems, I was intrigued by vocalist Samuel T Herring’s performance on Letterman. In a world of formulaic indie artists, here is someone with a unique and riveting approach to performance. Herring sings with undeniable passion and soul, but that’s only the beginning of what makes him a star. He dances in an extraordinary, utterly unself-conscious style, bobbing and weaving as if vast, unmediated emotions are coursing through his veins. When he’s not reaching out to the audience as if trying to connect with each and every one of them, he’s either growling like a dog or hammering on his chest like a penitent. It’s a wonderful sight to behold, and if anyone reading this hasn’t yet seen that Letterman clip, I urge you to seek it out on YouTube; it’s truly spectacular.

The problem, for me at least, is that the songs themselves are not strong enough to sustain interest for an entire performance. In Herring, Future Islands have one of the most charismatic frontmen I’ve seen, yet all the charisma in the world can’t hide the fact that the group’s songwriting ranges from the rudimentary to the insipid. The gorgeous “Seasons (Waiting on You)”, by a country mile their best song, is tender, melancholy and suffused with an indefinable longing; try as they might, however, the group are fatally unable to reproduce its magic elsewhere. Song after song proceeds on the basis of lazy, half-baked melodies oozing out of watery synth tones. Lyrically tendentious and rhythmically uninspired, this stuff takes its place at the end of a long line of unremarkable synth pop creations.

Now on the verge of a major breakthrough, Future Islands find themselves on the horns of a considerable dilemma. Without Herring’s lovable-dork persona, they would be just another bunch of chancers dolefully prodding at a keyboard. For now, they are able to bask in the considerable goodwill generated by their frontman’s undoubted appeal. Yet the thinner the act wears, the more Future Islands risk being rumbled as musical also-rans.

Shearwater, Vienna Szene, 23 April 2014

This year I’ve found myself listening to Shearwater more than just about any other artist, so it was a great pleasure to take my preferred front centre spot at the Szene for what was, remarkably, their third concert in Vienna in as many years (see here for my review of their 2012 visit). Some groups, and Shearwater are one of them, tour so frequently that you can’t help but admire their dedication. The received wisdom goes that groups have to tour in these days of rampant downloading in order to make money from music. But as Shearwater’s singer and songwriter Jonathan Meiburg recently wrote, “Touring is like the rest of American life – only the famous bands make money. The rest of us are doing it for some other reason.” (As an aside, Meiburg once asked people on the group’s Facebook page if they could guess how many copies of their recently released album Fellow Travelers had been sold; the answer was a mere 1500.)

No, it seems to me that touring is what you need to do to form a bedrock of support and goodwill in the world, and it’s certainly what initially made me a fan of Shearwater. As mentioned above, though, I’ve also been playing their records an awful lot this year, particularly 2008’s Rook, 2010’s The Golden Archipelago and 2012’s Animal Joy. The first two of these seem to go together in my mind, consisting as they do of spare, brooding art rock that draws you in with its haunting imagery and restrained instrumental colours. (“An Insular Life” from The Golden Archipelago is my favourite song from this period, a stunning cinematic masterpiece in three minutes.)

Animal Joy was something of a departure for the group, more urgent and direct than its predecessors but no less compelling for all that. And in “You As You Were” and the near-title track “Animal Life” the album contained two of the most potent and dramatic rock songs I’ve heard in many a year. This music is so good that it makes me want to grab everyone I know and make them listen to it, so convinced am I of its dazzling, diamond-hard brilliance. (Since the new one, Fellow Travelers, contains only one Meiburg original among a rash of cover versions, it’s a fairly inessential addition to their catalogue.)

It seems to me, in fact, that there is no-one else in rock doing anything remotely like what Shearwater are doing except for my one great musical obsession, Peter Hammill. This isn’t a comparison I make lightly, but it’s one that makes sense to me given Meiburg’s sharp intelligence, rich voice and gifted way with words, not to mention the grand ambition of his songwriting. In other words I find this music completely spellbinding, from Meiburg’s soaring vocals via his remarkable texts to the way the songs ebb and flow from peak to challenging peak. Shaped by gorgeous melodic touches, the songs speak eloquently of memory, violence and the precarious relationship between human and natural worlds.

Live, Shearwater are a fearsomely powerful outfit, with Meiburg’s up-front guitar and keyboards bolstered by energetic percussion and, well, more guitar and keyboards. Between songs he is witty, relaxed, yet always riveting. His spoken introduction to the song “Home Life”, in which he tells of looking out of his bedroom window as a boy and seeing the lights of radio towers in the distance, is both evocative and strangely moving.

After an enthralling main set, Meiburg returns to the stage alone for a stark solo reading of the anguished “Hail Mary”, slashing furiously at his guitar as his voice echoes around the hushed room. Finally the group send us home with an exuberant cover of Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain”, a fun way to end the evening for sure but one that feels almost too lightweight in comparison to the epic scale of what has gone before.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Vienna Stadthalle, 23 July 2014

The last time Neil Young came to Vienna was six years ago, touring on the back of the Chrome Dreams II album. That show, in the slightly odd surroundings of the Austria Center (which has rarely been used for rock concerts since; maybe they were put off by the fact that the audience nearly broke the floor with their jumping up and down) was a relatively user-friendly affair, with an acoustic set followed by an electric set and a fairly generous helping of Young’s greatest hits. Wednesday night’s concert, on the other hand, was definitely one for the diehards, with extended jams aplenty and an acoustic set that lasted for only two songs – one of which, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, added up to not much more than glorified busking. And yet this was the one that played out in front of a capacity audience in the soulless barn that is the Stadthalle, with its muddy acoustics, concession stands and endless parade of people wandering around the place. All of which goes to show, as if it needed reiterating, that nothing is predictable in the world of Neil Young.

The other big difference between the 2008 and 2014 concerts, of course, was that this time Young had brought his legendary backing band Crazy Horse with him. And while there’s clearly no “right” or “best” way to see Young, given the plethora of styles and configurations at which he excels, there’s no denying the crackle of excitement that greeted his entrance onstage accompanied by rhythm guitarist Frank Sampedro, drummer Ralph Molina and substitute bassist Rick Rosas, along with two excellent female backing singers.

With barely a nod to the audience, the evening kicked off with a barnstorming take on “Love and Only Love” from 1990’s seminal Ragged Glory album. Young and Sampedro fell straight into a lengthy dialogue, their guitar licks meshing together in loose but controlled interplay. It was a full four minutes before Young stepped up to the mic, his unique and still haunting voice testifying to the song’s powerful message: “Love and only love will endure/Hate is everything you think it is/Love and only love will break it down/Break it down, break it down.”

On the other hand, if there’s one thing Neil Young has been at pains to communicate in his almost 50-year career, it’s that love is not all you need. The strongest emotion emanating from the stage was not love but anger – and righteous anger at that, borne of an abiding and passionate humanitarian conscience. The singer’s black hat stayed stubbornly on his head for almost the entire evening, but from my vantage point fairly close to the stage (or, if you must, from the video screens on either side), it was clear that his mouth was set in a more or less permanent snarl. It was as though these long (14 cuts in two hours), serpentine songs, their distorted shapes hewn from volume and electricity, were the only possible response to an ongoing crisis of global proportions.

That response was inscribed not only in the more hard-rocking numbers like “Love to Burn” and the inevitable main-set closer “Rockin’ in the Free World”, but also in the more elegiac moments such as “Living with War” and “Cortez the Killer”. “Cortez” in particular was exquisite, with Young drawing out long, achingly tender cadences to frame the song’s narrative of love and sacrifice. When not at the mic Young was most often to be found squaring up to Sampedro, the two men seemingly oblivious to all but the music binding them together, a touching image of two sexagenarians holding fast in the storm.

Given the depth of Young’s back catalogue, there will always be gripes about the setlist, with regrets over omitted songs an inevitable aspect of any post-gig discussion. In my case, the absence of “Like a Hurricane”, “Hey Hey My My”, “Powderfinger” and “Cinnamon Girl” was particularly keenly felt. It was also unfortunate, though perfectly understandable, that Young chose to round off the evening with the bouncy but rather cheesy new song “Who’s Gonna Stand Up And Save The Earth?” But such disappointments count for little when weighed against the urgency and vitality that Neil Young, at 68, still brings to everything he does.