Jandek, Vienna B72, 14 October 2009

Several months of planning went into this, the first ever Jandek concert in central Europe, and I’m pleased to report that it was a great success. On a personal level, it was also a huge honour and a privilege to be able to bring Jandek to Vienna; after three years of concert-going there as a more or less passive consumer, it felt great to be a witness to something that I myself had helped to bring about.

Once Jandek himself was on board, the key task was to find the right backing musicians. This wasn’t so much of a challenge, in fact. Both Eric Arn and Didi Kern were well known to me; regulars on the thriving Vienna avant-rock/improv scene, they had proven time after time that they could not only play beautifully but could also adapt their respective styles to meet whatever needs the moment required, in the purest spirit of improvisation.

For me, one of the most exciting moments of the whole evening came before the group had even played a note. As I led Jandek from the backstage area through the audience and towards the stage, the audience moved aside to let him through; and there was a sudden sense of reverent expectation as this tall, striking figure, dressed all in black and with his ever-present Stetson pulled down low over his face, walked slowly and deliberately onto the stage.

The next ninety minutes passed in something of a blur, as Jandek, Arn and Kern proceeded to lay down some of the most tense, daring and original rock music I have ever heard. Having only met for the first time that day, the three of them made a virtue of their lack of familiarity with each other, playing with an awesome blend of looseness, openness and sheer narrative conviction. Arn, it seemed to me, was pretty much writing his own bass player’s rulebook as he went along. More often seen as lead guitarist with his own group Primordial Undermind, he transferred many of the extended techniques he brings into play with them – bottleneck slide, endless vertiginous runs up and down the full length of the neck – to the bass, with savagely entertaining results. (He also joined Jandek on lead guitar for one song, which sounded particularly brutal to these ears.) Kern, meanwhile, lit up the room with his questing, vital and ceaselessly inventive percussion. It’s always a pleasure to encounter a drummer who actually plays the kit, investing it with light, shade and myriad variations of timbre. Chris Cutler does it, Paal Nilssen-Love does it, and there can be little doubt that Didi Kern does it too.

As for Jandek himself, he gave as little away as you might expect. The last time I saw him, at St Giles Church in London in 2005, I came away with the distinct impression that I had seen a ghost, so evanescent and fleeting was his presence. For all that he played in Vienna with far greater aggression, there was still something eerie and spectral about his performance. More or less alternating between dirge-like vocal excursions and full-on instrumental freakouts, Jandek’s guitar work oddly sparkled, with the tones from his black Godin ringing and cavernous. Four new songs were played; I can’t quote any of the lyrics I’m afraid, but the vocals were pleading and anguished, set off against the deathly walk of the bass and drums.

Dark, turbulent and troubling, then. A concert like none I had ever experienced before, but all in a day’s work for Jandek.

Lovely photos of the evening by David Murobi here.

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