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.

 

The Thing, Vienna Chelsea, 1 May 2014

It looks like those in Vienna who want to see The Thing in a jazz club will have to look further afield from now on. Following last November’s gig at the Blue Tomato for which the seats were removed, this time Trost Records put them on at the Chelsea, not a venue previously noted for its jazz programming. Once again, the audience was thereby forced to stand. Now I have no objection either to standing gigs – Lord knows I go to enough of them – or to the Chelsea, a venue I have been to many times. But The Thing are not a group who should be playing there. I assume that what’s behind these events is a desire to break down the boundaries between genres and make The Thing more attractive to non-jazz audiences. The problem with this is twofold: first, it robs The Thing’s music of its original impetus and context; and second, it risks alienating the group’s core audience who have been going to see them in jazz clubs for many years.

Despite the inappropriate setting I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to see The Thing again, and thus it was that I found myself front centre at the Chelsea on May Day. With the celebrations for International Workers’ Day in full swing, the trio of Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love wasted no time in propagating their message of freedom in and through the music. This seemed like a more hardcore Thing than has been heard on recent outings, with Gustafsson’s sax low on tunes and high on the frenzied skronk that makes him the natural heir apparent to Peter Brötzmann. A reading of Don Cherry’s “Golden Heart” was virtually unrecognizable from the slow burning version on The Cherry Thing, while “Red River” from the new album Boot! was a maelstrom of surging energy. Håker Flaten, on double bass throughout rather than the bass guitar he favoured at the Blue Tomato, was on powerful form, sculpting a monster solo from the aftershocks of Gustafsson’s tenor. Nilssen-Love, meanwhile, moved with customary panache, his jaw-dropping polyrhythmic stickwork the perfect foil for the Swede’s colossal riffage.

The well-earned encore, when it came, was something of a disappointment. With the audience’s appreciation still ringing in his ears, Gustafsson turned to the unwieldy bass saxophone and drew the evening to a close with a scrappy, directionless improv. It was the only wrong move of an otherwise spectacular evening. That and the venue.

Kraftwerk, Vienna Burgtheater, 15-18 May 2014

The last time I saw Kraftwerk in 2009 was in a field in some godforsaken corner of Burgenland. Since then, the group – and in particular Ralf Hütter, who to all intents and purposes is Kraftwerk these days – have begun to adopt a more reverential and curatorial approach to their history and to live performance. The release of The Catalogue in late 2009, and the New York MoMA run in 2012, ushered in a new era for Kraftwerk, who now exist solely as a repertoire act. With no new material in the offing (and, since the departure of Florian Schneider in 2008, none likely to be forthcoming – which is probably just as well), Hütter seems content to revisit and repackage old material for a living, buffing and shining old songs and presenting them to new global audiences in the surroundings of a slick 3D live show. In embarking on this endeavour, he might well have had in mind his national poet Goethe’s dictum that “refashioning the fashioned/lest it stiffen into iron/is a work of endless vital activity.”

The problem, of course, is that this Kraftwerk bears little resemblance to the Kraftwerk I grew up with. It’s a matter of profound regret that only Hütter remains from the classic 1974-86 line-up of the group, leaving him and his current roster of employees to bask in the goodwill that was generated in no small part from the presence of Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür. To argue, as some have tried to do, that it really doesn’t matter who is up there pressing the buttons ignores the significant contributions made by the other three members of the classic line-up to the music, the iconography (see the iconic covers of Trans-Europe Express and The Man Machine) and the legend of Kraftwerk. Still, you’ve got to hand it to Hütter, who has erased all trace of his former colleagues with such Stalinist efficiency that none of the music critics currently writing about Kraftwerk even seem to be aware of the issue.

Although this historical revisionism leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, there is still much to enjoy about the current version of Kraftwerk. There are two things in particular that I really admire about this curatorial project. The first is that it firmly establishes that the Kraftwerk canon consists of the eight albums from Autobahn to Tour de France Soundtracks. I get tired of so-called cognoscenti who bemoan the fact that Hütter excluded the first three albums from the reissue programme, as if they represent some disruptive experimental tendency that he has ruthlessly expunged from the group’s history. An artist is entitled to establish his own canon, and if Hütter wants to tell his story starting in 1974, that’s fine with me.

The other thing I like about these retrospective concerts is that they situate Kraftwerk as an art project, taking the group out of the nightclub and the muddy field and into the art gallery and the concert hall. The narrative that we hear so often of Kraftwerk’s influence on other musicians, particularly those in the techno, electro and hip-hop genres, holds no interest for me; there are other, more pressing contexts for their work. By presenting the group’s history in such extravagant audiovisual terms, in the rarefied atmospheres of MoMA, Tate Modern and now the Burgtheater, Hütter foregrounds the discourse of Kraftwerk as artists and downplays the standard, largely irrelevant tendency to view them as the “godfathers of techno”. It’s a recontextualization that makes perfect sense to me, placing Kraftwerk firmly in the lineage of pop art and minimalism.

Over the course of four evenings, then, Kraftwerk presented their eight albums in chronological order, doing two shifts per night like the workers they have always liked to portray themselves as (although it’s hard to imagine anyone else going to work in those glow-in-the-dark neoprene suits). I saw the first five of the eight shows, choosing to skip the last three on the basis of the alarming drop in quality that happened between Computer World and Electric Café. Each show’s album run-through was followed by a generously timed greatest hits set. In fact the group often seemed keen to dispatch the relevant album as quickly as possible, with the album polished off in the first 25 minutes or so of the 110-minute show. There were occasional setlist variations, with some songs present at every show and others having to fight for their place. Lesser known tunes like “Kometenmelodie 2” and “Airwaves” achieved instant classic status, although the keenly awaited “Europe Endless” disappointed because its visuals (some dull abstract patterns) were so uninspired. Undoubtedly the biggest treat came at the end of the Man Machine show, which saw “Aerodynamik” and the rarely heard “Planet of Visions” played as encores.

I’d never been to the Burgtheater before, and it was just as splendid a venue as I’d expected it to be, with crystal clear sound and perfect 3D visuals even in the cheap seats. My only gripe concerned the view from the seats at the back of the lower circle. I’d plumped for this circle for The Man Machine and Computer World, my two favourite Kraftwerk albums, but was dismayed to discover when we took our seats that, due to the overhang from the upper circle above, our view of the top half of the screen was completely obscured. Fortunately we were able to move forward and sit on the stairs for the duration of the show, thereby obtaining a perfect uninterrupted view. I was, frankly, astonished that the ushers allowed us to stay there; in London we’d have been steered back to our seats in the name of health and safety before you could say “boing boom tschak”.

The passing of the years can’t rob Kraftwerk’s music of its unearthly, crystalline beauty; it still sounds impossibly smart, funny and wise (although – sorry, Germans and Austrians – the lyrics definitely sound much better in English). The repeated melodic phrases, classical harmonies and insistent mechanical rhythms fuse to form a fresh, distinctively modern take on minimalism. The onscreen imagery, meanwhile, forms a persuasive visual complement to the music, its dry humour and beguiling simplicity making explicit the connections between Kraftwerk and pop art.

In Vienna we sit in a late-night café”, sang Hütter in 1977’s “Trans-Europe Express”, one of Kraftwerk’s few lyrical references to a real place in the world. And if I’m not at home, there’s very few places I’d rather be than a café in Vienna. But rather than any one place, Kraftwerk’s home is the world itself, its distances melted away by car, train, bicycle and computer, the “I” slowly becoming “we”.

Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love, Vienna Blue Tomato, 8 March 2014; Chris Corsano & Mette Rasmussen, Vienna Mo.ë, 3 April 2014

Is there any more powerful sound in music than that of the sax/drums duo? Personally, I doubt it. The combination of the expressive blast of the horn and the undulant forms thrown by the drumkit seems to represent free music at its most elemental and dangerous. More than any other configuration, the sax and drums line-up also embodies the idea of improvisation as dialogue that, for me at least, has always been central to improvised music. It’s at times like this that I reach for the writings of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975):

The utterance is filled with dialogic overtones, and they must be taken into account in order to fully understand the style of the utterance. After all, our thought itself – philosophical, scientific, artistic – is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others’ thought, and this cannot but be reflected in the forms that verbally express our thought as well.1

Over the years I’ve seen a few sax players and drummers squaring up to each other, most often in permutations of Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark or Mats Gustafsson on the one hand and Paal Nilssen-Love or Didi Kern on the other. Of course, I missed Brötzmann’s gig with the British percussionist Steve Noble at the Blue Tomato this week – his first appearance there for over two years, and I missed his last one as well. But I was able to catch two superlative examples of the genre recently in Vienna.

First up, the long-established Vandermark/Nilssen-Love duo, again at the Blue Tomato. Vandermark is another musician whose gigs I keep missing. Can it really have been two years since I last saw him play, with his Resonance Ensemble at Porgy & Bess? This blog would appear to suggest so, but then again there have been many gigs I never got around to reviewing, so who knows. Anyway, Ken and Paal were electrifying on this occasion. Kicking off on tenor, Vandermark alternated zinging melodies with blasts of pure noise while Nilssen-Love wove intricate threads of percussive texture. During the two 45-minute sets, the pair demonstrated the kind of empathy and mutual awareness that can only come from years of playing together, listening to one another and responding to the other’s statements with declarative positions of one’s own. At one point, as Nilssen-Love took a stark, brittle solo, the reedsman reached for his clarinet before seemingly changing his mind and turning instead to the hefty baritone sax. Using the considerable wallop of this instrument to draw the Norwegian into ever more frenzied bursts of activity, Vandermark traced wave after wave of hook-laden melodic invention. Turning to the clarinet for a long, bracing passage of circular breathing, the American showed that his ability to scramble the conscious mind remains as sure and true as ever.

A month or so later it was time to check out the first appearance in Vienna by the brilliant US free drummer Chris Corsano, here in the company of Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen. It was a pleasure to watch this new duo play in the unusual and intimate environs of Mo.ë, a room which doubles as concert venue and exhibition space and as a result has a uniquely informal vibe to it. With the musicians setting up in the centre of the room and the audience able to wander around at will, the gig had the air of a friendly, spontaneous happening.

Mette Rasmussen has a remarkably fluid and expressive tone on the alto saxophone. Her playing at times evokes the rich, heavenward clarity of Albert Ayler, at others the throaty roar of Mats Gustafsson. Equally, though, she’s able to sidestep these influences and assert her own individual sound in piercingly high tones and controlled outbursts of free playing. Corsano, meanwhile, keeps up his end of the conversation in gripping manner, utilizing a wide range of extended techniques (bowing the edge of the drum, microscopic percussive incidents, blowing on some kind of customized reed instrument) but always returning to that infinite melting pulse. It’s an engrossing encounter from a duo that seems destined for great things.

Note

1. I was introduced to Bakhtin by my English tutor at Sussex, the late Frank Gloversmith, to whom I owe an enormous personal debt.

Gary Numan, Vienna WUK, 22 February 2014

Gary Numan was the first pop star I ever loved. At the tender age of 11, I watched his début Top of the Pops performance in 1979 and was immediately catapulted into a new world of mystery and glamour, one which would remain with me throughout my formative teenage years. I was a fanatical Numan fan in those days. Between 1979 and 1986 I bought everything he released, played those records over and over again, memorized all the lyrics, learned his discography off by heart, was a loyal member of his fan club, read and re-read interviews with him, copied his logo on every available surface, stuck posters of him on my bedroom wall, wrote projects about him at school and saw him live three times. At a time when most of the boys in my year at school (those that were interested in music, anyway, which was by no means all of them) were in thral to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, I was the only one who liked Gary Numan. I loved his music as much for the piercing clarity of its synthesized melodies as for the emotional lyrics that seemed to speak directly to me. It’s Gary Numan who I have to thank for bringing music to the forefront of my interests, where it has remained ever since.

Following that legendary Top of the Pops appearance in 1979, I went out and bought the single “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” This song, with its towering wall of electronic sound and its devastating vocal performance, was music I had waited all my life to hear, and if push came to shove would still be in the running for my favourite song of all time. My copy, purchased (like most of my music back then) from the record department of WH Smith in Salisbury, came in one of those simple plain white paper sleeves with a hole helpfully cut somewhere in the middle so that you could read the label. BEGGARS BANQUET, it went. TUBEWAY ARMY. ARE “FRIENDS” ELECTRIC? Turn it over and it went BEGGARS BANQUET. TUBEWAY ARMY. WE ARE SO FRAGILE. Sadly I missed out on the limited edition picture disc and even the picture sleeve of this single, although I picked both of them up later.

I didn’t go a bundle on the follow-up, “Cars”, which seemed a bit trite and repetitive at the time (and still does, actually). It was the third single, “Complex”, that really sealed the deal for me. From its lengthy, electronically treated violin intro to its final choking plea of “please keep them away, don’t let them touch me/Please don’t let them lie, don’t let them see me”, this was a song that reached new heights of emotional sensitivity. And the pieces finally fell into place when I acquired copies of the albums Replicas and The Pleasure Principle, both of which revealed the breadth of Numan’s conceptual visions even as they brimmed over with great tunes and memorable lyrics. One song in particular deserves special mention. A grim, filmic evocation of a future society on the verge of collapse, “Down in the Park” was and remains a chilling masterpiece.

The reissued début, Tubeway Army, by the way, wasn’t half bad either. Picked up in the old HMV Shop in Southampton on one of my occasional visits there, its shouty guitar-fuelled energy was a fascinating early step on Numan’s road to stardom. Plus, it contained the queasy and haunting “Jo the Waiter”, a rare acoustic outing and one of my favourite Numan songs to this day.

The emergence of Telekon and its associated singles in 1980 was an event weighted with expectations for me. “We Are Glass” and “I Die: You Die” were hugely powerful and anthemic songs, but there was an air of ponderousness about much of the album that bothered me slightly. Still, I desperately wanted to go to the Southampton Gaumont to see Numan live, but my pleas fell on deaf ears (I would have to wait three years to get my wish). At this point, still only 22 years old and immensely troubled by the pressures of fame, Numan temporarily retired from live performance. He did three inspirational “farewell” shows at Wembley Arena and then radically rethought his approach.

In retrospect, it was the release of “She’s Got Claws” in August 1981 that signalled the beginning of the end for Gary and me. From its ridiculous title and cover image onwards, the song was terrible, a turgid slice of anaemic electro-funk that had nothing at all to do with the infectious synth pop I loved so much. What was Numan doing? Why had he made such a catastrophic change of direction? I had no idea, but I was mightily confused, a feeling that was only partly alleviated by the Dance album a month or so later. It was a brave but entirely uncommercial piece of work, and if I lamented its relative lack of catchy melodies (“Stories” and “You Are, You Are” being the honourable exceptions), I was intrigued and finally affected by the long and complex architecture of “Slowcar to China” and “Cry, The Clock Said”.

Gary’s new, funk-based direction began to take hold with the following year’s I, Assassin. The album definitely had its moments (“Music for Chameleons” and “We Take Mystery” were particular highlights), alongside some fairly indifferent material. The rot really set in, however, with 1983’s Warriors. The change in sound since 1979-80 was drastic and seemingly irreversible. The songs were generally too long, they lacked memorable tunes, the lyrics were increasingly insipid and the bass, drums and female backing vocals drowned out my beloved synthesizers and the cold steel of Numan’s voice. This unwelcome trend continued on the subsequent and progressively uninspired Berserker, The Fury and Strange Charm, the latter being the last Gary Numan album I ever bought. It was an ignominious end to my years as a Numanoid; but it was Gary who had left me, not the other way around.

It was during this period of artistic decline that I did finally manage to see Gary Numan live on the 1983, 1984 and 1985 tours, each time at the Southampton Gaumont (now the Mayflower). It pains me now to think of my late, much missed and mourned mother, waiting uncomplainingly in her car outside the Gaumont to bring me home to Salisbury after the 1983 show, the first concert I ever attended. The shows themselves were very special events for me, and there were enough thrilling old songs to hide the inadequacies of the newer material. I could never quite get over the fact that Numan was right there in the room with me, and this, together with the light show, the wall of sound and the cheering of the audience all around me, combined to make these hugely exciting and memorable events.

Last month, then, I found myself at the WUK for my first Gary Numan concert in, oh, twenty-nine years. In the meantime, of course, Numan’s career has undergone a remarkable turnaround, with the hopeless white funk thrown out in favour of a harder industrial-edged sound. His critical reputation thereby restored, and with folk like Trent Reznor now acknowledging his influence, Gary’s stock is at its highest since 1980. I’ve not been following this reinvention myself, preferring to cherish my memories of those incredible early years and secure in the knowledge that, however many people now come out in favour of Gary Numan, I can say I was there first.

The concert was, of course, greatly enjoyable. Numan is now a massively impressive frontman, throwing all manner of rock star moves and singing with remarkable confidence as his superb band energize the music with crunchy guitar and fizzing synth tones. Inevitably, recent songs dominated the set, with only “Metal”, “Films”, “Down in the Park” (a spine-tingling moment for me), “Cars”, “I Die: You Die” and “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” present from the early days. I remain unconvinced by the newer material, which is low on melodic inventiveness and seems to place excessive reliance on heavy drumbeats for effect. But those six songs were enough to plant the happiest of smiles on my face and transport me magically back to my distant boyhood, to a time when I needed a hero and found one in Gary Numan.

Ulver, Vienna Szene, 10 February 2014

The last time I saw Ulver, almost exactly four years ago, they had only recently begun to exist as a fully functioning live group. That concert at the Arena had something of a rarefied atmosphere, with flickering candles adding to the heavy air of expectation that attended the performance. Since then, though, Ulver have gone the way of seemingly every other once distant and mysterious studio-based outfit, and have begun touring on a regular basis. As a result that sense of occasion was largely missing from their recent show at the Szene, although there was certainly enough taking place onstage to mitigate that absence.

They’re a strange-looking bunch, that’s for sure. Two serious techno types at the front, focused on their various dials and buttons; a dapper Roy Harper lookalike at the keyboard; an energetic guitarist; and a couple of drummers at the back, whom I hardly caught a glimpse of all evening due to my front centre position. But the music they make together is a compelling blend of noise rock, dark isolationism and playful, infectious grooves.

Indeed, it was that grooviness that made the strongest impression on me. The 2010 concert was great, but it was also a touch doomy and portentous, qualities that Ulver seem to have largely shaken off in the meantime in favour of a looser, more improvisatory approach. On this occasion Kristoffer Rygg’s sombre vocals were set off perfectly by insistent percussion, churning ambient textures and Daniel O’Sullivan’s strikingly expressive guitar work. With a succession of sinister back-projected images adding to the overall sense of unease, the music of Ulver is deliciously spare and unsettling: the sound of an unwelcome presence, somewhere close at hand.

ulver

Hermann Nitsch, Vienna Jesuitenkirche, 20 November 2013

At the age of 75, Hermann Nitsch shows no signs of slowing down. Last year saw a slew of activity for the man from Prinzendorf, including a six-hour action in Leipzig, his longest action for some years, which of course I missed. And he rounded off his 75th year with a couple of events in Vienna – a short teaching action at the Nitsch Foundation, followed the next day by an organ concert in one of Vienna’s most magnificent Baroque churches, the Jesuitenkirche.

Last time Nitsch played the organ in Vienna, at the Donaucitykirche in 2012, it was a rather anticlimactic affair – only half-an-hour long, and played on a very modest instrument indeed. This occasion was everything that one wasn’t – long, involving and massively impressive. With Nitsch himself out of sight at the organ, the evening seemed less like a recital and more like a live sound environment. Having nothing to look at but the splendour of their surroundings, audience members would have been hard pushed not to sense the religious intensity that underpins all of Nitsch’s work.

Over the course of two movements, the organist created a constantly shifting soundworld of deep, spectral rumbles and radiant, overlapping harmonies. More than once I was struck by the parallels with Nitsch’s live actions, emphasizing how his art is a Gesamtkunstwerk in which music, painting and performance all complement and reinforce each other. Like the actions, this music is entirely wordless and proceeds with a kind of monumental inevitability; it reaches for notions of aesthetic purity and totality; and it inspires, in this viewer/listener at least, something approaching awe and wonderment. As such it amply fulfils Nitsch’s belief, quoted before in these pages, that “art needs to have a sense of sacred solemnity”, a worthy criterion if ever there was one.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Vienna Gasometer, 24 November 2013

Nick Cave is one of those artists I’ve always found it easier to admire than to love. He’s a gifted songwriter, a phenomenal lyricist and a mesmerizing live performer, but despite all these things I’ve never counted myself as a great fan. I think my reservations have something to do with the swampy, bluesy nature of much of his music, a style I’ve never really got along with, as well as the general air of louche ribaldry about the man. Having been a great admirer of Cave’s first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, I was hugely disappointed by the 2009 follow-up, The Death of Bunny Munro, which struck me as an infantile piece of work; and I felt the same about the Grinderman project which has occupied much of Cave’s time in the past few years.

Although I can certainly appreciate the unhinged power of Cave in full-on sulphurous preacher mode, I like him most when he’s being a Mature Artist, sitting at the piano and delivering a carefully considered and beautifully constructed ballad. There were plenty of those on The Good Son, the first Cave album I ever heard and one that remains a favourite; and even more of them on the pitch-perfect The Boatman’s Call, to this day Cave’s crowning achievement. Later records such as Nocturama and Dig, Lazarus, Dig, however, contained their fair share of clunkers alongside a few undoubted classics.

However uneven Cave’s recorded legacy might be, he can always be relied upon to put on an excellent live show, and I’ve usually made the effort to catch him when he’s played near me. I remember a fine concert at Tate Britain in London, billed as a solo show but actually featuring one or two of the Bad Seeds as well. I may also have seen a full Bad Seeds show or two in London, my memory fails me. (Like many residents of Brighton, I used to see him around town as well; once on the train up to London with his son, once – unsurprisingly – at a Dirty Three show.) Following my move to Vienna, there was another quasi-solo show in the magnificent setting of the Konzerthaus in 2006.

2006, you say? Gosh. Seven full years after I’d last seen Cave, he showed up in a sold-out Gasometer, this time bringing the Bad Seeds with him. And what a formidable group they are, giving flesh, bone and blood to the raging drama of Cave’s songs. Inevitably it’s the early material that takes the breath away, songs like “Tupelo”, “Red Right Hand” and “The Mercy Seat”: blistering, hellish psychodramas that bring Cave to places no other performer has ever visited, stalking the wide stage like a feral beast and declaiming his texts with savage fury. I was transfixed too by the piano section, with “Sad Waters” and “Into My Arms” demonstrating Cave’s unerring ability to articulate vast universes of longing and resignation in song.

In comparison the Push The Sky Away stuff sounded mannered and inert to me, although it’s an invidious comparison to make when this later material still stands head and shoulders above pretty much everything else being done in the name of rock music in 2013. But that’s the curse and the burden of an artist like Nick Cave, forever fated to have his present ventures judged alongside the legendary triumphs of his past.

Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats, Vienna Arena, 6 December 2013

Much to my surprise, these anonymous stoner/doom/hard rock merchants from Cambridge crept up behind me just as 2013 was drawing to a close. I didn’t really know what to expect, having heard little of their music in advance. But the aura of mystery surrounding them, not to mention their image, steeped as it is in Altamont, the Manson murders and late ’60s acid comedown, compelled me to attend. And I’m very glad I did, since Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats slapped me round the back of the head that night with one of the very best gigs of the year.

However contrived that image might be, there’s no denying that Uncle Acid evoke a primal and nightmarish atmosphere with their music. This comes in no small part from the monstrously heavy riffs that power their songs, with the lead and rhythm guitars intertwined like writhing snakes. The sludgey dominance of those riffs extends most of the songs to an ideal 5-10 minute length, where they make a formidable impression without grinding on so long as to outstay their welcome. But there’s a good deal of melodic inventiveness there too, steering the group well clear of the dire abyss that is heavy metal. Lyrically, pain, torture, blood and death are recurrent themes – excellent topics, all of them, sung in a distinctive Lennonesque tone that brings light and shade to the group’s grim obsessions.

There’s an unsettling exhilaration about Uncle Acid, a feeling that the negation they remorselessly conjure is something to be savoured, even celebrated. Compounding the sense of dread and unease, the back-projected videos playing out behind the group make frequent reference to that moment in time when the ’60s hippie dream was turning into a blood-drenched nightmare. I was disconcerted, to say the least, when I looked back at the one photo I took during the concert and saw that the slide being displayed at the time was the famous Life magazine cover of Charles Manson, a man who more than anyone else embodies that disintegration. But I probably shouldn’t have been too surprised, given the way Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats bring the sound of past horrors remorselessly into the present.

Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats live in Vienna

The Thing, Vienna Blue Tomato, 22 November 2013

As I wrote in my round-up of 2013, these pages are seriously backed up for one reason or another. So over the next few weeks I’m going to try and fill in some of the gaps in what was a very full and exciting conclusion to my year of concert-going, while at the same time documenting what is shaping up to be just as busy a kick-off to 2014.

And where better to start than with another storming performance by The Thing, cementing their unassailable position as the most powerful and creative force in free jazz. With Mats Gustafsson on searing form on saxes, Paal Nilssen-Love the sweeping master of his drumkit and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten laying down run after volatile run on electric bass (no double bass tonight!), the impact was as stunning as the band were loud. Kicking off on baritone before switching to tenor, Gustafsson led the trio through a long, searching improv that gradually resolved itself into the old Don Cherry tune “Golden Heart” (recorded by the band on The Cherry Thing). The song’s smoky abstraction spoke eloquently of The Thing’s position as admirers rather than iconoclasts, working in a tradition they both understand and respect. When the Swede finally turned to the mighty bass sax, his physical connection to the instrument was miraculous. A slow and mournful solo evolved into an electrifying “Call The Police”, a staple at Thing gigs these days but no less welcome for all that, its steamroller riff leading the trio into delirious zones of rhythmic ecstasy.

The set-up of this concert, though, left plenty to be desired. At the insistence of the promoters, Trost Records, the Blue Tomato was transformed into a standing venue. Since The Thing play jazz, the Tomato is a jazz club and jazz clubs have seats, this was a perverse decision, presumably borne of some hipster desire to take The Thing out of a ghetto (jazz) that they don’t actually need to be taken out of. It also had the effect of alienating the Tomato’s core audience of regulars, many of whom were conspicuous by their absence. At some point during the evening, the doors were flung open and no further admission fees were charged. The resulting influx of hipsters rarely (if ever) seen before or since at the Tomato, combined with the low height of the stage, meant that anyone further back than the first few rows could see nothing at all. The sound wasn’t a problem – The Thing have never had any difficulty making themselves heard, to put it mildly – but since a large part of The Thing’s appeal rests on the trio’s immense physical engagement, their impish onstage togetherness and even their matching Ruby’s BBQ T-shirts, it was unfortunate that, for many of the audience, that visual impact was largely lost. Still, this was a massively enjoyable concert by a group at the very height of its powers.