I reviewed the new Van der Graaf Generator album, Do Not Disturb, for The Quietus. You can read the review here.
My heart did little somersaults when I saw this concert announced, and did some more when I realized that I would actually be in Vienna on the relevant date. A Keith Jarrett concert is a rare event, a solo concert doubly so. Add in the fact that he would be playing at the Musikverein, the most acclaimed and legendary concert hall in Vienna but one which I had never previously visited, and you had an evening of unmissable proportions.
I’ve been preoccupied with the matter of Jarrett ever since I first heard The Köln Concert, a stunning piece of work and one that is fully deserving of all the accolades that have been heaped on it over the years. Subsequent solo recordings such as The Carnegie Hall Concert and (oh, the irony) Vienna Concert connected with me as no other piano music has ever done. Here was music that seemed to exist outside space and time, its every note an instance of shimmering beauty, the performance as a whole a vast depiction of Jarrett’s rare improvisational gifts.
Strangely enough, Jarrett seems to get very little attention from the Wire/Stone/Café Oto crowd, even though what he’s doing seems to me just as bold and creative as the more fêted, but for my money less talented, Cecil Taylor. The anti-Jarrett tendency is exemplified by fellow pianist Matthew Shipp’s article for The Talkhouse, in which Shipp argues that Jarrett “never sculpted a specific language system…it never [got] beyond the devices and matriculated into an actual language.” And Shipp goes further, accusing Jarrett of “pseudo jazz/new age meandering”, “vapid, watered-down impressionist devices”, “insipid vamps”…you get the idea. Shipp is entitled to his opinion, of course, but where he perceives a lack of systemic thought underpinning Jarrett’s music, I only hear a seductive openness and clarity, a purity of thought that insists that quiet and lyricism can be part of revolutionary improvisation as much as anything put out by the avant-garde.
A few years ago Jarrett played at the Konzerthaus with his trio that also included Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. Even though I was seeing Jarrett for the first time I found it an underwhelming experience, since the pianist was reining in his improv tendencies in favour of a snoozeworthy trot through a succession of jazz standards. No such reservations this time, as Jarrett sat, stood and crouched at the Steinway to play a series of concise, stilled improvisations that kept the audience in the raptly attentive frame of mind that he craves and, indeed, deserves.
The audience weren’t always as co-operative as this though, indeed the first moments of the evening gave rise to a Jarrett outburst of epic proportions. Before the pianist took to the stage, there was the expected announcement that photography during the concert was not permitted. Nevertheless, when Jarrett ambled onstage, he immediately saw someone take a photo and made straight for the microphone that is provided at all his concerts for the express purpose of bawling out the audience. Flapping his arms around like a demented octopus, Jarrett declared that he would not be playing a note until the perpetrator had been ejected from the building. He then stalked offstage and waited for events to take their course.
This was a smart move on Jarrett’s part, since he clearly knew that the identity of the photographer must have been known to his neighbours, who would be bound to exert pressure on him to do the decent thing and walk out. And sure enough, it wasn’t long before a bearded bloke a few rows behind me stood up, shouted “Unfassbar!” (“incomprehensible!”) and left the auditorium, never to darken its doors again. Having paid a lot of money for his ticket, which gave him precisely no music in return but did at least allow him to be in the same room as Keith Jarrett for a couple of minutes, the man may have regretted his decision to snatch a photo. Anyway, Jarrett soon returned to the stage, sat down at the piano and without a word fired up a piece which, in its angry, passionate mood, was clearly birthed in direct response to what had just happened.
The rest of the evening passed off without incident, except for a bizarre tirade at the beginning of the second half in which Jarrett ranted that “the perception that you can interfere with a process is exactly why our world is fucked,” thereby placing the hapless photographer alongside Trump, Isis and goodness knows what else in the pantheon of evil. It’s a matter of regret that Jarrett couldn’t find it within himself to address the audience in any positive way, rather than haranguing them for minor infractions and thereby lacing the whole concert with bad feeling. Away from all the disruption, what was memorable about this remarkable evening was Jarrett’s creation of truly sublime music, in and of the moment it was played, so tender, precious and evanescent. The final encore of “Over the Rainbow” was so radiantly lovely that you wished it would never end, so magically did it encompass within it all the joy and beauty of music.
Every time Shearwater come to Vienna they play in a larger venue, their début visit to the Chelsea in 2012 having been followed by a 2014 appearance at the Szene Wien. It was inevitable, therefore, that their 2016 tour should bring them to the Arena, which was nicely full on this occasion, a clear sign that more and more people are waking up to the greatness of Jonathan Meiburg and his group. I’m happy, though, for them to remain at this level of support; I wouldn’t much care to see them at the Gasometer, gratifying as such a level of fandom would no doubt be to Meiburg and co.
Anyway, this was an absolutely thrilling concert that pretty much confirmed Shearwater as one of the most daring and powerful forces in rock today. I have to admit that I’ve not gone a bundle on the new album Jet Plane and Oxbow so far, finding it a tad overcooked compared to the Arctic chill of the ‘Island Arc’ trilogy and the impassioned disturbance that animated 2012’s Animal Joy. In a live context, though, and stripped of their excessive studio-based production, Meiburg’s new songs stand revealed as the taut, controlled masterpieces they are. Bristling with barely concealed rage, songs like “Prime” and “A Long Time Away” present a seething vision of contemporary, battle-scarred America.
None of which goes very far towards explaining how enthralling Shearwater are in concert. Meiburg has matured into a vastly confident and watchable frontman, casting green laser beams around the hall with some special pair of gloves, and responding to a deranged fan in the front row’s request for “My Way” during a technical hitch with a droll story culminating in a few lines of the song being delivered in the style of Hootie and the Blowfish. As a guitarist, too, Meiburg has developed dramatically since the last time I saw him. Since he’s not playing keyboards live any more, he’s free to prowl the full extent of the stage, throwing rock star poses right at the edge of the stage and snapping off his tremolo arm during a particularly driven guitar solo. But it’s as a singer that Meiburg impresses most of all, his richly contoured voice giving rugged shape and gravitas to his deeply literate and moving words. As if this weren’t enough, the rest of the group transform Meiburg’s turbulent visions into fevered expressions of simmering violence, with drummer Josh Halpern and bassist Sadie Powers worthy of particular mention.
This was an eventful evening in many respects. In between lunging to remove Meiburg’s discarded tremolo arm from the vice-like grip of the aforementioned deranged fan in the front row, rushing to protect him from a toppling mic stand which Meiburg inadvertently knocked in his direction at the jaw-dropping conclusion of the final encore “Hail Mary”, and stealing an occasional glance at the striking redheaded girl a few places away from me in the front row who seemed to know all the words to all the songs, I found myself wondering whether Shearwater would continue their practice of rounding off their concerts with an astutely chosen cover version, following their electrifying readings of REM’s “These Days” in 2012 and Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain” in 2014. The answer, of course, was yes, albeit that the choice of songs was slightly more predictable than before. Coming back onstage for the encores, Meiburg told of how, coming out of a period of intense and draining creative activity, he had turned to David Bowie’s Lodger as a source of fun and inspiration. He had already hatched plans to play the record live in full, plans which inevitably took on the form of a tribute in the months following Bowie’s untimely death. With a crowdfunded studio recording of the album in the works, Shearwater played a brace of songs from the record, a brooding “African Night Flight” topped by a riotous “Look Back In Anger”. As on previous occasions, though, the performance of other people’s songs only served to underline the savage brilliance with which Shearwater go about their own business.
Since Philip Glass is nearing his 80th birthday, his previously relentless touring schedule must surely be winding down to some extent. It was a no-brainer, then, to make the journey to Linz to see him perform a piano concert of his own works, flanked by Glass’ long-time musical collaborator Dennis Russell Davies and Japanese pianist (and Davies’ wife) Maki Namekawa. This was the second time I’d seen a Glass event at the magnificent Musiktheater, the first being the baffling opera The Lost in 2013. I hadn’t seen Glass playing piano before, although I’ve seen him twice with the Ensemble playing keyboards on Music in Twelve Parts.
The concert began with Glass solo, playing his composition Mad Rush. At fifteen minutes or so it’s a comparatively short piece, yet characteristically Glass in the way it glides around the listener on a surface of glistening melodies and hypnotic repetitions. The title of the piece seemed to be something of a misnomer, since Glass played it unhurried and with a minimum of fuss. This was perhaps the saddest Glass music I’ve heard, wintry and elegiac and (even though he wrote it nearly forty years ago) perfectly suited to a composer in the twilight of his years.
Glass then exited stage right to make way for Davies and Namekawa, who together played Glass’ 2008 piece Four Movements for Two Pianos. In pointed contrast to the dreamlike euphoria of Mad Rush, this was a beautifully labyrinthine piece of music. Flying through Glass’ magisterial arpeggios in bold and lucid harmony, Namekawa and Davies made an immediate and forceful impression that became stronger and stronger throughout the four movements. By the way, I’m no expert on the niceties of classical music etiquette, but I’m sure you’re not supposed to applaud at the end of each movement as the enthusiastic Linz audience did.
After the interval, all three performers re-emerged to play a suite of six short pieces from Glass’ 1996 “dance opera” Les Enfants Terribles. Since these were pieces that relied, in their original form, on the visual as much as the aural for their impact, the suite was perhaps a surprising choice to round off the evening. Nevertheless it provided a wholly satisfying conclusion to the programme, with the composer leading Davies and Namekawa masterfully through the unflinching density of the music.
There was an interesting coda at the end of the evening, prompted by the signing session after the concert. Never having been to one of Davies’ concerts before (although I once made it as far as the lobby), I thought it would have been remiss of me not to ask him about a subject that has long interested me. It’s not exactly a secret, but nor is it widely known, that Davies is the father of the musician Annabel Lee, who together with her husband Michael Moynihan form the core of the neofolk group Blood Axis. As far as I’m aware Davies has never spoken publicly about his daughter’s music, so I thought it might be interesting to see what he had to say about Blood Axis, especially since it is, to say the least, a controversial project. Rather than rehash the many arguments that have been made against Blood Axis in general and Moynihan in particular, I’ll simply point the reader to this extensive analysis of his activities, which concludes by saying that “Moynihan is a racist and a Fascist, and he believes that creating a culture accepting of [Charles] Manson’s nihilism is half way to making it also amenable to Fascism”. Having said that, when you look at this photo of Moynihan, you have to wonder what all the fuss is about.
Anyway, Dennis Russell Davies seemed disinclined to discuss Blood Axis when I mentioned the subject to him in Linz. Asked to comment on the precarious ideological basis of the project, he could only offer up platitudes about Moynihan being “a wonderful man” who makes “wonderful music”. Given his familial ties with both Lee and Moynihan, I hardly expected him to condemn their music out of hand; it’s strange, nevertheless, that he clearly feels so unperturbed by it.
What a rum evening this was. Shampoo Boy, the group consisting of Editions Mego label boss Peter Rehberg alongside Christian Schachinger on guitar and Christina Nemec on bass, played a curtain-raising set on the second and final night of some heavily sponsored festival or other at the Museumsquartier. (The forerunner of this group, the sadly missed Peterlicker, also played the opening set at a similarly corporate shindig five years ago; see my review of that event here.) Thanks to the logos plastered everywhere about the place, entrance to the entire festival was free. The event was originally supposed to take place in the main Haupthof of the MQ, which would have been nice; sadly, however, inclement weather meant that it was moved inside to a very large and swish hall known as the Hofstallungen, where I had never been before. The audience was fairly large, but I suspect I was the only one among them who had come especially to see Shampoo Boy.
When I last saw this outfit at the Rhiz in 2013, I complained that the concert was too short. No such reservations this time, in fact this was one of those gigs where I couldn’t wait for it to end. Thanks mainly to the unorthodox approach of guitarist Christian Schachinger, the performance had a shambolic quality which meant that on this occasion the trio certainly outstayed their welcome. Schachinger had imbibed generously from the free drinks supplied backstage, and seemed to be having trouble standing up as a result. His guitar may or may not have been plugged in, but he didn’t seem unduly concerned about the matter either way; in any event, from my vantage point close to the stage, it was entirely inaudible. About halfway through, Schachinger finally succumbed to the inevitable and fell over backwards. There he remained for the rest of the set, his back to the audience, occasionally strumming his guitar in a doomed attempt to play some music.
With all of this japery going on, it was a relief to turn my attention to Rehberg and Nemec, who were bringing things nicely to the boil. Rehberg had an impressive array of dials, cables and whatnot on the table alongside his customary laptop, from which he emitted frequent blasts of scouring noise. Nemec ground out waves of implacable bass tones, her unflappable demeanour contrasting favourably with the events unfolding stage left. Eventually Schachinger staggered to his feet, the three of them concluded their business and they wandered offstage. By that time, though, I was pretty much the only person paying attention, as the vast majority of the audience had drifted off to the bar.
My long, slow initiation into the world of opera continues, all of it so far through the music of Philip Glass. Following the overwhelming experience of Einstein on the Beach in London in 2012, and the intermittently fascinating but relatively minor The Lost in Linz a year later, last month I made a return trip to London for my first ever visit to the English National Opera. The occasion, of course, was the last night of the ENO’s new production of Akhnaten, the third part of Glass’s major trilogy of operas about historical figures. (At this rate I should be able to tick off the second part of the trilogy, Satyagraha, somewhere around 2020.)
Although the interior of the Coliseum was every bit as lavish as I had expected, it proved to be no match for the visually sumptuous staging of this opera. Phelim McDermott’s production swirled with inventive beauty, from the singers’ resplendent costumes to the rich set designs (which may have owed something to Robert Wilson’s groundbreaking Einstein staging), while the hypnotic work of the jugglers provided a stunning visual counterpoint to the rippling tides of Glass’s music. The chorus, meanwhile, presented a vaguely steampunk image that contrasted vividly with the Egyptian splendour elsewhere onstage. Having received with glum resignation the news that the chorus were planning to go on strike for the first act on the very night I had booked to see this thing, it was a huge relief to learn that the action was later suspended. Without them, the impact of the piece would have been greatly reduced.
The part of Akhnaten was sung with great expressiveness by Anthony Roth Costanzo. In keeping with the historical tendency to depict the ruler as androgynous, the character’s sexuality was indeterminate: his full (male) nudity during the coronation scene was undermined by later scenes in which, diaphonously clad, he appeared to be exhibiting female sexual characteristics. Adding to the indeterminacy was Costanzo’s countertenor voice. The countertenor appears to be something of a rarity in the operatic repertoire, but Costanzo’s reedy yet powerful voice was greatly impressive to this neophyte.
Equally impressive was Glass’s score, as blissful and romantic as any Glass I’ve heard. With no violins in the orchestra, but plenty of woodwind and brass, the soundworld steered clear of stridency and found deep lyrical softness in Glass’s ravishing melodies. The funeral scene in Act I, meanwhile, was powered by a tumultuous percussive throb that pitched the opera into moments of high, stirring drama.
Whereas Einstein on the Beach seemed to stretch out time itself, leading to an epic five-hour sweep that drew the viewer/listener ever closer towards the infinite, Akhnaten seemed to pack an extraordinary amount of incident and detail into its three acts. As a result the three-hour running time flew by; indeed, I frequently wished it had been longer. Sung mostly in Egyptian, the opera tells the tragic story of the pharaoh who abolishes the old polytheistic religion, introduces a new monotheistic one and is finally overthrown and killed by his own people. Thanks to the useful programme notes, the language barrier did not pose any particular problems. In any event, the narrative thread of the opera was never less than gripping, thanks to the otherworldly dream logic with which it proceeded towards its inevitable conclusion. And it was thrilling to see Glass himself join the cast onstage for a hugely deserved standing ovation at the end of this magnificent production.
My first Tindersticks concert in four years, and it was a delight to spend another evening in the presence of a group who have meant so much to me over the years. I must have seen them dozens of times by now, in both their pre- and post-split incarnations, and their concerts have always been emotionally draining affairs laced with romance, heartbreak and regret. This was certainly the case tonight, as the group responded beautifully to the splendour of the Konzerthaus with a set drawn heavily from their new album The Waiting Room.
Like its three post-split predecessors, The Waiting Room is no match for the six exquisite records the group made when Dickon Hinchcliffe’s haunting string arrangements loomed large over everything they did (for some more thoughts on the split, see my review of the 2012 Radiokulturhaus concert). But the record has more than enough heart-stoppingly tender moments to make it a worthy addition to the Tindersticks canon. And “Hey Lucinda”, an old song recorded before the tragic death of its co-vocalist Lhasa de Sela, immediately takes its rightful place alongside “Travelling Light”, “Buried Bones” and “Sometimes It Hurts” as one of the classic Tindersticks duets.
Like that of his spiritual forebear Leonard Cohen, Stuart Staples’ voice seems to be getting deeper and richer with age. (He no longer lights up a cigarette onstage, although I’m unclear if that’s due to health and safety regulations or simply because he’s given up.) When he sings it holds you rapt, his eyes flickering as his gorgeous velvety croon threads its way through his broken, sorrowful words. There are few words spoken between songs, but the occasional smile breaks across his face as he takes in the audience’s fervent response or shares a warm moment with the rest of the group.
With Terry Edwards’ brass arrangements absent this time round, the instrumentation for the concert was more stripped-down than usual – a reflection of the mostly subdued nature of the new album. Neil Fraser’s guitar assumed greater prominence as a result, his clever and restrained use of effects adding rich colour to songs like “Medicine” and “A Night So Still”. David Boulter’s radiant keyboard and organ parts further fleshed out the chamber music sound, while drummer Earl Harvin was a revelation. His stickwork effortlessly fluent and vigorous, Harvin added a note of real menace and foreboding to the shadowy momentum of “We Are Dreamers”.
It’s very tempting, for a long-time fan like me, to grouch about the near-total absence of older songs from the setlist, with only “She’s Gone” and “Sleepy Song” from the epochal second album showing up, nothing from the first, nothing from Curtains or Simple Pleasure, and so on. But one can hardly blame Staples for focusing on songs recorded by the current incarnation of the group. Besides, I was ready to forgive him anything from the moment the band launched into “Sometimes It Hurts” as the first encore. In its recorded version with Lhasa de Sela, this has gradually become not only my favourite Tindersticks song, but also probably my favourite song of all time, so to hear it tonight was an intensely moving moment for me – one of many precious gifts from this most remarkable, most passionate of bands.
Another of my sadly rare visits to one of my favourite venues in Vienna, the Radiokulturhaus. The comfort, intimate size and excellent acoustics of this space all combine to make attending concerts there a pleasure, while the programming is also adventurous enough to make it a fairly safe bet that you’re going to see someone interesting. Such was certainly the case here, as guitar and laptop wizard Fennesz trod the boards ahead of Ukrainian pianist and composer Lubomyr Melnyk. The concert was sold out, no doubt mostly on the basis of Melnyk’s burgeoning reputation as the fastest pianist in the world (19½ notes per second, fact fans), but also in part because it was part of a festival promoted by a sugary soft drinks manufacturer whose logo was displayed prominently on the stage.
The majority of the capacity audience were certainly there to see Melnyk play what I believe was only his second concert in Vienna, but as far as I was concerned Fennesz was the principal draw. The last time I tried to catch him was on my birthday last July at Karlskirche; I was touched that he’d arranged such a generous present for me, but when I went to get tickets the length of the queue, snaking right the way around Karlsplatz, made me abandon the idea fairly quickly. No such disappointment this time, as Fennesz played a riveting, albeit much too short (only 30 minutes) set that was rich in dynamic shifts and quicksilver atmospheres. Those who contend that Fennesz’s concerts all sound the same probably aren’t paying close enough attention, since on this occasion the maestro’s silvery guitar riffs assumed a stature far mightier than I had heard before, while the beats or traces of beats that hovered with gossamer elegance around the stage were an intriguing move away from art-house formalism and towards a more bass-driven environment.
All too soon Fennesz was gone, giving way to an unannounced performance by Latvian singer Mionia. I took this unwelcome intervention as an opportunity to get some fresh air outside, and retook my seat in time for Melnyk’s recital. But there was to be no getting away from Mionia, who joined the pianist later on as vocalist for the sentimental song “I Love You”.
As for Melnyk himself, I was pretty underwhelmed for the most part. His heavily touted language of “continuous music” never transcends the remarkable virtuosity with which it is delivered, and remains fatally unemotive and uninvolving. Consisting largely of note clusters played with mind-numbing repetition that coalesce into clouds of treacly harmony, it lacks both the emotional heft and the conceptual rigour of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, both of whom it occasionally brings to mind.
Melnyk is an engaging, yet somewhat rambling speaker. His lengthy introductions to each piece bring valuable context and insight to his work, but unfortunately tend to outstay their welcome. Much the same could be said for the work itself, whose durational quality has the potential to make considerable psychological impact on the listener, but which ends up dissipating into what sounds very much like New Age mysticism. There was nothing particularly mystical, though, about the way Melnyk hastened to the foyer after the concert to flog his extensive catalogue of self-produced CDs.
As usual, I find myself way behind with writing for this blog at the end of the year. I hope I’ll be able to go back and fill in some of the gaps in the list below, but who knows. Anyway, here is a list of the best concerts I attended in 2015:
- King Crimson, Paris L’Olympia
- Glen Hansard, Vienna Konzerthaus
- Sun Kil Moon, Vienna Arena
- Mono, Sarajevo Kaktus
- Al Stewart, London Royal Albert Hall
- Neil Cowley Trio, Vienna Porgy & Bess
- Einstürzende Neubauten, Munich Haus der Kunst
- Jaga Jazzist, Vienna Porgy & Bess
- Peter Brötzmann & Steve Noble, Vienna Blue Tomato
- Schlippenbach Trio, Vienna Martinschlössl
You’re never quite sure with the Fluc whether the gig you want is upstairs in the Fluc proper or downstairs in the Wanne. Going through the correct set of doors assumed particular importance on this occasion, since while one venue was showcasing an evening of avant guitar tunesmithery, the other was set to host a men-only strict leather fetish night. I wouldn’t have much fancied wandering into the wrong room by mistake, but fortunately the queue of fearsome-looking black-clad moustachioed types snaking halfway back to Praterstern tipped the wink that it was up the stairs for me.
In a way, this evening could be seen as an appendix to the Editions Mego 20th anniversary celebrations that took place in Vienna and several other cities earlier this year. Not only was headliner and Mego signing Bill Orcutt, now on his third release for the label, making his Vienna début, but label boss Peter Rehberg could also be seen spinning the discs up at the back. Completing the line-up was local hero and psych overlord Eric Arn, on a busman’s holiday from his day job fronting Primordial Undermind. In keeping with the theme of the evening, Arn left his electric axe at home and treated us instead to a short but compelling set of acoustic guitar inventions. Their ghostly traces and spiralling repetitions evoked pure and ineffable sadness, while for an unexpected cover of Rain Tree Crow’s “Every Colour You Are” Arn added cool, affectless vocals that effectively offset the trancelike quality of his playing.
Having sat and listened appreciatively to Arn’s set, Bill Orcutt cut a deceptively nonchalant figure as he shambled onto the Fluc’s low stage. It’s worth mentioning, for those who may be new to him, that Orcutt plays a standard acoustic guitar from which the A and D strings have been removed. The results are mesmerising, as the guitarist savagely deconstructs traditional approaches to the guitar with his fierce, livid playing. What emerges is some kind of eerie, shattered take on the blues, with Orcutt making occasional wordless vocal utterances while shooting angry sparks from his devastated guitar.
Orcutt had lost his capo at some point along the road, so he was forced to improvise with a small piece of card which he was able to jam between the strings and the fretboard. Such a minor distraction was no problem for the guitarist, who continued to play with a staggering level of intensity. I was very much hoping that he would play his version of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, which has captivated me since I first heard it (there’s a wonderful film of it on YouTube, in which the camera never leaves the body of the instrument). And indeed he did play it in a medley with “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, the two songs together describing a fractured and perilous vision of modern America. It’s a vision, moreover, that bleeds through all of Orcutt’s music, steeped as it is in turbulence and rage.