Ether column, November 2006

November is a good month in Vienna for fans of literate male singer-songwriters, with two of the finest in the world playing here within the space of three days. First up is Peter Hammill, best known as the leader of 70s avant-prog rockers Van der Graaf Generator. VdGG reformed last year for a new album and a series of triumphant concerts, but they are now on hold again while Hammill continues his remarkable solo career, during which he has released upwards of 30 albums of spiky, uncompromising art rock.

This thin, greying man of 58 is one of the unheralded legends of music – a man whose singing voice modulates from an achingly sad caress to a blood-curdling shriek, often within the same song. His songs are dense, knotty propositions, reflecting with rare lyrical eloquence on the nature of love, the passing of time, free will and predestination. Accompanying himself on guitar and electric piano, he will be joined by his regular collaborator, violinist Stuart Gordon.

Hammill plays in Vienna on 11 November, the date in 1968 on which one of VdGG’s most celebrated songs, “Darkness (11/11)”, was written. He may or may not play that song on the night, but his dark subject matter and anguished, expressionist delivery will in any event be offset by a genuine onstage warmth and a wholehearted commitment to the physicality of live performance.

From the intimacy of the Szene to the grand space of the Konzerthaus, where Nick Cave gives what is billed as a solo performance on 13 November. ‘Solo’ in this context means without Cave’s long-term backing band, the Bad Seeds, although in fact three of them – violinist Warren Ellis, bassist Martyn Casey and drummer Jim Sclavunos – will also be onstage, adding colour and depth to Cave’s finely wrought meditations on love, redemption and the power of myth.

Cave has left his formative 80s years with the Birthday Party, Australia’s foremost goth-punk ranters, far behind, and is now settled into a life of domestic bliss with his wife and children in England. He is also something of a renaissance man, having written an acclaimed novel (And The Ass Saw The Angel) and film script (The Proposition). But his remarkable gift for self-expression, in language that ranges from the potent to the delirious, is undoubtedly heard to best effect in his songs.

Cave’s most recent album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, shows him at the height of his powers. He writes and sings about love with exceptional tenderness and beauty, yet he also delivers rousing anthems that achieve an extraordinary blend of rumbustiousness and articulacy. The splendid acoustic of the Konzerthaus will be an ideal setting for Cave’s elegant croon and gorgeous piano playing, and with ticket prices ranging from €45 to a wallet-sapping €125, the audience will no doubt be hanging on every note.

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