Ether column, July-August 2007

The live music scene in Vienna, like that of any major city, tends to quieten down during the summer months, as the city empties and the outdoor festival circuit takes over. Thankfully, however, there are still a few interesting events taking place in July and August. First up, and buried deep among the shockingly conservative line-up of the Vienna Jazz Festival, is a concert by the veteran American free jazz musician Archie Shepp. Shepp has a long and distinguished history as a saxophonist; he played in Cecil Taylor’s band in the late 50s, before joining John Coltrane’s group in time to appear on Coltrane’s seminal 1965 album Ascension. Stepping into the limelight under his own name in the late 60s, Shepp’s music began to embrace a passionate Afrocentricity on sides such as Fire Music and The Magic of Ju-Ju. At the same time, like many black American musicians of the period, he felt the pull of Europe, where free jazz was – and remains – far more appreciated than at home. He recorded no fewer than five albums for the important French label BYG Actuel, and has in fact made France his adopted home. Shepp’s frenetic avant-garde sax lines, coupled with the rhythms and ideologies of Africa, make his music an exciting proposition. Demonstrating a continued willingness to experiment, he will be accompanied in this performance by two rappers and electronic beats.

The other big summer highlight is the visit of veteran New York avant-garde songsmiths Sonic Youth, playing an open air concert in the relatively intimate surroundings of the courtyard at the Arena. Sonic Youth have seemingly been around forever, constantly varying and refining their avant-edged brand of alternative rock. Emerging in the early 80s from the New York post-punk and No Wave scene, the band have never entirely abandoned their roots in experiment and confrontation. The signature Sonic Youth sound is a maelstrom of squally, guitar-driven noise, tempered with a clever, hookwise pop sensibility. Having enjoyed a degree of commercial success since the release of their 1988 album Daydream Nation, they are now in the rare position of being major label artists who have retained wide critical respect and the freedom to experiment more or less as they please. Daydream Nation itself has now almost achieved ‘classic album’ status, with the result that the band have recently taken to playing it in its entirety at concerts. This development may surprise those who never expected Sonic Youth to yield to the current fad for complete album performances; but, given their rich history of making boundary-breaking rock music, you can hardly blame them for exercising their rights to a little nostalgia. Besides, it’s a dead cert that they will continue to confound their audience’s expectations for a good while yet.

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