Ether column, November 2007

Fans of American alt-rock are faced with a difficult choice this month, as two of the more literate exponents of the genre play in Vienna on the same evening – a scheduling anomaly likely to halve the audience for both concerts. First up, Texas’ Okkervil River, who hit the Szene as part of an extensive European tour. Named after a river in St. Petersburg, Okkervil River have since forming in 1998 racked up four increasingly confident and powerful albums. Their current release, The Stage Names, is an exhilarating train ride of emotions hinging on the words and vocals of singer and lyricist Will Sheff. Sheff delivers his texts in a passionate, utterly persuasive style, switching from an outraged howl to a desolate and unearthly croon. Musically, Okkervil River present a feast of lush instrumentation, with cornet and lap steel guitar augmenting the band’s standard rock line-up and bringing Sheff’s precise and evocative lyrics sparklingly to life.

Across town at the Flex, New York’s Fiery Furnaces have their own album, Widow City, to promote. The brother and sister duo of guitarist Matthew and singer Eleanor Friedberger are a more challenging proposition than Okkervil River, with jarring changes of pace and blasts of concrète noise among the treats on offer. The Furnaces are songwriters at heart, however, and it’s never too long before their music returns to solid ground. With the core duo joined for live work by other musicians, the band specialise in lengthy medleys incorporating elements from a number of their songs.

Meanwhile, Porgy & Bess continues its ongoing mission to bring the finest free jazz musicians in the world to Vienna with a concert by the tenor saxophonist David S. Ware and his Quartet. Ware has an impeccable pedigree; he was taught circular breathing by the veteran saxman Sonny Rollins, and in the 70s played in pianist Cecil Taylor’s band. He didn’t set out with his own group until the late 80s, but he has more than made up for lost time with a relentless schedule of gigging and recording. With his febrile, provocative style, Ware is arguably the foremost living exponent of the Fire Music espoused by 60s greats like Ayler and Coltrane.

Finally, a quick mention of an appearance by someone even more out there than Ware: the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. I raved at length about Brötzmann in my June column, so this time I’ll simply note that he’s playing a special concert, starting at midnight, with the Japanese guitarist Keiji Haino. I can think of no better pair of musicians to keep the audience from falling into a small-hours slumber.

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