Earth & Richard Bishop, Vienna Szene Wien, 24 February 2008

A very strong concert at the Szene Wien last night by American drone-metallers Earth. The music unfolded at a slow, rigidly controlled pace and barely deviated from it throughout, shaped by the funereal pulse of the drums and the colossal hum of Dylan Carlson’s guitar. Carlson spoke little except to introduce the songs, but he was an impressive onstage figure, looking like he’d walked in from a Tarantino film with his long moustache and slicked back hair. As a guitarist he was a picture of concentration, holding the neck high and gazing fixedly at the strings while playing with a surprising delicacy and finesse.

The group were clearly making an attempt to lighten their sound with the inclusion of keyboard and trombone patterns. Others may disagree, but I could easily have done without these embellishments; they were an unnecessary and unwelcome distraction from the group’s perversely inspiring core sound. I also found myself wishing for slightly more thump from the drums. These reservations notwithstanding, Earth proved themselves to be an uncannily potent force.

Early birds had the good fortune to witness former Sun City Girl Richard Bishop on solo electric guitar. He’s an awesomely talented player, and it was great to see that his mighty technique never descended into empty-headed twiddling. Instead, the music swarmed hectically around the hall, with clouds of notes emerging and resolving into beautifully complex configurations.

Falling slowly: Once gets an Academy Award

Three cheers to Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova for winning the Academy Award for best original song for “Falling Slowly” from the film Once. Never was an honour more richly deserved. I saw the film during its brief theatrical release in British cinemas last year and was overwhelmed by its charm, humour and romantic allure. Not to mention the heart-melting soundtrack of songs at its core, of which “Falling Slowly” is perhaps the most sublimely affecting.

Neil Young, Austria Center Vienna, 22 February 2008

A storming three-hour show last night by Neil Young in the unlikely surroundings of the Austria Center. (In fact the sound was better than expected, although the sightlines were predictably poor.)

The first set saw Young deliver a set of lovely solo acoustic songs, switching between guitar and piano (with one song on banjo). I enjoyed watching him wander among his guitars before each song, seemingly trying to decide which of his old friends to hold a conversation with. It’s wonderful the way these songs take the everyday and quotidian and invest them with such mystical, charged significance. And after all these years, his voice is still a thing of beauty. “After the Gold Rush” was just spellbinding. A great shame he didn’t speak at all between songs, though – the fact that he never addressed the audience made the set feel considerably less intimate (insofar as any gig in a conference centre could ever be called intimate) and gave it the air of a formal recital.

For the second part of the evening, though, no talking was required; Young’s electric guitar spoke more eloquently than any words could have done. When “Hey Hey My My” kicked in the hall just erupted, and there was even an announcement from Young at the song’s end (which presumably he had had relayed to him from the side of the stage), to the effect that the venue management were concerned about the resilience of the floor to too much jumping up and down. (The hall is on the first floor of the centre.) The electric storm didn’t subside until almost two hours later. “Powderfinger” was massive, “Cinnamon Girl” wild, but the undoubted highlight was a song I hadn’t heard before, “No Hidden Path”. This monster proceeded for what must have been at least 20 minutes, with Young spitting molten fire from his guitar every second. Just… immense.

It wasn’t until someone pointed it out to me that I noticed that there was a bloke in a cowboy hat onstage, painting on canvas during the whole of the first set. It was some kind of picture of two birds in a field. At the start of each song during the second set, a painting depicting that song was placed on an easel at stage left. The bird painting, evidently finished by then, made its appearance during the song “Winterlong”, which Young dedicated to his late band member Danny Whitten. This primitivist multimedia presentation seemed to reinforce my overriding impression of Young’s music – wholehearted, slightly ramshackle and formidably evocative.

Carla Bruni, Quelqu’un ma dit

I read today – OK, I’m slow on the uptake – that the French singer Carla Bruni has finally married President Sarkozy after a short romance. With this news, her public profile continues to increase. She is someone I’ve admired for several years; I went to Paris in July 2003, trying to get my head straight after the death of my dear mother, and through a friend’s recommendation discovered her first album, Quelqu’un ma dit. It’s an album that has never been far from my mind since then, due to the lingering effects of Bruni’s wistful voice, romantic lyrics and fluid guitar. I very much enjoyed the fact that, because she sang in French, she hadn’t been through the British media circus. Until her relationship with Sarkozy began, Bruni was little known outside France, and to the best of my knowledge had played few concerts elsewhere. It was as though she didn’t much care for widespread British and American acceptance, and I loved that. Although the album was no doubt massively popular in continental Europe, I still felt like it was “my” album.

I had high hopes of the follow-up, No Promises, but sadly have been a little disappointed by it. In the first place, it’s sung in English. No doubt Bruni doesn’t need much help with her public profile any more, but I hope the decision to sing in English wasn’t made out of a desire to engage with the UK and US “markets”. And secondly, it’s not an album of original songs but a collection of settings of poems. I can’t fault the selection – Yeats, Auden, Dickinson – but still I can’t help wishing that Bruni had penned another set of lyrics to sit alongside the peerless romanticism of the first album.

Anyway, what with Valentine’s Day coming up and all, here’s a rough-and-ready English translation of Carla Bruni’s best song, the lorn and lovely “Quelqu’un ma dit”:

Someone told me our lives aren’t worth much
They pass in a moment, like a dying rose
Someone told me time is a bastard
making an overcoat of our sorrows
Someone told me
that you still loved me
Could it be true?

Someone told me destiny mocks us
it promises everything and gives us nothing
it seems that happiness is within our reach
so we hold out our hands and we find ourselves mad
Someone told me
that you still loved me
Could it be true?

But who was it that told me you still loved me?
I don’t recall, it was late at night
I can still hear the voice, but I can’t see the face
“he loves you, it’s a secret, don’t tell him I told you”
you see, someone told me
someone really did tell me
that you still loved me
Could it be true?

This translation © Richard Rees Jones 2008.

Birgit Denk, Vienna, 2 February 2008

Saw my first concert of 2008 on Saturday night – an “ausgsteckt” (unplugged) performance by Austrian singer Birgit Denk and her band. This was an unusual one for me, partly because it was much poppier fare than I’m used to, but more importantly because Birgit Denk sings only in German, and therefore I had no idea what she was singing about. I knew this before going, of course, but what I hadn’t expected was that she’s also something of a stand-up comedian, punctuating the songs with lengthy and, judging by the audience’s hearty reactions, highly comic monologues.

The impassable language barrier didn’t, however, impede my enjoyment of the gig at all. In fact, it added a distinct zest to the evening. As far as I can tell, Denk sings in a heavily accented Viennese dialect, which might make understanding her songs challenging even to a non-Viennese or standard German speaker. There was a sense of being in a cultural setting made seductive by its strangeness – a feeling of comfort and familiarity (the music wasn’t anything that would frighten the horses) mixed with the intriguingly different. Plus, this city has been my home for the past two years and I welcome anything that enhances my understanding and appreciation of its cultural heartbeat.

Anyway, the concert was great. An engaging and natural performer, Denk delivered tremulous ballads, grandstanding show tunes and rollicking footstompers with equal verve and passion. Her accomplished band framed her warm and unaffected voice with infectious sounds – deft guitar work, splashes of bouzouki and mandolin, jazzy keyboard and accordion interludes. I came away at the end of the two-hour set feeling thoroughly entertained, buoyed up with good cheer and – despite my almost complete lack of linguistic understanding – just a little bit more Viennese.

Ether column, January 2008

Who can resist a band with a name like Fuckhead? Not me, that’s for sure. And the fact that they are Austrian makes the prospect of an evening with them all the more appealing. Active since 1988, Fuckhead are a fusion of Industrial metal, intelligent dance music and Viennese Actionist performance art. The four-piece from Linz are notable for their confrontational live shows, which for a while earned them the distinction of being banned by the Austrian authorities. More often than not, a Fuckhead concert consists of the heavily tattooed (and all-male, sadly) group writhing on stage clad only in their underwear, or naked but for some strategically placed gaffer tape, eating sausages and simulating sex acts, with the entire spectacle soundtracked by punishing Metal textures. If that sounds like the sort of thing you would enjoy – and I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be – then be sure to be at the Chelsea on 31 January.

For those wishing for a more considered start to their 2008 gig-going, there’s always Iron & Wine. Lurking behind the group alias is US singer-songwriter Sam Beam, who has released three albums of folky, countrified alt-rock and is currently on tour promoting the most recent of these, The Shepherd’s Dog. Beam is a quietly inspired musician whose craftsmanlike approach to songcraft has drawn comparisons with stellar names such as Nick Drake, Paul Simon and Neil Young. Moving away from the scratchy, lo-fi sound of his earliest recordings, the new album sees Beam surrounding himself with a large cast of supporting musicians and building up an arsenal of lush instrumentation as a result. But the songs retain an air of melancholy and southern Gothic atmospheres that makes them utterly beguiling.

Meanwhile, Porgy & Bess starts 2008 as it no doubt means to go on with a series of intriguing jazz and world music concerts. The pick of these could well be the visit of the Czech singer and violinist Iva Bittova, performing as a duo with American bassist and saxophonist George Mraz. Bittova is a virtuoso performer whose work blends elements of Anglo-American rock and eastern European folk. Frequently confounding audience expectations, she plays the violin with various found objects and deploys a variety of vocal utterances ranging from straight ahead singing to childlike babbling and full-throated ululations. In Bittova’s practised hands, however, this range of approaches never descends into mere gimmickry. Instead, it seems like a natural outgrowth of the melodies and rhythms inherent in her self-composed music.