Yes, I know that heading does a disservice to the other three fine musicians (for the record, they were Ken Vandermark on reeds, Marino Pliakas on bass and Michael Wertmüller on drums) who shared the Porgy & Bess stage with Brötzmann on Sunday night. But no matter how hard I try, I always end up thinking of Brötzmann’s collaborators as sidemen – the result, no doubt, of the sheer intensity of his playing.
Having said that, it was hard to ignore the contributions of the other three to this concert. Vandermark is a more recognisably post-Ayler saxophonist than Brötzmann is; his playing really swings, and acts as a perfect counterweight to the German’s unbridled ferocity. Pliakas was a mesmerising electric bassist, creating endlessly kaleidoscopic patterns of rhythm and making clever, sparing use of effects. And Wertmüller was a sheer wonder, playing with formidable power and attack. At times, this band sounded more like an avant rock outfit (descendants of Last Exit, perhaps) than anything from the world of jazz.
As for Brötzmann himself, well, the man continues to stun me every time I hear him play. He can be playful, as when he engages in a skittering, stop-start duet with Vandermark. He can be lyrical, as when he stands alone at the side of the stage and delivers a heartbreakingly tender solo. But above all, he is an unstoppable force of nature, kicking up a firestorm with every blast from his mighty lungs.
OK, so I made this little picture quiz for some friends in Vienna, but I thought I would throw it open as well. So if anyone’s reading this and wants to have a go at identifying the 20 artists/groups shown, please send me your answers using the form below. They are all artists I enjoy listening to and admire.
I’ll post the answers on 8 April and say who got the highest score. No prizes except the glow of satisfaction.
Update: No-one was interested. Ah well.
Mark Eitzel keeps getting better and better. Last Thursday’s concert by his group American Music Club was a blissful revelation, filled with the kind of emotionally acute and musically rich songwriting at which he excels. While there were many more people in the audience than attended his last solo appearance in Vienna, the WUK was by no means full, which is a sad state of affairs but also a fair reflection of Eitzel’s approach to his music – worldly, defiant and helplessly uncommercial.
An endearing and occasionally shambolic live performer, Eitzel was in fine mood, prefacing many of the songs with little spoken tableaux and revelling in musical exchanges with guitarist Vudi (whose own extempore blues number, delivered while Eitzel was attending to an unco-operative guitar, was a joy). Vudi’s playing was shimmering and potent, but Eitzel is no slouch on guitar either, and the two men’s vivid sparring was crucial to the sustaining of the wide-screen AMC sound. Nowhere was this filmic quality more apparent than on the emotional highwire of ‘Johnny Mathis’s Feet’, where Eitzel’s rich and dark voice gave epic weight to the lyric’s tortured self-questioning.
It was wonderful to see Eitzel so obviously touched by the extent and warmth of the audience’s appreciation, which generated three richly deserved encores. The final acoustic reading of ‘Firefly’, delivered in generous response to a deranged fan’s pleading (it was me, I confess), was as gleaming and evanescent as the fireflies themselves: “They don’t live too long, just a flash and then they’re gone…”
Those who arrived early had the pleasure of seeing a fine support set from American singer and musician Lisa Papineau and her band. Papineau’s songs are like miniature expressionist dramas, delivered via winning electronic textures and a percussive attack that perfectly holds the line between intricacy and clout. Strikingly attired in a stylish black dress, Papineau has a strong bluesy voice and a compelling onstage presence. Stabbing insistently away at her keyboard, she performed jerky dance moves that mirrored the spiky, uncompromising nature of her songs. “I’m not a very good dancer,” she told the audience ruefully, but there was something twisted and melancholy about her movements that gripped the attention utterly. Partway through the set, Eitzel joined her for a rich, sensitive duet, their voices entwined in seductive interplay. Here’s hoping she returns to Vienna for a show of her own soon.
A somewhat frustrating concert last night by Nina Nastasia in the pleasantly distressed surroundings of the Fluc Wanne. I spoke to some people who hadn’t been there before and who told me they had been wandering around the entire Praterstern area for over an hour looking for the place. I like the fact that it doesn’t draw attention to itself, to the extent of not even having a sign with its name. And even if you manage to find the Fluc itself, it’s very easy to miss the basement part.
Nastasia is a gifted singer, songwriter and guitarist, but as a performer she’s hard to love. Her songs are brittle and intimate; although she sits alone on stage with an acoustic guitar, she is not by any stretch a folk singer. Her voice is chillingly precise, her guitar playing fluid and sparkling; while her lyrics speak evocatively of night-time, ghosts and blood on the road.
The problem, to these ears, is that many of her songs are simply too short. They sound like fleeting sketches; just when they sound like they are about to take flight, they fizzle out. Nastasia frequently misses the opportunity to instil drama into a song through insistence and repetition. She clearly realises that “This Is What It Is” is her best song, since she saves it to the end of the set; yet this was one of the few songs where the music and words were given the space and openness they merited.
Secondly, her performance last night was annoyingly diffident. She didn’t speak to the audience at all at first, and when she did, it was to discuss a piece of graffiti she’d seen on a toilet wall. She took a request – fine, but then she just shrugged at the audience as if to say “any more?” And when she extemporised “this is a sucky version of this song” during “A Dog’s Life”, it was as though she’d given up on the idea of capturing the audience’s attention through authoritative performance.
I’ve always believed that artists have certain obligations to their live audiences to put on a memorable performance; that basically amounts to not much more than putting in a reasonable amount of effort. The greatest live performers I’ve seen – Hammill, Gira, Springsteen – understand this instinctively. For all her undoubted talents, I don’t think Nina Nastasia does.
I felt like making a website where I could put all the things I’ve written about music in one place. So here it is.
Most of the album reviews I’ve written (mostly for The Sound Projector) are on the site. There’s also previews (not much use, I know) of past live concerts in Vienna, taken from my monthly column for Ether, live reviews and a few letters to the press.
By the way, don’t expect too many updates to this site. I’m not going to be posting album reviews here regularly. The site is more like an archive, really. Still, I hope you find something of interest. Let me know what you think, please.
Regular readers of this column will know that I hardly ever recommend upcoming concerts by big name artists, on the grounds that they get quite enough publicity as it is without me adding to it. I’m happy to make an exception, however, in the case of Neil Young, who comes to Vienna this month as part of a very rare European tour. Young is a brave, stubborn and dauntingly creative individual who has been making music for over 40 years. Although he is Canadian by birth, his songs build into a mythic form of Americana, tapping effortlessly into both acoustic folk and electric rock forms. There are few more exciting sounds in rock than Young’s incendiary electric guitar playing, while as an acoustic guitarist and singer he catches a perfect note of desolate yearning. On this tour, Young promises to play two full sets, one acoustic and one electric, a combination which will showcase both sides of his awesome talent.
Two further concerts this month bring contrasting aspects of contemporary American rock to Vienna. Earth are a doomy guitar outfit led by Dylan Carlson, who was a close friend of Kurt Cobain and bought the shotgun with which the Nirvana singer killed himself. Their signature sound is best described as a slowed-down, drone-based form of Metal, although on their 2005 album Hex Carlson’s guitar style became markedly lighter and more countrified. Earth were last seen in Vienna in 2006, when they found themselves in the strange position of playing support to a band who were formed in tribute to them (the even more droney and Metallic Sunn O)))). This time, they deservedly take the stage as headliners, and their own support act is well worth catching – experimental guitarist and former member of Sun City Girls, Richard Bishop.
Finally, there’s an intriguing event at the Arena this month, the Maximum Black Festival. The story of how it came about is a good one. The Wiener Stadtwerke (the parent company of Wien Energie and Wiener Linien) wanted to use a piece of music by Canadian singer and violinist Owen Pallett, who records and performs under the name Final Fantasy, in an advertisement. When Pallett refused, the company went ahead and used an unauthorised cover version anyway. Naturally, Pallett was fuming, but he was placated by a remarkable offer from the WS – they would finance a day-long festival curated by him. And here it is – not only Pallett, but also juddering trio Deerhoof, idiosyncratic alt-rockers Frog Eyes, lo-fi noiseniks Dirty Projectors and, best of all, the pulsating guitar-driven mandalas of Six Organs of Admittance. Think about it – where else in the world would you find a public works company sponsoring a line-up like that?