Ether column, July 2008

Thank goodness for the Arena. While most of Vienna’s rock venues shut down for business over the summer, this old warhorse keeps going throughout the hot months by simply going outside. Just like the rest of us, in fact, but their backyard has the advantage of being big enough to play host to acts of the calibre of Sigur Rós and Patti Smith.

Sigur Rós hail from Iceland and play an intriguing kind of post-rock with quasi-classical leanings. Active in their native land since 1994, they achieved worldwide recognition in 1999 with their second album Ágætis byrjun. With this album and the lovely single “Svefn-g-englar”, the group found their signature style of music defined by ethereal strings and the swooning falsetto style of singer Jón Birgisson. Birgisson often plays guitar by bowing the strings with a cello bow, adding to the dreamlike delicacy of the group’s sound. Writing their songs in Icelandic was never likely to bring Sigur Rós mainstream appeal, but they took themselves even further out with their next album (), which was sung entirely in their own invented language, Hopelandic. Their music has an unfortunate tendency to be used in film and TV soundtracks, reflecting its soothing and widescreen nature.

Patti Smith has been an important figure in alternative rock for over thirty years. She was energised by the American wave of the punk explosion in the mid-70s, playing regularly at New York clubs like CBGB and providing a strong female counterbalance to the male-dominated world of punk. Not that Smith was any kind of shrinking violet; her début album Horses was a fearsome statement of intent from the opening words “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” onwards. She recorded three further albums of jagged, obstinate rock in the 70s before retreating from public view for most of the 80s and 90s. In recent years she has continued to write and record, and has taken up a number of activist causes including green politics and anti-Iraq war protest.

Moving back indoors, the Arena also plays host this month to American neo-progressive rock outfit The Mars Volta. Rising phoenix-like in 2001 from the ashes of At The Drive-In, the Mars Volta quickly abandoned that group’s earthy hardcore approach in favour of a more complex stew containing elements of punk, jazz and Latin American styles. Their recently released fourth album The Bedlam in Goliath is their most dynamic and persuasive statement yet. Apparently written in response to a series of experiments the group mde with a ouija board while on tour, the record is a concept album about the power of the occult. Lest that put you off, I should add that it’s also loud, energetic and downright funky.

Peter Brötzmann/Ken Vandermark/Mats Gustafsson, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf, 18 July 2008

On this, my third summer in Austria, I finally made it to Nickelsdorf for the Konfrontationen festival of free jazz and improvised music. This is a very special event — an intimate, three-day open-air festival that takes place in a restaurant/jazz club in an unassuming Austrian village close to the border with Hungary. What makes it even more remarkable is the calibre of the artists the festival attracts. Any event that can count Anthony Braxton, Evan Parker, AMM and Peter Brötzmann among its past guests has to have something special going for it.

There was, however, some doubt as to whether this year’s festival would be able to go ahead, due in large part to owner Hans Falb’s financial difficulties. The main problem seems to have been that the Austrian performance rights organisation sued Falb for a large amount of unpaid performance royalties. There was a lot of talk on Friday about “resistance”, as though the very fact that the festival was taking place this year at all was an act of defiance against the authorities. Well, sadly taxes and duties are a fact of life, and if it is true that the festival’s precarious financial situation is the result of non-payment thereof, Falb can in reality have few grounds for complaint.

In any case, last Friday’s opening night of the festival was extremely enjoyable. Blessed by a warm summer’s evening, the covered courtyard attracted a large and enthusiastic audience — far larger than I had expected, and certainly way in excess of the numbers that would turn out for an event of comparable stature in England. My wallet took a hammering at the excellent record stalls; these guys seemed to have more free jazz and improv CDs for sale than I had ever seen in one place before.

It was a long evening, with four groups all performing full-length sets and extended pauses between the acts, but for once this unhurried approach to scheduling didn’t bother me; it contributed to the overall atmosphere of relaxed informality. Having said that, the first act, all-female Norwegian improv quartet Spunk, entirely failed to hold my interest with a rather aimless set. Things soon looked up, though, with an engrossing performance by the trio of Joëlle Léandre on double bass and voice, Elisabeth Harnik on piano and Erik M on the turntables. I could have done without Léandre’s extended vocal techniques, but other than that the set was gripping, with Harnik’s gorgeously loose and freewheeling piano threading around Erik M’s static-heavy turntable interventions. The third group of the evening, the eight-strong Roscoe Mitchell band, made a glorious racket and on any other night would have made worthy headliners.

It will hardly come as a surprise that my main reason for attending Konfrontationen this year was to see Peter Brötzmann, this time in Sonore, his all-reeds trio with Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson. I caught this trio at the Blue Tomato last November, and it’s safe to say they haven’t gone rockabilly or anything in the meantime. With no rhythm section to anchor it down, the music veered off in all sorts of wild and utterly unexpected directions. Gustafsson’s low-end blats provided a fine foil for Vandermark’s pulsating lines and Brötzmann’s firestorm blowing. Towards the end all three men were playing tenor saxes simultaneously, a beautifully symmetrical model of alliance and understanding.

Leonard Cohen, Minnewaterpark, Bruges, Belgium, 10 July 2008

I can’t remember how I first got into Leonard Cohen, but I do recollect buying my first album by him. It was Songs from a Room, an original orange label copy on CBS, for £2 at Wax Factor in Brighton, during my second year at university (which puts it at 1987). What spurred me into buying it remains a mystery to me; I must have heard his name mentioned somewhere and had my interest piqued. It could well have been an interview with Suzanne Vega, of whom I was a great admirer at the time; she namechecked him in many of her early interviews. In any event, Songs from a Room quickly became a firm favourite with me by virtue of its mournful lassitude and air of extreme, willed introspection.

As is my way with many artists I discover for the first time, I quickly immersed myself in as much of Cohen’s back catalogue as I could lay my hands on. My first move in that direction, however, was a clear false start. Hoping for more of the melancholy, wintry sound I had found so appealing in Songs from a Room, I got Death of a Ladies’ Man and was distinctly underwhelmed by its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production – the responsibility, I later learned, of Phil Spector. Things got back on track with Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs of Love and Hate, but when the first album of new Cohen songs came out since I became a fan – 1988’s I’m Your Man – it too sounded overproduced, with the dated synthesisers and drum machines sitting uneasily among the fallen majesty of that voice. The lyrics, meanwhile, were thin gruel after the exalted and rapturous imagery of a set like 1984’s Various Positions.  Cohen described his then new style of writing (with reference to “I Can’t Forget”, but it applies to the whole album apart from “Take This Waltz”) as “that limpid kind of language that doesn’t twist your arm at all…a dead, flat language.”

All of that said, Leonard Cohen has been a very important and much loved figure to me ever since, and the three Royal Albert Hall concerts I saw him perform (one in 1988 and two in 1993) were indescribably moving affairs. At one of the 1993 concerts I even engineered the obtaining of Cohen’s autograph, albeit without going anywhere near the man. I went to the Albert Hall with a pile of rare Cohen hardbacks in my bag, determined to get them signed. As an experienced autograph hunter, I knew the form. After the gig was never a good idea. There were record company parties, schmoozing to be done… it was also quite possible that the artist would leave the building quietly by a side exit. I knew that before the gig was my only chance. I also knew that it was unlikely that I would get to meet Leonard myself. That didn’t matter, as long as I got my books signed. So I would need help.

I also knew the best place to go.  With a good while still to go before the concert started, I stationed myself, not by the stage door outside the venue, but by an artists-only entrance inside. Within a few minutes, one of Cohen’s musicians – a tall guy with glasses, I believe it was the drummer Steve Meador – passed me on the way in. I stopped him and chatted briefly to him; he was (as far as I could tell) not pissed off to be accosted in this way. (Maybe he was just being polite.) I showed him the books; he was impressed. I asked him politely if he would mind taking them to Leonard and getting them signed; he said he would see what he could do. He went inside with the books. A few minutes later, he emerged again. Each of the books was now inscribed with Leonard’s unmistakable signature, making me a very happy Cohen fan indeed.

Apart from his non-performing appearance at the Barbican last year (he also sat through the whole of Philip Glass’s Music In Twelve Parts the following day, which is more than can be said for some), that was the last time I saw Cohen until last Thursday in Bruges.  If it hadn’t been for his well-publicised financial troubles, it’s unlikely he would ever have taken to the stage again. But I’m very glad he did, for this was a concert with an overwhelming emotional presence at its core. We waited two hours in intermittent rain outside, a worthwhile wait indeed since it meant we were able to stand right at the front – an unexpected bonus that made the concert doubly enjoyable.

Leonard Cohen songs are like mansions – huge, elegant and perfectly constructed, with vast tracts of space for the visitor to explore. They are songs that, alone, justify the popular song as an artistic form. Moving far beyond the singer-songwriter trope, Cohen’s music is a highly appealing form of central European folk, with clouds of acoustic and percussive invention augmented by achingly perfect vocal harmonies and touches of countryish electric and pedal steel guitar. It’s tasteful, yes, but it’s also possessed of an enormous emotional impact. And the words, even those that are “dead and flat” on the page, resonate with an elemental, often overtly erotic charge.

I could certainly have done without some of the hokier aspects of the performance, such as the frequent and completely unnecessary introductions of the other musicians in the band. But every time the 73-year-old called time on a song and flashed one of his beautifully open and sincere smiles, one’s awareness of all the slickness and the choreography fell away and one was left with the knowledge of witnessing a performance of extraordinary charm, lyricism and grace.

Ether column, June 2008

In my February column, I wrote about the visit to Vienna of the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young. There aren’t many other living rock stars truly deserving of the term legendary, but Bob Dylan is certainly one of them, and this month he too touches down in Vienna. Since 1988 Dylan has been engaged on the Never Ending Tour, a ceaseless parade around the theatres, arenas and stadiums of the world. At these gigs, he regularly intersperses Dylan classics with total obscurities from his massive back catalogue and traditional American folk songs that you suspect no-one but he has ever even heard.

After almost fifty years as a performer, Dylan has absolutely nothing left to prove. For all the talk of his supposedly shifting, protean qualities (brought to the fore in the recent biopic I’m Not There, in which he was played by six different actors), he is essentially a man who writes songs, sings and plays guitar – no more, and no less. Musically, he’s broken no new ground since he carried out the small matter of inventing rock music in 1965-6 with the trilogy of albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. His renunciation of the glib certainties of protest folk, and his creation of multi-layered and dreamlike texts to accompany what he called the “thin wild mercury sound” of those records, were – and this is no exaggeration – a turning point in Western civilisation. With a few notable exceptions (Blood on the Tracks, Oh Mercy, Time Out Of Mind), none of his later albums have approached the epic quality of his mid-60s work. His singing voice, meanwhile – never an easy thing to love – has gradually descended into a cracked and wheezing approximation of its former self. And yet a Dylan concert is still undoubtedly an event, due in large part to no-one knowing quite what the old buzzard will play next, nor what approach he will take to the performance of songs he has played literally thousands of times. Dylan may be in the autumn of his life, but he continues to demonstrate an unswerving commitment to live performance and a stubborn refusal to allow his career and reputation to stagnate. For that, as for so much else, he is deserving of the greatest admiration and respect.

Just space to mention Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, otherwise known as Will Oldham, who drops in this month for the first time since his excellent set at last year’s Donaufestival. A literate and piercingly honest singer and songwriter, Oldham’s songs inhabit a strange place somewhere between old-time American folk, country and confessional poetry. His quavery voice and spare musical aesthetic lend his work a distinctive sense of the uneasy, effortlessly binding together the earthly and the sublime.