Ether radio show

The Ether radio show that I appeared on as a guest (thanks for having me, Katie and Rian!) is now downloadable from the Orange radio website here. These are the songs I played:

Okkervil River, “Black” (from Black Sheep Boy, 2005)

Peter Hammill, “The Spirit” (from A Black Box, 1980)

Kathleen Edwards, “The Cheapest Key” (from Asking For Flowers, 2008)

Leonard Cohen, “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes” (from Songs From A Room, 1969)

Peter Brötzmann/Mats Gustafsson/Paal Nilssen-Love, “Bullets Through Rain” (from The Fat Is Gone, 2007)

Leonard Cohen, Vienna Konzerthaus, 24-25 September 2008

Not much to add to my review of Leonard Cohen‘s Bruges concert, which is of course part of the problem. Every aspect of these shows is planned, meticulous, slick and competent. No risks are taken, there are hardly any off-the-cuff comments to the audience, the set list varies little if at all from night to night. Listen to recordings of two separate concerts and you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.

In terms of Cohen talking to the audience, all you get is the endless announcements of the group members (which are often made at just the wrong moment, cutting into the climax of the solo) and the scripted introductions to the songs, which are repeated more or less verbatim from night to night. These are often meant to sound off-the-cuff, but are actually anything but, and (even allowing for the fact that it’s only the fanatics like me who attend more than one concert; for everyone else, it doesn’t matter in the least) their impact is diminished because of it. One would have thought that Leonard would have taken the trouble to say something special about “Take This Waltz” at these shows, since he was singing it in the city in which it is set; but no, he introduced it in the same way as he does every other night (i.e. not at all).

Film of Cohen live in 1979 shows a man with a completely different attitude to live performance from the one we see today. His communication with the audience in those days was raw, spontaneous and improvisatory. In the intervening years, I fear that something precious has been lost.

All of that said, these two Vienna concerts were nevertheless rapturous, inspirational affairs. Cohen seemed to be positioned deep in the well of his immense gifts. As he sang, he focused his infinitely sad, wise, experienced gaze somewhere in the middle distance. Occasionally, I turned my attention away from him and towards the glorious surroundings of the Konzerthaus, and reflected that this kind of alignment is not likely to recur in my life for a long time, if ever.

Letter to The Wire, October 2008

As someone who enjoys the music of both Stockhausen and Cecil Taylor, a position which Tony Herrington would presumably find untenable, I’d like to respond to his Masthead in The Wire 295. In one sense, of course, Herrington is right – improvised music provides a feast for the mind, body and soul that the likes of Stockhausen are largely powerless to deliver. But one could, in truth, say the same thing about composed music from any era. Besides which, Stockhausen’s music has its own individual appeal, based on the premise (hammered home in every single pre-concert talk by him that I ever attended) that the most important thing was for the audience to pay attention. If improvisation is about letting yourself be invigorated and carried away by the music, Stockhausen is about alertness and active listening as the gateway to a rich and complex personal cosmology. And whatever the merits of the German’s “feral children” might be, it is more relevant and interesting at this point to mention Anthony Braxton, who draws on influences from both jazz and Stockhausen to form a body of work that is both philosophically coherent and utterly exhilarating.

One other thing. Edwin Pouncey uses the old journalist’s standby “allegedly” in writing about Varg Vikernes’ crimes (Soundcheck, The Wire 295), even though, as he goes on to point out, Vikernes was sent to prison. In other words, Vikernes was found guilty, so in the eyes of the law he committed the crimes; there’s no “allegedly” about it.

Martha Wainwright, 9.30 Club, Washington DC, 10 September 2008

The last time I saw Martha Wainwright was in Bruges, Belgium, where she was supporting Leonard Cohen. Exactly two months later, a brief visit to the United States enabled me to catch her at this excellent club in Washington’s buzzing U Street district.

The first thing that struck me was how sparsely attended the show was. It’s a truism that these North American singer-songwriter types are better appreciated in Europe than on their own continent, but it’s still very striking when brought home to you in this way. The 9.30 is a small venue, and even then was no more than a quarter full. Yet when Wainwright toured the UK earlier this year, she wound up in places like the Royal Festival Hall. Go figure, as they say.

Wainwright’s show in Bruges was a solo acoustic affair (we also had the pleasure of watching her soundcheck, which was probably more fun for us than it was for her). So it was good to see her with a full band this time. And she gave an excellent performance, filled with effervescent confidence and biting lyrical insight. Her voice is a remarkable thing – abrasive, versatile and charged with righteous intensity on songs like “BMFA”, the scathing attack on her father with which she encores. Neither wanting nor needing to maintain that level of indignation, she ends with a delightfully playful, skipping cover of Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” and is gone.

And she’s got great legs, but you knew that already.