Heather Nova, Gasometer, Vienna, 19 October 2008

My first visit to the Gasometer in ages, and my first Heather Nova concert since a rather subdued acoustic affair at the Concorde in Brighton in 2003, when she was pregnant and my own son was not yet two weeks old. I met her afterwards and got my copies of the CDs signed, also my copy of her book. Strangely enough, that book was one of the few I brought to Vienna with me.  On taking it down from the shelves the other day, I found to my dismay that the hard cover had come adrift from the pages.

As for the Gasometer, it was too big a venue for her (she related the story of how this evening had originally been planned as a rest day on the tour, but she told her agent that she wanted to come to Vienna), and they closed off the circle to make the space more intimate. The acoustics, however, were pin-sharp. J., with his alert and experienced pair of ears, has often been critical of the PA at this venue, but they seem to have put a new rig in now, perhaps to coincide with the takeover by Planet Music.

The concert was highly enjoyable from beginning to end. Heather is a stunningly natural performer with a magnificent voice; when she lets rip with one of her extended high notes, she sounds like an angel as well as looking like one. She’s also a hard artist to pigeonhole. When she first emerged in the early ’90s, she was mostly thought of as an indie girl, and she also has something of the waifish folk singer about her. But at the end of the day, what she is more than anything else is a rock chick. She is at her best on bright, confident tunes like “London Rain” and “Walk This World”, with their swaggering chord progressions and thrilling guitar solos. The ballads, meanwhile, such as “I Wanna Be Your Light” and “Fool For You”, are supremely affecting, touched by the luminous emotions of her lyrics and the aching beauty of her voice.

Apart from the fact that she didn’t play my favourite of all her songs, “Truth and Bone”, I had no complaints at all about the setlist, which included a gratifyingly large number of songs from her best album, Siren. Like Peter Hammill (with whom I suspect she is not often compared), she didn’t seem unduly concerned by the need to promote her new record, and only played two or three songs from it. Instead she ranged widely across her back catalogue, resulting in a perfectly paced show that showcased every facet of her exceptional singing and songwriting gifts.

A Silver Mt Zion, Vienna Arena, 14 October 2008

My first proper rock concert in months – this summer’s three Leonard Cohen shows, as poignant and memorable as they were, didn’t really cut it as intimate live experiences. You have no idea how good it felt to be back in the dark, smoky environs of the Arena among a roomful of likeminded souls. And there can be few better groups to mark the onset of winter than A Silver Mt Zion (I’m not going to call them by their full name).

I last saw ASMZ in May 2006 on my first visit to the Donaufestival, which that year was held in Korneuburg as well as Krems. It’s a real shame that venue is no longer used; it was a very unusual, blasted/picturesque location, some kind of outbuilding of an old shipyard on the banks of the Donau. I seem to recall ASMZ having an extended line-up of at least seven members on that occasion. This time they were down to five – Efrim on vocals and guitar, two violinists, a double bassist and a drummer. And they functioned beautifully as a band, with the architectonics of the songs swelling massively and glacially around the pulsing strings and rhythms.

It’s still hard for me to think of ASMZ as a group in their own right, so keenly felt is the continuing absence of their parent band, whom I saw in London before they escalated to the heights of playing the Royal Festival Hall. But the longer GYBE’s hiatus lasts, the stronger ASMZ’s own group identity becomes. And blazing performances like Tuesday night’s can only hasten that process. I was, to put it mildly, utterly thrilled by this concert. Efrim’s voice has matured from a reedy, quavery instrument into one of bleak power and rage, while his guitar cuts through the funereal throb of the bass and drums like a scalpel. The violins of Jessica and Sophie, meanwhile, are a vital, constantly surging presence, and the ensemble singing is profoundly beautiful and affecting. These long songs are filled with passion, despair and a sense of injustice that is seared into the memory.