Concerts and albums of 2008

Concerts of the year

Here’s a list of the ten concerts I enjoyed most this year. It’s been an exceptional twelve months for live music around these parts, and it was very hard indeed to whittle it down to ten shows. There’s not much of an order to these ten, with the exception of No. 1, which was far and away the best night of music I heard all year.

1. Okkervil River (Porgy & Bess)
2. Neil Young (Austria Center)
3. Peter Brötzmann/Ken Vandermark/Marino Pliakas/Michael Wertmüller (Porgy & Bess)
4. American Music Club (WUK)
5. Marissa Nadler (Vorstadt)
6. Whitehouse (Rhiz)
7. Leonard Cohen (Konzerthaus)
8. Anthony Braxton (Krakow)
9. Heather Nova (Gasometer)
10. A Silver Mt Zion (Arena)

Albums of the year

I haven’t listened to much recorded music at all this year. Take five:

1. Kathleen Edwards – Asking For Flowers (Zoë)
2. Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins (Jagjaguwar)
3. Mary Hampton – My Mother’s Children (Navigator)
4. Original Silence – The Second Original Silence (Smalltown Superjazzz)
5. Anthony Braxton – The Complete Arista Recordings (Mosaic)

Anthony Braxton, Krakow, Poland, 6 December 2008

With the memory of Anthony Braxton‘s inspirational concert at Porgy & Bess last year still remarkably fresh in my mind, it was a no-brainer to make the 600-mile round trip to Krakow to catch the maestro in action again. Playing with the same septet as the last time I saw him, Braxton did not disappoint, playing two engrossing hour-long sets (for the record, they were Compositions 356 and 183).

There was real group interaction onstage; I’ve never seen a group of musicians exchange so many signs, nods, glances and smiles on a stage as this lot did. This degree of communication between the group’s members was testament to the fact that there was a fair old degree of improvisation going on, even though all of them had scores in front of them and appeared to be following those scores pretty intently for most of the time.

Braxton was the star, of course – an utterly formidable onstage presence, powering the music along with his endlessly vital saxophone work. Of the rest, I particularly enjoyed Mary Halvorson’s contributions on guitar. There was something very Fripp-like about her playing, with its hard, splintery quality. I wasn’t greatly impressed by Taylor Ho Bynum on the brass, he seemed rather smug and histrionic to me (in marked contrast to the more focused energies of the rest of the group) and at times the brashness of his playing threatened to drown out the subtleties of the music altogether. Ultimately, though, this – my last concert of 2008 – was an enthralling performance.

Tindersticks, Vienna Arena, 4 December 2008

A great pleasure and a relief to see Tindersticks live again after so long (five years, by my reckoning, my last time having been the Old Market in Hove in 2003), when at one stage it looked distinctly unlikely that they would ever perform together again. Inevitably something has been lost with the line-up changes. It’s not the same without Dickon Hinchcliffe, for one thing, and of course the new album doesn’t measure up to anything they did with the old line-up. This is not just the disgruntled bleat of a long-time fan who hates change. I’ve lived with The Hungry Saw for months now, and the fact of the matter is that it is sadly lacking in the melodic inventiveness and sense of bruised drama that every Tindersticks album up to now has luxuriated in.

As expected, this sense of disappointment translated fairly accurately into the live setting. The group knocked out dutiful renditions of every song on the album, but the guts, emotion and romance that I have grown to love Tindersticks for were only present in the pre-Hungry Saw songs. On the other hand, the upheaval has clearly lifted a weight from Staples’ shoulders; I’ve never seen him smile more often during a concert.

An irate footnote to wish no thanks at all to the girl with short dark hair near me who talked in a loud voice to her friends throughout the entire show, including the quiet songs. At the end of the main set Staples even commented on her rudeness, saying “it’s been great playing for you… except for the woman down there.” But she can’t have been listening. She just kept on talking.

Letter to The Wire, December 2004

[Just unearthed this old letter to The Wire which I wrote after the death of John Balance.   It was never published, but I feel like putting it up here anyway.]

My enjoyment of Chris Bohn’s account of John Balance’s funeral (The Masthead, The Wire 251) was marred by the rank theorising with which the piece concluded.  I read with disbelief Bohn’s comment that “Balance’s commitment to such exacting creative methods inevitably took its toll.”  Balance was a sick man, an alcoholic, and the alcohol coursing through his body was not a life force but a death force.  It ill behoves The Wire to imply that there is something creatively important about the alcoholism of Balance and other artists that sets them apart from the great mass of people suffering from this addiction.  The suggestion that Balance drank in order to “experiment with [his] own and [his] audience’s senses” is as gratuitous as it is offensive to the thousands who, in their daily struggles with alcoholism, don’t have the benefit of cutting-edge magazine editors giving them the respectability conferred by the notion that it is all heroically being done in the name of Art.

Evan Parker/Alex von Schlippenbach/Paul Lovens, Porgy & Bess, Vienna, 3 December 2008

Evan Parker was the first free jazz/improv saxophonist I ever heard, and the one who made me fall in love with this kind of music. Before I had heard Ayler, Braxton or Brötzmann, Parker was the one who showed me that the saxophone could be a source of great passion and intensity. Live, his serpentine solos and jaw-dropping circular breathing technique burned themselves into me in a way that very few rock performers had ever done.

It’s been a long time since I saw Parker live – there was a stimulating collaborative show with Zoviet France, a phenomenal trio gig at the old Vortex in Stoke Newington, and a concert in Brighton with Spring Heel Jack – so it was great for me to see him for the first time in Vienna, this time as part of his long-standing trio with pianist Alex von Schlippenbach and drummer Paul Lovens. Their improvisational instincts honed by many years of playing together, the trio proceeded to play two long and engrossing sets. Schlippenbach was an agile and eloquent pianist, Lovens an enthralling presence on the drums. Parker was the star for me, but at the end of the day this concert, like all the best group-based improvisation, was an extended conversation between these three gifted musicians.

Peter Brötzmann/Mats Gustafsson/Ken Vandermark, Fluc Wanne, Vienna, 2 December 2008

Just another evening of great intensity from Sonore, following on from the last time I saw them in the summer. Entertainingly, the gig took place in the blasted post-holocaust surroundings of the Fluc Wanne, not a place where beardy jazz fans are often seen. I know Einstürzende Neubauten played some early gigs under an autobahn, but is there any other venue in the world that sits in a former pedestrian subway?

Funnily enough it was Mats Gustafsson who emerged as the star of this particular show, for me at least. I loved the way he wrestled with his outsize reed instruments, looking as though he was fighting to bring them under control. His resonant low-end horns provided some vestige of a rhythmic structure to these short, hard-hitting pieces, around which Brötzmann and Vandermark improvised forcefully.

Rhys Chatham, Tanzquartier Wien, Vienna, 28 November 2008

These pages are seriously backed up, so there’s only time for brief reviews of all the recent gigs, starting with Rhys Chatham at the Tanzquartier Wien (which is actually in the Kunsthalle). This was a fine evening of avant rock, with Chatham joined onstage by eight other guitarists (including Eric Arn of Primordial Undermind) and Bernhard Fleischmann on the drums. Together they made a fearsomely powerful noise which was, nonetheless, controlled and rigorous in its execution. Chatham’s instinctive understanding of crescendo and release was hugely impressive.

Ether column, November 2008

The Vienna Songwriting Association are a fine group of individuals who promote concerts of folk and acoustic music all year round in this city. As well as this, every November they put on a three-day festival of internationally known artists, the Bluebird Festival, at Porgy & Bess. There are some great names at this year’s event, such as Okkervil River playing almost a year to the day since their last appearance in Vienna. I raved about them in my November 2007 column, so let’s talk instead about one of my all-time musical heroes, American singer and songwriter Michael Gira. Gira initially made his name as the driving force behind Swans, a crushingly loud and formidable outfit who emerged from the creative ferment that was early ’80s downtown New York. When they first came to public attention, Swans presented a vision of rock music as a form of abjection, with bone-crunching percussion to the fore and lyrics that focused relentlessly on traumatic explorations of work, sex and the body. Over the years they gradually let the light in, bringing softer and more acoustic textures into their music. After Gira ended Swans in 1997 he began a new project, the Angels of Light, which placed even more emphasis on acoustic elements. In all of these incarnations, however, Gira has never swerved from an implacable belief in the atavistic power of the song. Straining with every muscle and sinew of his body, he sings with immense authority and commitment, every moment of his performance filled with tenderness and rage. This rare solo appearance by one of rock music’s most exceptional talents should on no account be missed.

Early next month, soulful British group Tindersticks stop off in Vienna on their first tour in several years. Like many others, I had doubted that they would ever return to active service. Over 15 years and seven albums, Tindersticks have perfected a literate and highly listenable blend of alternative rock, chamber music, soul and jazz, defined by rich string-laden orchestrations and the desolate croon of singer and lyricist Stuart Staples. Having released nothing new since 2003 and with rumours of a split rife, their story seemed on the brink of an end; to my great pleasure, however, they are back with an excellent new album, The Hungry Saw. Although three of the original members have now left, the new album is a worthy addition to the group’s catalogue and will no doubt be subjected to passionate live treatment. Staples is an enigmatic figure, rarely speaking onstage and often seeming to be transported elsewhere as he performs; he has remained tight-lipped about the reasons for the split. But the group bring a marvellously intuitive sense of drama and mystery to their songs, with violin, brass and organ enveloping the listener in a warm and tender embrace.

The sad story of the Sofiensaal

Living near Landstraße station in the third district of Vienna, it’s a fairly common sight to see little groups of tourists clutching maps, gamely trying to navigate their way through the area’s quiet, densely laid out streets. It’s a safe bet that they’re on their way to that gaudy and fanciful construction, the Hundertwasserhaus. But if they’re lucky along the way, they’ll chance upon the remains of a building that has its own, sad story to tell – a story that resonates powerfully with the cultural identity of Vienna.

In 1826 Franz Morawetz commissioned a new building from the architects August Sicard and Eduard van der Nüll (who were later to design the Vienna Opera House together – van der Nüll being so distressed by criticism of its sunken appearance that he committed suicide). Located at Marxergasse 17, it was originally a steam bath and known as the Sofienbad – named after Princess Sophie of Bavaria, the mother of Emperor Franz Josef I. The Viennese, however, did not take to steam bathing as those in Budapest had done, and between 1845 and 1849 the Sofienbad was converted into a concert and dance hall and renamed the Sofiensaal. Johann Strauss I performed there regularly and conducted at the opening ball in 1849. Later, many of the Strauss family’s waltzes were first performed there. In 1886, a second smaller hall was added, the Blauer Salon.

The building’s origins as a steam bath – principally its large, vaulted ceiling and the pool beneath the floor – gave the hall excellent acoustic properties. For this reason, Decca Records adopted the building as its principal European recording venue from 1956 to the mid-1980s. The senior producer of classical recordings for the company for much of this time was John Culshaw, who revolutionised the recording of opera. Culshaw’s innovation was to make the singers move about in the studio as they would onstage, in contrast to simply putting microphones in front of the performers as was common practice at the time. Notable recordings made at the Sofiensaal during this period included the first complete studio recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, conducted by Georg Solti, which was received with great acclaim.

In later years the Sofiensaal fell into disuse as a recording studio and was used for discos and parties. The last recording made there, in 2001, was of the Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos playing solo piano works by Schubert.

In early 2001, the building’s owners announced plans to redevelop the Sofiensaal as a conference centre. However, it was destroyed by fire in August the same year, apparently due to careless routine maintenance work. The fire burned for more than eight hours and completely destroyed the main ballroom, although the facade and walls of the building survived. Some of the decorative stucco work on the walls survived the fire, as did the Blauer Salon. There were no reported deaths or injuries.

Unprotected from the elements since the fire, the Sofiensaal has been in a sad state of gradual decay. Earlier this year, after much legal wrangling, plans were finally announced to redevelop the site and turn it into apartments [December 2008 update: the latest plans are for a hotel]. It’s a shame that in a city so full of cultural activity, it’s apparently out of the question that this once glorious building could return to its former use. What’s even more poignant is that the collective experiences of music and dance are to be ceded to the demands of contemporary urban living. Let’s hope that the shades of Strauss, Schubert and Wagner will one day float over the new Sofiensaal, bestowing upon its fortunate occupants the melodic echoes of its past.