Letter to The Wire, July 2009

Nick Richardson’s mostly excellent review of this year’s Donaufestival in Krems, Austria, made the curious objection that “local artists were conspicuous by their absence”. If “local” were taken to mean from Krems itself, then Nick might have had a point; but the Donaufestival is really a Vienna festival in all but name, with the vast majority of its visitors (a record 13,000 this year) coming from the capital, shuttle buses running between Krems and Vienna, and so on. “Grassroots support” was indeed present, in the form not only of Fennesz but also of Martin Siewert’s appearance with freeform rockers Heaven And, not to mention a new performance piece by Fritz Ostermayer.

A shame, too, that Nick failed to mention the absolute highlight of the festival’s first week, a transcendent appearance by Spiritualized. Where Sonic Youth, as Nick correctly observes, were there strictly to take care of business, Jason Pierce and group delivered a set that frequently threatened to levitate the building, such was its gravity-defying intensity. In an avant rock scene that all too frequently and lazily relies on noise as a signifier of primal modes of expression, Spiritualized’s ecstatic fusion of garage, gospel and systems music feels more like the truth than ever.

Jackie-O Motherfucker, Vienna Rhiz, 15 July 2009

A very disappointing concert by a group whose studio recordings I’ve been devouring avidly in recent months. A song like “Hey Mr Sky”, from 2005’s Flags of the Sacred Harp, has a kind of resolute wistfulness that I find profoundly affecting, and their more frazzled improv-based excursions have been equally compelling. So I thought I was onto a winner by seeing them in the tight confines of the Rhiz; but the show never really took off.

Partly this was due to sound-related problems. Soundchecks are supposed to take place hours before the group are due to play, but on this occasion and for whatever reason, JOMF were still struggling to get the sound right just before showtime. Mainman Tom Greenwood was clearly not happy with the sound he was getting, but the group, having little alternative, launched into their set in any case. Sadly I found the music rather underwhelming. The pedal steel guitar chimed prettily, and the drummer’s work was uniformly excellent, but the delicious blend of weirdness and pastoral folk that I’ve come to love on the records just never kicked in.

I know little about Greenwood except that he has a reputation for being something of a difficult, temperamental character. If this is true, the problems with getting a decent sound mix can’t have helped matters. His vocals tonight were mumbled and indistinct, and with his vocal mic regularly feeding back, I got the distinct impression he would rather have been elsewhere. Which he eventually was, as after an hour he gave up and abruptly left the stage. The rest of the group remained awkwardly onstage, and the audience were left calling for more; but with Greenwood already having a drink outside, the evening was clearly over.

David Murobi took these fine photos, before Greenwood gestured at him to stop.

The Scarabeusdream, Vienna WUK, 7 July 2009

Two gigs in three days, from the cavernous expanse of the Happel Stadium to an intimate space in the WUK arts and performance centre. Woot, as I believe the young people would say.

The Scarabeusdream were a name new to me, but I somehow think I’ll be seeing them again. This was originally supposed to be an open-air event in the WUK’s courtyard, but the inclement weather forced them to relocate upstairs. And I’m very glad they did, since the duo of electric pianist Bernd Supper and drummer Hannes Moser were immensely powerful and watchable in the Projektraum, the sheer physicality of their performance often threatening to bust the walls. By the end there was a very tidy audience in the room. Some of them were no doubt Scarabeusdream fans, some may have been sheltering from the rain, some may have heard the group’s angular noise blasting out across the courtyard and come over to investigate, and some may have been bored refugees from the Joe Jackson concert over in the main hall.

If anyone did indeed make their way across from the Jackson show, they would have seen a keyboardist whose playing was light years distant from the beanpole’s tasteful stylings. Bernd Supper’s approach to the piano was physical, daring and frequently electrifying. Hammering down on the keys, often standing up and seemingly engaged in a wrestling match with the instrument and with his piano stool, Supper at times resembled a deranged Peter Hammill – the only other musician I’ve seen whose relationship with the piano is so laden with tension and aggression. His singing too, while lacking Hammill’s majesty and gravitas, certainly had something of the Van der Graaf Generator man’s blood-curdling intensity.

Sitting directly across the stage from Supper, Hannes Moser was a thunderously effective and relentless drummer. Even more so than the pianist, Moser was driven to physical engagement with the space – perching precariously on his kit and launching attacks on anything that came to hand. The two men were clearly feeding off each other’s energy and commitment as they drove themselves to ever greater heights of Sturm und Drang.

With its restless quiet/loud dynamics and sense of urgency bordering on desperation, this music had something of the flavour of Radiohead and Silver Mt Zion, blended with a progressive-style complexity. And yet with its limited tonal range and clusters of notes that stubbornly refused to resolve into melodies, the duo often seemed like they were caught in some zone of mathematical entrapment from which they were struggling to escape. Screaming “Are you alive or are you just a reflection?” at the top of his voice, a livid and dangerous glint in his eye, Moser was clearly in a place that you wouldn’t want to hang around in for too long.

There’s a great set of photos of the evening by David Murobi here.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Vienna Ernst Happel Stadium, 5 July 2009

My first, and hopefully last, concert at the Happel – not the most conducive venue for live music, and I really can’t imagine anyone else who would get me there other than Bruce Springsteen. More than the vast scale of the thing, what I objected to most was the atrocious sound quality; from where I was sitting, at least, the acoustics were tinny, distorted and just horrible. Maybe they were better down in the pit, but that would have brought its own set of challenges.

Anyway, this show was a blazing success and a glorious encapsulation of all the things I love about Springsteen – the drama, commitment and passion, the unstoppable energy and, most of all, the way he connects with every single person in an audience of 50,000 as surely as if it were one of fifty. Charging tirelessly about the stage for a full three hours, he’s out to ensure that everyone’s having as great a time as he’s obviously having himself – laughing, joking, signalling, touching and always communicating.

Let’s be clear on this: there’s absolutely nothing corny, sentimental or clichéd about Springsteen. His art reaches deep into American history, iconography and myth, emerging with a profoundly moving sense of lived human experience. And, remarkably, it does all of these things through songs that are quite irresistible in their drama, impact and melodic verve. Whether hurtling through the outlaw landscape of “Badlands”, swinging around the exhilarating “The Promised Land” or threading through the desperately moving evanescence that weighs down “The River”, Springsteen connects with you – lives inside you – in ways that no other artist has ever done.

The now legendary “Jersey Girl” moment deserves a special mention. As I wrote in my review of the Live 1975-1985 box set, this song perfectly encapsulates Springsteen’s emotional concerns even though it was written by Tom Waits. I’ve returned to that live recording time and time again, enthralled by the audience’s rapturous reaction to this most affecting of love songs. And although I didn’t know it at the time, Springsteen had never played it in Europe until last Sunday, when a girl near the front of the audience, wearing an orange T-shirt with “Jersey Girl” written on it, climbed onto someone’s shoulders and removed the T-shirt to reveal the not displeasing sight of a red bra underneath. When Springsteen caught sight of this vision, he had little choice but to play the song, which he did with great sensitivity and tenderness. But that was just one of the countless fine moments offered up by this extraordinary concert.

Ether column, June 2009

For the first and probably last time, I’m going to recommend in this column a concert at the enormous Ernst Happel Stadion in the Prater – the kind of venue that normally makes a mockery of everything that is enjoyable about going to see live music. But if there’s one performer who can stand onstage in a cavernous football field and make it seem like he’s playing to you and you alone, it’s Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen is an utterly mesmerising live performer, straining every fibre of his body in relentless pursuit of the unshakeable conviction that it’s his responsibility to give the audience the night of their lives. Unfairly dismissed by many as a hokey and clichéd songwriter, Springsteen’s magic actually consists in a tender and heartfelt exploration of emotions that resonate so powerfully with lived human experience that they take on qualities of the pure and sacred. Rich in drama and sure in characterisation, the songs take inspiration from the deep American mythos of the car, the girl and the open road – all of which are seen as routes out of no-hope, dead-end jobs and communities steadily losing their humanity under the baleful influence of the military-industrial complex. Often overlooked and misunderstood, indeed, is the burning sense of rage and social injustice in Springsteen’s work – “Born in the USA”, for example, is emphatically not a patriotic song – but the songs never preach, instead telling grounded stories of hardship and loss. Thanks to the glorious orchestrations of the E Street Band, moreover, the music is far from being generic American rock; its swelling organ and saxophone riffs, and Springsteen’s own scything guitar work, form the perfect accompaniment to the emotional humanity at the core of the man’s worldview. In concert Springsteen is funny, warm, likeable and generous: an inspirational phenomenon everyone should witness at least once.

Ättestupa & Tar…Feathers, Vienna Rhiz, 30 June 2009

A fine gig at the Rhiz last night with a double bill of groups from Sweden. I actually went along purely to catch the support group Ättestupa, whose début album I’ve been living with for a while now. It’s a bleak and uncanny piece of work, with dark and lowering drones folded into eerie half-melodies and distant, unresolved vocals. Sounding like the offspring of Popol Vuh and :zoviet*france:, the record also boasts some of the most distinctive artwork I’ve seen: a series of stark black-and-white photos taken in 19th century Sweden, which summon up a very real sense of hardship and tragedy.

Playing live in Vienna for the first time, Ättestupa cut loose a little more than they do on that record. The skeletal organ lines evoked another excellent (and, I’m delighted to say, now reformed) Swedish export, Sagor & Swing, albeit with Eric Malmberg’s joyful melodic inventiveness replaced by an atmosphere of chill and foreboding. For the final piece of their too-short set, the vocals (sung in Swedish, not that one could tell) hung menacingly in the air while the group’s rhythm section locked into a fearsome mantric repetition. We have certainly not heard the last of Ättestupa.

The night’s headliners Tar…Feathers were more conventionally enjoyable, although no less striking. Carrying hints of early Cure and Joy Division sonics, their songs were built around neat and tidy guitar riffs and busy, creative percussion. Like Ättestupa’s vocalist, Tar…Feathers’ Marcus Nyke didn’t much care to foreground his singing, which remained defiantly murky and unresolved throughout. But since he was in any case singing in Swedish, this was hardly a problem. Rather, it added to the sense of dislocation and disquiet that prevailed in all their songs.

David Murobi took some fine photos of the concert which can be seen here.