Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love/Lasse Marhaug, Vienna Blue Tomato, 20 February 2010

One of the things I occasionally rant about in my more intemperate moments on these pages is the inability of avant rock and noise fans to understand that the qualities they supposedly value in those musics – dissonance, atonality, extremity and so on – are also present in abundant quantities, and far more interestingly, in free jazz, a genre in which they have no interest. How else to explain the fact that there is practically no crossover between the regular audiences at the Rhiz and the Blue Tomato, Vienna’s kindred temples to these respective musics. What prevents people from making this leap of faith, of course, is the appalling image under which jazz still labours in the rock world. I’ve even heard the nonsensical claim being spouted that The Thing are “the jazz band it’s OK to like”, as though all it takes is a guest appearance from Thurston Moore to save one fortunate group of musicians from the opprobrium deservedly heaped upon their peers.

What did we have at the Blue Tomato last Saturday, then, but a concert by Fire Room, a collaboration between free jazz titans Ken Vandermark on reeds and The Thing drummer Paal Nilssen-Love on the one hand, and noise/turntable maverick Lasse Marhaug on the other. And what do you know? The Tomato is frequently sold out for these big free improv clashes, but on this particular occasion it seemed even more rammed than usual – and was it my imagination, or were there an unusually large number of young hipsters in the audience, no doubt there to see Marhaug? All well and good to get some crossover going, perhaps, but I’ll reserve judgement until I see those same hipsters returning to the Blue Tomato for an improv session that doesn’t involve a lugubrious bloke in a Napalm Death T-shirt sitting at a table, twiddling dials and scowling.

Anyway, this concert was in many ways a more exacting version of the Vandermark/Nilssen-Love duo show at the same venue last November. The mighty confidence and exuberance of that evening was still in ample evidence but there was a harder edge to proceedings as well, due in no small part to the lowering presence of Marhaug. Deftly manipulating a turntable, a laptop and some kind of analogue console, Marhaug unleashed wave after wave of sonic detritus which battled for supremacy against Nilssen-Love’s thunderous percussive attack and Vandermark’s wonderfully varied reed work.

Vandermark impressed me hugely on this occasion, I have to say. Writing about the show in his Facebook diary (a fascinating read, by the way, and a fine illustration of how much this tireless traveller thinks and cares about the music; the Musician documentary is highly recommended for the same reason), he expressed the concern that his acoustic playing might have been overwhelmed by the drums and electronics. He needn’t have worried; the endless twists and turns of his sax and clarinet solos came over loud and clear. Whether he launches into a surging, irresistible groove, alights on a moment of stark beauty or unleashes a spectacular passage of circular breathing, Vandermark is surely the most inventive and creative saxophonist in the world today.

The Swell Season, Vienna Museumsquartier, 10 February 2010

Absolutely wonderful evening of passionate, finely wrought folk rock from the gifted Glen Hansard and his group. And yes, this is very much Hansard’s night, despite solo turns from Marketa Irglova and the violinist. Their spots were very pretty, but you just wanted him to take centre stage again and electrify the place. Which he did, with every single song.

Where on earth have The Swell Season sprung from? In the first place, this concert was sold out weeks in advance and I only just managed to secure tickets. I’d never been to Halle E of the Museumsquartier before, and I thought it was going to be some cosy little theatre. Imagine my surprise, therefore, to find that it was far, far bigger than I had expected, with rows of seats going way back and a huge buzz around the room. I guess this is an example of (richly deserved) success being gained through word of mouth rather than hype; granted I’m not exactly an avid consumer of entertainment media, but I’m unaware of any huge promotional effort being made by, about or around this group. Hansard’s other outfit, The Frames, aren’t exactly megastars either, so I can’t imagine that the audience for this show consisted mostly or even largely of Frames fans. And as for Once, the film that first brought Hansard and Irglova to the attention of the wider public – was it really that much of a success? I never tire of telling anyone who will listen (and many who won’t) that I saw the film at the cinema well before its Oscar success (see here), but it’s plainly one of those films that has had a long afterlife on DVD.

In any event, Hansard is a stunningly powerful singer, songwriter and guitarist. His voice has this quality of epic yearning fuelled by the passion of his songs and by the flawless musicians around him. He exudes a ragged intimacy with his beat-up old guitar and warm-hearted, likeable stage presence – but there’s absolutely nothing perfunctory or indifferent about his performance. A solo version of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” was powered by unbelievably fast-paced and frenzied guitar work, while another solo song was taken off-mike, taking the entire audience into rapt silence. A good-natured, tongue-in-cheek encore of “Rock Me Amadeus” brought the audience to its feet, while the last song saw Hansard tearing at his guitar with such force that every string was broken. Having no more to give, having given so much, the concert ended – an evening of endless exquisite highs, and an early contender for show of the year.

The Australian Pink Floyd Show, Vienna Stadthalle, 8 February 2010

Something of a guilty pleasure for me, this, but it was an evening I found impossible to resist. Pink Floyd were, at one time, the most important group in the world for me. I remember discovering them in 1983, around the time The Final Cut was released. My teenage obsession with Gary Numan had pretty much run its course by then, as Numan was still wilfully and stupidly insisting on leaving behind the electropop that had made him great in favour of long, uninspired excursions into pallid white funk. It was clearly time for me to jump ship.

I latched onto Pink Floyd as a direct result of the marketing and promotion for The Final Cut. Not having heard a note of their music (except for “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2”, of course), I was for some reason intrigued and attracted by the stark lowercase text on the album cover and posters, and by the general air of mystery the cover exuded. When I bought it and the needle dropped down on “The Post-War Dream” for the first time, I immediately felt that this was music I’d been waiting all my life to hear. Slow, dark, serious and strangely moving, the song made an impression on me which has never dissipated, and the whole of The Final Cut still has the same effect.

Over the next few months I doubled back and quickly devoured every single Pink Floyd album, finding in particular Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall to be every bit as mysterious and troubling as The Final Cut had been. In its glacial pessimism and its grim sense of psychological trauma, this was music for grown-ups, and listening to it made me feel less of a child than I had been before.

In the ensuing battle between Roger Waters and David Gilmour over who was the rightful owner of the Floyd legacy, I placed myself firmly in the Waters camp. As a huge generalization, vocals and lyrics have always been more important to me than music (cf. Peter Hammill). I knew Gilmour was a great guitarist, but I also sensed that most of the Floyd moments I cherished stemmed from Waters’ lyrics, concepts and sense of drama, not from Gilmour’s admittedly miraculous guitar. The contemptible A Momentary Lapse of Reason only served to confirm this, while Waters’ brilliant Radio KAOS was a record I returned to many times.

It’s a matter of great regret to me that I never saw Pink Floyd live. I sometimes ask myself who I would most like to have seen live that I never did and now never will, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall show would certainly be at or near the top of the list (Joy Division would be the other serious contenders, since you ask). Waters’ Radio KAOS show was hugely enjoyable (by a stroke of massive good fortune I ended up with tickets for the front row of Wembley Arena, and I was even the “lucky” person on whom the spotlight shone when Waters shrieked “STAND STILL LADDIE!”). The Gilmour-led affair that I snoozed through at Wembley Stadium the following summer, though, was such an abomination that I refuse to even recognize it as a Pink Floyd concert.

These, then, are some of the reasons why I ended up watching the Australian Pink Floyd Show at the Stadthalle’s Halle F (a much more pleasant venue than I’d expected, to be honest). Watching this constantly thrilling, immaculately performed facsimile, it suddenly dawned on me that this group was no less Floyd than the Waters-less (Watered down?) version of Floyd had been. OK, so it didn’t have Gilmour, Nick Mason or Richard Wright, as the 1988/1994 touring Floyd had done; but that band had those people in, and it still wasn’t Floyd. And so, apart from the fact that “Brain Damage/Eclipse” was unaccountably omitted from the set whereas no fewer than three atrocities from the Gilmour period were performed, I have no complaints.