One of the best things about writing a column which previewed upcoming concerts in Vienna (for the now defunct Ether magazine) was that it encouraged me to investigate musicians who were previously unknown to me. In one or two cases, that research led me to groups of which I am now a confirmed fan and can’t imagine life without them. Okkervil River would be one of those, and another would certainly be Austrian independent outfit Naked Lunch. I’ve raved about their superb soundtrack to the film Universalove here and here, but my original Ether column about the group contained a seed or two which may have led to their becoming an important presence for me. Knowing the group’s turbulent history, which saw one founder member (Georg Trattnig) dying of alcoholism and the other (Oliver Welter) living on the streets for a while, would certainly have contributed to my sense of the anger and desolation that clouds 2004’s aptly titled Songs for the Exhausted, as well as their 2007 masterpiece This Atom Heart of Ours.
It was a real pleasure, then, to catch Oliver Welter in solo acoustic mode at one of Vienna’s smartest venues, the Radiokulturhaus. Limbering up for what will no doubt be a period of extensive Naked Lunch activity (with a new album and tour in the offing), Welter played a solid two hours’ worth of old and new songs, with a sprinkling of cover versions thrown in for good measure. He was in a relaxed and chatty mood, although his between-song patter was all in German and therefore passed me by entirely. The songs themselves, however, are sung in English. One might hazard a guess that this is being done for commercial reasons, were it not for the fact that Welter’s whole approach seems as unmediated by commerce as that of Peter Hammill (of whom, a reliable source informs me, Welter is something of a fan). Despite the group’s profile having increased as a result of Universalove’s acclaimed presence on the international film festival circuit, I get the feeling that their strong Austrian and German fanbase is likely to remain the bedrock of their following.
In any case, it seems to me that the lyrics being written and sung in a language that is not the singer-writer’s own lends Naked Lunch’s songs a sense of alienation coloured by optimism, even a certain naïveté. This hunger for redemption from estrangement is shored up in turn by Welter’s voice, which sounds like that of a battered but resilient angel. Stripped down to skeletal acoustic versions, the songs emerge as haunted, uncertain reveries: a wedding day is a funeral, a fleeting encounter with a girl who was “so sad, so beautifully sad” is anatomized in unsparing detail. A new song, “The Sun”, meanwhile, was delivered with immense rhetorical power, Welter’s sense of relief at having successfully navigated its treacherous waters evident in the way he triumphantly punched the air at the song’s end.
The audience were held rapt throughout, and refused to let Welter leave. Much to his credit he was generous with the encores, winding up with a song sung in Spanish, no less (from the soundtrack to The Wild Bunch, if I understood correctly). Despite the shift of language, its tender fragility was entirely of a piece with what had gone before – an emotionally unsparing performance from this self-effacing but vastly talented musician.