In 1998 Swans released a live album called Swans Are Dead, a double CD from the group’s 1995 and 1997 tours. That title carried with it such a sense of finality and certainty that there seemed no prospect whatsoever of Swans getting back together again. In truth this wasn’t something that overly bothered me, even though Swans were then, and remain now, the most important group of my life. I had lived through every second of that marathon final 1997 tour of Europe, working the merchandise table every night on my own and travelling with the band and the rest of the crew in a big black tour bus. (See here for the story of how I came to be doing this.) Night after night I had heard the show begin with the crushing tumult of “Feel Happiness”, Michael Gira’s deeply affecting valediction to the band. The infernal chords of the introduction would fade away, leaving Gira to intone the words “I’m truly sorry for what I never did, and I forgive you too for your indifference”; and it seemed to me as though the sorrow and forgiveness he was singing about were universal, and that I was wholly and unavoidably implicated in them.
My last concert of 2010 neatly tied together a couple of strands from the previous two. Like Tortoise, Heaven And have two drummers; like Broken Heart Collector, one of them is Didi Kern. Kern’s presence in the line-up tonight no doubt came about due to the no-show of regular Heaven And drummer Tony Buck, although it’s unclear to me whether Buck has left the group for good or whether his absence on this occasion was merely temporary. Since a large part of Heaven And’s prior appeal rested on the churning impact of Buck and Steve Heather’s twin percussive attack, restricting themselves to just one sticksman for this concert was clearly not an option.
Heaven And impressed me enormously when I saw them at Nickelsdorf this summer, their pulverizing guitar-and-drums racket providing the Konfrontationen festival with an appropriately confrontational late-night finale. If this appearance didn’t quite reach those dizzying heights, it was only because of the sparse attendance and also because of the bizarre set-up of the performance space. In front of the stage was a standing area and, beyond that, a few rows of raked seating. The audience were always going to gravitate towards those seats, leaving a yawning gap between group and audience which was plugged only by a few stumpy pillars, whose only conceivable function seemed to be to rest drinks upon. Since no-one was standing anyway, they looked rather forlorn.
None of which prevented Heaven And from turning in an utterly convincing performance, with Martin Siewert’s regular and tabletop electric guitars blasting into overdrive against Kern and Heather’s constantly shifting patterns and Zeitblom’s relentless bass groove. And, of course, the group had an ace up their sleeve: a special guest appearance by Swedish (and surely, by now, honorary Viennese) saxophonist Mats Gustafsson. Tearing great strips out of the air with his awesome lung power, Gustafsson matched Siewert all the way for sheer audacity and verve; a rare and precious instance of white-hot rock and world-beating free improvisation, colliding and fusing in their own light and heat.
Tortoise, Vienna WUK, 21 November 2010
The last time I saw Tortoise it was through a haze of sleep deprivation and alcohol at the 2008 Donaufestival, when they (or, more likely, the event organizers) made the audience wait until 1.30am before coming onstage. November’s altogether more civilized appearance kicked off at 8pm and was over by 10; other than that, it was business as usual for the Chicagoans. That’s not in any way a criticism; it’s actually rather miraculous that Tortoise are still with us after all these years, still serving up their effervescent and irresistible blend of jazz, funk and instrumental rock. There’s an unflappable confidence to what Tortoise do, a sense of quiet authority that is reflected in the ease with which the group members take over each others’ instruments and carry on playing. Mapped out by the meshing interplay of the drums, vibraphone and keyboards, Tortoise music resembles an endless highway, teeming with interest and pleasure at every turn.
Broken Heart Collector, Vienna Rhiz, 30 November 2010
The Rhiz was packed out for this appearance by what, as far as I can make out, is a fluid unit consisting of fun-loving improv-noise-rock trio Bulbul together with Maja Osojnik on vox and devices and Susanna Gartmayer on reeds. Bulbul seem to relish being fronted by slightly unhinged female singers: cf. 2008’s gig at the Rhiz at which the group gave repeated depth and colour to Carla Bozulich’s angular vocal interventions. Osojnik was, if anything, an even more arresting presence than Bozulich had been, while her dramatic and surreal texts were thrown sharply into focus by Bulbul’s splintering sonic constructions and Gartmayer’s restlessly agitated reeds work.
David Murobi took his customary great photos of the gig which you can see here.
Here’s some kind of list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2010, with links to the reviews I wrote at the time. In no particular order…
1. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Martinschlössl, Vienna
2. The Swell Season, Museumsquartier, Vienna
3. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love/Lasse Marhaug, Blue Tomato, Vienna
4. Swans, Arena, Vienna
5. Naked Lunch, Arena, Vienna
6. Suzanne Vega, Konzerthaus, Vienna
7. Peter Hammill, Posthof, Linz
8. Heaven And, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf
9. Oliver Welter, Radiokulturhaus, Vienna
10. The Thing XL, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf