Peterlicker, Vienna Waves Festival, 1 October 2011

I guess I wasn’t really part of the Waves Festival’s target market (market being very much the operative word here), which probably explains why I found myself being riled by practically every aspect of this event. In the first place, its corporate logo-infested identity did a great job of concealing its unique selling point (gah, it’s catching): the bringing together of artists from all over Europe to the city that stands at the crossroads of eastern and western Europe. Plus, if pan-Europeanism was the key, it was depressing to see how narrow and constrained the programme was. The most important musics coming out of eastern Europe these days incorporate significant elements of improvisation and radical performance practice, but you’d be hard pressed to find any challenging sonics in the endless ranks of twee indie boys and pale, waiflike girls who dominated the schedule. Not to mention the crap organizational arrangements which made being a paying punter at this festival a very dispiriting experience.

For reasons best known to themselves, most reviewers of Saturday’s line-up made no mention at all of Peterlicker’s appearance on the romantically named Opel Corsa Stage, opting to write instead about the empty bombast of British Sea Power which followed. This is my small attempt to redress the balance. Peterlicker, of course, are the latest group to hit the reunion trail, a little-remembered Austrian outfit from the late 80s and early 90s who just happened to include in their line-up a young Peter Rehberg. A track recorded live at their first ever concert, in Vienna on 9 November 1989 (also the night the Berlin Wall came down, fact fans), surfaced last year on Neonbeats, a compilation of Austrian new wave and post-punk music on the Klanggalerie label. That compilation appearance not only got the members of the group talking again, it provided the impetus for them to produce a new album, Nicht, and to play live again.

For a group who hadn’t played together for over 20 years, Peterlicker certainly went about their business with an air of confident swagger. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Pita were Franz “Hergo” Hergovich on voice, Der Standard music critic Christian Schachinger on guitar and Gregor Weissegger on bass, who together produced a sound that was utterly crushing in its totality. Schachinger and Weissegger were like evil axe-wielding twins, the former’s monstrously dense riffs hovering like black clouds over the latter’s doomy, effects-damaged bass progressions. Every so often Schachinger would hold his guitar up and knee it in the groin, each blow reinforcing the impression of barely controlled violence emanating from the stage. The studied, outwardly calm Rehberg issued wave after wave of electronic venom from his laptop, while Hergovich was simply a star. Coming over like a cross between the abject self-abasement of Michael Gira and the assaultive malice of William Bennett, this tall, well-dressed figure threw himself trancelike around the stage while delivering himself of abstract, tormented vocals. Basically, Peterlicker were out to obliterate everything in their path, and did so without any hesitation.

For those who remain sceptical of the static, anodyne approach favoured by so many contemporary Noise musicians, Peterlicker offer a wholly convincing alternative, one predicated on immense physical engagement and collective presence. Welcome back, guys, and please try to stick around this time.

Glen Hansard, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 28 September 2011

Two days after seeing The Thing at Porgy & Bess, I was back there for a solo concert by Irish singer-songwriter and main Frame Glen Hansard. (How many other people saw both gigs, I wonder? Not many, I’d venture to say.) As with the last time I saw Hansard with his other group The Swell Season, I’m still quite taken aback by how popular this man is. The gig having sold out two months ago, there were people outside the venue holding up hastily scrawled signs pleading for tickets, while inside, there was barely room to move both upstairs and downstairs (the lower level, unusually for Porgy & Bess, having been given over to standing punters). Normally I’m all in favour of a bit of up-close-and-personal by getting close to the stage, but on this occasion I was very happy indeed to take the more detached view from the balcony. Not only was downstairs uncomfortably cramped, I also spotted from my vantage point a bloke waving his arms around and dancing idiotically to practically every song. Knowing my luck, I’d have been stuck right next to this loser if I’d been downstairs.

Where was I? Oh yes, the music. Hansard is an exceptionally gifted singer-songwriter, one of the very few I’ve known who can take the standard “one man and his acoustic guitar” trope and fashion from it something that demands undivided attention and respect. The first song of the evening, though, was an acapella reading of “Spencer The Rover”, the traditional English folk song made famous by John Martyn – a beautiful rendition that held the entire audience in rapt silence. A warm smile flickered across Hansard’s face as he sang – there was no enforced jollity and no lumpen attempts at humour, just a twinkling acknowledgement of the innately communal experience of live performance. Hansard was clearly happy to be in Vienna, and made frequent reference to the fact that it had been ten years since he had first played here with his friend and fellow singer-songwriter, the late Mic Christopher.

As the evening went on, it was this sense of an affectionate, yet wholly serious conversation being conducted between performer and audience that came across in every note Hansard played and each syllable he sang. That intimacy was inscribed in the natural, easygoing banter between songs, in the heartfelt drama of Hansard’s lyrics, in the emotional strength of his voice and in the astonishing dexterity and power of his guitar playing. Indeed, that wrecked-looking instrument was the source of some of the evening’s most delicious surprises. Hansard made liberal use of loops and effects pedals throughout the performance, transforming acoustic into electric and compellingly broadening the form of his miniature symphonies. That said, two of the starkest moments came when Hansard sat down at the unamplified piano at the back of the stage and sang off-mike, and when he did the same thing on guitar while standing at the front of the stage.

The highlights, though, were the songs I’d hoped Hansard would play: his blissful reimagining of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”, and the lovelorn triptych from Once – “Lies”, “Falling Slowly” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up” – songs which have been living gently in my head for years now, their broken beauty as compelling and eloquent as ever. A rousing take on Dylan’s “Forever Young” and he was gone, but the memories of this night will take a lot longer to shift.

The Thing with Ken Vandermark, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 26 September 2011

It was an absolute pleasure to see The Thing in the smart surroundings of one of my favourite live music venues in Vienna, Porgy & Bess. An ambitious piece of programming, for sure, and one that resulted in a fair few empty seats, but it was worth it just to see the way this remarkable group took control of the larger and more formal space with just as much fire and gusto as they did when I saw them at the Blue Tomato. As if that weren’t enough, they were joined for the second half by the ubiquitous Ken Vandermark, who added his unique swing and pulse to the controlled onslaught wrought by the core trio of Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love.

The Thing present the listener with a delicious conundrum: where does the composed end and the improvised begin? Famously named after a Don Cherry tune, they seem to get a free pass from hipsters by virtue of what a fawning piece in The Quietus recently described as their “affinity with alternative rock”. On the contrary, what makes The Thing so precious and unique is the way they use composed sections as a springboard for wild, unapologetic free jazz.

Case in point: the opening number tonight, an old zydeco tune called “Call The Police” by Stephanie McDee. The original consists largely of an addictive accordion riff repeated ad infinitum. Gustafsson leapt on this riff with glee, transforming it into a juggernaut tenor sax statement while Nilssen-Love fired off intricate polyrhythmic beats and Håker Flaten flayed his double bass alive. Elsewhere in the same song, Gustafsson embarked on an extended circular breathing excursion, something I’d never heard him do before despite having seen him play many times. This utterly transfixing solo was a salutary reminder, as if one were needed, that behind Gustafsson’s high-energy attack there lurks a master of jazz technique.

Vandermark’s arrival after the break was the cue for both the grooviest and saddest of the evening’s moods. Effervescent as ever on tenor, the American’s command of the upper register was complemented perfectly by Gustafsson’s swooping baritone low end. Their ecstatic interplay only subsided when Vandermark turned to the clarinet and traced a slow, desolate duo passage with the momentarily becalmed Håker Flaten. Later, as Gustafsson took up the rarely heard fluteophone, Vandermark too was to deliver an engrossing section of circular breathing. As before, there were infectious riffs and melodies galore during this second half, which coalesced into tempestuous group improvisations. Surging restlessly in and out of songform, The Thing are embarked on a thrilling journey where the only certainty is that nothing can be predicted.

Emeralds, Vienna Rhiz, 6 September 2011

Enjoyable, if frustratingly brief, evening of whizzy ambient electronica from this highly touted American trio. I’m no authority on Emeralds’ music, but the fact that their most recent LP Does It Look Like I’m Here? is released on Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego label made them worthy of investigation by itself. Consisting of a guitarist and two keyboard boffins, the group proposed three long tracks, the first of which was a charming, somewhat pastoral excursion into prime early 70s Tangerine Dream territory. I was on a massive TD kick as a teenager, but haven’t listened to them for years. Hearing Emeralds issue those same, sensuously overlapping waves of analogue melody was like being lowered into a warm, bubbling bath.

After a while proceedings took on a darker, harder edge. Mark McGuire made skilful use of numerous effects pedals, rendering his guitar work oblique and tortuous. If the attention started to wander during this middle section, it was soon reined in by the final part of the set, an intense flurry of shimmering synth-driven beauty.

The only thing not to like was John Elliott’s ridiculous headbanging and fist-waving. Why does he do that?