The Walkabouts, Vienna Szene, 15 January 2012

Now here’s an anomaly. I’ve only recently become aware of The Walkabouts, a fairly shabby state of affairs given that they’ve been around since 1984 and that co-founder Carla Torgerson sings the female lead on “Travelling Light”, one of my favourite songs by Tindersticks, one of my favourite groups. Clearly it was time to check these guys out, and the opportunity to do that came along more swiftly than I had expected in the shape of a Vienna date on The Walkabouts’ current European tour.

The interesting thing about The Walkabouts is that they are far more popular in mainland Europe than they are in the UK (and also the USA, which goes without saying), to the extent of not even visiting Britain on this tour. I find this state of affairs baffling, since the group trade in the kind of dusty, rootsy Americana that has become very fashionable in recent years. Not that I’m complaining – it’s good to have the usual situation of artists playing anywhere but Vienna being reversed in my favour for once.

In any event this was a hugely enjoyable concert, played to a full and appreciative Szene audience. These are perfectly formed songs, most of them at least five minutes long and with an epic yet resolutely unfussy quality. Reaching out through incisive melodies and a weighty rhythmic attack, the show was more rocking than I had expected and none the worse for all that. Singer and principal songwriter Chris Eckman is a model of reticence, his unassuming presence key to The Walkabouts’ dramatic stagecraft. His deeply resonant voice gives vivid animation to the American myths and figures of his songs, while his guitar playing has that marvellously ragged Neil Young quality that evokes lost dreams and endless highways all at once.

Reflecting on The Walkabouts’ long history of cult appeal and mainstream indifference, Eckman made a between-songs dedication to “everyone who hung in there”. The song that followed, “The Light Will Stay On”, was one of several with Carla Torgerson on lead vocals. When not playing spidery second guitar and lending heavenly backing to Eckman’s vox, Torgerson sings in rich and lovely tones while making beautifully expressive body movements. Her limbs adrift in gracefully fluid motion, Torgerson is a melancholy counterpart to her partner’s searing agitation. With the immaculate band adding vital light and shade to rockers such as “Jack Candy” and “Grand Theft Auto”, The Walkabouts are an abrasive yet electrifying presence.

Didi Kern & Philipp Quehenberger, Vienna Rhiz, 11 January 2012

My first concert of 2012 was a quintessentially Viennese experience, being a loud, lengthy and largely improvised set for keyboards and percussion by two of this city’s leading musicians, held at that hotbed of experimental music, the Rhiz. The performance had a slight edge over the last time I saw this duo play at Shelter, since this time Didi Kern & Philipp Quehenberger sensibly refrained from introducing any guest musicians and did all the playing themselves. What resulted was an insanely dense black hole of sound that couldn’t help but suck in everything around it. (It was noticeable, by the way, how well attended this concert was compared to that Shelter gig in the summer. It’s depressing to think that this was probably because last week’s gig was more actively pushed on Facebook, and also because it was at the übercool Rhiz rather than the unfashionable, out-of-the-way Shelter. I don’t find out about gigs on Facebook and I also don’t go to a gig just because it’s at a certain venue, but maybe that’s just me.)

Kern’s drumming becomes more miraculous every time I see him play, from the dizzy interlocking rhythms he creates to the precision with which he limns vast areas of space and silence. Quehenberger, for his part, came over like some permanently distracted machinist. Looming over his synthesizer, occasionally firing a caustic glance in the audience’s direction, his seeming nonchalance and the fag drooping from the corner of his mouth were belied by the endless flow of trancelike analogue tones. More than once I was reminded of the stupendous 70s records of Tangerine Dream with their crystalline vistas of sound. The forceful presence of the drummer, however, served to push Quehenberger’s rippling melodies well away from ambient territory and into a clattering, visionary set of impulses. A stunning performance and a great way to kick off what promises to be a busy few months of live music in Vienna.

Some excellent photos of the evening by David Murobi here.

Short Cuts 7: Elvis Costello, Carla Bozulich, Oliver Welter

A final round-up of shows towards the end of last year which I never got around to writing full reviews of at the time.

Elvis Costello, Vienna Konzerthaus, 31 October 2011

Here was an oddity – an out-of-the-(almost)-blue solo concert by Elvis Costello in what is, after the Staatsoper and the Musikverein, the poshest venue in Vienna, and the only one of the three that hosts regular non-classical gigs. Costello is a singer-songwriter I’ve never quite got to grips with. Maybe I thought that seeing him in solo mode would expose some kind of truth at the heart of his songs, but it never really happened. I’m no authority on his music and I only recognized about half the songs; the one I’ve always loved the most, “Oliver’s Army”, was frustratingly notable by its absence. The anguished “Shipbuilding”, “I Want You” (still one of the most frighteningly psychotic love songs ever written) and the inspired medley of “New Amsterdam/You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” were all massively impressive, but there were also too many songs overstuffed with words and lacking in winning tunes.

Carla Bozulich/Evangelista, London Café Oto, 13 November 2011

A brief visit to London in November enabled me to check out hipster venue Café Oto for the first time. This gig by Carla Bozulich and her band differed little from the last time I saw them in Warsaw two years ago, right down to the walkabout among the audience during the big showstopping number “Baby That’s The Creeps”, which inevitably resulted in her crashing into a table or two near the front. Still, there’s something viscerally compelling about Bozulich. I think it has to do with slowness, the eerie calm and unhurriedness she projects which occasionally erupts into seething energy and rage.

Oliver Welter, Vienna Chelsea, 12 December 2011

My last concert of 2011 was another solo affair, but I found much more to admire and enjoy in Oliver Welter’s plaintive laments than I did in Elvis Costello’s wordy digressions. I’m still waiting patiently for a new Naked Lunch album and gigs, which will hopefully materialize later this year, but in the meantime this did nicely. A sprinkling of unusual cover versions – “River Deep Mountain High”, Hot Chocolate’s “Emma” – stood of a piece with Welter’s own songs, haunted reveries anatomizing love and loss in stark, emotionally unsparing detail.