Tindersticks, Vienna Radiokulturhaus, 2 March 2012

It was a great pleasure to make a rare visit to one of my favourite venues, the Radiokulturhaus.  And what made the evening even more memorable was that it was for a Tindersticks concert, my first since December 2008.  Not just any old Tindersticks concert, mind you, but the opening night of their 2012 tour and an exclusive radio session for FM4.  As is usual with such events, tickets were only available to competition winners.  I didn’t win one, of course, but that didn’t stop me from getting in.

This wasn’t planned as the first night of the tour but it ended up that way, the group’s shows in London the week before having been cancelled due to Stuart Staples suffering from a throat infection.  The singer was obviously aware of the need to go easy on his voice, and the set was rather subdued as a result.  It was also only nine songs long, but that’s par for the course with these radio sessions; no doubt I’ll get my fill when they return to Vienna for two nights in May.

As for this evening’s concert, it encapsulated everything that makes Tindersticks so precious, but also gave an awkward reminder of what has been irretrievably lost.  The group’s first six pre-split records constitute a body of work that has, over the years, affected me more deeply than that of just about any other artist.  The juxtaposition of swooning romanticism, crepuscular intimacy and gloomy resignation etched a view of the world that I immediately recognized and took to heart.  Somehow, though, the split and the later reformation have irrevocably altered Tindersticks’ DNA.

Staples has always maintained a frustrating silence on the specifics of the break-up, but he did signal that he felt the group had reached a creative impasse after 2003’s harrowing Waiting For The Moon which they needed to overcome.  Unfortunately, the resulting transformation involved not only the departure of violinist Dickon Hinchcliffe (whose weeping strings had been central to the group’s sound) but also a shedding of some of the key songwriting impulses that had made those first six albums so essential.  Each of the three post-split albums – The Hungry Saw, Falling Down A Mountain and now The Something Rain – has contained one or two gems, but on the whole they’ve been mild, tentative affairs, lacking the orchestral sweep and wired emotional impact of their predecessors.

And so this abbreviated set, consisting as it did of four old songs followed by five new ones, presented a microcosm of Tindersticks’ musical journey.  Staples may have been guarding his voice but he was in fine mood throughout, persuasively conducting the five gifted musicians around him and throwing joyful moves on guitar and tambourine.  “Cherry Blossoms” was sublime in its stillness, “If You’re Looking For A Way Out” raw with soulful anger.  Of the new songs, I especially liked “Slippin’ Shoes” with its infectious chorus, and the climactic rush of “Show Me Everything”.  They may never recapture the greatness of their earlier incarnation, but Tindersticks are still the masters of sombre, intelligent songcraft.

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