Shearwater, Vienna Chelsea, 13 April 2012

A very stimulating evening in the company of American art rock quintet Shearwater, playing their first show in Vienna to a sold out Chelsea crowd. By way of background, I only got to know about Shearwater because singer and songwriter Jonathan Meiburg is a former member of Okkervil River, whose last four albums I’ve admired immensely.  Not to mention that Okkervil River’s 2008 concert at Porgy & Bess is in the running for best concert I’ve ever seen. (Despite touring extensively all over Europe last year, they have of course come nowhere near Vienna since that superlative show.) Meiburg appears to have left Okkervil River sometime after 2008’s The Stand Ins, although a close reading of the credits to that and the two previous OR albums reveals that he had no hand in writing any of the songs on them. In theory, therefore, liking Okkervil River was no guarantee that I would also like Shearwater.

As it turned out I needn’t have worried, since Shearwater were a highly impressive outfit in their own right. Meiburg may have lacked something of Will Sheff’s dramatic and powerful stage presence, but he more than made up for it with his searing guitar work and beautifully controlled vocals that constantly threatened to erupt into a stentorian roar – and, indeed, frequently did so. If it was next to impossible to make out most of the words, that was less due to any lack of clear delivery on Meiburg’s part and more a case of his texts having to fight it out for supremacy against the overwhelming force of the group’s sound. With two keyboard players also doubling up on guitar, and a drummer whose unrelenting rhythms were pushed way up high in the mix, the effect was frequently breathtaking.

What I liked most was the gravity and seriousness of it all. Although Meiburg and the rest of the group were relaxed and funny between songs, once in flight (to borrow a metaphor from Meiburg’s beloved birds), they invoked total commitment and an almost confrontational fervour. A song like “Animal Life” begins with a placid tone and an elegant vocal line, before straying unsettlingly into an environment laced with claustrophobic anxiety. Like many of their songs, it ends abruptly and with a minimum of fuss, as does the exuberant cover of REM’s “These Days” with which they close the evening. Stripped of all histrionics and melodrama, Shearwater possess a brooding and ominous attitude that grips the listener tightly by the throat.

Ken Vandermark’s Resonance Ensemble, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 12 March 2012

Ken Vandermark as big bandleader; here was an element of the workaholic American’s repertoire that I hadn’t previously heard.  Needless to say the saxophonist is no stranger to large ensembles, having for years played a key role in Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet.  And while the Resonance Ensemble has certain formal similarities to that formidable aggregation – many-headed reed and brass sections, bass, twin drummers – it’s also a jazzier, more swinging collective than the Tentet.  Those qualities were much in evidence at a reasonably full, but by no means packed (it being a Monday) Porgy & Bess, still my favourite live music venue in Vienna.  The opening 30-minute section was a kaleidoscopic swirl of moods, kicking off with a long, devastating tenor solo from centre-stage sax man Dave Rempis.  As the piece wore on, it morphed into a graceful and flowing ensemble piece in which each musician was given a chance to shine.

Having experienced Vandermark mostly in full-on improv mode alongside the likes of Brötzmann, Mats Gustafsson and Paal Nilssen-Love, it was salutary to see him work in a more composed environment.  Every so often he would give signals to the rest of the ensemble, presumably to communicate some desired course of action, while the music stands dotted around the stage carried the implication that the music was at least partly prepared in advance.  Whatever the extent of composition, though, the music was never less than fresh and immediately appealing.

The second set saw the group leap headfirst into its most positively enjoyable territory, and this was the part of the evening that seemed to bear Vandermark’s imprint most strongly.  There’s no finer sound in jazz than when he crashes into a delirious, overdriven melody and tussles with it into oblivion, and when that sound is reinforced by nine other gifted musicians, responding to his lead with their own joyous contributions, the results are simply overwhelming.