Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Vienna Gasometer, 24 November 2013

Nick Cave is one of those artists I’ve always found it easier to admire than to love. He’s a gifted songwriter, a phenomenal lyricist and a mesmerizing live performer, but despite all these things I’ve never counted myself as a great fan. I think my reservations have something to do with the swampy, bluesy nature of much of his music, a style I’ve never really got along with, as well as the general air of louche ribaldry about the man. Having been a great admirer of Cave’s first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, I was hugely disappointed by the 2009 follow-up, The Death of Bunny Munro, which struck me as an infantile piece of work; and I felt the same about the Grinderman project which has occupied much of Cave’s time in the past few years.

Although I can certainly appreciate the unhinged power of Cave in full-on sulphurous preacher mode, I like him most when he’s being a Mature Artist, sitting at the piano and delivering a carefully considered and beautifully constructed ballad. There were plenty of those on The Good Son, the first Cave album I ever heard and one that remains a favourite; and even more of them on the pitch-perfect The Boatman’s Call, to this day Cave’s crowning achievement. Later records such as Nocturama and Dig, Lazarus, Dig, however, contained their fair share of clunkers alongside a few undoubted classics.

However uneven Cave’s recorded legacy might be, he can always be relied upon to put on an excellent live show, and I’ve usually made the effort to catch him when he’s played near me. I remember a fine concert at Tate Britain in London, billed as a solo show but actually featuring one or two of the Bad Seeds as well. I may also have seen a full Bad Seeds show or two in London, my memory fails me. (Like many residents of Brighton, I used to see him around town as well; once on the train up to London with his son, once – unsurprisingly – at a Dirty Three show.) Following my move to Vienna, there was another quasi-solo show in the magnificent setting of the Konzerthaus in 2006.

2006, you say? Gosh. Seven full years after I’d last seen Cave, he showed up in a sold-out Gasometer, this time bringing the Bad Seeds with him. And what a formidable group they are, giving flesh, bone and blood to the raging drama of Cave’s songs. Inevitably it’s the early material that takes the breath away, songs like “Tupelo”, “Red Right Hand” and “The Mercy Seat”: blistering, hellish psychodramas that bring Cave to places no other performer has ever visited, stalking the wide stage like a feral beast and declaiming his texts with savage fury. I was transfixed too by the piano section, with “Sad Waters” and “Into My Arms” demonstrating Cave’s unerring ability to articulate vast universes of longing and resignation in song.

In comparison the Push The Sky Away stuff sounded mannered and inert to me, although it’s an invidious comparison to make when this later material still stands head and shoulders above pretty much everything else being done in the name of rock music in 2013. But that’s the curse and the burden of an artist like Nick Cave, forever fated to have his present ventures judged alongside the legendary triumphs of his past.

Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats, Vienna Arena, 6 December 2013

Much to my surprise, these anonymous stoner/doom/hard rock merchants from Cambridge crept up behind me just as 2013 was drawing to a close. I didn’t really know what to expect, having heard little of their music in advance. But the aura of mystery surrounding them, not to mention their image, steeped as it is in Altamont, the Manson murders and late ’60s acid comedown, compelled me to attend. And I’m very glad I did, since Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats slapped me round the back of the head that night with one of the very best gigs of the year.

However contrived that image might be, there’s no denying that Uncle Acid evoke a primal and nightmarish atmosphere with their music. This comes in no small part from the monstrously heavy riffs that power their songs, with the lead and rhythm guitars intertwined like writhing snakes. The sludgey dominance of those riffs extends most of the songs to an ideal 5-10 minute length, where they make a formidable impression without grinding on so long as to outstay their welcome. But there’s a good deal of melodic inventiveness there too, steering the group well clear of the dire abyss that is heavy metal. Lyrically, pain, torture, blood and death are recurrent themes – excellent topics, all of them, sung in a distinctive Lennonesque tone that brings light and shade to the group’s grim obsessions.

There’s an unsettling exhilaration about Uncle Acid, a feeling that the negation they remorselessly conjure is something to be savoured, even celebrated. Compounding the sense of dread and unease, the back-projected videos playing out behind the group make frequent reference to that moment in time when the ’60s hippie dream was turning into a blood-drenched nightmare. I was disconcerted, to say the least, when I looked back at the one photo I took during the concert and saw that the slide being displayed at the time was the famous Life magazine cover of Charles Manson, a man who more than anyone else embodies that disintegration. But I probably shouldn’t have been too surprised, given the way Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats bring the sound of past horrors remorselessly into the present.

Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats live in Vienna

The Thing, Vienna Blue Tomato, 22 November 2013

As I wrote in my round-up of 2013, these pages are seriously backed up for one reason or another. So over the next few weeks I’m going to try and fill in some of the gaps in what was a very full and exciting conclusion to my year of concert-going, while at the same time documenting what is shaping up to be just as busy a kick-off to 2014.

And where better to start than with another storming performance by The Thing, cementing their unassailable position as the most powerful and creative force in free jazz. With Mats Gustafsson on searing form on saxes, Paal Nilssen-Love the sweeping master of his drumkit and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten laying down run after volatile run on electric bass (no double bass tonight!), the impact was as stunning as the band were loud. Kicking off on baritone before switching to tenor, Gustafsson led the trio through a long, searching improv that gradually resolved itself into the old Don Cherry tune “Golden Heart” (recorded by the band on The Cherry Thing). The song’s smoky abstraction spoke eloquently of The Thing’s position as admirers rather than iconoclasts, working in a tradition they both understand and respect. When the Swede finally turned to the mighty bass sax, his physical connection to the instrument was miraculous. A slow and mournful solo evolved into an electrifying “Call The Police”, a staple at Thing gigs these days but no less welcome for all that, its steamroller riff leading the trio into delirious zones of rhythmic ecstasy.

The set-up of this concert, though, left plenty to be desired. At the insistence of the promoters, Trost Records, the Blue Tomato was transformed into a standing venue. Since The Thing play jazz, the Tomato is a jazz club and jazz clubs have seats, this was a perverse decision, presumably borne of some hipster desire to take The Thing out of a ghetto (jazz) that they don’t actually need to be taken out of. It also had the effect of alienating the Tomato’s core audience of regulars, many of whom were conspicuous by their absence. At some point during the evening, the doors were flung open and no further admission fees were charged. The resulting influx of hipsters rarely (if ever) seen before or since at the Tomato, combined with the low height of the stage, meant that anyone further back than the first few rows could see nothing at all. The sound wasn’t a problem – The Thing have never had any difficulty making themselves heard, to put it mildly – but since a large part of The Thing’s appeal rests on the trio’s immense physical engagement, their impish onstage togetherness and even their matching Ruby’s BBQ T-shirts, it was unfortunate that, for many of the audience, that visual impact was largely lost. Still, this was a massively enjoyable concert by a group at the very height of its powers.