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.

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