Shearwater, Vienna Arena, 27 June 2016

Every time Shearwater come to Vienna they play in a larger venue, their début visit to the Chelsea in 2012 having been followed by a 2014 appearance at the Szene Wien. It was inevitable, therefore, that their 2016 tour should bring them to the Arena, which was nicely full on this occasion, a clear sign that more and more people are waking up to the greatness of Jonathan Meiburg and his group. I’m happy, though, for them to remain at this level of support; I wouldn’t much care to see them at the Gasometer, gratifying as such a level of fandom would no doubt be to Meiburg and co.

Anyway, this was an absolutely thrilling concert that pretty much confirmed Shearwater as one of the most daring and powerful forces in rock today. I have to admit that I’ve not gone a bundle on the new album Jet Plane and Oxbow so far, finding it a tad overcooked compared to the Arctic chill of the ‘Island Arc’ trilogy and the impassioned disturbance that animated 2012’s Animal Joy. In a live context, though, and stripped of their excessive studio-based production, Meiburg’s new songs stand revealed as the taut, controlled masterpieces they are. Bristling with barely concealed rage, songs like “Prime” and “A Long Time Away” present a seething vision of contemporary, battle-scarred America.

None of which goes very far towards explaining how enthralling Shearwater are in concert. Meiburg has matured into a vastly confident and watchable frontman, casting green laser beams around the hall with a special pair of gloves, and responding to a deranged fan in the front row’s request for “My Way” during a technical hitch with a droll story culminating in a few lines of the song being delivered in the style of Hootie and the Blowfish. As a guitarist, too, Meiburg has developed dramatically since the last time I saw him. Since he’s not playing keyboards live any more, he’s free to prowl the full extent of the stage, throwing rock star poses right at the edge of the stage and snapping off his tremolo arm during a particularly driven guitar solo. But it’s as a singer that Meiburg impresses most of all, his richly contoured voice giving rugged shape and gravitas to his deeply literate and moving words. As if this weren’t enough, the rest of the group transform Meiburg’s turbulent visions into fevered expressions of simmering violence, with drummer Josh Halpern and bassist Sadie Powers worthy of particular mention.

This was an eventful evening in many respects. In between lunging to remove Meiburg’s discarded tremolo arm from the vice-like grip of the aforementioned deranged fan in the front row, rushing to protect him from a toppling mic stand which Meiburg inadvertently knocked in his direction at the jaw-dropping conclusion of the final encore “Hail Mary”, and stealing an occasional glance at the striking redheaded girl a few places away from me in the front row who seemed to know all the words to all the songs, I found myself wondering whether Shearwater would continue their practice of rounding off their concerts with an astutely chosen cover version, following their electrifying readings of REM’s “These Days” in 2012 and Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain” in 2014. The answer, of course, was yes, albeit that the choice of songs was slightly more predictable than before. Coming back onstage for the encores, Meiburg told of how, coming out of a period of intense and draining creative activity, he had turned to David Bowie’s Lodger as a source of fun and inspiration. He had already hatched plans to play the record live in full, plans which inevitably took on the form of a tribute in the months following Bowie’s untimely death. With a crowdfunded studio recording of the album in the works, Shearwater played a brace of songs from the record, a brooding “African Night Flight” topped by a riotous “Look Back In Anger”. As on previous occasions, though, the performance of other people’s songs only served to underline the savage brilliance with which Shearwater go about their own business.

Shearwater live in Vienna, June 2016

Philip Glass/Maki Namekawa/Dennis Russell Davies, Landestheater Linz, 29 June 2016

Since Philip Glass is nearing his 80th birthday, his previously relentless touring schedule must surely be winding down to some extent. It was a no-brainer, then, to make the journey to Linz to see him perform a piano concert of his own works, flanked by Glass’ long-time musical collaborator Dennis Russell Davies and Japanese pianist (and Davies’ wife) Maki Namekawa. This was the second time I’d seen a Glass event at the magnificent Musiktheater, the first being the baffling opera The Lost in 2013. I hadn’t seen Glass playing piano before, although I’ve seen him twice with the Ensemble playing keyboards on Music in Twelve Parts.

The concert began with Glass solo, playing his composition Mad Rush. At fifteen minutes or so it’s a comparatively short piece, yet characteristically Glass in the way it glides around the listener on a surface of glistening melodies and hypnotic repetitions. The title of the piece seemed to be something of a misnomer, since Glass played it unhurried and with a minimum of fuss. This was perhaps the saddest Glass music I’ve heard, wintry and elegiac and (even though he wrote it nearly forty years ago) perfectly suited to a composer in the twilight of his years.

Glass then exited stage right to make way for Davies and Namekawa, who together played Glass’ 2008 piece Four Movements for Two Pianos. In pointed contrast to the dreamlike euphoria of Mad Rush, this was a beautifully labyrinthine piece of music. Flying through Glass’ magisterial arpeggios in bold and lucid harmony, Namekawa and Davies made an immediate and forceful impression that became stronger and stronger throughout the four movements. By the way, I’m no expert on the niceties of classical music etiquette, but I’m not sure you’re supposed to applaud at the end of each movement as the enthusiastic Linz audience did.

After the interval, all three performers re-emerged to play a suite of six short pieces from Glass’ 1996 “dance opera” Les Enfants Terribles. Since these were pieces that relied, in their original form, on the visual as much as the aural for their impact, the suite was perhaps a surprising choice to round off the evening. Nevertheless it provided a wholly satisfying conclusion to the programme, with the composer leading Davies and Namekawa masterfully through the unflinching density of the music.

There was an interesting coda at the end of the evening, prompted by the signing session after the concert. Never having been to one of Davies’ concerts before (although I once made it as far as the lobby), I thought it would have been remiss of me not to ask him about a subject that has long interested me. It’s not exactly a secret, but nor is it widely known, that Davies is the father of the musician Annabel Lee, who together with her husband Michael Moynihan form the core of the neofolk group Blood Axis. As far as I’m aware Davies has never spoken publicly about his daughter’s music, so I thought it might be interesting to see what he had to say about Blood Axis, since it is, to say the least, a controversial project. Rather than rehash the many arguments that have been made against Blood Axis in general and Moynihan in particular, I’ll simply point the reader to this extensive analysis of his activities, which concludes by saying that “Moynihan is a racist and a Fascist, and he believes that creating a culture accepting of [Charles] Manson’s nihilism is half way to making it also amenable to Fascism”. Having said that, when you look at this photo of Moynihan, you have to wonder what all the fuss is about.

Anyway, Dennis Russell Davies seemed disinclined to discuss Blood Axis when I mentioned the subject to him in Linz. Asked to comment on the precarious ideological basis of the project, he could only offer up platitudes about Moynihan being “a wonderful man” who makes “wonderful music”. Given his familial ties with both Lee and Moynihan, I hardly expected him to condemn their music out of hand; it’s strange, nonetheless, that he clearly feels so unperturbed by it.