Sir Richard Bishop, Cairo Room Art Space, 14 November 2018

Here’s a tale filled with coincidences, discoveries and connections. A few months ago, The Wire magazine ran a cover story on the underground music scene in Cairo, focusing on artists such as Nadah El Shazly, Maurice Louca and Maryam Saleh. As I write this I’m in Cairo myself on a two-week business trip, my second visit in two years to this sprawling, chaotic city. Hoping to catch some of these folks in their home town, I trawled the listings for relevant gigs. I drew a blank, but discovered instead another enticing prospect: a concert by Sir Richard Bishop, acoustic guitarist extraordinaire, antiquarian bookseller specializing in the occult, and former member of the legendary Sun City Girls.

A few weeks ago, Bishop played a concert at my favourite venue in Geneva, Cave 12. I couldn’t make that evening, so it was a no-brainer to make the long and hazardous trip by taxi through the horrendous Cairo traffic to the Room Art Space, a lively and welcoming café-cum-performance space. And the connection with my adopted home town doesn’t end there, since it wasn’t until after the concert that I discovered that Bishop has associations with Geneva of his own.

The story goes that Bishop, wandering around the old town one day during a 2013 residency in the city, stumbled upon a musical instrument shop. In the market for a guitar small enough to take on tour with him, Bishop made enquiries of the proprietor and was shown a mysterious 19th century instrument with no marks of its provenance. Initially put off by the high price he had been quoted, Bishop reluctantly left the store empty-handed. But he couldn’t get the guitar out of his mind, and returned to the shop a few days later to seal the deal. The wisdom of this decision can be heard on Bishop’s most recent album, 2015’s haunted Tangier Sessions, which was recorded on this very instrument.

Bishop didn’t have the guitar in question with him on this occasion, but this was still a compelling performance. I’d seen Bishop live once before, on one of those rare evenings when I’ve bothered to pay attention to the usually hopeless support act. Opening for Earth in Vienna in 2008, the guitarist played what I described in my review as “clouds of notes emerging and resolving into beautifully complex configurations”. Which is all well and good, but doesn’t even begin to capture the rapturous pleasure that comes from listening to Bishop in full flight.

Bishop’s range is staggering, taking in dark vortices of flamenco, filigree classical, heady middle Eastern inflections, gorgeous major-key melodies and feverish rocked-out strumming, often within the same piece. There’s more than a hint here of the baleful eclecticism that powered Bishop’s former unit, Sun City Girls, whose music I’ve been belatedly discovering of late. And the influence of the Girls extends further into present-day Cairo, since Bishop’s brother Alan (who was at the gig, standing in the shadows at the back) now plays with other local musicians as The Invisible Hands, while also forming a third of the Dwarfs of East Agouza with the aforementioned Louca and another key Cairo figure, guitarist and oud player Sam Shalabi. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see any of these people play during my visit; maybe next time. I was indeed fortunate, though, to have my visit intersect with the mesmerising guitar magic of Richard Bishop.

Sir Richard Bishop live in Cairo, November 2018

Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love, Geneva AMR, 21 September 2018

“We can’t see you, but we can feel you,” announced Ken Vandermark at the start of his recent show with Paal Nilssen-Love in Geneva, his view of the audience hampered by bright stage lights. The concert took place the night after a gig at my old stamping ground, the Blue Tomato in Vienna, a place where (as a quick look at the archives of this now dormant blog shows) I saw Vandermark and Nilssen-Love play at least three times, in 2009, 2011 and 2014

With the Tomato, and indeed Vienna itself, now a rapidly fading memory, it was a great pleasure to renew my acquaintance with this most bracing and explosive of duos. AMR may be a less cosy and convivial venue than the Tomato, and the audience numbered around 30-40 rather than the hundred or so that regularly pack out the Tomato. Still, there was still a palpable sense of expectation in the air, with Vandermark’s horns and the house drumkit set out on the floor of the room – no stage here, not even a low one.

Right from the start Vandermark and Nilssen-Love made their presence felt in no uncertain terms, with a barnstorming duo passage that saw Vandermark’s weighty tenor interlocking with the Norwegian’s breathless percussion. Firing off volleys of sax blurts that resolved into glinting shards of melody, Vandermark summoned the ghosts of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, embracing them with an energy and vision entirely his own. The Chicagoan reached for his clarinet, tracing a slow, sad blues that led into a needle-sharp passage of circular breathing and then an almost perky, European folk dance section – a transition that made perfect sense given the way Vandermark, more than any other musician, seems to bridge the American free jazz and European free improvisation traditions.

Battling it out for supremacy like two cats in a bag, the duo opened the second set with a furious ensemble passage that saw Nilssen-Love turn to brushes and an arsenal of hand-held percussion instruments. An engrossing drum solo followed, the Norwegian anchoring his playful inventiveness with riveting snare, toms and cymbal work. Back on tenor, the saxophonist melted the air with cascading riffs and analytic grooves, and a gorgeous solo to round off the main set. A short encore saw Vandermark raise the roof on clarinet, matched for intensity by Nilssen-Love’s hyperactive presence behind the kit.

With the show over and the duo packing up, the house manager threw open the windows to let in the sounds of Paquis, the seedy and bustling district of Geneva in which AMR is situated. Another extraordinary performance from these two gifted musicians.

Chicago/London Underground, Geneva AMR, 25 May 2018

Another fine evening at AMR in the company of a group of inspired and inspiring musicians. The story goes that the long-established Chicago Underground duo of cornettist Rob Mazurek and percussionist Chad Taylor invited two mainstays of the London improv scene, pianist Alexander Hawkins and bassist John Edwards, to join them in forming a new quartet called, deep breath, Chicago/London Underground. Personally I would have called the group Them after the initial letters of the four members’ surnames, but I guess Van Morrison got there first. Meth would have been a possible, if fairly unappetising, alternative. But I digress.

This was, I think, my first live acquaintance with any of these musicians, although both Hawkins and Edwards have been on my radar for some time on account of their regular appearances on my Evan Parker gigs page. With the frequency of their collaborations with Parker testifying to their ability as improvisors, it comes as no surprise that the saxophonist joined the full group onstage at a recent concert in Slovenia, only a week or so before their appearance in Geneva.

This being, as noted above, a fairly new collaboration, there was a freshness and a vitality to the performance that repeatedly cut through the received language of improv. With his permanent scowl and unnecessary sunglasses, Mazurek cut an incongruous onstage figure. I could have done without his occasional vocal interjections and his use of cowbells as a percussion instrument, which was presumably intended as some kind of humorous reference to the fact that we were in Switzerland. But once he got down to business on cornet the results were miraculous, as his moody, hyperactive lines fell into sublime interplay with Hawkins’ sparkling piano and the gut-churning twists and turns of Edwards and Taylor’s rhythmic structures.

Throughout the evening’s two sets, duo and trio sections alternated with full-on ensemble material. In the first half, a long, sensitive duet between Hawkins and Mazurek saw the smoky haze of the Chicagoan’s cornet sustained by Hawkins’ richly expressive language on the piano. Taylor for his part, when he wasn’t etching the radiant tones of the mbira into the group’s sound, was relentlessly probing and energetic behind the kit, while Edwards propelled the ensemble forward with his dreamlike arco and pizzicato work.

The second set began with a breathtaking dialogue between Hawkins and Taylor. Drawing on vast reserves of energy and dexterity, the pianist sculpted waves of tense, knotty melodies that worked their way insidiously into the wide-open expanses generated by Taylor. The drummer ceded ground to Edwards, who joined Hawkins for an engrossing duo section of their own. With an audacity that was as thrilling as it was unexpected, the four men came together for a blistering quartet section driven by an infectious rhythmic groove, courtesy of a sampler controlled by Mazurek. This extended finale was a perfect example of Chicago/London Underground’s gleefully inclusive approach to improvisation, encompassing freedom, rhythm, dissonance, melody and all points in between.

Michael Gira, Geneva Casino Theatre, 7 February 2018

Although Michael Gira has let it be known that the most recent Swans tour was the last in the current iteration of this veteran 36-year-old project, there seem to be no corresponding closure plans for Gira’s parallel career as a solo artist. Indeed, Gira seems to regard solo performance as some kind of workshop for Swans, with many songs initially given solo outings eventually winding up in fully-fledged form as Swans efforts. This has the unfortunate effect of making a Michael Gira solo concert feel like listening to a series of demos, with all the sketchy and provisional qualities that implies.

In fact, out of the eleven or so songs played by Gira at his Geneva concert in February, I reckon only four were actually new, with the others hailing from various stages of the Gira/Swans/Angels of Light back catalogue. But the familiarity (to this long-time Gira-watcher, at least) of those seven old songs was never enough to bring this concert above the level of the formulaic. This was essentially long-form busking, with Gira’s rudimentary guitar laying the foundation for a series of hectoring, haranguing outbursts that put me in mind of my occasional Sunday afternoon visits to Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park in the early 1990s.

Bereft of kindness, warmth and sensitivity, Gira’s stentorian bellow is not an easy thing to love, and the downer hearing it at length put me on during this concert was only exacerbated by the increasingly turgid and overblown nature of Gira’s texts. Gira’s lyrics tend towards the sulphurous and messianic, with a limited schema of lyrical tropes that rely heavily on reach-me-down apocalyptic imagery. Governed by grindingly repetitive chord structures, delivered in tones that range from the meekly defeated to the perpetually outraged, these songs lurch onwards and ultimately collapse under the weight of their own absurdity.

The new songs Gira gave us a taste of in Geneva were more than enough to confirm my feeling that the Swans project has reached a creative dead end. “Are We Sleeping?” was a progressively glib list of bilious observations, “The Hanging Man” relied on a spat-out “NOT” for effect like some cheapjack horror flick, while “You Will Pay” (I make no claims as to the accuracy of these song titles, by the way) was only put out of its misery after a long, rancorous spoken-word outro. It was a blessed relief, then, to have this concert end with the piercingly sad and deeply moving “God Damn The Sun”, a song that has haunted me for almost 30 years and a rare instance of Gira letting the song breathe and tell its own story, rather than being locked up in grotesque contortions of its own making.

Nicolas Field’s N-Ensemble, Geneva AMR, 24 March 2018

You wouldn’t necessarily expect to find a world-class free jazz and improv club right in the centre of Geneva, just a few minutes’ walk from the main railway station. But that’s what you get with L’Association pour l’encouragement de la musique improvisée, Geneva’s leading venue for this kind of music. If Cave 12 is Geneva’s equivalent of the Rhiz in Vienna, then AMR is Geneva’s Blue Tomato, with a programme of regular concerts by local musicians spiced up with occasional visits from big hitters such as Evan Parker, Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark. I saw both the Schlippenbach Trio and Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra there in recent months, but never got around to reviewing them. Maybe I will one day, although I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Anyway, it was a pleasure to visit AMR for the second of two evenings led by the Anglo-Swiss drummer Nicolas Field. Field’s was a name new to me, but he’s worked with musicians of the calibre of Keiji Haino, Akira Sakata and “Sir” Richard Bishop, as well as being active in sound art and composing music for the Burgtheater in Vienna. On the occasion of this AMR residency he put together a six-piece group consisting of Swiss and international musicians, and called it the N-Ensemble.

The evening consisted of two set-long pieces, the latter of which Field introduced as “From Sand to Dust”. With just a few written guidance notes in evidence, Field allowed the players plenty of room to improvise within the overall structure of the piece. Duo and trio sections opened out into full-group improvisations, with the soundworld characterized by shifting zones of tension and release, punctuated by frequent bursts of turbulence. Key to the latter was guitarist and bassist Jasper Stadhouders, whose stormy riffing provided the evening with its most deliriously out-there moments. I’d seen Stadhouders a couple of times in Vienna playing bass in Ken Vandermark’s Made To Break, but those outings hadn’t really prepared me for the ferocity with which he applied himself to the electric guitar and the flinty resonance of his acoustic playing.

In the best tradition of group improvisation, each of the various members made important contributions to the overall pace and shape of the music. Valerio Tricoli had a fascinating set-up consisting of a vintage Revox tape recorder with no reels, just a single length of tape looped around a mic stand and travelling endlessly through the tape heads. Presumably Tricoli was recording the sounds in the room and processing them in real time via his mixing console next to the Revox. Whatever the truth of the matter, his interventions added a ghostly patina that hovered over Thomas Florin’s ominous piano and Bjørnar Habbestad’s piercing flute. Playing off brilliantly against Habbestad, Anne Gillot doubled on bass clarinet and something called a Paetzold contrabass recorder. This ungainly contraption looked like something my son would bring home from woodwork class, but sounded incredible, with Gillot’s fierce, truculent voicings splintering into the spaces left by the other musicians. Field himself was a constantly creative presence behind the drums, his restless stickwork anchoring the disparate elements of the ensemble.

So engrossed was I in the music’s enveloping sonorities that I was surprised, when I looked around at the end, to discover that I was one of only five people in the audience, there having been at least 20 at the beginning. This is probably the only concert I’ve ever attended where the people onstage outnumbered those in the audience, although this is no reflection on the quality of the music, which was never less than compelling.

Einstürzende Neubauten, Geneva Alhambra, 2 February 2018

Three years ago I travelled to Munich to see Einstürzende Neubauten play at the Haus der Kunst, a concert that coincided with the opening of an exhibition on German post-punk music at the same location. I never got around to reviewing the concert, nor did I write about the group’s appearance at the 2017 Donaufestival in Krems, one of the last concerts I saw in Austria. In truth, though, there wasn’t much difference between those appearances and Neubauten’s show last month in Geneva, so this review can stand equally as a review of those earlier two as well.

At first sight there may seem something disconcerting, maybe even safe, about the idea of a group of arch iconoclasts like Neubauten apparently treading water for the past few years, but it’s a notion that doesn’t bear very much scrutiny. In the first place, this bout of touring comes in the wake of 2014’s Lament, the soundtrack to a site-specific performance that is as emotionally affecting a piece of music as Neubauten have ever put their name to. And in the second place, 2016’s heavily ironically titled Greatest Hits compilation, around which the group’s current show is based, is very much of a piece with the tendency to self-mythologization that has characterized Neubauten’s approach over the past 37 years.

It’s become a truism, in critical writing about Neubauten, to bemoan their apparent move towards the mainstream, to complain that the sonic terrorism of their earlier years has gradually given way to a more conventionally musical approach. But to these ears, the most striking thing about latter-day Neubauten is the almost unbearable tension that they generate through their use of both conventional and home-made instruments, lurking menacingly beneath the surface and frequently erupting into states of discord that are every bit as violent and destructive as the early records and performances with which the group achieved such notoriety. This tension is inscribed deep in Neubauten’s music, from the starkly beautiful melodies that linger tellingly through their songs, to Jochen Arbeit’s miraculous shimmering guitar work, the sinister clank of NU Unruh’s percussive arsenal and the monstrous bass of Alexander von Hacke, all of it woven together by singer and lyricist Blixa Bargeld’s ferociously clever texts.

It’s not perhaps widely known that Bargeld has some help these days in delivering his lines, which is hardly surprising given how formidably dense and allusive they are. Bargeld’s guilty secret, which could readily be divined from the front-row vantage point I claimed at both Krems and Geneva, is that he has a teleprompter at the foot of his microphone off of which he reads the lyrics, controlled by means of a little clicker in his hand. On the face of it there’s something unsatisfactory about this practice, sitting ill as it does with the assumed extempore nature of live performance. Nevertheless it’s a practice I’m happy to endorse, given that Bargeld’s texts exhibit all the characteristics of what Barthes called jouissance: a text that “imposes a state of loss, that discomforts, unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language…

If Barthes, that arch deconstructionist, were around today, he would no doubt be amused by the idea of a group whose very name celebrates the notion of collapse, and who title their long-running series of compilation albums Strategies Against Architecture. And what these concerts showed was that jouissance – a blissful state of discomfort, disorientation, crisis and loss – continues to dwell threateningly inside the group’s music. Forever on the brink of collapse, constantly shifting between beauty and danger, Einstürzende Neubauten remain as compelling and essential as ever.

Concerts of 2017

This blog is in hibernation, but I’m making a quick return just to note the eight (why eight?) concerts I enjoyed most this year:

1. Peter Hammill, Café Oto, London (actually three concerts, but impossible to pick one)

2. Richard Youngs, Cave 12, Geneva

3. This Is Not This Heat, Cave 12, Geneva

4. Einstürzende Neubauten, Donaufestival, Krems

5. Michael Nyman Band, Schauspielhaus, Zurich

6. Schlippenbach Trio, AMR, Geneva

7. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Arena, Geneva

8. Felix Kubin, Cave 12, Geneva

Felix Kubin, Geneva Cave 12, 4 May 2017

One of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had since moving to Geneva has been the discovery of the music venue Cave 12. At first sight a close relative of the Rhiz in Vienna, on further inspection Cave 12 is actually outdoing the Rhiz these days in terms of its ability to attract some of the key names in experimental music. I’m still reeling from Richard Youngs’ extraordinary concert there in February, while performances by Peter Rehberg, Tyondai Braxton (which I never got around to reviewing; maybe some other time) and the late Mika Vainio weren’t too shabby either.

One key difference between those concerts and Felix Kubin’s appearance at Cave 12 in May was that the venue was absolutely packed out for Kubin, compared to the rather sparse attendance on the other evenings. Prior to the concert I was only vaguely aware of this guy’s work, thanks mainly to a Wire cover story a few years ago. But I’m very glad I took a punt on Kubin, since he gave one of the most enjoyable concerts of the year so far.

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“Accounts of madness, childbirth, loneliness and grief”: remembering 10,000 Maniacs

Another in an occasional series in which I recall formative experiences with some of my favourite artists.

It took me a while to find 10,000 Maniacs, but once I’d done so, they had me for life. A friend at Sussex made me a C90 with their 1987 album In My Tribe on one side and REM’s Green, released the following year, on the other. The pairing was significant, since in those days REM and 10,000 Maniacs were often bracketed together under the helpful genre of what was then known as “college rock”. Since I was at what the Americans would call college at the time, it was natural that I should gravitate towards this kind of music, having already taken a shine to such soundtrackers of 1980s British student life as Lloyd Cole & the Commotions, The The and Cocteau Twins (although not the Smiths). In truth REM never did very much for me, although the five independent albums they made between 1983 and 1987 cast an air of mystery that easily outstripped their later major-label releases. 10,000 Maniacs, however, were to become hugely important to me as the 1980s shaded into the 1990s, and remain so to this day.

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Michael Nyman Band, Zurich Schauspielhaus, 10 May 2017

The music of Michael Nyman has really been getting under my skin these past few months, so when the opportunity came along to see him and his eponymous band in Zurich, it was a no-brainer to make the journey there from Geneva. This was my first visit to Zurich for thirteen years or so, but it doesn’t seem to have changed much in the meantime.

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