Peter Hammill, London Café Oto, 2-4 March 2017

Peter Hammill seems to be slipping gracefully into semi-retirement. Although there is apparently a new solo album on the way, when the most recent Van der Graaf Generator album, Do Not Disturb, came out last year, there was talk of it possibly being their last album. What’s more, Hammill’s formerly prodigious concert schedule is certainly less full than it used to be. It’s been five long years since I last saw him play a solo concert, which (happily for me) was at my favourite venue in the world, Porgy & Bess in Vienna. So it was a no-brainer to make the trip over to London for this mind-blowing three-night residency at what must surely be the smallest venue he’s played in Europe for years.

I say Europe because, at least twice in recent times, Hammill has played residencies in Japanese venues at least as small as Café Oto, if not smaller. Those who had been feeling left out by Peter’s evident liking for the Far East would therefore have been heartened by his decision to adopt a similar model for this sudden burst of live activity, albeit that it didn’t include the limited edition CDs that were on sale at both Japanese residencies. There were murmurs of discontent from people who were unable to get tickets, and even from people who felt that Hammill should not have been playing such a small venue in the first place. Both objections can, of course, readily be dismissed. Just because Peter can comfortably fill mid-size venues such as the Queen Elizabeth Hall doesn’t mean that he should always have to play in such places, while those who follow him on Twitter and/or subscribe to the PH email discussion group would have encountered few difficulties in securing tickets.

Anyway, this residency was everything I’d dreamed of and more, a blazing affirmation of what makes Hammill the greatest and most important songwriter in the world. Having made the (not terribly difficult, it must be said) decision to arrive at Oto a few hours early each day, it was simply astonishing to witness Hammill giving vivid life to his art at such close quarters, literally just a few feet from where I was sitting. With his seventieth birthday on the horizon next year (and how about a celebration concert in November 2018, Peter?), Hammill is in fine shape both vocally and instrumentally. The voice is as strong and expressive as ever, while the hands carve out dense tone clusters on piano and guitar, lending infinite weight and gravity to the impassioned, allusive texts. Even after almost thirty years of listening to this man, I’m never less than transfixed by the might of his songcraft – by the way the lyrics explode everyday utterances and speech acts into blinding flashes of insight, while the melodies pulsate and recede with a malevolent hammering power.

For all Hammill’s evident onstage geniality, this was serious business. The performances seemed to take on some of the key elements of ritual. Hammill has occasionally spoken about the Japanese concept of ma, which refers to “the simultaneous awareness of form and non-form deriving from an intensification of vision”. In the context of live performance, ma exists in the fleeting moment between the last note of the song (when the song becomes not a song) and the reaction of the audience. It’s more than apparent how Hammill senses the presence of ma in the room, as his countenance shifts at the song’s end from rapt concentration to something like solace or relief.

But what did he play, I hear you ask. Well, the concerts followed the usual Hammill pattern of a piano set, followed by an acoustic guitar set, then finally a second piano set. Fifty-two different songs were performed over the three nights – one more than at the 2002 Lyric Hammersmith run, fact fans – a staggering achievement by any standards, and one which testifies to the sheer driven compulsion and unbridled creativity of the man. The first part of the first night dealt a one-two body blow from which I never fully recovered, as Hammill opened the residency with “The Siren Song” and followed it shortly after with “Losing Faith In Words”, two of his greatest ever songs. This set the tone for an evening that included an incandescent “Ship of Fools” and an anguished “A Better Time” that ruthlessly exposed the devastating ambiguity at the heart of the song – that the words “I’ll never find a better time to be alive than now” mean that, while things couldn’t be better, they also couldn’t get any worse…

Highlights of the second evening, for me at least, included a dramatic “Labour of Love” that saw Hammill absolutely pulverize the piano keys, a transcendent “Your Tall Ship” and an unbearably tragic reading of “(This Side of) The Looking Glass”. Van der Graaf Generator songs were in short supply over the course of the residency, but having rounded off the second night with “Still Life”, Peter kicked off the final night with “My Room” from the same album. The thread made explicit the connections between Hammill’s revered work with VdGG and the less fêted but, for my money, equally star-crossed solo pieces such as “The Lie”, “Shingle Song” and “Too Many of my Yesterdays” that were aired on the final night.

If there’s one thing I’ve gathered from attending dozens of Peter Hammill concerts over the years, it’s that he’s never been one for looking back. Refusing any hint of resting on former glories, the home stretch of the last night leant heavily on recent work, as the brilliant “Undone” bled into “That Wasn’t What I Said” and “The Descent”, the latter being one of six new songs played over the course of the residency. With a furious “Traintime” followed by a heartbreakingly beautiful a capella “Again”, he was gone. And so what have we learned? That Hammill’s lifelong preoccupations – reason, memory, the unravelling of time and the choices we make – are deep, troubling ones. That there is something primal and atavistic about the way he confronts them in song. And that fifty years after he began, his music remains as visionary and essential as ever.

Peter Hammill live in London, March 2017

Richard Youngs, Geneva Cave12, 12 February 2017

Back in 2012, I made a fairly hopeful wishlist of the fifteen musicians I most wanted to see live. Fulfilling the list has been an uphill struggle, even though nearly all the people on it are still active and regularly touring; up until a week or two ago, I’d only been able to tick two of the fifteen off the list. Now, though, and thanks to the brilliant programming at Cave12, I’m able to tick off a third.

Richard Youngs has actually been on my radar ever since 2002, when I reviewed his early acoustic masterpieces Sapphie and Making Paper for The Sound Projector. I’ve kept an eye on his output since then, without ever attempting to keep up with the endless flow of releases that have appeared under his name. Every so often, though, I’ve picked up one of them and have been staggered by the variety and the creativity Youngs brings to everything he does.

One of my favourites of those later releases is Beyond the Valley of Ultrahits, perhaps Youngs’s poppiest and most immediate album. It was a knockout, therefore, to hear him sing “Collapsing Stars” from that record as the opening song of his Geneva concert, albeit in a lonely and desolate acapella version. Reflecting the incredible versatility of the man, the next two hours passed in a mesmerising whirl of drone guitar, delicate fingerpicking, shaggy-dog stories, audience participation, Fluxus playfulness and always that unmistakable yearning voice.

Youngs had set up the room in quixotic fashion, with a large carpet directly in front of the stage and a few seats further back. I had wondered what the carpet was for, and didn’t have to wait long for the answer, as Youngs occasionally stepped down from the stage onto the carpet and took several more acapella numbers at audience level. In between delivering his haunted, broken texts and stamping his feet to keep time, he encouraged the audience to add harmonies, bringing a strange feeling of unity to his long, questing ballads. Not since I saw the Copper Family and Shirley Collins lead the audience at the Royal Oak in Lewes in a stirring rendition of “Thousands Or More” has an audience singalong made such perfect sense.

Showing an equal flair for the conceptual and the ridiculous, Youngs presented the set as a selection of pieces from various categories, such as lists of numbers and one-chord tricks. Every so often he would solemnly intone a series of numbers or strum a single chord repeatedly, interspersed with laugh-out-loud stories related in his comforting Home Counties voice. It was never long, though, before Youngs broke out the moves on electric guitar, his inspired soloing and cracked, pleading vocals recalling near-namesake Neil Young.

Seemingly at a loss at one point as to which category to turn to, Youngs suggested exploring his voluminous back catalogue. This was the cue for a deranged fan sitting on the carpet to request another song from Ultrahits, which unfortunately Youngs didn’t know the words to. Undaunted, the fan persisted, this time calling for “something from Sapphie”, which Youngs conceded he “could probably remember”. There followed the evening’s most transcendentally beautiful moment, as Youngs’s reverb-drenched tenor and sublime arpeggios traced their way through the unbearably tender elegy “Soon It Will Be Fire”. Running it a close second for sheer heartstopping perfection, the encore of “Spin Me Endless In The Universe” (from 2013’s Summer Through My Mind), with its lonesome voice and slowly revolving guitar, sent us floating off into the Geneva night. Concert of the year? Don’t mind if I do, and it’s only February.

The Musical Box, Geneva Théâtre du Léman, 25 November 2016

Growing up in the late 1970s, there was a certain amount of friendly rivalry between my younger brother S. and me, in music as in other areas such as sport. Whereas I, at the age of 11, was a hardcore Numanoid and Kraftwerk fan, the 10-year-old S. cottoned on at an early age to other electronic pioneers such as John Foxx and The Human League. (Not for us the dire worship of heavy metal that seemed to afflict so many of our peers at grammar school in Salisbury.) Even before that, S. was only nine when he first heard on the radio, and promptly fell in love with, Genesis’ breakthrough 1978 single “Follow You Follow Me”. At that age, and with pocket money a severely limiting factor, the extent of your appreciation for a band was measured by whether you merely bought the single or went the whole hog and shelled out for the album. If you were in the latter category, you probably hadn’t heard anything else on the album; but you were confident, based on your liking of the single, that there would be further stuff on there that you would enjoy. Thus it was that S. came home one Saturday afternoon with a copy of And Then There Were Three, if I remember rightly not only his first Genesis album, but the first album he ever bought.

S. rounded out his Genesis collection over the following months, with a double cassette of Seconds Out gradually followed by the remaining works by both the Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins incarnations of the group. He wasn’t the only one in our family whose ears were attuned to Genesis, either. Picking us up from school one afternoon, our mother told us that she had been in Threshold Records in Andover that day (a record shop owned by the Moody Blues). I have no idea what she was doing in there, as it certainly wasn’t one of her usual hangouts. Anyway, she told us that she had heard the music being played over the shop’s PA and had casually asked the guy behind the counter, “is this Genesis?” And of course she was right, the song she heard being the studio version of “Carpet Crawlers” from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. I seem to recall that she told us this story before S. had acquired his copies of both Seconds Out and The Lamb, which makes her act of identification all the more remarkable.

As for me, I kept my nascent Genesis fandom to myself, although I secretly liked the music very much. This was my entry point into the world of progressive rock, a genre that was to become increasingly important to me as time wore on. It wasn’t until 1983, when I belatedly discovered Pink Floyd, that I finally had a prog rock band I could call my own. Yet for all my love of Floyd, I couldn’t exactly deny that there was something doleful and depressing about them that was entirely absent from Genesis. These songs were dramatic, funny and engaging, and were lent immense power by Phil Collins’ yearning vocals and powerhouse drumming and the intricate constructions of Tony Banks’ keyboard melodies.

I specifically mention Collins’ vocals, because it was A Trick of the Tail, Wind and Wuthering and And Then There Were Three (plus Seconds Out, of course) that appealed to me the most. I liked the Gabriel era well enough, but there was something callow and baroque about it that gave the Collins era a certain edge. Much later, I was to discern a similar distinction between the (at that time) two periods of Van der Graaf Generator, with the science-fiction melodramas of the 1970-71 era being easily surpassed by the leaner and meaner 1975-76 period. But I digress.

Anyway, to admit to being a Genesis fan would have meant losing face, since they were S’s group and therefore off limits to me. He was a member of the official Genesis fan club, Genesis Information, which was run by a bloke called Geoff Parkyn. Every so often S. would receive an A5-sized, photocopied fanzine, which was rich in the kind of minutiae I liked (and still like) to read about the group. S. also had a large-format book by Armando Gallo called Genesis: I Know What I Like, which I would occasionally read when his back was turned. I recently tried to find a copy of this book on the internet, and was dismayed to discover that it is very rare and eye-wateringly expensive.

If any further proof is needed that S. was by that time a true Genesis fan, I need only mention the fact that he bought copies of Tony Banks’ first solo album, A Curious Feeling, and that of Mike Rutherford, Smallcreep’s Day, on their respective days of release. Both were excellent, especially A Curious Feeling, an album I still return to frequently today. The first new Genesis music to emerge since And Then There Were Three, however, was problematic. Duke certainly had plenty to admire, but it also had stuff like “Turn It On Again” and “Misunderstanding”, stupid pop songs that had none of the drama and excitement of A Trick of the Tail, Wind and Wuthering or And Then There Were Three.

Unlike many Genesis fans, by the way, I had no problem with And Then There Were Three. Its melodic power and lyrical excellence were in no way compromised by the brevity and concision of the songs. And because it was the first Genesis music I ever heard, it retains a special place in my admiration for the group.

By 1981, though, it was all over. The one-two knockout punch of Abacab and Collins’ solo début Face Value was more than enough to convince both S. and me to get off the bus. Driven by the greed of Phil Collins and the treachery of Tony Banks, Genesis descended into a morass of inconsequential pop shit from which they would never recover. It was an ignominious end for one of the world’s greatest bands.

Needless to say, I never saw Genesis live. The 2007 reunion tour didn’t make it to Vienna, and I didn’t have the appetite to go and see them in Linz, the tour’s nearest stopping-off point. Which brings me to the point of this story, as last month I saw The Musical Box, the world’s leading Genesis tribute band, in Geneva. When they last played here in 2005, Phil Collins joined them on drums for the encore; it would have been nice if that had happened again this time, but it wasn’t to be. Not that it mattered much, since The Musical Box were a highly enjoyable proposition in any event. In fact this was less a tribute gig than a theatrical re-enactment, so totally and unnervingly did Denis Gagné immerse himself in the role of Peter Gabriel. Prowling the darkened stage (this was, after all, the Black Show from the Selling England by the Pound tour) in a succession of striking costumes, Gagné captured Gabriel’s wounded bark of a voice to precision, while the four musicians around him effortlessly conjured the epic splendour of Genesis in full flight.

In 1973 S. and I, then aged five and six respectively, were living in a small village near Andover in Hampshire. It’s strange now to think that one October evening that year Genesis were only 30 miles away from us, playing “Supper’s Ready”, “Cinema Show” and the rest at the Gaumont in Southampton. Until they invent a time machine able to take me back to that evening, The Musical Box are easily the next best thing.

Swans, Vienna Arena, 22 October 2016

I never got around to writing about Swans’ last Vienna concert in 2014 or whenever it was, so this review can probably stand as a review of that one as well, especially since not much has changed chez Michael Gira since that time. Other than by exchanging Thor Harris for a new, nondescript and barely noticeable keyboard player, the group has declined to refine its approach from previous outings. The long, monotonous riffs, rudimentary songwriting and entirely predictable use of dynamics (The loud bit! The quiet bit! The loud bit again!) are all present and correct, testaments to the creative dead end into which Gira has steered himself since reactivating Swans six years ago.

In fairness, Gira probably realizes that the game is up, since he’s let it be known that this round of touring is likely to be the last in this iteration of Swans. Of course he made similar statements in 1996-97, as he prepared to bring down the curtain on the first version of the group. Back then, though, his reasons were partly musical and partly about being fed up with toiling away in the face of a largely indifferent public. Even as they toured one of the most rewarding albums of their career, Soundtracks for the Blind, Swans were finding it hard to connect to audiences and taste-makers (no Pitchfork or Quietus then). I witnessed this indifference first-hand from my vantage point at the merchandise table on the 1997 European tour. There was the show in Austria where 50 people turned up, the show in Germany that was cancelled due to advance ticket sales of five, the ignominy of a “farewell” show in the dingy basement that was the LA2 in London. This was not how I wanted to remember a group I had supported and admired for ten long years.

Naturally, all that has changed since 2010. Swans are now firmly established as the darlings of avant rock, playing to the largest audiences of their career and receiving uniformly positive reviews for their marathon albums and live performances. I wouldn’t dream of begrudging Gira one moment of his success, but I can’t help feeling that something important has been lost along the way.

A lot of this has to do with songform. No matter how obdurate and monolithic the early Swans got, they never lost sight of the fact that they were songwriters, and those songs told stories. (Consider the strong equivalence between Gira’s early songs and the stories collected in his book The Consumer.) Once Jarboe joined the group, they had someone whose intuitive grasp of melody and harmony fused with Gira’s lyrical and dramatic gifts to produce masterpieces like White Light from the Mouth of Infinity, Love of Life and The Great Annihilator. The four post-2010 releases, as impressive and draining as they are, lack the controlled intensity of great songwriting, preferring to build ever more sprawling sonic structures in the service of a transcendence that is endlessly deferred.

Swans in 2016 are in the happy position of being more or less immune to criticism. No matter how I try to articulate what I disliked so much about Saturday’s concert – the ponderous one-chord riffs, the desultory attempts at songcraft, Gira’s increasingly messianic demeanour – some drivelling Swans fanboy will pipe up and tell me that that’s the whole point. It’s meant to be loud, he will say, it’s meant to be repetitive, it’s meant to go on forever. All of which may be true, but doesn’t help to explain why I left this concert feeling so thoroughly irritated and dissatisfied.

Peter Rehberg, Geneva Cave12, 28 September 2016

Since I’m now based part of the time in Geneva, this blog, never frequently updated at the best of times, is becoming more sporadic than ever. There are a few decent venues in Geneva, but on the whole the live music scene is far quieter than it is in Vienna. For some reason there seem to be more concerts in the neighbouring cities of Lausanne and Vevey than there are in Geneva, even though they are both much smaller, which blows.

Anyway, since moving here in July I’ve only been to two concerts. The first of these was Cat Power, which I may get around to reviewing at some point (although I wouldn’t hold your breath). It was a great pleasure, though, to catch up with Peter Rehberg last week on the first date of a mini Swiss and French tour. The venue, Cave12, seems to be the nearest equivalent to the Rhiz in Geneva, with an impressive roll-call of visitors from the avant rock, noise and experimental music scenes. Centrally located just a few minutes’ walk from the main station, staffed by friendly people and with a PA that has plenty of wallop, Cave12 gets the thumbs up from me.

The last time I saw Rehberg live was back in March at the Rhiz, when he opened for Consumer Electronics – a highly enjoyable evening which I never got around to reviewing for this blog. That evening was notable, among other things, for the fact that Pita had left his Macbook at home and was playing, for the first time I could remember, off some kind of modular synth setup called a Eurorack – an arrangement that he also brought to Geneva. Now I have only the barest understanding of what this means, but speaking as an audience member, the change is dramatic. Instead of staring impassively at a laptop screen, the performer focuses on a range of modules festooned with dials and differently coloured cables, making adjustments to them in real time. From a purely visual standpoint it makes for a far more satisfying experience, invoking as it does the boffin-scientist image that remains key to the iconography of electronic music.

As for the music, that too seemed to benefit from the change in the way it was delivered. Over the course of his 45-minute set, Rehberg generated a single, constantly changing piece that was more variegated and hard-hitting than any I’ve heard him play before. Making few concessions to audience members’ hearing (earplugs were available, although I demurred), Rehberg ramped up the noise levels with explosive shards of frequencies, while deep sub-bass drones threatened to crack the floor open. It could have been the power of suggestion, but I certainly felt that the modular setup brought a more organic, earthier and less clinical edge to proceedings. As Pita busied himself with the plethora of wires and dials in front of him, the music modulated from visceral sludge to moments of Kraftwerkian beauty and proto-Ambient shimmer. For the most part, though, the atmospheres conjured up were distinctly unheimlich, sounding like the despairing cries of some stricken, hydra-headed monster.

Keith Jarrett, Vienna Musikverein, 9 July 2016

My heart did little somersaults when I saw this concert announced, and did some more when I realized that I would actually be in Vienna on the relevant date. A Keith Jarrett concert is a rare event, a solo concert doubly so. Add in the fact that he would be playing at the Musikverein, the most acclaimed and legendary concert hall in Vienna but one which I had never previously visited, and you had an evening of unmissable proportions.

I’ve been preoccupied with the matter of Jarrett ever since I first heard The Köln Concert, a stunning piece of work and one that is fully deserving of all the accolades that have been heaped on it over the years. Subsequent solo recordings such as The Carnegie Hall Concert and (oh, the irony) Vienna Concert connected with me as no other piano music has ever done. Here was music that seemed to exist outside space and time, its every note an instance of shimmering beauty, the performance as a whole a vast depiction of Jarrett’s rare improvisational gifts.

Strangely enough, Jarrett seems to get very little attention from the Wire/Stone/Café Oto crowd, even though what he’s doing seems to me just as bold and creative as the more fêted, but for my money less talented, Cecil Taylor. The anti-Jarrett tendency is exemplified by fellow pianist Matthew Shipp’s article for The Talkhouse, in which Shipp argues that Jarrett “never sculpted a specific language system…it never [got] beyond the devices and matriculated into an actual language.” And Shipp goes further, accusing Jarrett of “pseudo jazz/new age meandering”, “vapid, watered-down impressionist devices”, “insipid vamps”…you get the idea. Shipp is entitled to his opinion, of course, but where he perceives a lack of systemic thought underpinning Jarrett’s music, I only hear a seductive openness and clarity, a purity of thought that insists that quiet and lyricism can be part of revolutionary improvisation as much as anything put out by the avant-garde.

A few years ago Jarrett played at the Konzerthaus with his trio that also included Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. Even though I was seeing Jarrett for the first time I found it an underwhelming experience, since the pianist was reining in his improv tendencies in favour of a snoozeworthy trot through a succession of jazz standards. No such reservations this time, as Jarrett sat, stood and crouched at the Steinway to play a series of concise, stilled improvisations that kept the audience in the raptly attentive frame of mind that he craves and, indeed, deserves.

The audience weren’t always as co-operative as this though, indeed the first moments of the evening gave rise to a Jarrett outburst of epic proportions. Before the pianist took to the stage, there was the expected announcement that photography during the concert was not permitted. Nevertheless, when Jarrett ambled onstage, he immediately saw someone take a photo and made straight for the microphone that is provided at all his concerts for the express purpose of bawling out the audience. Flapping his arms around like a demented octopus, Jarrett declared that he would not be playing a note until the perpetrator had been ejected from the building. He then stalked offstage and waited for events to take their course.

This was a smart move on Jarrett’s part, since he clearly knew that the identity of the photographer must have been known to his neighbours, who would be bound to exert pressure on him to do the decent thing and walk out. And sure enough, it wasn’t long before a bearded bloke a few rows behind me stood up, shouted “Unfassbar!” (“incomprehensible!”) and left the auditorium, never to darken its doors again. Having paid a lot of money for his ticket, which gave him precisely no music in return but did at least allow him to be in the same room as Keith Jarrett for a couple of minutes, the man may have regretted his decision to snatch a photo. Anyway, Jarrett soon returned to the stage, sat down at the piano and without a word fired up a piece which, in its angry, passionate mood, was clearly birthed in direct response to what had just happened.

The rest of the evening passed off without incident, except for a bizarre tirade at the beginning of the second half in which Jarrett ranted that “the perception that you can interfere with a process is exactly why our world is fucked,” thereby placing the hapless photographer alongside Trump, Isis and goodness knows what else in the pantheon of evil. It’s a matter of regret that Jarrett couldn’t find it within himself to address the audience in any positive way, rather than haranguing them for minor infractions and thereby lacing the whole concert with bad feeling. Away from all the disruption, what was memorable about this remarkable evening was Jarrett’s creation of truly sublime music, in and of the moment it was played, so tender, precious and evanescent. The final encore of “Over the Rainbow” was so radiantly lovely that you wished it would never end, so magically did it encompass within it all the joy and beauty of music.

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.

Shampoo Boy, Vienna MUMOK, 9 April 2016

What a rum evening this was. Shampoo Boy, the group consisting of Editions Mego label boss Peter Rehberg alongside Christian Schachinger on guitar and Christina Nemec on bass, played a curtain-raising set on the second and final night of some heavily sponsored festival or other at the Museumsquartier. (The forerunner of this group, the sadly missed Peterlicker, also played the opening set at a similarly corporate shindig five years ago; see my review of that event here.) Thanks to the logos plastered everywhere about the place, entrance to the entire festival was free. The event was originally supposed to take place in the main Haupthof of the MQ, which would have been nice; sadly, however, inclement weather meant that it was moved inside to a very large and swish hall known as the Hofstallungen, where I had never been before. The audience was fairly large, but I suspect I was the only one among them who had come especially to see Shampoo Boy.

When I last saw this outfit at the Rhiz in 2013, I complained that the concert was too short. No such reservations this time, in fact this was one of those gigs where I couldn’t wait for it to end. Thanks mainly to the unorthodox approach of guitarist Christian Schachinger, the performance had a shambolic quality which meant that on this occasion the trio certainly outstayed their welcome. Schachinger had imbibed generously from the free drinks supplied backstage, and seemed to be having trouble standing up as a result. His guitar may or may not have been plugged in, but he didn’t seem unduly concerned about the matter either way; in any event, from my vantage point close to the stage, it was entirely inaudible. About halfway through, Schachinger finally succumbed to the inevitable and fell over backwards. There he remained for the rest of the set, his back to the audience, occasionally strumming his guitar in a doomed attempt to play some music.

With all of this japery going on, it was a relief to turn my attention to Rehberg and Nemec, who were bringing things nicely to the boil. Rehberg had an impressive array of dials, cables and whatnot on the table alongside his customary laptop, from which he emitted frequent blasts of scouring noise. Nemec ground out waves of implacable bass tones, her unflappable demeanour contrasting favourably with the events unfolding stage left. Eventually Schachinger staggered to his feet, the three of them concluded their business and they wandered offstage. By that time, though, I was pretty much the only person paying attention, as the vast majority of the audience had drifted off to the bar.

Philip Glass: Akhnaten, London English National Opera, 18 March 2016

My long, slow initiation into the world of opera continues, all of it so far through the music of Philip Glass. Following the overwhelming experience of Einstein on the Beach in London in 2012, and the intermittently fascinating but relatively minor The Lost in Linz a year later, last month I made a return trip to London for my first ever visit to the English National Opera. The occasion, of course, was the last night of the ENO’s new production of Akhnaten, the third part of Glass’s major trilogy of operas about historical figures. (At this rate I should be able to tick off the second part of the trilogy, Satyagraha, somewhere around 2020.)

Although the interior of the Coliseum was every bit as lavish as I had expected, it proved to be no match for the visually sumptuous staging of this opera. Phelim McDermott’s production swirled with inventive beauty, from the singers’ resplendent costumes to the rich set designs (which may have owed something to Robert Wilson’s groundbreaking Einstein staging), while the hypnotic work of the jugglers provided a stunning visual counterpoint to the rippling tides of Glass’s music. The chorus, meanwhile, presented a vaguely steampunk image that contrasted vividly with the Egyptian splendour elsewhere onstage. Having received with glum resignation the news that the chorus were planning to go on strike for the first act on the very night I had booked to see this thing, it was a huge relief to learn that the action was later suspended. Without them, the impact of the piece would have been greatly reduced.

The part of Akhnaten was sung with great expressiveness by Anthony Roth Costanzo. In keeping with the historical tendency to depict the ruler as androgynous, the character’s sexuality was indeterminate: his full (male) nudity during the coronation scene was undermined by later scenes in which, diaphonously clad, he appeared to be exhibiting female sexual characteristics. Adding to the indeterminacy was Costanzo’s countertenor voice. The countertenor appears to be something of a rarity in the operatic repertoire, but Costanzo’s reedy yet powerful voice was greatly impressive to this neophyte.

Equally impressive was Glass’s score, as blissful and romantic as any Glass I’ve heard. With no violins in the orchestra, but plenty of woodwind and brass, the soundworld steered clear of stridency and found deep lyrical softness in Glass’s ravishing melodies. The funeral scene in Act I, meanwhile, was powered by a tumultuous percussive throb that pitched the opera into moments of high, stirring drama.

Whereas Einstein on the Beach seemed to stretch out time itself, leading to an epic five-hour sweep that drew the viewer/listener ever closer towards the infinite, Akhnaten seemed to pack an extraordinary amount of incident and detail into its three acts. As a result the three-hour running time flew by; indeed, I frequently wished it had been longer. Sung mostly in Egyptian, the opera tells the tragic story of the pharaoh who abolishes the old polytheistic religion, introduces a new monotheistic one and is finally overthrown and killed by his own people. Thanks to the useful programme notes, the language barrier did not pose any particular problems. In any event, the narrative thread of the opera was never less than gripping, thanks to the otherworldly dream logic with which it proceeded towards its inevitable conclusion. And it was thrilling to see Glass himself join the cast onstage for a hugely deserved standing ovation at the end of this magnificent production.