Gavin Bryars, Geneva Casino Theatre, 5 February 2019

Out of all the concerts I never got around to reviewing during this blog’s long period of inactivity, last year’s visit to Geneva by the British composer Gavin Bryars was definitely one of the highlights. So it makes sense to start at the top when trying to make up for lost time during this current period of enforced isolation.

I can’t remember where I first heard Bryars’ two minimalist masterpieces The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, both of which were performed in Geneva. I do remember attending a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1994 or so, at which Bryars and his ensemble performed an extended version of The Sinking of the Titanic. This was, I believe, the same version of the piece that was later released on CD on Point Music – a label associated with Philip Glass, fact fans.

Somewhat to my chagrin, Bryars had not brought his ensemble with him to Geneva. Nor did he play or conduct during the evening, his input consisting as far as I could tell of sound projection, mixing or some such from the back of the hall. The performers came instead from the Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain and the Haute École de Musique in Geneva. But there was absolutely nothing lacking in their flawless interpretations of both pieces.

The Sinking of the Titanic is perhaps the saddest piece of music I’ve ever heard. As is by now well known, it takes as its starting point the recollection of several survivors of the disaster that the ship’s band did not abandon their station, but continued to play as the ship sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean. Bryars imagined the sound continuing to reverberate as it disappeared under the waves, resulting in a slow, melancholy unfolding that interwove exquisite threads of melody with haunting fragments of spoken testimony from survivors of the tragedy. As the unnerving strains of violins, violas, cello and double bass descended further into the depths, the piece achieved a desolate beauty that was utterly overwhelming.

After the interval, it was the turn of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. This, of course, is the piece that achieved a certain public profile in 1993 when Bryars recorded an extended version with Tom Waits singing the words of the homeless man. As one who has always remained steadfastly immune to the gravelly charms of Waits’ voice, that version is for me entirely superfluous when compared to the original 25-minute version, featuring Michael Nyman on organ and Derek Bailey on guitar, that was released on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975 with The Sinking of the Titanic on the other side. In Geneva, the NEC’s performance amply met the requirement of Bryars’ score that “the performance should be undramatic, understated and subdued, without pomp or show”. Perfectly catching the piece’s undertone of quiet optimism, the music swelled and receded with stark precision around the central recorded loop.

In the bar after the concert, I asked Bryars to sign my original copy of that 1975 release. We chatted about free improvisation, Cornelius Cardew and AMM, and about his never-ending quest for a supply of Aztec Scoremaster 101 pencils. (The interesting story behind this quest can be read on Bryars’ website.) In the weeks before the Geneva concert, I had scoured eBay and other websites in the hope of securing a box of these precious items. It would have been lovely to surprise Bryars by presenting him with such a box, but it was not to be. Still, I’ll keep looking. And if you ever come across a box of Aztec Scoremaster 101 pencils, preferably in yellow, well, you know where to send them.

The Unthanks, Thame Towersey Festival, 23 August 2019

Here’s a flashback to sunnier, happier times. It’s not often that you’ll catch me at an outdoor music festival, but I’m happy to make an exception for Towersey, a smallish folk-based affair sitting pretty near the Oxfordshire market town of Thame. Family connections in the area have brought me to Towersey on a number of occasions, most notably in 2007 when I saw the great English folk singer John Tams of Home Service in a duo setting with his long-time collaborator Barry Coope. I didn’t cross paths with Tams again until 2011, when Home Service played a series of triumphant reunion concerts that reasserted their position as the lost heroes of British electric folk music. Tams left the group a few years ago, following which they lost their way somewhat, but lately he seems to have rejoined. I hope to see them again one day, but I’m not holding my breath. Anyway, I digress.

Towersey Festival has weathered a few storms in recent years, including a change of location in 2015 and another one on the horizon this year. Nevertheless it remains a very pleasant place to spend an August Bank Holiday weekend, with a great family-friendly vibe, good bars and stalls, and (most importantly) its feet firmly planted in the living tradition of English folk music. On a warm, sunny evening last August, then, I was very happy to make the acquaintance of The Unthanks for the first time. A standing-room-only audience saw this gifted group of singers and musicians cast a decidedly uncanny spell, their bewitching voices echoing around the large tent to spellbinding effect.

Right from the off, The Unthanks declared an affinity with the music of the present by covering a Richard Dawson song, “We Picked Apples In A Graveyard Freshly Mowed”. This stunning a capella number set the tone perfectly for the evening, its terrorstruck imagery (“I awake to the screech of a fox in the street/Carrying your soul in its teeth through the snow”) inscribed in every breath of the forlorn harmonies uttered by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank and co-singer Niopha Keegan.

As the concert progressed, the full range of the group’s influences and parallels became clear as The Unthanks traced a path through a rich and vibrant seam of mythical English culture. There were songs based on poems by Emily Brontë (“The soft unclouded blue of air”, “Shall earth no more inspire thee”), a song by Molly Drake, the mother of Nick (“What can a song do to you?”) and the group’s take on Elvis Costello’s classic “Shipbuilding”. YouTube tells me that The Unthanks’ repertoire also includes a ravishing cover of King Crimson’s “Starless”, which I would happily have traded for what was in truth a rather inert version of “Shipbuilding”. No-one sings “Shipbuilding” like Costello, not The Unthanks (despite their north-eastern roots) and certainly not Robert Wyatt, the universal acclaim for whose version I find frankly baffling.

Most dramatically, the group reached for a song from Lines: Part One, their 2018 tribute to the Hull-born fisheries worker and campaigner Lillian Bilocca with lyrics by the acclaimed British actor Maxine Peake. “A Whistling Woman” saw Keegan’s exquisite violin and Adrian McNally’s stinging piano lines thread their way through the singers’ sinister invocation of Peake’s text: “A man may do a thousand things, but a whistling woman may bring the Devil out of his den.” It was the kind of moment that brought a pitiless chill to an otherwise cloudless summer’s evening.

Peter Rehberg & Russell Haswell, Geneva Cave 12, 29 September 2019; Pita, Geneva Cave 12, 26 January 2020; Russell Haswell & Bruce Gilbert, Geneva Cave 12, 26 February 2020

Here was a trio of concerts that amply reinforced Cave 12’s claim to be one of the most important centres for underground music in Europe, if not the world. Utilizing to the max the considerable heft of the club’s PA, these three affiliated musicians presented a compelling case for the continued health of electronic noise music, particularly in its modular synth incarnation (there was not a laptop in sight).

By way of context it should be noted that both Russell Haswell and Bruce Gilbert have released several albums on Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego label and its predecessor, plain old Mego. Meanwhile the associations between Haswell and Gilbert reach even further back, to 1995 and the Disobey club at Upstairs at the Garage in Islington, which they co-founded along with Blast First label head Paul Smith. A brief autobiographical digression follows:

I lived in London for most of the 1990s, and looking back at that decade now I realize that it was some kind of golden age for me as far as live music was concerned. At that time London had not yet succumbed to the virus of gentrification; the Astoria, where I saw Spiritualized, The Divine Comedy and American Music Club, was still in its prime location at the top of Charing Cross Road. Further along on Tottenham Court Road, I saw an early Godspeed You! Black Emperor gig in a tiny basement club called the Embassy Rooms. On the experimental side the London Musicians Collective was in full swing, putting on shows by the likes of :zoviet*france: and AMM in places like the Spitz, the Conway Hall and the Bridewell Theatre. Then there were the post-industrial types, with rare, precious concerts by the likes of Whitehouse (The Garage), Death in June (New Cross Venue, Charlton House) and Current 93 (New Cross Venue again, Walthamstow Royal Standard).

As for Disobey itself, I was by no means a regular at its evenings, but I do remember seeing FM Einheit of Einstürzende Neubauten pushing lumps of rock around a table, the writer Stewart Home in full deranged ranter mode and Bruce Gilbert of Wire DJing from a glass booth in his guise as The Beekeeper. (Actually, all three of these might have been on the same evening.) Then there was the time Finnish electronic trio Panasonic played a gig in a car park somewhere in east London, driving an armoured vehicle that had been fitted with a PA system round and round in circles. There were no advance tickets for Disobey; you had to call a number, listen to a recorded message which gave details of the next event, and leave a message on their answerphone to put your name on the list. In fact I seem to remember that I failed to do this for the FM Einheit evening, which owing to the Neubauten connection (even though Einheit had left Neubauten by that time) was sold out. I only got in because I had a passing acquaintance with Stewart Home, who kindly brought me in as his guest and allowed me to bypass the considerable queue on the pavement outside.

When Rehberg and Haswell appeared as a duo for the first time at Cave 12 back in September, they tempered their natural tendency towards confrontation with a strong dose of playfulness. The 45-minute set (now available as a paid download from the Editions Mego Bandcamp site) was a bracing, intermittently abrasive mix of ear-bleeding frequencies, scabrous drones and feverish, clanking rhythms. Volcanic outbursts of white-hot energy erupted from the dense circuitry of pulses and tones formed by the two musicians’ respective modular synth setups. If it was sometimes hard to make out where Rehberg’s contributions ended and Haswell’s began, that was less due to any perceived similarity of approach and more to the single-minded glee with which the piece careered to its inexorable conclusion.

Rehberg’s solo appearance in January (under the name Pita, which strictly speaking is only used for his solo projects) was an altogether darker affair. The set would not have sounded out of place on Kevin Martin’s epochal Isolationism compilation, consisting as it did of frosty, industrial drones punctuated by occasional interventions – starlit frequencies, stricken attempts at movement, blasts of agitated static. This set was also made available on the Editions Mego Bandcamp site, although it was very much a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it thing, since the paid download was only available for 24 hours.

Finally, Haswell and Gilbert each presented solo pieces at a concert last month – my last evening out, as it happened, before the coronavirus nightmare descended on western Europe. I wasn’t especially taken with Gilbert’s short opening set, which relied heavily on low-end drones that lingered stubbornly and never really went anywhere. Coupled with this, Gilbert was sitting down. Maybe it’s just me, but I find the performative aspect of electronic music (never entirely satisfying at the best of times) distinctly lacking when the musician chooses to sit down, rather than stand up as both Rehberg and Haswell did. In this case, Gilbert’s somewhat diffident onstage demeanour gave him the distracted air of an Open University electronics student doing a practical exam.

No such quibbles over Russell Haswell’s set, which gave the evening a much-needed jolt with a barrage of short, devastating body blows that never gave the audience time to recover. The set proceeded according to the principles of sound as a weapon employed by Joe Banks’ Disinformation project – no great surprise in itself, given that Banks also played the Disobey club and that Haswell worked on Disinformation’s 1996 R&D album. Swarming with jackhammer rhythms, ominous frequencies and strafing salvoes of noise, the set was a riotous collision of industrial austerity and punk attitude. Meanwhile, the music found a witty correlative in Haswell’s exuberant between-song introductions, which gave preposterous titles to some of the pieces (sample titles: “I’ve Seen Impaled Nazarene Fourteen Times”, “Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System”, “Always Check Their Instagram”). While his genial brand of showmanship had the audience in gales of laughter, Haswell’s real gift lies in his unforgiving and uncompromising manipulation of sound to brutal effect.

Lankum, Dublin Vicar Street, 25 October 2019

As I write this, Lankum are about to embark on a two-night stand at Vicar Street in Dublin. I haven’t suddenly developed the gift of precognition, though; this is a review of their most recent concert there, in October of last year.

This was an evening of pleasant alignments and serendipities. In Dublin for the weekend to see Philip Glass, I had a free evening and naturally looked around to see what else was on offer. My eye alighted on Lankum, a contemporary Irish folk group of whom I was vaguely aware due to the fact that they played in Geneva last year. I didn’t, however, go along on that occasion, so their Dublin concert was a perfect opportunity to rectify the omission.

My only problem was that the concert was sold out, and tickets were hard to come by for what was Lankum’s first hometown show in two years. Ticketmaster was no help at all, and the most reliable avenue for picking up surplus tickets, the Facebook event page, wasn’t initially playing ball either. The latter did eventually land me a ticket, although it wasn’t exactly the one I’d been hoping for, being right at the back in the balcony standing section of the Vicar Street venue. This narrow, elevated zone seemed to be populated largely by people walking to and from the bar, paying precious little attention to the music. It was a huge relief, therefore, when partway through the show I spotted one of the few empty seats in the balcony section, and gratefully slid into it. In any case Vicar Street was a wonderful venue in which to see this group; the downstairs, cabaret-style seating was remarkably intimate for a hall of this size, and the capacity audience was warm, involved and appreciative throughout.

The music of Lankum seems to exist in a strange, haunted netherworld. Soaked in rain, soil and blood, the songs are described in long, draining arcs of drone accordion, harmonium and violin, with touches of acoustic guitar framing the group’s stunning harmony vocals. Whether the group’s own compositions or arrangements of traditional material, the songs reach far back into history, giving voice to the oppressed and marginalized. Originals like “The Granite Gaze” and “Hunting the Wren” are shrouded in unbearable tragedy and loss, a grim reckoning of Irish poverty and establishment abuse. Although there are traces of both Joyce and early Beckett in the group’s bleakly evocative texts, it seems to me that their closest literary antecedent is WB Yeats, whose austere myth-making echoes down through the years to verses like “And it’s a standing ovation for the shadow of a stone/As we dig into the soil beneath our homes/The future’s further day-by-day as our fathers turn away/And leave us clinging to a mother who eats her own.

The group’s selection of traditional songs is equally telling. The last time I heard the great pan-European protest anthem “Peat Bog Soldiers” it was being belted out by the English folk rock group Home Service, the song’s grinding repetitions animated by rich flourishes of brass, saxophone and electric guitar. In the hands of Lankum the song is transformed into an anguished a capella lamentation, its chill imagery seeping into the bones to devastating effect. Elsewhere the group deliver their version of “Rocky Road to Dublin”, the eventful tale of a traveller on his way from Ireland to Liverpool, its single drone accompaniment ratcheting up the tension and violence that lurk within the song. In the world Lankum inhabit, such tension is never far away.

Lankum live in Dublin, October 2019

Philip Glass & the Philip Glass Ensemble: Music in Twelve Parts, Dublin National Concert Hall, 26 October 2019

Barely a month after I’d seen a sumptuous new production in Geneva of my favourite Philip Glass opera, Einstein on the Beach, it was a no-brainer to make the flight over to Dublin to see Glass and his Ensemble play my favourite of all his compositions, the epic (just shy of four hours, by my reckoning) Music in Twelve Parts. This was the second day of a three-day Glass residency, which also included a pre-concert conversation on the Friday and a live soundtrack performance of Koyaanisqatsi on the Sunday, of which more in a moment.

This was the third time I had seen the Ensemble play Music in Twelve Parts, the first being at the Barbican in 2007, the second in Ostrava in 2013. Looking back at my review of the latter performance, I find I said there pretty much all I have to say about this work, so I’ll just leave a brief quote here:

“There’s no feeling in music comparable to the one you get as Glass’s hypnotically repeating patterns drill relentlessly into your head, only for the tiniest harmonic shift to come along and burst the whole shebang open. Alive with light and rainbow hues, gripped by an inner compulsion to thrive and regenerate, Music in Twelve Parts is total music, flowing endlessly through you and leaving you changed forever.”

A few additional, random observations. The acoustics in the hall were exceptionally clear and, pleasingly, somewhat on the loud side. (I’m reminded of a remark made to me by the composer and former Glass associate Michael Nyman after a concert of his in Vienna: “This should have been so much louder.”) Lisa Bielawa was a total revelation on soprano vox, especially in the tumultuous rush of Part 12 with which the evening concluded. The way she added repeated utterances to the key phrase around which the part revolves, to which the ensemble responded each time with yet another mantric repetition, was nothing less than miraculous. As for the music, I was overwhelmed by its endless cyclical patterns and ecstatic transitions, and by the zest with which the keyboards and woodwinds interwove to produce music of sharp, hallucinatory clarity.

The most unfortunate aspect of the weekend, however, was that Glass was not well. He was his usual dryly funny self at the conversation on Friday, but even from my seat in row S on the Saturday I could tell that he was struggling to keep up with the daunting requirements of the score. I and a few other hardcore fans hung around by the stage door after the concert, and when he emerged he was unsteady on his feet and had to be helped onto the tour bus. He pulled out of Sunday night’s Koyaanisqatsi concert and the performance of Music with Changing Parts that took place in London a few days later, and has already withdrawn from a scheduled performance of the Qatsi trilogy in Paris next month. The Ensemble played or will play all of these concerts without him. I wish him a full and speedy recovery, and look forward to more European concerts in the future.

Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, Geneva Grand Théâtre, 14 September 2019; In the Penal Colony, Geneva Salle du Lignon, 6 September 2019

In recent years Philip Glass seems to have reached new heights of popularity and pre-eminence, cementing his status as the world’s greatest living composer. Now in his 83rd year, Glass is performing sell-out concerts in Europe and North America, while his major operas are regularly performed at the world’s leading opera houses. Bolstered by a relentless stream of posts on his social media accounts (not by the man himself, needless to say), it’s clear that an awful lot of people are coming very late indeed to Philip Glass. The days when I sat among half-empty audiences in London and my home town of Salisbury at Glass concerts, even with the composer himself present, are long gone.

In a further sign of this ever-growing recognition, a Glass opera was chosen to reopen the splendid Grand Théâtre in Geneva after extensive renovation work lasting three years. And, gratifyingly, it wasn’t a relatively safe choice like Akhnaten or Satyagraha that they went for, but Glass’ most demanding and difficult work, Einstein on the Beach. Like the original 1976 production, which I saw revived in London in 2012, this new Einstein was billed as the joint work of Glass and Robert Wilson. There was, however, precious little sign of Wilson’s original visual concepts for the opera in this version by the Swiss theatre director Daniele Finzi Pasca. This openness is of course mandated by the official notes to the opera, which state that “the producer has two options: to reproduce the original Robert Wilson production (which exists on videotape), or to create a new series of stage and dance pictures based on themes relating to the life of Albert Einstein.”

Whereas Wilson’s stage designs were steeped in formalist rigour, all space, light and surface, those of Finzi Pasca leapt out at the viewer with a vivid, haunting intensity. Scene after scene left me slack-jawed in wonderment, the visuals forming a dreamlike and ravishing accompaniment to the dizzying spirals of Glass’ score. There are too many highlights to mention, but the most memorable images included Einstein’s assistants filmed from above, their onstage movements projected onto a massive screen which made them seem to be climbing, falling and floating at will; the lovely water nymph in a long, flowing orange dress, her graceful underwater movements watched impassively by a beautiful white horse; the forest of interlacing tubes that glowed in many colours as they glided smoothly around the stage; the gorgeous shadowplay of cyclists and mermaids as they crossed and recrossed the stage as dancing silhouettes; and the bathers on the beach, playing badminton, wrestling with deckchairs and crabs, throwing beach balls and juggling in remarkably expert fashion. (Was Finzi Pasca aware, I wonder, that juggling also formed part of the stagecraft at the ENO’s triumphant production of Akhnaten which I saw in London three years ago? If not, it was a remarkable coincidence.)

As for the music, it was filled with everything I’ve come to love about Glass. Swirling and eddying with immense mathematical precision, it seemed to embody the paradox of the opera’s title and of that time in Einstein’s life which inspired it: that a man of such formidable intellect could be found among the endlessly rippling tides of the seashore.1 The choir and musicians, made up of students from the Haute École de Musique de Genève under the direction of Titus Engel, responded magnificently to the considerable demands placed upon them by the score. The sung texts, consisting mainly of numbers and solfège syllables, were delivered with breathtaking vigour and stamina, while the music (including sublime solos for violin and saxophone) held me rapt for every second of the opera’s four-hour duration. Although the producers were at pains to emphasize that members of the audience were free to come and go as they wished, I for one remained rooted to my seat throughout.

A few days earlier, I’d kicked off this mini-Glass festival in Geneva with a visit to far-flung Lignon to see a work that was new to me, his chamber opera interpretation of Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony. I wasn’t bowled over by this one, to tell you the truth. The score, played expertly by a string quintet of musicians from Geneva’s Ensemble Contrechamps, was as refulgent and animated as any late-period Glass, but I quickly became bored and then irritated by the onstage movements of the two singers and their constant shifting, like besuited removal men, of two large mirrored crates-cum-video-screens exactly into place. Meanwhile, the libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer (who also wrote the screenplay for the film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, fact fans) and the excerpts from Kafka’s text read by a disembodied voice offstage were gruelling stuff.

Finally, a word on the ticketing arrangements for Einstein, which frankly bordered on the farcical. From the moment this event was announced, I was aware that it was both part of the La Bâtie festival and also a regular production of the Grand Théâtre of Geneva. On the morning tickets went on sale, however, the GTG’s website had no link to any ticket-buying portal. I therefore bought them from the La Bâtie website, naturally assuming that there was no other source to be found. Having gone through the ticket-buying process and been relieved of a not insignificant sum of money, I discovered to my displeasure that the tickets I’d bought were not for individually numbered seats but were for unspecified seats within a block, and were to be exchanged for numbered tickets on the day of the show. When I turned up at the Grand Théâtre for the show, I was shocked to find that the tickets I’d been allocated were way off to the side of the auditorium, seats I would never have chosen if I’d been given the opportunity to select individual seats. Only after I’d bought tickets did the La Bâtie website give the information that it was also possible to select seats on the GTG ticket portal, by which time it was too late.


1. See Einstein’s Long Island Summer of ’39:

The Necks, Geneva AMR, 12 May 2019

What a sumptuously, startlingly beautiful evening this was. I’d waited many years to see The Necks live; surprisingly, I don’t believe they ever made it to Vienna in the 11 years I lived there. The closest I would have come was seeing drummer Tony Buck doing stickwork as part of Heaven And, a fleeting and now defunct aggregation that brought the house down on the 2010 Konfrontationen festival in Nickelsdorf.

The Necks seem to have attained a certain cult appeal in recent years as the improv outfit it’s OK to like. In this they’ve undoubtedly been buoyed up by the enthusiasm of kindergarten-level critics such as Swans’ Michael Gira, whose fanboy support for The Necks a few years ago reached such eloquent heights as: “they’re loosely described as jazz music, but they’re not…they don’t improvise in the sense of jazz noodling, they create grand waves of sound.” Comically incapable of discerning The Necks’ place in a continuum of which he knows nothing, Gira’s dot-to-dot analysis entirely fails to engage with those elements which make The Necks great: history, continuity, the sense of a tradition lovingly renewed.

It’s noticeable, when watching The Necks play live, that they hardly if ever make eye contact with each other. During their two 45-minute sets at AMR, Buck and bassist Lloyd Swanton may have passed the odd glance between them, but if they did I missed it. And pianist Chris Abrahams certainly never turned round to look at his bandmates, remaining resolutely forward-facing throughout. This stands in sharp contrast to people like Ken Vandermark, Mats Gustafsson and Anthony Braxton, for whom visual cues seem to act as an important way of moving the music forward. For The Necks, as for AMM, the music is shaped exclusively from the players’ listening and responding to the conversation that unfolds between them.

The first set began with gently probing piano figures from Abrahams, soon to be joined by restrained double bass from Swanton and understated percussion from Buck. Initially restricting himself to pizzicato, Swanton was practically strumming the strings high up the neck, his dark bass tones in rigorous counterpoint to Abrahams’ swirling note clusters. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the group began to ratchet up the intensity. Buck used the hi-hat relentlessly, its glistening timbre falling into the spaces between Abrahams’ hypnotic chords and Swanton’s gorgeous arco work. Focused on the middle range of the keyboard, his face an image of rapt concentration, the pianist fired off streams of jazzy figures with Keith Jarrett-like conviction.

Buck and Swanton kicked off the second set in subdued fashion, with the bassist issuing lonely single notes around the drummer’s softly brushed snare patterns. It was to be several minutes before Abrahams joined in, the unnerving clarity of his piano once again upping the tension in the room. The music gradually began to surge and flow in vast oceanic currents; shorn of individual histrionics, it packed its punch instead through the profoundly telepathic understanding between the musicians. Swanton found an addictive rhythmic pulse and rode with it, while Buck’s increasingly forceful activity laid the groundwork for a beautifully sustained and satisfying climax. Rarely have I been so engrossed at a concert, so intent on savouring every note, every phrase and every moment of silence.

Low, Geneva Alhambra, 15 February 2019

The last time I saw Low in concert was way back in 2007, at one of my favourite venues in the world, the Radiokulturhaus in Vienna. They’ve toured Europe regularly since then, but have never been back to Vienna (although they’re heading that way in July), or anywhere else close enough for me to see them, for that matter. It was a very pleasant surprise, therefore, to see them pop up in Geneva in February as part of the Antigel festival, one of the undoubted highlights of Geneva’s cultural calendar. All credit to the group for including Geneva in their busy touring schedule, especially since they had been 2000 kilometres away in Stockholm the night before, a challenging routing at the best of times.

Low have switched bassists since 2007, although you wouldn’t know it from the current incumbent’s unobtrusive presence at stage left. The group’s sound is still built around Alan Sparhawk’s extraordinary guitar work, Mimi Parker’s lighter-than-air percussion and the pair’s spectral vocals, ascending miraculously from the stage in clouds of exquisite harmony. The results are astonishing; this is some of the most inexorable music I’ve ever heard, its dense fragility daring the listener not to pay attention lest he miss some crushingly emotional moment, some blinding flash of insight.

As is by now fairly well known, Low’s most recent album Double Negative represents something of a departure for the group. Previous outings like Drums and Guns and Ones and Sixes had seen the band warp their trademark sound with icy drones and skeletal electronic pulses, but this album goes much further in its single-minded deconstruction of the Low myth. Sparhawk’s and Parker’s damaged voices cling desperately to vertiginous waves of static as if on the verge of some terrible accident, while Sparhawk’s guitar plunges deep into worlds of formless, distorted texture. It’s a bold, sombre and, not least, timely piece of work.

Wisely, Low choose not to attempt to recreate the looming shadows of Double Negative tonight, even though almost half the setlist is given over to it. Instead, the concert makes explicit the thread running through all of Low’s work: a sense of profound disquiet, love and faith put at risk, beauty undermined by fear and pain. Wrenching raw notes from his guitar in fevered bursts of activity, Sparhawk navigates the treacherous zones of “Do You Know How To Waltz?” as movingly as he traces the hymnal echoes of “Nothing But Heart”. Meanwhile, Parker’s understated stickwork and radiant vocals add to the impression that there is something ineffable, almost holy, present in Low’s music.

For all that, Low’s art remains firmly grounded in the present, its conversational intimacy perfectly suited to the medium of live performance. Resplendent in a cosy patterned sweater, Sparhawk trades the minimum of banter with the audience, gamely enquiring what else was coming up at the festival (answer: not much, it was almost over) and expressing regret (more than I did, I have to say) at having missed Yo La Tengo’s concert the night before. But when the music speaks with such quiet, unassuming eloquence as this music does, there’s really nothing more to be said.

Concerts of 2018

Another year of failing to keep up with this blog. Here are the ten concerts I enjoyed most this year:

1. Einstürzende Neubauten, Alhambra, Geneva
2. Glen Hansard, Alhambra, Geneva
3. Roger Waters, Stadthalle, Vienna
4. Nurse With Wound, Cave 12, Geneva
5. Philip Glass: Satyagraha, Coliseum, London
6. Fire! Orchestra, AMR, Geneva
7. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Montreux Jazz Festival
8. Anna von Hausswolff, Montreux Jazz Festival
9. Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love, AMR, Geneva
10. Sir Richard Bishop, Room Art Space, Cairo

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