Concerts and albums of 2008

Concerts of the year

Here’s a list of the ten concerts I enjoyed most this year. It’s been an exceptional twelve months for live music around these parts, and it was very hard indeed to whittle it down to ten shows. There’s not much of an order to these ten, with the exception of No. 1, which was far and away the best night of music I heard all year.

1. Okkervil River (Porgy & Bess)
2. Neil Young (Austria Center)
3. Peter Brötzmann/Ken Vandermark/Marino Pliakas/Michael Wertmüller (Porgy & Bess)
4. American Music Club (WUK)
5. Marissa Nadler (Vorstadt)
6. Whitehouse (Rhiz)
7. Leonard Cohen (Konzerthaus)
8. Anthony Braxton (Krakow)
9. Heather Nova (Gasometer)
10. A Silver Mt Zion (Arena)

Albums of the year

I haven’t listened to much recorded music at all this year. Take five:

1. Kathleen Edwards – Asking For Flowers (Zoë)
2. Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins (Jagjaguwar)
3. Mary Hampton – My Mother’s Children (Navigator)
4. Original Silence – The Second Original Silence (Smalltown Superjazzz)
5. Anthony Braxton – The Complete Arista Recordings (Mosaic)

Ether column, March 2008

The last time Mark Eitzel played in Vienna, it was to 30-odd people at the Chelsea on a wet Sunday night. Those lucky few witnessed a typically quixotic solo performance from Eitzel, delivering his intense songs in a seemingly casual but, in fact, incredibly crafted and passionate way. This month Eitzel is back in town with his group American Music Club, on the back of a new album, The Golden Age. While he probably doesn’t care all that much, I certainly hope for a larger audience this time. Eitzel is a knotty and intractable performer, self-deprecating to the point of embarrassment. For the most part, his songs lack identifiable choruses and hooks. But his voice is an instrument capable of truly wrenching displays of heartfelt emotion, and cuts through you with deadly precision. His group’s blank, neutral name speaks as eloquently of their music as The Band’s did of theirs; AMC inhabit the wide open spaces of American rock, with the guitar and rhythm section framing Eitzel’s searingly honest, confessionally driven lyrics.

Great double-header at B72 this month, with Japan’s Up-Tight and Vienna’s own Primordial Undermind presenting an evening of out-there psychedelic rock. Up-Tight lay down thick layers of guitar-heavy drones, their squalling mantras of noise building into a blissful cacophony that evokes prime-era Velvet Underground or Spacemen 3. And like the Velvets, Up-Tight are also partial to the odd eerily melancholic ballad, providing the listener with occasional respite from the sonic onslaught. Primordial Undermind are an equally bracing proposition, with long, spacey jams navigating the listener into the kind of inner headspace explored by pre-Dark Side Floyd. After 15-odd years of existence in America, leader and guitarist Eric Arn relocated the group to Vienna in 2005. Since then, they have released their sixth album Loss of Affect and continued to mine a richly creative seam of trippy, clangorous music.

Finally, gifted American folk singer Marissa Nadler makes her Vienna début early next month. “Folk” is a barely adequate term for what Nadler does, however. Her recently released third album, Songs III: Bird on the Water, pulsates with a haunted Gothic spirituality, its songs resonating with a deeply unsettling power and grace. Nadler plays acoustic guitar with all the glowing richness of Leonard Cohen or Bert Jansch, while the rapturous imagery of her lyrics chimes perfectly with the angelically pure beauty of her voice. “Oh what a day to dance with you,” she sings, “oh what a day to die”, summing up her songs’ swooning and radiant conflation of love, sex and death.

American Music Club & Lisa Papineau, Vienna WUK, 13 March 2008

Mark Eitzel keeps getting better and better. Last Thursday’s concert by his group American Music Club was a blissful revelation, filled with the kind of emotionally acute and musically rich songwriting at which he excels. While there were many more people in the audience than attended his last solo appearance in Vienna, the WUK was by no means full, which is a sad state of affairs but also a fair reflection of Eitzel’s approach to his music – worldly, defiant and helplessly uncommercial.

An endearing and occasionally shambolic live performer, Eitzel was in fine mood, prefacing many of the songs with little spoken tableaux and revelling in musical exchanges with guitarist Vudi (whose own extempore blues number, delivered while Eitzel was attending to an unco-operative guitar, was a joy). Vudi’s playing was shimmering and potent, but Eitzel is no slouch on guitar either, and the two men’s vivid sparring was crucial to the sustaining of the wide-screen AMC sound. Nowhere was this filmic quality more apparent than on the emotional highwire of ‘Johnny Mathis’s Feet’, where Eitzel’s rich and dark voice gave epic weight to the lyric’s tortured self-questioning.

It was wonderful to see Eitzel so obviously touched by the extent and warmth of the audience’s appreciation, which generated three richly deserved encores. The final acoustic reading of ‘Firefly’, delivered in generous response to a deranged fan’s pleading (it was me, I confess), was as gleaming and evanescent as the fireflies themselves: “They don’t live too long, just a flash and then they’re gone…”

Those who arrived early had the pleasure of seeing a fine support set from American singer and musician Lisa Papineau and her band. Papineau’s songs are like miniature expressionist dramas, delivered via winning electronic textures and a percussive attack that perfectly holds the line between intricacy and clout. Strikingly attired in a stylish black dress, Papineau has a strong bluesy voice and a compelling onstage presence. Stabbing insistently away at her keyboard, she performed jerky dance moves that mirrored the spiky, uncompromising nature of her songs. “I’m not a very good dancer,” she told the audience ruefully, but there was something twisted and melancholy about her movements that gripped the attention utterly. Partway through the set, Eitzel joined her for a rich, sensitive duet, their voices entwined in seductive interplay. Here’s hoping she returns to Vienna for a show of her own soon.