Concerts of 2012

Here’s some kind of list of the most memorable concerts I attended this year. (By the way, you won’t find a list of albums of the year here. I hardly ever listen to recorded music any more; increasingly, music to me means live music.)

It’s been an excellent year for my kind of music in Vienna, and shows by The Walkabouts, Tindersticks, Shearwater, The Cherry Thing and Bruce Springsteen might all have made the top ten on a different day. I was also gutted to miss, for one reason or another (work, illness, domestic commitments) many shows which I was looking forward to, including those by Brötzmann/Lonberg-Holm/Nilssen-Love, Death in June, Broken Heart Collector, Bulbul/Tumido, The Thing, Kern & Quehenberger, Sonore, Nadja, Josephine Foster, Double Tandem, Kurzmann/Zerang/Gustafsson, Glen Hansard and A Silver Mt Zion, not to mention the entire Konfrontationen festival.

A few of the concerts listed here have links to the reviews I wrote at the time, but most of them do not. This is partly because I haven’t had time to write those reviews, but mostly because it’s getting harder and harder to keep this blog going, to the point where I’m considering giving it up altogether. Very few people read these pages, and of those who do, only a few bother to leave comments. Those people, and they know who they are, have my eternal gratitude; but it’s rather disheartening not to be making more of an impression on the wider world.

In chronological order, then:

1. Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, Barbican Centre, London
2. Codeine, Szene Wien, Vienna
3. Peter Brötzmann’s Full Blast, Chelsea, Vienna
4. Anthony Braxton, Jazzatelier, Ulrichsberg
5. Peter Hammill, Porgy & Bess, Vienna
6. The Thing, Blue Tomato, Vienna
7. Marilyn Crispell/Eddie Prévost/Harrison Smith, Blue Tomato, Vienna
8. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Martinschlössl, Vienna
9. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Arena, Vienna
10. Swans, Arena, Vienna

Anthony Braxton Falling River Music Quartet, Ulrichsberg Jazzatelier, 11 October 2012

Anthony Braxton has proven to be a rather elusive character for me to pin down, physically as well as musically. He hasn’t played in Vienna since the first time I saw him, at Porgy & Bess in 2007, when I was admittedly not too familiar with his music. There have been occasional European concerts since then, but until last week I had only caught one of them, a 2008 show in Krakow which necessitated a 600-mile round trip. Braxton’s recent gig in the small Upper Austrian town of Ulrichsberg, near the border with the Czech Republic, wasn’t quite as arduous to get to, but reaching it had its own challenges, principally concerning when and when not to get off buses.

Continue reading

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)

Anthony Braxton, Krakow, Poland, 6 December 2008

With the memory of Anthony Braxton‘s inspirational concert at Porgy & Bess last year still remarkably fresh in my mind, it was a no-brainer to make the 600-mile round trip to Krakow to catch the maestro in action again. Playing with the same septet as the last time I saw him, Braxton did not disappoint, playing two engrossing hour-long sets (for the record, they were Compositions 356 and 183).

There was real group interaction onstage; I’ve never seen a group of musicians exchange so many signs, nods, glances and smiles on a stage as this lot did. This degree of communication between the group’s members was testament to the fact that there was a fair old degree of improvisation going on, even though all of them had scores in front of them and appeared to be following those scores pretty intently for most of the time.

Braxton was the star, of course – an utterly formidable onstage presence, powering the music along with his endlessly vital saxophone work. Of the rest, I particularly enjoyed Mary Halvorson’s contributions on guitar. There was something very Fripp-like about her playing, with its hard, splintery quality. I wasn’t greatly impressed by Taylor Ho Bynum on the brass, he seemed rather smug and histrionic to me (in marked contrast to the more focused energies of the rest of the group) and at times the brashness of his playing threatened to drown out the subtleties of the music altogether. Ultimately, though, this – my last concert of 2008 – was an enthralling performance.

Ether column, February 2007

Porgy & Bess continues its phenomenal run of recent concerts into February with two shows by the great American composer and improviser Anthony Braxton. Braxton is a towering figure in contemporary American music, incorporating elements of free jazz, improvisation and composition into his rich and complex musical structures. Principally a saxophonist onstage – his 1968 album For Alto was the first ever album for solo saxophone – he is also skilled on the flute and clarinet. His great innovation has been to take the essential rhythmic and textural elements of jazz and to combine them with experimental compositional techniques such as graphic and non-specific notation, serialism and multimedia.

Braxton’s work is theoretical and often mystical in nature. His scores and record covers are littered with cryptic numbers and diagrams, betraying the influence of Cage and Stockhausen. And yet he takes pains to stand apart from these masters of modern composition, often claiming not to know himself what the numbers and diagrams mean. One senses that Braxton is grappling with a search for a higher truth that will remain forever out of reach. It is the search itself, rather than the truth, that drives him. He will be appearing in Vienna with his Sextet, a group of young Braxton acolytes dedicated to realising their mentor’s dense yet rewarding music.

And now, as a special favour to those who would like a change from all the challenging experimental sounds I’ve been recommending in this column lately, some great pop music. From Portland, Oregon, The Decemberists have released four albums of indie rock with a folky, literate edge and a strong narrative element. Taking their cue directly from British singer-songwriter Al Stewart, the Decemberists produce finely crafted ballads that combine lyrical musings on soldiers, sea captains and chimney sweeps with a chiming, propulsive musical energy. Singer and lyricist Colin Meloy is a charming and charismatic live performer, as happy encouraging the audience in a dance contest or singalong as he is wandering to the edge of the stage and playing to the front rows. After three albums on the confrontational Kill Rock Stars label, the band released their latest, The Crane Wife, on a major label (Capitol); happily, however, this shift has not signalled any watering down of the Decemberists’ craft. On the contrary, the record contains some of Meloy’s strongest writing to date, particularly the 13-minute epic “The Island,” which sees the band move towards a highly attractive fusion of folk and progressive musics. Confident without being overbearing, the Decemberists are just the ticket if you need to banish those winter blues.

Anthony Braxton, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 15 February 2007

Had one of the most inspiring evenings of live music of my entire life last night – a performance by Anthony Braxton and his group at Porgy & Bess. Superlatives fail me on this occasion. We were seated right in front of the stage, just a few feet away from Braxton. The sextet played two hour-long sets (the passing of the hour being noted by an hourglass) of music filled with daunting complexity and joyous freedom. Braxton communicated with the rest of the group in fascinating ways, telling them (I’m guessing) which numbered sections to play by holding his fingers up, and writing numbers and symbols on a small whiteboard which he held up for them to see. The group – double bass, percussion, violin, tuba and trumpet – were utterly responsive and intuitive. And when Braxton reached for his saxes and unleashed one of his fearsome solos, you simply never wanted it to end.