Short Cuts 7: Elvis Costello, Carla Bozulich, Oliver Welter

A final round-up of shows towards the end of last year which I never got around to writing full reviews of at the time.

Elvis Costello, Vienna Konzerthaus, 31 October 2011

Here was an oddity – an out-of-the-(almost)-blue solo concert by Elvis Costello in what is, after the Staatsoper and the Musikverein, the poshest venue in Vienna, and the only one of the three that hosts regular non-classical gigs. Costello is a singer-songwriter I’ve never quite got to grips with. Maybe I thought that seeing him in solo mode would expose some kind of truth at the heart of his songs, but it never really happened. I’m no authority on his music and I only recognized about half the songs; the one I’ve always loved the most, “Oliver’s Army”, was frustratingly notable by its absence. The anguished “Shipbuilding”, “I Want You” (still one of the most frighteningly psychotic love songs ever written) and the inspired medley of “New Amsterdam/You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” were all massively impressive, but there were also too many songs overstuffed with words and lacking in winning tunes.

Carla Bozulich/Evangelista, London Café Oto, 13 November 2011

A brief visit to London in November enabled me to check out hipster venue Café Oto for the first time. This gig by Carla Bozulich and her band differed little from the last time I saw them in Warsaw two years ago, right down to the walkabout among the audience during the big showstopping number “Baby That’s The Creeps”, which inevitably resulted in her crashing into a table or two near the front. Still, there’s something viscerally compelling about Bozulich. I think it has to do with slowness, the eerie calm and unhurriedness she projects which occasionally erupts into seething energy and rage.

Oliver Welter, Vienna Chelsea, 12 December 2011

My last concert of 2011 was another solo affair, but I found much more to admire and enjoy in Oliver Welter’s plaintive laments than I did in Elvis Costello’s wordy digressions. I’m still waiting patiently for a new Naked Lunch album and gigs, which will hopefully materialize later this year, but in the meantime this did nicely. A sprinkling of unusual cover versions – “River Deep Mountain High”, Hot Chocolate’s “Emma” – stood of a piece with Welter’s own songs, haunted reveries anatomizing love and loss in stark, emotionally unsparing detail.

Carla Bozulich/Evangelista, Warsaw Powiększenie, 21 October 2009

A pleasure to find that my first visit to Warsaw coincided with a show by the highly innovative and talented Carla Bozulich. The Powiększenie is the place where folks like Brötzmann play when they hit town; indeed Sonore had just been there, and Ken Vandermark will return there soon with Paal Nilssen-Love. The upstairs bar was very cool but the performance space downstairs was kind of inhospitable, too long and narrow and on this night, bizarrely, seated. I grabbed a seat in the front row, which meant I had the pleasure of being in close proximity to Bozulich when she took a walk around the first few rows during the stunning “Baby That’s The Creeps”. In fact, she fell into my lap and pulled at my shirt, one of the many heartstopping moments that evening. Bozulich’s sound was driven by her extraordinary vocals, her aggressive approach to the guitar and by her group’s atmospheric cello and organ (the drums, I felt, were too lumpen and intrusive). I could have done without the occasional tedious dadaist tactics (bits of metal held up to the strings, a toy voice distortion box), but other than those, this was a hugely satisfying concert.

Bulbul/Carla Bozulich, Vienna Rhiz, 27 May 2008

The last concert of a very Rhiz-y month for me. For this one the Austrian group Bulbul were joined onstage by American singer (and occasional Bulbul collaborator) Carla Bozulich, who is in the middle of a European tour with her own group Evangelista and played at the WUK the following evening. This was an unannounced appearance by Bozulich, although I had been tipped the wink from various sources. And although her appearance wasn’t advertised in advance, it wasn’t entirely under wraps either. The Rhiz had the evening billed as “Bulbul plus surprise act”, while Bozulich’s website listed a “secret show” on this date. Guys, if you tell people you’re playing a secret show, it’s not a secret anymore. If they’d wanted to do the secret thing properly, they would have made no mention of it at all rather than being all coy about it. But that would have been less annoyingly teasing.

Anyway, the concert itself was pretty entertaining. Bulbul have passed me by up until now, although P. tells me that they play regularly in Vienna. And this was confirmed by the existence of a loyalty card which was pressed into my palm as I entered the Rhiz. Cute marketing ploy: go to four Bulbul gigs and get into the fifth one free. (I would have thought a limited CD-R or something would have been a more appropriate reward for such loyalty, but let that pass.)

The music was hard to pin down: angular, splintery rock with lots of distorted guitar, pounding bass and busy drumming. This was very much a Bulbul gig, not a Carla Bozulich gig: as far as I could tell, all the songs were theirs, not hers. But her contributions on vocals and effects-heavy guitar were raw and expressive. There were also two moments of diverting theatrical business. At one point, first Bozulich and then the guitarist and bassist decided to mount an onslaught on the sanctity of the drums. Each grabbing their own drumsticks, they carried out a delirious improvised raid on the kit, falling over each other in the process. Later, Bozulich brandished a sheet of paper containing some lines of verse, which H. told me later were the words to a Viennese drinking song. Holding out the microphone and encouraging audience members to recite the words, she initially got a couple of deadpan spoken recitations. She struck lucky, however, with the third – a girl who was not only happy to sing the words but (after some initial reluctance) was persuaded to join the group onstage to sing them. Both incidents reinforced a view of Bulbul, and indeed of Bozulich herself, as refreshingly unaloof and persuaded of the will to connect and communicate.

Fine photos by David Murobi here.

Carla Bozulich: Evangelista

On her third album, Carla Bozulich offers a compelling new twist on the Constellation label’s well-established m.o. of livid paranoia: a siren voice. Branching out from the stylings of her work with the Geraldine Fibbers and her two previous solo albums, Bozulich moves daringly into territory previously mapped by labelmates Godspeed You! Black Emperor and A Silver Mt. Zion. It’s no surprise, then, to find members of that collective adding their distinctive patina of broken optimism and hinted-at menace to the record. Nowhere is the Constellation effect more pronounced than on the disorienting, nine-minute “Evangelista I,” which sets the Patti Smith-like intensity of Bozulich’s voice against a filmic backdrop of buzz-saw strings, distant crackle, and eerie knocking and creaking sounds. It’s a searingly vivid Expressionist drama whose impact is sustained beautifully over the remaining eight songs.

“How To Survive Being Hit By Lightning” sees Bozulich’s bewitching voice buried low and murky in the mix, emerging with feline grace from liquid drops of guitar and stealthy, undulant noise. On the excellent cover of Low’s “Pissing,” Bozulich’s understated choral vocal is gradually enveloped in screaming guitar and a throbbing, insistent pulse. “Evangelista II,” meanwhile, is an unsettling finale – a restrained concoction in which the tender, erotic closeness of the lyric is lethally undermined by the plumes of feedback emanating from Efrim Menuck’s guitar.

Evangelista is a genuinely collaborative effort in which the one weak point of recent work by A Silver Mt. Zion—Menuck’s reedy, tremulous vocals—is decisively addressed through the seductive elegance of Bozulich’s voice. With her latest album, Bozulich has found a group of musicians able to illustrate with vivid acuity her troubled, affecting songs.

Ether column, June 2007

Not much doubt in my mind about the highlight of June’s concerts – an evening with the great German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. The 66-year-old Brötzmann is one of the key figures in European free improvisation, taking the free jazz of American pioneers like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, stripping it of groove and swing and creating from it a new music of dense, swirling abstraction. Free improvising musicians can be heard on a wide range of instruments such as trumpet, guitar, piano and drums, but Brötzmann’s forte is the reed family, which sees him switching effortlessly between soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass saxophones, various clarinets and the Hungarian tarogato. At the tiny Blue Tomato club in March, Brötzmann whipped up a firestorm of fierce and intense blowing alongside one of his long-standing collaborators, the Dutch percussionist Han Bennink. His date at Porgy & Bess, on the other hand, is with his big band, the Chicago Tentet. With two other reedsmen, three brass and two strings players, and not one but two drummers to add to Brötzmann’s already fearsome aural assault, the Tentet is not a group for the faint of heart.

American singer and songwriter Carla Bozulich stops off at the Chelsea on the 18th to air her quirky, eccentric songs. Bozulich has been grafting away since the early 90s in a variety of guises, initially the angular post-punk of Ethyl Meatplow and the mournful country sound of the Geraldine Fibbers. Playing out under her own name since 2003, Bozulich’s first solo record was an experimental reinterpretation of a Willie Nelson album, The Red Headed Stranger. She really hit her stride, though, on 2006’s Evangelista, a challenging and bewitching set of songs which saw her write and record with the freaky denizens of Montreal’s Constellation collective, including members of Godspeed You Black Emperor and A Silver Mt Zion. Working with many of the same musicians on tour, Bozulich is sure to deliver a vivid and acute live performance.

Coming from another side of American songcraft, Magnolia Electric Co. are a vehicle for contemplative Ohio-born musician Jason Molina. Like Will Oldham, with whom he is often compared, Molina has a fondness for hiding behind aliases. His first outfit was Songs: Ohia, who released several albums of country-influenced rock before Molina began to record under the Magnolia Electric Co. moniker. Molina’s voice has deepened and weathered since those early Songs: Ohia records, while his guitar playing has become more assured and his lyrics have proved consistently emotive and heartfelt. In fact, Molina’s closest point of reference would be the classic 70s albums of Neil Young rather than any of the hordes of artists toiling under the label. Such niceties are likely to dissolve into insignificance, though, when Molina takes the stage.