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, October 2008

The autumn gig-going season gets into full swing this month. Silver Mt Zion (or, to give them their full name, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band) kick things off with an anguished howl, playing for the first time in Vienna since their appearance at the 2006 Donaufestival. From Montreal, Canada, SMZ began in 1999 as a side-project to the legendary post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, allowing some members of that group to explore song-based music with a more stripped-down feel than the sprawling instrumental epics in which GYBE specialised. With GYBE in semi-permanent hibernation, however, SMZ has become a group in its own right, while their music has taken on something of the epic quality of the parent band. SMZ’s songs are long, intense and emotionally devastating; the seven members often sing in unison, their lyrics telling of personal hurt and political injustice, Meanwhile the extended line-up of guitars, strings and drums creates powerful dynamics of tension, release and crescendo.

Those in search of a more “entertaining” evening out could do worse than to check out Bermudan singer-songwriter Heather Nova. A gifted and beautiful performer, Nova has always been way more popular in Europe than in North America; their loss is our gain. Over six albums and supported by relentless touring, she has perfected a blend of rockish swagger and bruised sensitivity. Her tremulous warble of a voice is equally at home with soaring ballads and crunchy chord progressions. Unlike many of her contemporaries Nova is no waif-like minstrel, but a songwriter who takes the familiar idioms of rock, pop and folk and infuses them with a beguiling sense of mystery and abandonment.

Come with me now to Brooklyn, New York, where The Hold Steady are blasting out their infectious brand of classic American rock for a new generation of audiences. Singer and lyricist Craig Finn has made no secret of his liking for the wordy storytelling of Hüsker Dü and Bruce Springsteen, while fans of the Pixies should also find much to admire in the dense weave of guitar textures that the five-piece band lays over Finn’s rousing and confident voice.

Finally, there are not many cities that would give part of a major music festival over to a composer specialising in lengthy solo violin pieces. But Vienna is no ordinary city, and this year’s Wien Modern festival will be enriched by three concerts featuring the innovative avant-gardist Tony Conrad. Best known for his ’60s collaborations with minimalist guru La Monte Young, Conrad also made an album with Krautrock legends Faust and in recent years has composed many works for solo amplified violin. His music explores, to often mesmeric effect, the transcendental properties of the drone.

Heather Nova, Gasometer, Vienna, 19 October 2008

My first visit to the Gasometer in ages, and my first Heather Nova concert since a rather subdued acoustic affair at the Concorde in Brighton in 2003, when she was pregnant and my own son was not yet two weeks old. I met her afterwards and got my copies of the CDs signed, also my copy of her book. Strangely enough, that book was one of the few I brought to Vienna with me.  On taking it down from the shelves the other day, I found to my dismay that the hard cover had come adrift from the pages.

As for the Gasometer, it was too big a venue for her (she related the story of how this evening had originally been planned as a rest day on the tour, but she told her agent that she wanted to come to Vienna), and they closed off the circle to make the space more intimate. The acoustics, however, were pin-sharp. J., with his alert and experienced pair of ears, has often been critical of the PA at this venue, but they seem to have put a new rig in now, perhaps to coincide with the takeover by Planet Music.

The concert was highly enjoyable from beginning to end. Heather is a stunningly natural performer with a magnificent voice; when she lets rip with one of her extended high notes, she sounds like an angel as well as looking like one. She’s also a hard artist to pigeonhole. When she first emerged in the early ’90s, she was mostly thought of as an indie girl, and she also has something of the waifish folk singer about her. But at the end of the day, what she is more than anything else is a rock chick. She is at her best on bright, confident tunes like “London Rain” and “Walk This World”, with their swaggering chord progressions and thrilling guitar solos. The ballads, meanwhile, such as “I Wanna Be Your Light” and “Fool For You”, are supremely affecting, touched by the luminous emotions of her lyrics and the aching beauty of her voice.

Apart from the fact that she didn’t play my favourite of all her songs, “Truth and Bone”, I had no complaints at all about the setlist, which included a gratifyingly large number of songs from her best album, Siren. Like Peter Hammill (with whom I suspect she is not often compared), she didn’t seem unduly concerned by the need to promote her new record, and only played two or three songs from it. Instead she ranged widely across her back catalogue, resulting in a perfectly paced show that showcased every facet of her exceptional singing and songwriting gifts.