Concerts of 2009

Here’s a list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2009. There’s not much of an order to these ten, except for number 1, which was an incredible evening for me for all sorts of reasons.

1. Jandek, B72, Vienna
2. Spiritualized, Krems, Austria
3. Peter Brötzmann/Toshinori Kondo/Massimo Pupillo/Paal Nilssen-Love, Fluc, Vienna
4. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love, Blue Tomato, Vienna
5. Mats Gustafsson/Barry Guy/Raymond Strid, Blue Tomato, Vienna
6. Sonore/The Thing, Blue Tomato, Vienna
7. Naked Lunch/Universalove, Gartenbaukino, Vienna
8. Sunn O)))/Pita, Arena, Vienna
9. Bruce Springsteen, Ernst Happel Stadium, Vienna
10. Kraftwerk, Wiesen, Austria

Ether column, October 2009

There are some wonderful concerts coming up over the next few months, none more so than the one this column is about – a unique occasion, the first ever appearance in central Europe by the American singer and musician Jandek. In case you’re wondering “who?”, let me tell you his fascinating story. Over the past 30 years, Jandek has released about 50 albums of strange, unearthly folk/rock/blues music. The albums come from a PO Box in Houston, Texas, and are never accompanied by any kind of biographical information. In all that time, Jandek has never given a single interview or made any kind of public statement. Until 2004, he had also never played any concerts or appeared in public. In that year, he surprised quite a few people by playing a short, unannounced set at a festival in Scotland, and since then he has evidently caught the touring bug, having played about 40 shows mostly in the US and UK.

Those 50 albums, taken together, represent a serious and intriguing body of work. At first listen, the music is alien and offputting. Jandek sings in a raw, pleading voice, and his guitar playing sounds untutored, as though he has only recently picked up the instrument. The lyrics are rambling, free-associative and often disturbing (sample lines: “I got my knife/If you want to breathe, baby/Don’t paint your teeth”). On some albums, Jandek plays harmonica and piano; other players include a female vocalist, a second guitarist and a drummer, all of whom are similarly untutored and, needless to say, unnamed. Others just consist of Jandek’s voice. The music sounds like it’s been recorded in a room at home, not in a studio. It has been aptly described as “sounding like the music found on an unlabelled tape left in a deserted house.”

The covers of the albums are an important part of the Jandek mythology and tell their own, fractured story. Many of them look like carelessly taken snapshots. Some of them show Jandek at different stages of his life (he’s in his mid-60s now), although until he began playing live, no-one could actually be sure that the man on the covers was the man playing the music. Others show the interior or exterior of houses, presumably where he was living at the time; the curtains in the windows are always tightly drawn.

Every one of Jandek’s shows is different, ranging from solo acoustic guitar to piano recitals and noisy, free-form rock. Sometimes he performs on his own, but more often than not he finds musicians from the city he is performing in and produces a concert of music especially written for each performance. For his Vienna début, he’ll be joined by two of the finest musicians from Vienna’s thriving avant rock/improv scene: Eric Arn of Primordial Undermind on bass and Didi Kern of Fuckhead and Bulbul on drums. The unexpected is to be assumed…

Jandek, Vienna B72, 14 October 2009

Several months of planning went into this, the first ever Jandek concert in central Europe, and I’m pleased to report that it was a great success. On a personal level, it was also a huge honour and a privilege to be able to bring Jandek to Vienna; after three years of concert-going there as a more or less passive consumer, it felt great to be a witness to something that I myself had helped to bring about.

Once Jandek himself was on board, the key task was to find the right backing musicians. This wasn’t so much of a challenge, in fact. Both Eric Arn and Didi Kern were well known to me; regulars on the thriving Vienna avant-rock/improv scene, they had proven time after time that they could not only play beautifully but could also adapt their respective styles to meet whatever needs the moment required, in the purest spirit of improvisation.

For me, one of the most exciting moments of the whole evening came before the group had even played a note. As I led Jandek from the backstage area through the audience and towards the stage, the audience moved aside to let him through; and there was a sudden sense of reverent expectation as this tall, striking figure, dressed all in black and with his ever-present Stetson pulled down low over his face, walked slowly and deliberately onto the stage.

The next ninety minutes passed in something of a blur, as Jandek, Arn and Kern proceeded to lay down some of the most tense, daring and original rock music I have ever heard. Having only met for the first time that day, the three of them made a virtue of their lack of familiarity with each other, playing with an awesome blend of looseness, openness and sheer narrative conviction. Arn, it seemed to me, was pretty much writing his own bass player’s rulebook as he went along. More often seen as lead guitarist with his own group Primordial Undermind, he transferred many of the extended techniques he brings into play with them – bottleneck slide, endless vertiginous runs up and down the full length of the neck – to the bass, with savagely entertaining results. (He also joined Jandek on lead guitar for one song, which sounded particularly brutal to these ears.) Kern, meanwhile, lit up the room with his questing, vital and ceaselessly inventive percussion. It’s always a pleasure to encounter a drummer who actually plays the kit, investing it with light, shade and myriad variations of timbre. Chris Cutler does it, Paal Nilssen-Love does it, and there can be little doubt that Didi Kern does it too.

As for Jandek himself, he gave as little away as you might expect. The last time I saw him, at St Giles Church in London in 2005, I came away with the distinct impression that I had seen a ghost, so evanescent and fleeting was his presence. For all that he played in Vienna with far greater aggression, there was still something eerie and spectral about his performance. More or less alternating between dirge-like vocal excursions and full-on instrumental freakouts, Jandek’s guitar work oddly sparkled, with the tones from his black Godin ringing and cavernous. Four new songs were played; I can’t quote any of the lyrics I’m afraid, but the vocals were pleading and anguished, set off against the deathly walk of the bass and drums.

Dark, turbulent and troubling, then. A concert like none I had ever experienced before, but all in a day’s work for Jandek.

Lovely photos of the evening by David Murobi here.