Oliver Welter, Vienna Floridsdorf, 9 October 2014

It’s not often that you come across a completely new and surprising format for live concerts, but that’s what Vienna artist, actor and director Oliver Hangl has come up with in the excellent series of “walking concerts” that he curates. The idea is simple, but brilliantly effective: the performer wears a microphone, the audience is kitted out with wireless headphones, and together they wander through the streets of the city, the singer serenading the audience as they go with music beamed magically into their heads. No need to worry about noise from passing cars, or that the music is too loud for the neighbourhood – there’s only you, your fellow audience members, the constantly changing environment and the performer, whom you can be as close to or as distant from as you wish. Every so often, the performer stops at an open space to sing and the audience gathers round. It’s a uniquely welcoming and intimate way to experience live music.

Hangl has put on quite a few of these walking concerts over the past couple of years, but last month’s event with Oliver Welter was the first I had attended. Regular readers of this blog will not need reminding of my admiration for Welter and his group Naked Lunch, and I remain stumped by the fact that no other writer in English seems to have cottoned on to their significance. Critical recognition is long overdue; in the meantime, Naked Lunch continue to impress with their wintry, melancholic alt-rock.

Anyway, this was my third time of seeing Welter solo. Following earlier outings at the Radiokulturhaus and the Chelsea, temples to state-sponsored culture and Anglophile scuzz respectively, here Welter and his guitar were to be found in and around the streets of Floridsdorf, the 21st district of Vienna. Kicking off on the steps of the town hall, headphones safely clamped over our ears, we negotiated pavements and pedestrian crossings before finding ourselves outside an Interspar supermarket. I really didn’t think we were going to go inside, but sure enough we did. Bemused shoppers looked up from their browsing as Welter launched into “God” from the Songs for the Exhausted album, its tone of savage pessimism sitting uncomfortably among the mops and buckets on display.

Our next stop, equally surreally, was a small funfair outside Floridsdorf station. Following a brief, tense period of negotiation between Hangl and a carousel operator, Welter – somewhat precariously, it must be said – took up position on the sweet little roundabout, whose young passengers were fortunate enough to catch the title track of the Universalove soundtrack album. Striding purposefully through the busy station itself, Welter delivered the first of several cover versions, Phil Spector’s “To Know Him Is To Love Him”. Here, as with later readings of Hot Chocolate’s “Emma” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High”, it’s Welter’s quavery, desolate voice and tender washes of acoustic guitar that turn familiar pop standards into expressions of forlorn, burnt-out romanticism.

Lighting out for the quiet residential streets behind Floridsdorf station, Welter answered my silent wishes with a stunning version of my favourite Naked Lunch song, “Military of the Heart” from This Atom Heart of Ours. The evening’s final setting, though, was as perfect as it was unexpected: a quiet riverside restaurant on the shores of the Alte Donau. The sun having long since set, an inky gloom descended as we stepped gingerly onto the jetty. After tearing his way through All Is Fever’s epic showstopper “The Sun”, Welter, in an inspired move that did more than anything else to make this event unforgettable, clambered aboard a small boat and proceeded to give the rest of the concert from there. Floating on the dark waters of the Alte Donau with a helmsman at the wheel, Welter’s anguished rendition of “The Retainer” was a heartstopping moment. As, indeed, was the evening’s last song, the despairingly bleak “The Funeral”, sung a capella by Welter as he and his craft drifted slowly out of vision and into the enveloping blackness of the night.


Naked Lunch, Vienna Arena, 19 March 2013; Vienna Museumsquartier, 8 May 2013

With the release of their 2013 album All Is Fever, Naked Lunch seem to have finally laid to rest the film and theatre projects (Universalove, Amerika, Ecce Homo) that they have been working on for the past few years, and begun to concentrate instead on cementing their unarguable position as Austria’s finest rock band. And not before time, one might add, since although those projects (Universalove in particular) had plenty to recommend them, as a body of work they didn’t really stack up against the group’s two full-length masterpieces, Songs for the Exhausted and This Atom Heart of Ours. So it was a great pleasure to see the band play a sold-out gig at the Arena in March, which I’m only now getting around to reviewing following their free show at the Museumsquartier summer opening.

I’m still struggling to get to grips with some of the reasons why I love Naked Lunch so much. I think it’s related to endurance, the idea that here is a group of people that has undergone extremes of experience and whose songs embody those extremes in a very direct and affecting way. I’ve never quite been able to banish the thought, for example, that singer and principal songwriter Oliver Welter was homeless for a while during the group’s five-year hiatus; nor that founder member Georg Trattnig died of an alcohol-related condition (“will it ever stop to hurt/will I ever wash away my pain”, as Welter sings on the elegy for Trattnig, “King George”). Yet what comes over so strongly now, in the group’s songs and performances, is a sense of triumph at having faced down these demons and come out, battered but alive, on the other side.

None of which would mean very much at all if Naked Lunch’s songs weren’t so lyrically passionate and melodically resplendent. Now tracing skeletal, desolate melodies (“Colours”), now launching into bursts of urgent riffing (“God”), the group display an exquisite flair for the immediate and the dramatic. Electrified by devastating choral harmonies, the songs depict traumatized states of mind (“there’s too much violence in my dreams/there’s too much hate running in my veins”, Welter laments chillingly in “Town Full of Dogs”) even as they clutch desperately at purification through sexual betrayal (“I did it with my best friend’s wife/it felt like paradise”). Yet there is tenderness and optimism as well, in the gently enveloping warmth of “In the Dark” and the radiant intimacy of “Military of the Heart”.

Bringing this quest to the forefront of the group’s activity, Welter is an immensely spirited and likeable frontman. Whether engaged in manic dancing, swaggering around the stage, trading moves with bassist Herwig Zamernik or inciting the audience into ever more energetic responses, he’s impossible to ignore. So too is the stunning coup de théâtre during “The Sun”, in which tiny shards of gold paper pulsate above the audience’s heads. And so too is the way the four men line up for the encores, bringing the shows to an end in an atmosphere of togetherness that is as celebratory as it is moving. We shine on together, when we walk hand in hand.

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.

Naked Lunch, Vienna Stadtsaal, 11 April 2011

I was hoping this would be a proper Naked Lunch concert, but unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way. What we got instead was a kind of showcase for their latest project, soundtracking a new theatrical adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel Amerika. The full production is currently underway in the group’s home town of Klagenfurt; I’m not sure what the deal there is exactly, but I assume they’re playing along to the action much as they did when they performed their live soundtrack to the film Universalove. Those of us in Vienna will have to make do for now with this curious hybrid, at which the group performed only the nine songs from the play, accompanied by a cast of walk-on guests and preceded by a lengthy reading from the novel.

It was great, of course, but it was also a touch insubstantial, and I really hope that after this second successive audio-visual project Naked Lunch get back to being a rock band again. It’s been four years since their last masterpiece This Atom Heart of Ours, and a new album consisting of full band versions of the new songs Oliver Welter premiered at the Radiokulturhaus last year is sorely awaited around these parts. A brief word with Welter after the gig confirmed that such a thing is on its way later this year.

Anyway, tonight’s performance confirmed my long-held view that Naked Lunch are a highly creative outfit with a spiky and uncompromising approach to songcraft. The opening song of the piece, “Let Me Walk Upon The Water”, sets the melancholy tone, with Welter’s haunting and troubled voice framed by Stefan Deisenberger’s desolate keyboard melody. “Fight Club” sees the group hit an angry and convulsive seam, Welter’s vocal swelled by urgent choral backing.

It’s that razor-sharp interplay between voices and instruments that makes this music so compelling, and this was never truer tonight than on “The Tramp”, with its smart lyrical flourishes and impertinently perfect chorus. I have no idea if the English-speaking world will ever wake up to the brilliance of Naked Lunch. As I’ve said before, though, their loss is very much Austria’s gain.

Concerts of 2010

Here’s some kind of list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2010, with links to the reviews I wrote at the time. In no particular order…

1. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Martinschlössl, Vienna
2. The Swell Season, Museumsquartier, Vienna
3. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love/Lasse Marhaug, Blue Tomato, Vienna
4. Swans, Arena, Vienna
5. Naked Lunch, Arena, Vienna
6. Suzanne Vega, Konzerthaus, Vienna
7. Peter Hammill, Posthof, Linz
8. Heaven And, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf
9. Oliver Welter, Radiokulturhaus, Vienna
10. The Thing XL, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf

Austrian Chart

Chart of 15 Austrian records published in the December 2010 issue of The Wire. To be eligible for inclusion in this chart the artist just needed to be Austrian, or be based in Austria, or have at least one Austrian member, or something. They weren’t the most rigorous of criteria.


Short Cuts 4: FM Einheit, Peter Brötzmann/Full Blast, Terry Riley, Naked Lunch

The fourth in an occasional series of handy bite-size reviews of recent concerts I haven’t got the time or the energy to write more about.

FM Einheit, Vienna Fluc Wanne, 5 October 2010

Enjoyable evening of metal-bashing and whatnot from the ex-Einstürzende Neubauten man. Einheit had kitted out the venue with long metal coils suspended from the ceiling, and played them with mallets and hand drills to the accompaniment of backing tapes. He also made the already dusty atmosphere of the Fluc Wanne even murkier by pulverising concrete blocks into rubble. It was all very industrial, but I can’t help feeling that the moment for this kind of thing has come and gone. Neubauten didn’t replace him, after all. Plus, it wasn’t Mufti’s fault but this concert had the most annoying audience member I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter, a bloke down the front who insisted on dancing – dancing, I tell you – and shouting incomprehensibly throughout the entire set.

Full Blast, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 18 October 2010

The incomparable Peter Brötzmann returned to Vienna for the first time in a year, this time with his Swiss rhythm section of Marino Pliakas on bass guitar and Michael Wertmüller on drums. The trio was augmented on this occasion by the ubiquitous Ken Vandermark on reeds, plus an additional trumpeter and percussionist. Unusually, the first half of this evening was devoted to a composed piece by Wertmüller, who conducted energetically from his drumkit. It was something of a surprise to see music stands onstage at a Brötzmann gig; he didn’t have one himself, of course, but all the others did.

It was “as you were” after the interval, as the sextet launched into a furious, raging improv. Great to see Peter end the set by jumping into the air on the last note, just like Springsteen with his guitar. Except for a blistering duet with Brötzmann in the second half, I felt Vandermark struggled to make his presence felt in this context.

Terry Riley, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 23 October 2010

A grave disappointment, this. I went along on the basis of Riley’s peerless reputation as a minimalist composer, rightfully gained from his seminal works In C and A Rainbow In Curved Air. But on this occasion Riley proposed a series of shortish, dreary piano pieces, with meandering and soporific accompaniment from Talvin Singh on tabla and George Brooks on saxophone. I’m out.

Naked Lunch, Vienna Arena, 30 October 2010

This was the first time I’ve seen Naked Lunch do a proper show of their own, rather than play the Universalove soundtrack. It was a superb, engrossing performance. Oliver Welter prowled the stage intently, his haunting voice tracing patterns of love and loss around the emotionally dissonant forces unleashed by the music. There’s a troubling, volatile core to this group; the songs obey many of the rules of alt.rock, yet they contrive to keep the listener off balance with their jagged, restless qualities.

And by the way, am I really the only non-Austrian who thinks Naked Lunch are great? Apart from the growing pile of unread and uncommented-upon reviews on this blog, I’ve never seen a single word written about them in English.

Oliver Welter, Vienna Radiokulturhaus, 20 September 2010

One of the best things about writing a column which previewed upcoming concerts in Vienna (for the now defunct Ether magazine) was that it encouraged me to investigate musicians who were previously unknown to me. In one or two cases, that research led me to groups of which I am now a confirmed fan and can’t imagine life without them. Okkervil River would be one of those, and another would certainly be Austrian independent outfit Naked Lunch. I’ve raved about their superb soundtrack to the film Universalove here and here, but my original Ether column about the group contained a seed or two which may have led to their becoming an important presence for me. Knowing the group’s turbulent history, which saw one founder member (Georg Trattnig) dying of alcoholism and the other (Oliver Welter) living on the streets for a while, would certainly have contributed to my sense of the anger and desolation that clouds 2004’s aptly titled Songs for the Exhausted, as well as their 2007 masterpiece This Atom Heart of Ours.

It was a real pleasure, then, to catch Oliver Welter in solo acoustic mode at one of Vienna’s smartest venues, the Radiokulturhaus. Limbering up for what will no doubt be a period of extensive Naked Lunch activity (with a new album and tour in the offing), Welter played a solid two hours’ worth of old and new songs, with a sprinkling of cover versions thrown in for good measure. He was in a relaxed and chatty mood, although his between-song patter was all in German and therefore passed me by entirely. The songs themselves, however, are sung in English. One might hazard a guess that this is being done for commercial reasons, were it not for the fact that Welter’s whole approach seems as unmediated by commerce as that of Peter Hammill (of whom, a reliable source informs me, Welter is something of a fan). Despite the group’s profile having increased as a result of Universalove’s acclaimed presence on the international film festival circuit, I get the feeling that their strong Austrian and German fanbase is likely to remain the bedrock of their following.

In any case, it seems to me that the lyrics being written and sung in a language that is not the singer-writer’s own lends Naked Lunch’s songs a sense of alienation coloured by optimism, even a certain naïveté. This hunger for redemption from estrangement is shored up in turn by Welter’s voice, which sounds like that of a battered but resilient angel. Stripped down to skeletal acoustic versions, the songs emerge as haunted, uncertain reveries: a wedding day is a funeral, a fleeting encounter with a girl who was “so sad, so beautifully sad” is anatomized in unsparing detail. A new song, “The Sun”, meanwhile, was delivered with immense rhetorical power, Welter’s sense of relief at having successfully navigated its treacherous waters evident in the way he triumphantly punched the air at the song’s end.

The audience were held rapt throughout, and refused to let Welter leave. Much to his credit he was generous with the encores, winding up with a song sung in Spanish, no less (from the soundtrack to The Wild Bunch, if I understood correctly). Despite the shift of language, its tender fragility was entirely of a piece with what had gone before – an emotionally unsparing performance from this self-effacing but vastly talented musician.

Records of 2009

Here’s some kind of list of the 2009 releases that made the most impression on me last year.

1. Peter Hammill, Thin Air
2. Naked Lunch, Universalove
3. The Thing, Bag It
4. Fire,¹ You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago
5. Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love, Chicago Volume/Milwaukee Volume²
6. Full Blast,³ Black Hole
7. Steven Wilson, Insurgentes
8. Æthenor, Faking Gold and Murder
9. Christina Carter, Seals
10. Alela Diane, To Be Still


1. Fire is Mats Gustafsson, Johan Berthling and Andreas Werliin.
2. Released as two single CDs, but it’s hard not to think of them as a double.
3. Full Blast is Peter Brötzmann, Marino Pliakas and Michael Wertmüller.

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