Donaufestival 2009, Day 1: Sonic Youth, Fennesz, Heaven And, No Neck Blues Band

It’s taken me far too long to get around to writing a report on this year’s Donaufestival, so here’s the first of three recaps of the nights I attended. In general there was plenty more to enjoy this year after the fairly disastrous line-up of the 2008 event. The headlining acts were mostly of a high standard, reflected in the news that the festival’s director has had his contract extended for a further three years (due in large part, no doubt, to the fact that a record 13,000 people visited this year). Crucially, the headliners – people like Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers and Spiritualized – were the kind of artists who walk that tricky balancing act between creativity and commerciality; they attract relatively large audiences, yet are able to do so without compromising their artistic integrity. (I wish I could say the same for Antony & the Johnsons, the festival’s single biggest draw this year, whose appearance on weekend 2 I had no desire to see.)

It’s more the second-tier acts that the festival has to work on now. With one or two honourable exceptions, there seemed to be a gaping hole in the middle of most evenings, with not much to entertain those people who were waiting around until 11.00pm to see the main act. One of those exceptions would certainly be the No Neck Blues Band, who had the unenviable task of being the first group to play on the main festival site on the first evening. They carried it off with great verve, though, creating a loose yet compelling weave of instrumental textures and the odd bit of Fluxus-style tomfoolery. Funnily enough NNCK were the first group I ever saw at the Donaufestival, at the old Korneuburg site in 2006 (review), so it was good to get reacquainted with them. The blond college boy-type percussionist, who on that occasion stripped naked and smeared himself with fake blood, was comparatively restrained this time, climbing very athletically up the lighting rig in order to suspend a cello from the ceiling. Meanwhile the spectacularly bearded frontman was busy winding a long reel of string around various instruments onstage – a nice visual correlative to the increasingly meshed and vexatious music.

Later on in Halle 2, all this detritus was cleared away in order to make way for a MacBook and an electric guitar –  a sure sign that Fennesz was in the building. The Austrian laptop musician played a blinding set, issuing simple chords and riffs on the guitar and then subjecting them to all manner of treatments and manipulations. The results were vivid, colourful and entirely engrossing. Electronica guys like Fennesz and Peter Rehberg are often accused of taking the easy option, of somehow not being ‘real’ musicians, but there’s an awful lot of brow-furrowing going on when they stare into their laptops. Forming a marked contrast with the blank looks of most rock musicians, this level of concentration is an indicator of the care and creativity that go into electronic music-making of this quality.

Over in Halle 1, I caught a brief snatch of Heaven And, a pleasantly noisy rock/improv unit who reminded me (in a good way) of ’73/’74-era King Crimson. Having impressed the Sonic Youth-hungry audience enough to win an encore, they then rather ballsed it up by coming back on to play a slow, quiet and searching piece.

No chance of Sonic Youth themselves doing anything quiet or searching, though. Do they actually have any slow songs in their repertoire? If so, we certainly didn’t hear any of them tonight. This group, about whom I have always remained agnostic despite their impeccable avant credentials, came on and proceeded to blast their way through a set of jerky, spasmodic numbers that were each about as short as Kim Gordon’s skirt. It was a lot easier to admire than to enjoy, if I’m being honest. No shortage of energy, for sure, but precious little of the close-your-eyes-and-be-transported transcendence that the finest rock music has to offer – and which I was to experience in excelsis two nights later.

Donaufestival 2006

Went to the Donaufestival on Saturday night. This was the last night of the festival, held in the town of Korneuburg, half an hour away from Vienna by train. The venue was a building in an old shipyard on the bank of the Danube – very blasted-picturesque.

First up were the No-Neck Blues Band, one of those groups whose name I had often heard but had never previously listened to. Their set was pretty interesting. The barefoot Japanese singer created a great racket with various cymbals and metal objects strewn on the floor, and later had fun throwing a bunch of oranges into the audience. (Does this betoken a trend? I recall the two male ornaments at a Coil gig at the Festival Hall wandering naked around the audience handing out apples.)

Things did get a little unsavoury when the blond college boy-type percussionist stripped naked and threw most of his clothes into the audience before smearing himself with fake blood. But for the most part NNCK created a highly enjoyable freeform improvisational squawk. I can’t help feeling however that Sunburned Hand of the Man do it better.

Next were the Kammerflimmer Kollektief. They were a lot more considered but still managed to impress with a version of Terry Riley’s In C plus a bunch of shorter pieces. The saxophonist and double bass player kept things bubbling along nicely.

My main reason for going was to see A Silver Mt. Zion, and they didn’t disappoint. It was heartening to see Efrim engaging so warmly with the audience after hunching himself over his guitar so often with Godspeed. he’s not exactly Warren Ellis yet for between-song monologues, but he’s getting there. The harmonised vocals were deeply affecting, and the string section, guitars and drums were perfectly co-ordinated to form a huge firestorm of collective energy.

I was very pleasantly surprised by how popular ASMZ were (and I think the band themselves were a little taken aback by it as well). Every song was rapturously received and they played two lengthy encores, throwing the schedule for the rest of the evening out of kilter. So, a late finish and a 2am return to the city (thanks, Walter).

Going to concerts here is such a pleasure after years of suffering in London. Venues are well run, ticket prices are reasonable, security is unobtrusive, PA systems sound great, people are cool. Bring on more.