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.