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.

A Silver Mt Zion, Vienna Arena, 14 October 2008

My first proper rock concert in months – this summer’s three Leonard Cohen shows, as poignant and memorable as they were, didn’t really cut it as intimate live experiences. You have no idea how good it felt to be back in the dark, smoky environs of the Arena among a roomful of likeminded souls. And there can be few better groups to mark the onset of winter than A Silver Mt Zion (I’m not going to call them by their full name).

I last saw ASMZ in May 2006 on my first visit to the Donaufestival, which that year was held in Korneuburg as well as Krems. It’s a real shame that venue is no longer used; it was a very unusual, blasted/picturesque location, some kind of outbuilding of an old shipyard on the banks of the Donau. I seem to recall ASMZ having an extended line-up of at least seven members on that occasion. This time they were down to five – Efrim on vocals and guitar, two violinists, a double bassist and a drummer. And they functioned beautifully as a band, with the architectonics of the songs swelling massively and glacially around the pulsing strings and rhythms.

It’s still hard for me to think of ASMZ as a group in their own right, so keenly felt is the continuing absence of their parent band, whom I saw in London before they escalated to the heights of playing the Royal Festival Hall. But the longer GYBE’s hiatus lasts, the stronger ASMZ’s own group identity becomes. And blazing performances like Tuesday night’s can only hasten that process. I was, to put it mildly, utterly thrilled by this concert. Efrim’s voice has matured from a reedy, quavery instrument into one of bleak power and rage, while his guitar cuts through the funereal throb of the bass and drums like a scalpel. The violins of Jessica and Sophie, meanwhile, are a vital, constantly surging presence, and the ensemble singing is profoundly beautiful and affecting. These long songs are filled with passion, despair and a sense of injustice that is seared into the memory.

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.