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

Letter to The Wire, July 2009

Nick Richardson’s mostly excellent review of this year’s Donaufestival in Krems, Austria, made the curious objection that “local artists were conspicuous by their absence”. If “local” were taken to mean from Krems itself, then Nick might have had a point; but the Donaufestival is really a Vienna festival in all but name, with the vast majority of its visitors (a record 13,000 this year) coming from the capital, shuttle buses running between Krems and Vienna, and so on. “Grassroots support” was indeed present, in the form not only of Fennesz but also of Martin Siewert’s appearance with freeform rockers Heaven And, not to mention a new performance piece by Fritz Ostermayer.

A shame, too, that Nick failed to mention the absolute highlight of the festival’s first week, a transcendent appearance by Spiritualized. Where Sonic Youth, as Nick correctly observes, were there strictly to take care of business, Jason Pierce and group delivered a set that frequently threatened to levitate the building, such was its gravity-defying intensity. In an avant rock scene that all too frequently and lazily relies on noise as a signifier of primal modes of expression, Spiritualized’s ecstatic fusion of garage, gospel and systems music feels more like the truth than ever.

Donaufestival 2009, Day 3: Spiritualized

Not only the concert of this year’s Donaufestival, but the concert of the year so far. I used to follow Spiritualized religiously, but hadn’t seen them for several years – not from any loss of interest, but simply because I hadn’t been able to make any shows. This superb performance reminded me of what I’ve always loved about Spiritualized – the sweeping sense of drama, the sensory overload, and the unique and ecstatic blend of avant rock, gospel and systems music.

I’m always banging on in these pages about how important it is for the performer to communicate with the audience between songs, but this show was an illustration of a different kind of communication – less tangible, perhaps, but no less real. Jason Pierce said precisely nothing to the audience all evening, but I never wished he had done – indeed, to do so would have broken the spell. No words were required, since the whole experience is utterly overwhelming for the eyes, ears, heart and mind.

Most of the songs begin simply, with a modest chord sequence, vocal line or melody to draw the listener in. It’s never long, though, before the mantric repetitions, the guitars, the gospel singers and the drums kick in and burrow straight into your skull. The stage lighting, so often meretricious, is crucially important to the overall effect, the blazing strobe lights in particular forming a visual correlative to the crushing totality of sound.

Standing impassively at stage left, the director of these wonders is a deceptively nonchalant figure. His voice can seem colourless on occasion, yet it has a desperate quality to it that renders his texts unbearably moving and thrilling. And it only takes the merest nod or signal to his bandmates for this holiest of rackets to be unleashed – a shatteringly vivid and powerful live experience.

Ether column, April 2009

After a rather underwhelming line-up in 2008, the Donaufestival returns to top form this year with a stellar list of attractions that make a night or two along the Danube a highly enticing proposition.  You should know the form by now: every year for two weekends in late April and early May, the sleepy town of Krems is transformed into a setting for cutting-edge music and performance art.  Major concerts take place in the exhibition hall near the centre of town, while smaller events happen in the Minoritenkirche, a ten-minute stroll through the beguiling streets of Krems and its next-door neighbour Stein.  There’s a strong satellite programme of exhibitions, theatre and club nights as well.  The festival is easily accessible from Vienna, since the organizers are savvy enough to run buses to and from Krems every night, with the last bus home not departing until the final band has played their last encore – which is, however, often as late as 3am.

As for the artists performing this year, my personal pick would be British space rock heroes Spiritualized. More or less a vehicle for Jason Pierce, who likes to go under the name J Spaceman, Spiritualized have perfected a rapturous and intoxicating blend of garage rock, gospel, blues and systems music.  Pierce’s recovery from a life-threatening illness last year has lent a new urgency to his blissful meditations on love, desire and addiction.  Other highlights of the first weekend include New York avant-rockers Sonic Youth.  I wrote about them the last time they were over here, so let me just note that as well as a Sonic Youth concert, there will also be a bonus performance by Mirror/Dash, a SY side project consisting of lead singer and guitarist Thurston Moore and bassist Kim Gordon.  Finally on weekend one, it would be remiss of me not to give a shout out to the Butthole Surfers, a bunch of sickoes from Texas who fuse shock rock antics with a chaotic mishmash of avant-garde, hardcore and psychedelia.

The pace barely lets up on weekend two, with the biggest attraction being a set by dark cabaret act Antony & the Johnsons. Having fallen in love with Antony’s first album at a time when few others had heard it, I’ve gradually become disenchanted with his histrionic style of singing.  Better by far to check out Stereolab, possibly the world’s only Anglo-French Marxist rock band [sadly they cancelled their appearance], or the fetching female folk duo Cocorosie.  I’m also very much looking forward to a rare DJ set by Aphex Twin.  One of my most memorable evenings of music ever was a concert by this innovative electronic musician, held in an old London prison with people in huge teddy bear suits bouncing dementedly around the dancefloor.  The Donaufestival may not be quite as way out as that, but it’s getting there.

Spring Heel Jack: Amassed, Live

On these two excellent discs, a live and a studio set, Spring Heel Jack demonstrate how far they have come from their origins as a drum and bass outfit to the mind-melting landscapes of free improvisation. The duo of John Coxon and Ashley Wales have assembled two veritable supergroups of Improv talent, based around the core presence of Evan Parker (saxophone), Matthew Shipp (electric piano) and Han Bennink (drums). More surprising, perhaps, is the presence of Spiritualized’s J Spaceman (aka Jason Pierce) on guitar. Yet, like SHJ’s own odyssey, Pierce’s presence illustrates the ever-increasing cross-fertilisation between musical categories – and his own work with Spiritualized has frequently revelled in a love of free-form atonality.

Amassed is a follow-up to 2001’s Masses, SHJ’s first large-scale foray into improv. Whereas the earlier album was largely a collaboration with American free jazz musicians, here the emphasis shifts to the European sphere. Highlights of the eight shortish tracks include ‘Wormwood’, wherein Coxon’s loose guitar and Wales’ sublime percussive touches lead to some lovely, jazzy interplay between Shipp and Parker. Characteristically, the piece becomes ever more frenetic as Bennink attacks his drumkit and the guitar and sax take flight. Parker is lyrical and tender on the opening ‘Double Cross’, his fluttering runs anchored by Bennink and by John Edwards’ double bass.

The set is beautifully balanced between full-on group improvisation and more barbed solo and duo explorations. ‘Maroc’ is an incredible battle between Parker and Spaceman, with Pierce sending out splintering shards of guitar and feedback while Parker lets rip with a stunning circular breathing solo. Equally intense is the appropriately titled ‘Duel’, an epic confrontation between Parker and Bennink.

Elsewhere, Kenny Wheeler delivers some achingly beautiful flugelhorn on ‘Lit’, although this piece is marred by the album’s only wrong note, as Wales bafflingly tears and crumples paper. All is forgiven by the time of the closing ‘Obscured’, however, which sees a mesmeric rhythmic pulse coil ominously around Shipp’s tumbling piano, as the rest of the ensemble work up a collective firestorm around him.

The live set was recorded in Brighton, at a show I was lucky enough to have attended (and don’t you just love it when live albums appear of concerts you were at?). Like the studio disc, it teems with instrumental virtuosity and wild ensemble playing. The line-up combines the American feel of Masses with the European sensibility of Amassed, with William Parker replacing Edwards on bass; but there is no respite from the thrilling intensity with which the group invests every phrase and passage. Over the course of two long improvisations, SHJ and their fine collaborators modulate from smoky lyricism to swinging bop and exhilarating, oceanic energy.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 12, 2004)