My first Tindersticks concert in four years, and it was a delight to spend another evening in the presence of a group who have meant so much to me over the years. I must have seen them dozens of times by now, in both their pre- and post-split incarnations, and their concerts have always been emotionally draining affairs laced with romance, heartbreak and regret. This was certainly the case tonight, as the group responded beautifully to the splendour of the Konzerthaus with a set drawn heavily from their new album The Waiting Room.
Not much to add to my review of Tindersticks’ March concert in Vienna, in which I tried to articulate my ambivalent feelings as a long-time fan about the group’s change in direction since their split and subsequent regrouping. I will say that, over the course of this two-night residency, the Something Rain songs gained a sense of confidence and purpose that had certainly been lacking in the rather cautious earlier performance. Terry Edwards’ extended sax solo at the end of “Come Inside” was simply gorgeous, while the importance of David Boulter’s role as musical director was underscored time and time again by his shimmering and lustrous keyboard arrangements. On the other hand, Boulter’s spoken word narrative on “Chocolate” fell wretchedly flat. I’ve heard this song described as a close relative of “My Sister”, but there’s really no comparison between that early masterpiece and this mundane tale with its silly twist.
In six years of concertgoing in Vienna, I’d never previously been to Theater Akzent. The venue’s location was interesting in that it allowed me to gawp en route at the Theresianum, the famous private school next door, which I’d never seen before either. I hope the Akzent is used for gigs more often in the future, since the acoustics on these two evenings were full and clear. In fact, this was one of the principal benefits of these shows as against the March one. The Akzent was quite a bit bigger than I had expected, with circle as well as stalls seating, and the group were able to crank up the levels nicely compared to the rarefied atmosphere of the Radiokulturhaus. The girl sitting next to me was even blocking her ears during the loudest parts, which was not something I ever thought I’d see at a Tindersticks show. We’re not talking Swans levels here, but there was definitely a sense of the group using volume to enhance the impact of the music.
This turn to loudness made the transported demeanour of Stuart Staples all the more understandable. Looking like a respectable country gentleman from a Hardy novel, Staples closes his eyes while singing as if physically affected by the bittersweet intensity of his songs. And one can hardly blame him, confronted as he is by the painful resignation that dwells deep within songs like “Factory Girls” – a post-split song, to be sure, but also one of the evenings’ saddest and most deeply affecting moments. Having given so much stylish pleasure over the years, Tindersticks continue to enchant and delight.
It was a great pleasure to make a rare visit to one of my favourite venues, the Radiokulturhaus. And what made the evening even more memorable was that it was for a Tindersticks concert, my first since December 2008. Not just any old Tindersticks concert, mind you, but the opening night of their 2012 tour and an exclusive radio session for FM4. As is usual with such events, tickets were only available to competition winners. I didn’t win one, of course, but that didn’t stop me from getting in.
This wasn’t planned as the first night of the tour but it ended up that way, the group’s shows in London the week before having been cancelled due to Stuart Staples suffering from a throat infection. The singer was obviously aware of the need to go easy on his voice, and the set was rather subdued as a result. It was also only nine songs long, but that’s par for the course with these radio sessions; no doubt I’ll get my fill when they return to Vienna for two nights in May.
As for this evening’s concert, it encapsulated everything that makes Tindersticks so precious, but also gave an awkward reminder of what has been irretrievably lost. The group’s first six pre-split records constitute a body of work that has, over the years, affected me more deeply than that of just about any other artist. The juxtaposition of swooning romanticism, crepuscular intimacy and gloomy resignation etched a view of the world that I immediately recognized and took to heart. Somehow, though, the split and the later reformation have irrevocably altered Tindersticks’ DNA.
Staples has always maintained a frustrating silence on the specifics of the break-up, but he did signal that he felt the group had reached a creative impasse after 2003’s harrowing Waiting For The Moon which they needed to overcome. Unfortunately, the resulting transformation involved not only the departure of violinist Dickon Hinchcliffe (whose weeping strings had been central to the group’s sound) but also a shedding of some of the key songwriting impulses that had made those first six albums so essential. Each of the three post-split albums – The Hungry Saw, Falling Down A Mountain and now The Something Rain – has contained one or two gems, but on the whole they’ve been mild, tentative affairs, lacking the orchestral sweep and wired emotional impact of their predecessors.
And so this abbreviated set, consisting as it did of four old songs followed by five new ones, presented a microcosm of Tindersticks’ musical journey. Staples may have been guarding his voice but he was in fine mood throughout, persuasively conducting the five gifted musicians around him and throwing joyful moves on guitar and tambourine. “Cherry Blossoms” was sublime in its stillness, “If You’re Looking For A Way Out” raw with soulful anger. Of the new songs, I especially liked “Slippin’ Shoes” with its infectious chorus, and the climactic rush of “Show Me Everything”. They may never recapture the greatness of their earlier incarnation, but Tindersticks are still the masters of sombre, intelligent songcraft.
A great pleasure and a relief to see Tindersticks live again after so long (five years, by my reckoning, my last time having been the Old Market in Hove in 2003), when at one stage it looked distinctly unlikely that they would ever perform together again. Inevitably something has been lost with the line-up changes. It’s not the same without Dickon Hinchcliffe, for one thing, and of course the new album doesn’t measure up to anything they did with the old line-up. This is not just the disgruntled bleat of a long-time fan who hates change. I’ve lived with The Hungry Saw for months now, and the fact of the matter is that it is sadly lacking in the melodic inventiveness and sense of bruised drama that every Tindersticks album up to now has luxuriated in.
As expected, this sense of disappointment translated fairly accurately into the live setting. The group knocked out dutiful renditions of every song on the album, but the guts, emotion and romance that I have grown to love Tindersticks for were only present in the pre-Hungry Saw songs. On the other hand, the upheaval has clearly lifted a weight from Staples’ shoulders; I’ve never seen him smile more often during a concert.
An irate footnote to wish no thanks at all to the girl with short dark hair near me who talked in a loud voice to her friends throughout the entire show, including the quiet songs. At the end of the main set Staples even commented on her rudeness, saying “it’s been great playing for you… except for the woman down there.” But she can’t have been listening. She just kept on talking.
The Vienna Songwriting Association are a fine group of individuals who promote concerts of folk and acoustic music all year round in this city. As well as this, every November they put on a three-day festival of internationally known artists, the Bluebird Festival, at Porgy & Bess. There are some great names at this year’s event, such as Okkervil River playing almost a year to the day since their last appearance in Vienna. I raved about them in my November 2007 column, so let’s talk instead about one of my all-time musical heroes, American singer and songwriter Michael Gira. Gira initially made his name as the driving force behind Swans, a crushingly loud and formidable outfit who emerged from the creative ferment that was early ’80s downtown New York. When they first came to public attention, Swans presented a vision of rock music as a form of abjection, with bone-crunching percussion to the fore and lyrics that focused relentlessly on traumatic explorations of work, sex and the body. Over the years they gradually let the light in, bringing softer and more acoustic textures into their music. After Gira ended Swans in 1997 he began a new project, the Angels of Light, which placed even more emphasis on acoustic elements. In all of these incarnations, however, Gira has never swerved from an implacable belief in the atavistic power of the song. Straining with every muscle and sinew of his body, he sings with immense authority and commitment, every moment of his performance filled with tenderness and rage. This rare solo appearance by one of rock music’s most exceptional talents should on no account be missed.
Early next month, soulful British group Tindersticks stop off in Vienna on their first tour in several years. Like many others, I had doubted that they would ever return to active service. Over 15 years and seven albums, Tindersticks have perfected a literate and highly listenable blend of alternative rock, chamber music, soul and jazz, defined by rich string-laden orchestrations and the desolate croon of singer and lyricist Stuart Staples. Having released nothing new since 2003 and with rumours of a split rife, their story seemed on the brink of an end; to my great pleasure, however, they are back with an excellent new album, The Hungry Saw. Although three of the original members have now left, the new album is a worthy addition to the group’s catalogue and will no doubt be subjected to passionate live treatment. Staples is an enigmatic figure, rarely speaking onstage and often seeming to be transported elsewhere as he performs; he has remained tight-lipped about the reasons for the split. But the group bring a marvellously intuitive sense of drama and mystery to their songs, with violin, brass and organ enveloping the listener in a warm and tender embrace.