Monday, December 17, 2018

Irmin Schmidt & Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg / Can Tribute - Live 2018.12.16 Volksbühne, Berlin, Germany

Of the four "core" or (loosely speaking) "original" members of the legendary Can, only one is still alive: Irmin Schmidt. Best known as the dramatic keyboardist, he now is mostly busy with film soundtracks. In recognition of his talents and legacy, this concert paired Schmidt the composer with Schmidt the influential sound synthesist. It seemed like an odd concept, but well worth the chance.

Event: Irmin Schmidt & Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg / Can Tribute
Venue: Volksbühne
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 16 December 2018

Irmin Schmidt & Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg setlist:
01. Filmmusiken I
02. Filmmusiken II
03. Filmmusiken III
04. Can Dialog: Halleluhwah
05. Can Dialog: One More Night
06. Can Dialog: Spoon

Can Tribute setlist:
01. Vitamin C [featuring Peaches]
02. Bel Air [featuring Bettina Köster]
03. Don't Say No [featuring Tikiman]
04. Deadlock [featuring Gemma Ray]
05. I Want More [featuring Gemma Ray]
06. She Brings the Rain [featuring Bettina Köster]
07. Mother Sky [featuring Tikiman]
08. Halleluhwah [featuring Peaches]
09. ...and More [with everyone]

The night began with Irmin Schmidt conducting the Deutsche Filmorchester Babelsberg, based in nearby Potsdam. They performed about 45 minutes worth of symphonic music apparently gathered from Schmidt's various soundtrack works and arranged by Gregor Schwellenbach. Without the intended film accompaniment, the music was disembodied and abstract. I (unsurprisingly) didn't recognize any of the compositional elements. The instrumentation was rarely particularly technically challenging and instead focused more on mood and atmosphere. Many sections relied on tension and heavy suspense. Unusual percussion abruptly interrupted the quiet moments. The one extended section of serenity and melody was followed by an equally long section of dissonance and uncomfortable tone clusters. The effect was a bit disconcerting as the jumbled themes jumped from scene to scene.

This was followed by "Can Dialog", a "composition for a large orchestra" in three parts by Schmidt and Schwellenbach. In total, the work lasted about 30 minutes. Each of the three parts seemed to primarily revolve around one of Can's most famous songs. In each case, it wasn't initially obvious what was what, and there seemed to be elements of other songs mixed in as well. The composers freely reinterpreted the original works and let them grow into new directions with logical extensions. The performance was more aggressive, upbeat, and physically challenging than the film soundtrack sections. The orchestra was not always as tight as they could've been, but they brought a delightful energy that I'd rarely seen before in a symphonic setting. Similarly, there was far more fast-paced repetition and propulsive percussion than I was used to. The unpredictability made it quite enjoyable despite any faults.

[Irmin Schmidt & Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg.]

After a break to reconfigure the stage, the second half of the night commenced with a Can Tribute led by Automat, a Berlin-based band featuring Jochen Arbeit (of Einstürzende Neubauten) on guitar, Achim Färber on drums, and Georg Zeitblom on bass. They were augmented by Max Loderbauer on keyboards and synthesizer and Andrew Zammit on percussion and more keyboards. Vocals were handled by trading off between four Berlin-based performers: Peaches, Bettina Köster, Tikiman, and Gemma Ray.

Peaches started off with an aggressive take on "Vitamin C". It was a good way to get things going, but the music didn't quite gel. This was followed by an abbreviated but formless version of "Bel Air" led by Bettina Köster, perhaps best known for fronting Malaria!. Unfortunately, the band wasn't able to capture the beauty of the original, and Köster's raw energy only seemed to throw it off. Tikiman's rendition of the latter-day "Don't Say No" managed to get a bit funkier, but his mic was initially inaudible and he seemed to have trouble getting into it.

[Can Tribute with Bettina Köster.]

Much to my surprise, it was Gemma Ray's versions of "Deadlock" and "I Want More" that finally convinced me that the show was going somewhere. I barely knew her beforehand, and considering her background in retro-noir blues, I wasn't exactly expecting her to fit into the right vibe. However, her voice was the most powerful and effective of the four, and her guitar added just the right touch of additional melody to the blend. Arbeit spent most of the night playing in the same effects-heavy style as he does with Neubauten, again often with an ebow, which meant that he was building more of a soundbed than taking the lead. Ray finally took that role. Her parts were generally fairly simple, but they were exactly what was needed. She also wasn't afraid to experiment: she kept a large knife wedged behind her instrument's neck that she occasionally wielded against the strings.

After that, Ray stuck around on guitar for the rest of the night. Köster came back out to sing "She Brings the Rain", and this time, her vocal performance suitably matched the band's restraint and it came off beautifully. Similarly, when Tikiman came out for a truncated "Mother Sky", he seemed in his element and the band worked up a powerful groove. Peaches came back for "Halleluhwah", which initially seemed like an odd choice after the orchestra had already done a version of it. The tribute band's version was another shortened take, but it's hard to complain about anything when given a convincing performance of that irresistible rhythm. Färber and Zeitblom held it down with fluid skill and Peaches had fun invoking the spirit of Suzuki.

For the final number, all four vocalists came out to do "...and More", the simplistic b-side version of "I Want More". It still jammed and they clearly had fun with it, but it made me wonder why that was the song they chose to close on. Of all the idiosyncratic, unique, and influential songs from Can, they chose the one that was a deliberately derivative alternate version of a song they'd already done. And that was it! The tribute didn't even last a full hour.

[Can Tribute with Peaches, Tikiman, Gemma Ray, and Bettina Köster. Note Ray's knife!]

The concept of the evening was a bit ill-defined, but it was cool to see so many famous figures united in their Can fandom, and the juxtaposition of modern orchestra against a backwards-looking rock tribute was amusing. While Schmidt's film music was only mildly pleasant, his reimagining of Can's classics was perhaps the highlight of the night. The tribute took some time to get its footing, but they largely lived up to the premise. They were never going to best the originals, but they got to play around and experiment with the themes, and if they were halfway successful, then they reached their goal. My only real disappointment was that Schmidt didn't stick around to play the keyboards in the tribute band!

Irmin Schmidt & Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg: B
Can Tribute: B-

Sunday, December 9, 2018

John Cale - Live 2018.12.08 Verti Music Hall, Berlin, Germany

Artist: John Cale
Venue: Verti Music Hall
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 8 December 2018

01. Frozen Warnings [Nico cover]
02. Story of Blood
03. Magritte
04. Hedda Gabler
05. The Endless Plain of Fortune
06. Chums of Dumpty (We All Are)
07. Mary
08. Half Past France
09. Amsterdam
10. I Keep a Close Watch
11. Helen of Troy
12. Wasteland
13. Hatred
14. I'm Waiting for the Man [Velvet Underground song]

15. Emily

The first concert I ever wrote a review for was a John Cale show that I saw in Vienna in 2007. (It was originally published on the Fear Is a Man's Best Friend fansite and later revised for my own blog once I started it.) Shortly thereafter, I also published a review of Circus Live from the same year. Back then, he already seemed rather old, but he still had a lot of energy. He was touring with three backing musicians and mixing elements of rock, pop, drone, and noise.

This concert was billed as "John Cale & Orchestra", and sure enough, he appeared on stage with a string section and three horn players (sousaphone, bass clarinet, and mellophone/trumpet), conducted by Randall Woolf. However, he also had a rock band backing him up: Dustin Boyer on guitar, Deantoni Parks on drums, and Joey Maramba on bass. This time around, Cale's age was more apparent in that he didn't seem quite as mobile as before, but his voice has remained strong and he still played his keyboard and guitar with deftness.

Cale opened the show with a droning cover of Nico's "Frozen Warnings", the original studio version of which he arranged and performed on. It was a convincing rendition, an oddly appropriate tribute, and a strong start to the evening. Unfortunately, rarely again during the show would Cale manage to balance vision, palatability, style, experimentation, and recognizability so effectively. In fact, most of the set felt deliberately confrontational.

The setlist wandered across his entire career, from "Amsterdam" from his solo debut, Vintage Violence (1970), to "Mary" from his last album of original music, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood (2012). A few songs, such as the latter and the encore "Emily" (frustratingly performed without the orchestra) were performed rather straight – as in, close to the beloved and familiar original studio versions, but perhaps a bit more darkly textured and drawn out. "I Keep a Close Watch" was also done more like the beauteous and grand versions from Helen of Troy (1975) and Music for a New Society (1982) than the recent reimagining as an electro-R&B groove from Cale's latest release M:FANS (2016).

But that was about as far as anything comfortable or accommodating went. "Story of Blood", a new song, was dark, brooding, and looming. The classic "The Endless Plain of Fortune" from Paris 1919 (1973), originally a lush, dramatic duel between clear skies and stormclouds, was spitefully performed without the orchestra. It instead featured a long keyboard solo with an unsettlingly cheesy tone. "Half Past France" was transformed into an amelodic dirge augmented by strange samples, again without the orchestra. "Hatred", an obscurity from the Nookie Wood era, was another intense and dark morass oddly accompanied by samples of neighing horses.

Thankfully, not every song was quite that bizarre and difficult. "Magritte" was about as weird as the original version and almost as good. "Hedda Gabler", already dark and long in the studio version from the Animal Justice EP (1977) was notably heavier and stranger. Instead of the choir and guitar solo that dominated the second half of the original, Cale let the orchestra step in to perform an extended, exciting, and varied instrumental passage. "Helen of Troy" was about as heavy and aggressive as ever, but it featured a long solo incorporating Boyer's guitar, the bass clarinet, and the mellophone. It was a combination I'd never seen before, and it was fascinating.

"I'm Waiting for the Man" was another interesting rearrangement. It is one of the only Velvet Underground songs that Cale regularly performs, along with "Venus in Furs", despite that he is not credited with writing either one. However, it was Cale that gave those songs their trademark sounds. Lou Reed usually turned "I'm Waiting for the Man" into a glam or hard rock song. Cale has always done strange things with it. This time, it was a protracted drone rendition that seemed to erase most of the chord changes. At least he kept most of the melody, so it almost felt like something you could hold on to.

The entire show was also accompanied by a visual projection above the stage designed by Abby Portner. The psychedelic patterns were about what I would expect from the sister of Animal Collective's Avey Tare, but some of the imagery such as an emaciated woman in a swimsuit (during "Wasteland") was fairly disturbing. A couple other segments also felt a bit exploitative. It helps to know that the visual artist was a woman, but the old-timey images of dancing women jarred with Cale's sound and style.

The aesthetics and location of the venue also made for a bizarre experience. The venue is named after an insurance company and only opened in October. The building is shared with a bunch of international chain restaurants and stores that I would probably never enter by choice. It sits on the Mercedes-Platz, which is surrounded by further bland establishments and filled with coordinated electronic advertising columns. On one side is the Mercedes-Benz Arena, a building whose construction in the late 00s was heavily criticized, in part because the developers convinced the city to shift a section of the nearby East Side Gallery, a part of the Berlin Wall covered in artwork created during the reunification. It was my first time ever walking around the commercial district, and it was terrifying.

Ignoring the environment, I enjoyed the show, although I'm not sure if Cale wanted me to. He continues to defy expectations and baffle the unwitting, but this is the same guy who was kicked out of The Velvet Underground for being too weird. It's a bold move to hire an orchestra and then have them sit out on all the songs originally recorded with orchestral accompaniment. When they did play, it was rarely in a traditional, melodic style. Even with Cale's aggravating elements, some songs were still enjoyable, and I appreciate that Cale isn't willing to compromise. I don't really understand what his goal was, or what he was trying to get across, but I'm glad that he hasn't mellowed out with age. He's always been a challenging artist, and it doesn't look that is going to change any time soon.

Score: C+

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Peter Murphy with David J / Desert Mountain Tribe - Live 2018.11.27 Columbia Theater, Berlin, Germany

I've expressed plenty of skepticism for full-album concerts in the past, but I wasn't about to miss an opportunity to see Peter Murphy and David J play together on their first tour together since the last Bauhaus shows in 2006. Although I have seen Murphy play some Bauhaus classics over the years, I missed my chance to see J's rock outfit at Levitation a couple years ago. If this is as close to seeing a reunited Bauhaus as I can get, I'll take it. These are two of my favorite artists and I've written a lot about both of them over the years.

Artist: Peter Murphy with David J
Venue: Columbia Theater
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 27 November 2018
Opening Act: Desert Mountain Tribe

01. In the Flat Field
02. Double Dare
03. A God in an Alcove
04. Dive
05. Spy in the Cab
06. Small Talk Stinks
07. St. Vitus Dance
08. Stigmata Martyr
09. Nerves
10. Burning from the Inside
11. Silent Hedges
12. Bela Lugosi's Dead
13. She's in Parties
14. Adrenalin
15. Kick in the Eye
16. The Passion of Lovers

Encore 1:
17. Telegram Sam [T. Rex cover] →
18. Ziggy Stardust [David Bowie cover]

Encore 2:
19. Severance [Dead Can Dance cover]

A band with a name like Desert Mountain Tribe could really go either way. At first, the roughly growled vocals and heavy sound had me worried that they were some bland hard rock band. However, I detected some nice psych and drone touches that piqued my curiosity. And then after just two songs, Peter Murphy appeared on stage! He sang two songs that coincidentally had bits of gothic rock guitar. He may have had to read some of the lyrics, but his soaring voice really made the songs hit home, and the audience was clearly thrilled. After he left, the band veered into a more Krautrock direction. I was oddly reminded a bit of Jesus & Mary Chain (simultaneously coarse but cool) and U2 (simultaneously grandiose but melodramatic). I liked their blend of styles, even if the individual songs didn't make a strong impression. They were great at building up their jams and maintaining a driving energy.

[Desert Mountain Tribe with Peter Murphy.]

I had always heard that Bauhaus were a powerful live band, and their live albums and bootlegs are reasonable proof of this. Seeing them live, or even half of them, is the real deal. Most of their songs (and particularly the opening trio of In the Flat Field) are propulsive, expansive, and dramatic. On stage, they were all the more captivating. Peter Murphy was in his element. He danced and moved with natural grace and perfectly played the role of a messianic glam-rock vampire. He connected with the crowd, sang every note with effortless ease, and filled the venue with his stage presence. His action was all the more enhanced by the stark, theatric stage lighting.

The band backed up Murphy just as well as any recording of Bauhaus that I've heard. David J appeared cool and restrained, but his performance was spot-on. I've never seen him play bass, let alone fretless bass, but you'd never guess such a solid bassist could also be a folky singer-songwriter and guitarist. Frequent collaborator Mark Gemini Thwaite played guitar and joined J for the backing vocals. Unlike when I saw Thwaite with Murphy in 2009, when I criticized him as "no Ash, let alone Mick Ronson", this time around he was almost a match for Daniel Ash's erstwhile guitar flash. Drummer Marc Slutsky was also a suitable fill-in for Kevin Haskins; he was able to replicate both the energy of the intense songs and the unusual rhythms of weirder tracks.

[Peter Murphy, David J, and two Marks.]

Choosing the strangest Bauhaus album is difficult, but In the Flat Field might take the cake. After blasting through the first three tracks, the band had to tackle six rather unconvential songs that had been largely ignored since circa 1981. "Dive" and "The Spy in the Cab" remained lesser tracks, but the band's patient meditation of the bizarre rhythm of the latter was enlightening to behold. (It took me years to realize that it was J's bass making the bleep sound and that that was basically the entirety of his part.) For "Small Talk Stinks", Murphy brought out a megaphone, presumably just as he did on the studio recording. He was clearly have fun with it in a way that was never quite apparent in the sarcastic bite of the original. He also used the megaphone to introduce "St. Vitus Dance", another opportunity for play and dance. "Nerves" required a sampled piano, but the taut precision and eventual release worked nonetheless.

With only a brief pause, the band continued onwards as if they hadn't just played an entire album from start to finish. The first post-Flat Field pick was "Burning from the Inside", which has never been one of my favorites. While I could again appreciate the meditative simplicity of it, it always seems to go on too long. But after that, every song they played was a winner.

Murphy, J, and company mostly stuck to the beloved classics from the original incarnation of Bauhaus, but they also threw in "Adrenalin", a solid rocker from their reunion album Go Away White (2008). "Bela Lugosi's Dead" might be an obvious choice, but I'd never seen any member of Bauhaus play it in full, and it was a dark delight. Murphy even used some sort of delay pedal to modulate the snare in a manner quite similar to the recorded version, except in stereo and to a much greater extent. "She's in Parties" gave Murphy a chance to play a melodica and even a bit of electronic percussion at the end. Meanwhile, J played a spirited take on one of my favorite dub jam basslines. "Kick in the Eye" was another funky highlight.

For the encore, the band gave us a rendition of one of Bauhaus' first covers, the excellent "Telegram Sam". It was played in the same tense, amped-up style as their studio recording. Much to my surprise and delight, just as on the 1998 live album Gotham, they segued right into their (rather faithful) version of "Ziggy Stardust". Bauhaus might not be Bowie, but they did the best version of the song I've heard that didn't come from the Spiders from Mars. This was a rather transcendental experience.

That seemed like a fitting end to the night, and some of the audience departed, but to my surprise, the house lights did not come on. After a bit of a wait, the band came back and offered "Severance", the somber Dead Can Dance song that first appeared in Bauhaus' setlists during their first reunion in 1998. It was a beautiful performance with a grand crescendo. Murphy's vocals were sublime.

This was an awesome show. I really wasn't sure how they'd pull it off, but Murphy and J were at their prime, and their bandmates were an excellent support. I've never seen Murphy perform at this level. Perhaps J's presence spurred him to greater heights, or maybe Murphy is just particularly well suited to the Bauhaus spirit, but whatever the cause, this show surpassed my high expectations.

[Peter Murphy and David J.]

Desert Mountain Tribe: B+
Peter Murphy with David J: A

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Psychic TV / Michael Cashmore & Shaltmira - Live 2018.11.15 Astra Kulturhaus, Berlin, Germany

Everything about Genesis P-Orridge fascinated me from a young age: hearing Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats thanks to my sister, finding Psychic TV's The Magickal Mystery D Tour EP at a used record store in Kansas, learning about Genesis' and Lady Jaye's gender transformations, seeing an exhibit of their photography at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, and so on. However, Throbbing Gristle disintegrated a few years ago, Psychic TV hasn't toured as much in recent history, and Genesis' health has not been particularly good lately. Opportunities to see them or the band are probably quite limited.

Artist: Psychic TV
Venue: Astra Kulturhaus
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 15 November 2018
Opening Act: Michael Cashmore & Shaltmira

Setlist (approximate):
01. New Sexuality
02. We Kiss
03. Burning the Old Home
04. Alien Brain
05. White Nights
06. Just Like Arcadia
07. Jump Into the Fire [Harry Nilsson cover]
08. After You're Dead, She Said

09. Suspicious
10. Mother Sky [Can cover]

Opening the night were Lithuanian visual artist and vocalist Shaltmira and British musician and former Current 93 member Michael Cashmore. In addition to singing and chanting, Shaltmira danced, played with masks, and performed various ritualistic actions. Cashmore mostly stayed behind a table with a laptop and some electronics and produced a dark electronic soundscape. Twice he stepped to the front of the stage to briefly sing along with Shaltmira. The music had elements of techno, industrial, and darkwave. This was matched with a weird, dark, magic-oriented visual display designed by Shaltmira. It made for quite a strange experience, one that I wasn't sure how to connect with. It didn't speak to me, but I found their dedication to some version of magical ritual to be captivating. The more cohesive musical elements had some appeal to me, but much of it felt purposeless and vague.

[Michael Cashmore & Shaltmira.]

Psychic TV hit the stage at an uneven time while the house music was still playing, suggesting that they were either late or in a hurry to get going. Genesis P-Orridge came last and took the central spot. The rest of the band consisted of longtime members Edward O'Dowd and Alice Genese on drums and bass, respectively, Jeff Berner on guitar, and John Weingarten on keyboards. They started with a long instrumental passage before Genesis joined in with their vocals.

Musically, the band incorporated elements of psychedelia and classic rock, but stretched out into long jams that felt trance-like and droning. They performed only ten songs over the course of almost two hours. The songs rarely felt tiresome, perhaps because of the energy of the performers, the subtle variations in the musical and lyrical themes, or the weird kaleidoscopic patterns of the slideshow, which exhibited an obsession with twisting classical art images into unusual forms in constant motion.

Many of Genesis' lyrics seemed to related to their explorations and experiences with gender and sexuality. The ghost of the departed Lady Jaye was frequently present, either via their shared pandrogeny or Genesis' tribute to and obvious sadness for her passing. Another dominant theme was finding personal freedom.

While I found Genesis' lyrics poignant, their vocals were not at their best. Whatever the cause, Genesis frequently sang jarringly off-key and sometimes even out of time. If I hadn't been particularly interested in understanding their experience, and if the music hadn't been strong enough behind them, the vocals might've been overwhelmingly distracting.

However, there were a few shorter numbers where Genesis seemed slightly more lively and consciously engaged, such as the pseudo-Christmas song "White Nights". I missed the psychedelic reverb and other effects that often grace the vocals on their studio recordings, but Genesis' trademark unconcerned drawl was still quite present. Their humor and openness were also on display. At one point, Genesis urged the audience to reject coolness and hug one's neighbors. Between many songs, the band played samples from old movies, PSAs, and similar media, including the famous Bill Clinton denial quote. Genesis often mimed to them or made a quick joke as the next song began.

Psychic TV might be a profoundly strange band, but they are also profoundly fascinating. The music was compelling, the visual aspect was hard to stop watching, and Genesis barely has to try to still have a captivating stage presence. I just hope this isn't the end of Psychic TV as a live unit. O'Dowd had to appeal twice to the crowd to stop smoking cigarettes, as Genesis was apparently on oxygen before the show and would be again immediately afterwards. They're either dedicated to their craft or desperate for financial support. I hope it's the former.

[Psychic TV.]

Michael Cashmore & Shaltmira: C
Psychic TV: B-

[Edit 2022.12.29: Only long after the fact did I realize that this was the final performance of Psychic TV and Genesis P-Orridge. See also my review of Godstar: Die fünf Tode des Genesis P-Orridge, which includes the picture above.]

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Human League / Shelter - Live 2018.11.12 Huxleys Neue Welt, Berlin, Germany

Similar to my experience with Fehlfarben, one of my first reviews on this blog was of my favorite album by The Human League, Travelogue (Dare comes second!), and it took until now for me to finally get a chance to see them live. Of course, the band that recorded Travelogue only shares one member with the current lineup, but it still seemed worth a shot.

Artist: The Human League
Venue: Huxleys Neue Welt
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 12 November 2018
Opening Act: Shelter

01. The Sound of the Crowd
02. Sky
03. Heart Like a Wheel
04. Open Your Heart
05. Soundtrack to a Generation
06. Seconds
07. The Lebanon
08. One Man in My Heart
09. Louise
10. Human
11. Behind the Mask [Yellow Magic Orchestra cover]
12. Love Action (I Believe in Love)
13. All I Ever Wanted
14. Mirror Man
15. Tell Me When
16. (Keep Feeling) Fascination
17. Don't You Want Me

18. Being Boiled
19. Together in Electric Dreams [Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder song]

When I read that the opening band was Shelter, I was expecting the American Krishnacore band. It seemed like a strange combination, but you never know with these things. When I showed up, I was instead presented with a British electronic pop duo featuring a singer that addressed the crowd in fluent German. I liked the queer vibes I got from them, but that was about it. The songs sounded like they were written by stealing one bit of a song by New Order, Gary Numan, or Depeche Mode, and then using that as the only hook. The lyrics were bland and the music just made me wish for the real thing. The singer was decent, but most of the music and backing vocals were programmed. I kind of wished I'd seen the hardcore band instead.

The Human League appeared as a six piece: original singer Philip Oakey, Dare-era backing vocalists Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley, two keyboard players (Nic and Ben), and Rob Barton on electronic drums. Off to the side of the stage was David Beevers, their sound engineer, who was important enough to receive an introduction by Philip along with the others. Both keyboard players came onstage with keytars, so clearly things were off to a good start.

[Two keytars!]

I had no idea of what to expect from the concert. Unsurprisingly, they played half of Dare along with both subsequent non-album singles, all of which were well done even if predictable. Otherwise, they played various singles from throughout their career, of which some were markedly better than others. "One Man in My Heart" was a welcome opportunity for Sulley to take the lead, but the song itself was not a winner. "Behind the Mask", on the other hand, was a compelling reminder of the band's collaboration with Yellow Magic Orchestra.

"Don't You Want Me" was naturally the closer of the main set, but the instrumentalists led an extended intro with an opportunity for the crowd to sing a round of the refrain before the singers came back on stage. I was particularly curious what they would offer for an encore after already playing their biggest hits. The answer was "Being Boiled", the only song they played from the original incarnation of the band. It's a weird song, but I still like it, and it was markedly heavier than anything else they played. The last song was "Together in Electric Dreams", originally a collaboration by Oakey and Giorgio Moroder for the Electric Dreams soundtrack. Naturally, it fits right into the Human League mold, and the crowd was into it.

From what I could tell, almost everything was performed live. One of the keyboardists even played a guitar for a couple of the songs! Oakey's vocals were still quite strong, and while no one ever pretended that Catherall and Sulley were virtuosos, their vocals were solid additions. I wish they'd been a bit higher in the mix at times, though. While the backstory of the women's addition to the band still sounds bizarre today, I've got to hand it to them that they've stuck with the band ever since they joined in 1980. It'd be a lot weirder if it didn't work.

The band clearly tries to fight the notion of being a boring synth band just standing statically behind their rigs. Oakey kept active and ran all over the stage. Catherall and Sulley were both in constant motion, swaying and dancing on the sides. (All three also had a few costume changes throughout the night.) The drumkit and keytars also helped with the movement on stage. And true to tradition, they had a massive array of video screens. The visuals were sometimes bits of their music videos but often just weird pseudo-sci-fi imagery or scenes from old video games (e.g. Pac-Man) and movies (e.g. Tron). The weirdest was for "Together in Electric Dreams":

[Are those mechanical sheep with telephones for heads?]

Despite the many things the band did right, there was still something missing from the show. Although they did their best to keep the attention of the audience, there was something a bit too easy, clean, and predictable about it all. They leaned hard on the pop side of their catalog, but their presentation lacked depth. I appreciate the politically charged nature of some of their songs, but many were straightforward and uncomplicated. It felt a bit too cheesy at times, like the audience was being pandered to. Where were the experimental elements? The willful weirdness? Obviously, I wanted more from Travelogue, but that's not the last album in their career to feature experimentation and exploration. I liked what I heard, but I was hoping for more.

Shelter: D
The Human League: C+

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Boogarins / Love'n'Joy - Live 2018.11.08 Musik und Frieden, Berlin, Germany

I had the good fortune to see Boogarins three times in Austin at various festivals while I lived there. They seem to be constantly growing and changing, so they were always worth taking a chance on. Although their second album, Manual (2015), didn't initially appeal to me as much as their first, As Plantas Que Curam (2013), it has grown on me in the meantime, and their latest album, Lá Vem a Morte (2017, reissued in "deluxe" form with three bonus tracks in 2018), is a delightful collage of psychedelic sound. 11€ seemed like a bargain to see them headline a show in a compact venue.

Artist: Boogarins
Venue: Musik und Frieden
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 8 November 2018
Opening Act: Love'n'Joy

01. Te Quero Longe [Early Version]
02. Foimal
03. 6000 Dias (Ou Mantra dos 20 Anos)
04. Lucifernandis →
05. Auchma [Extended]
06. Avalanche
07. LVCO 4
08. Corredor Polonês →
09. Lá Vem a Morte [Extended]
10. Onda Negra

11. San Lorenzo
12. Doce [Extended]

Unsurprisingly, the opener was another psychedelic band: Love'n'Joy from Ukraine. They were a three-piece with a garage rock foundation and a load of riffs and harmonies. The English lyrics that I could understand were nothing special, but they sure managed to make the music translate effectively. All three musicians were solid performers and held their own. This was put to the test when the guitarist broke a string and the bassist and drummer carried on and jammed on their own for a bit. The guitarist ended up just grabbing a different guitar (which turned out to be one of Boogarins'), but something went wrong with the cables or pedals and he ended up playing most of the next song plugged directly into the amp. It's practically a joke that some bands would sound completely mundane if the effects were removed, but thankfully Love'n'Joy mostly still worked even without the pedals. They kept it together and showed no sign of weakness despite the troubles. I was impressed.


The core of Boogarins' music has remained constant: melodic psychedelic rock with intertwined guitar work, Portuguese lyrics, and a healthy dose of experimentation. Lá Vem a Morte brings the experimental characteristics to the fore, but unlike some of the jam sections of the last show of theirs I saw, the record is focused, cohesive, and surprisingly bright. The propulsive drumming of Ynaiã Benthroldo was also given more room to shine.

However, I honestly wasn't sure how the new album would translate to the stage. Thankfully, they pulled it off quite successfully. Benthroldo's drumming retained a prominent place, particularly in songs like "Foimal", but his energy made the entire setlist groove, and his improvisational ability was essential for the jam sections. Bassist Raphael Vaz lent an electronic edge by playing most of the new songs on a keyboard. Dinho Almeida and Benke Ferraz kept their traditional roles, but they've only continued to expand their skill of playing off each other's parts. Almeida's rhythm guitar parts were often bouncy and dynamic enough that in another band they could be the lead part. Ferraz's lead guitar just jumped off from there. I was happy to see him singing more harmonies again as well.

Their set opened per tradition with a jam that I didn't recognize [Edit 2019.07.31: turns out it was an early version of "Te Quero Longe"], and from there they jumped all over their catalog, frequently rearannging and extending the songs along the way. "LVCO 4", a quite new song from the reissue of Lá Vem a Morte, was a surprisingly restrained and sparse number, although a few parts of their various jams had similarly minimalist breakdowns. "Lá Vem a Morte", which appeared on the album in three parts, each quite cacophonous and scatterbrained, was performed in a nine-minute continuous version. It still shifted from section to section, but it was focused more on the guitar jams instead of the samples and noise from the record. It was a highlight.

The house lights and music came on after "Onda Negra", but the band hadn't even been on stage for an hour. Thankfully, the crowd and band convinced the venue to let them carry on. The crowd had repeatedly and enthusiastically requested the song "San Lorenzo", and the band finally obliged, although Almeida had to struggle to remember the guitar part in the middle. He figured it out after a few tries, and the audience cheered him on instead of grumbling or jeering.

They played a strong set, and the show felt full and fulfilling despite being shorter than I expected. I liked the mix of songs and the many changes they made to the songs to adapt them to the stage. Even the new songs felt like they were retooled and reworked to keep them interesting and impressive without studio effects and samples. The only weak moments were when some of the sparser sections dragged on a bit too long, and I was surprised that they closed the show with such a section. Instead of building up to a big finish, the gradually worked their way down until there was nothing left to remove. I hoped they might come back for a brief second encore to do one more rocker, but that was it.


Love'n'Joy: B+
Boogarins: A-

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Echo & the Bunnymen / And They Spoke in Anthems - Live 2018.10.31 Admiralspalast, Berlin, Germany

It's almost hard to believe I've made it this far in life without seeing Echo & the Bunnymen live. Coincidentally, the first album of theirs I bought was Ocean Rain right here in Berlin on my first visit in 2004. And they played on Halloween of all nights!

Artist: Echo & the Bunnymen
Venue: Admiralspalast
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 31 October 2018
Opening Act: And They Spoke in Anthems

01. Going Up
02. Bedbugs and Ballyhoo
03. Rescue
04. Never Stop
05. All That Jazz
06. All My Colours
07. Over the Wall
08. The Somnambulist
09. Villiers Terrace → Roadhouse Blues [The Doors cover tease] → The Jean Genie [David Bowie cover tease]
10. Nothing Lasts Forever → Walk on the Wild Side [Lou Reed cover tease] → Don't Let Me Down [The Beatles cover tease] → In the Midnight Hour [Wilson Pickett cover tease]
11. Seven Seas
12. Rust
13. Bring On the Dancing Horses
14. The Cutter
15. The Killing Moon

16. Lips Like Sugar
17. Ocean Rain

I didn't see any reference to an opening band, so I had no idea what to expect. After the bells stopped ringing, the lights went down, and the spotlight came on, I was surprised to see a single man surrounded by instruments. This was And They Spoke in Anthems from Belgium. His shtick was looping. He mostly stuck to guitar and vocals with occasional bits of organ and percussion. Unfortunately, his foot-tapping on the hi-hat with a tambourine was rarely in time, so it was more of distraction than anything. Otherwise, his songs were fine and the looping generally worked. The highlight was some classical or folk-styled guitar parts, particularly one where he looped a lead part to simulate double-stop thirds.

Half an hour later, the bells rang again, but it took another conspicuous 15 minutes for Echo & the Bunnymen meander on stage to the sound of a Gregorian chant, just like they used to in the old days. They even opened with the traditional choice of "Going Up". The band, nominally just Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant, was augmented by Stephen Brannan on bass, Gordy Goudie on guitar, Nick Kilroe on drums, and Jez Wing on keyboards.

It quickly became apparent that they weren't planning on deviating from their typical sound and approach, despite that just weeks ago they released an album of orchestral rearrangements of some of their classic songs (The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon). I had half-expected that the band would be touring with strings players as a result. The album is exactly what you would expect: relatively tired and sappy versions of songs that don't stand of a chance of improving on the originals. The idea is obvious and not even executed particularly well. That said, the two new songs are actually decent.

At the concert, however, you might as well have not known that the new album exists. They made no mention of it whatsoever, and although the setlist is unsurprisingly similar to the album's tracklist, the renditions were essentially the classic arrangements that they've been playing since the beginning. The only exceptions to the standard mold were that Mac sang the updated lyrics to "Bedbugs and Ballyhoo" and they performed one of the new songs from the album, "The Somnambulist". Although it's a good song and it did fit in with the rest of the set, Mac's claim that "Everyone'll say that's a classic in twenty years" is probably unrealistic.

The only other surprises were the various teases of the band's favorite songs that they threw into the middle of "Villiers Terrace" and "Nothing Lasts Forever". However, even that wasn't really a surprise at all; they've been doing that practically since the beginning. Still, it's fun to see them do it live. Musically, they were consistently on point. The could hammer out these songs without even trying, but thankfully they still invest them with energy and strength. The fact that the setlist is so predictable is a bit disappointing, but at least the songs they do always play are a superb selection.

The biggest disappointment, however, was Mac's voice. For the most part, he still sings well enough, but he can't hit the notes like he used to. In "Never Stop", "The Cutter", and "Ocean Rain" in particular, he changed some of the melodies to a lower register. It seemed like he was trying to give his all for "The Cutter", but he couldn't quite make it each time and he sometimes opted for the easy route. On other songs, you could hear his voice stretch and fail. "The Killing Moon" was unfortunately the worst example. Most of the song was great, but I guess he figured he couldn't just skip the highest parts. He tried his best, but he just couldn't do it. In general, there was an element of power in his voice that was missing. The best Bunnymen songs feature sections where Mac would belt out in an almost unbelievably strong voice, and that just didn't quite happen.

For a band that got their start just about 40 years ago, though, they still have a lot to offer. The songs are as good as ever, and the fact that they are still able to throw a new one in the mix that isn't an obvious dud is reassuring. I wish they would've thrown in some more obscurities or simply played a longer set, but they lived up to their reputation of being a capable and well-honed band.

And They Spoke in Anthems: C
Echo & the Bunnymen: B

P.S. Unfortunately, we weren't granted any special treats for Halloween. In fact, Mac claimed to "hate Halloween". I wasn't able to understand his explanation, though.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Fehlfarben / Black Heino - Live 2018.10.26 Heimathafen Neukölln, Berlin, Germany

I've always been a bit skeptical about full-album concerts, but I wasn't about to miss a chance to see Fehlfarben, one of the undisputed best bands to come out of the German punk and Neue Deutsche Welle scenes. One of the very first reviews I ever wrote for this blog was of their iconic debut album, Monarchie und Alltag, the very album they were performing in full. (According to my webhost's statistics, it's the most popular review I've ever published.) Furthermore, just before I caught wind of this concert, I wrote an entire article about "Militürk", one of the songs from the same album. To say the least, I was excited for this concert.

Artist: Fehlfarben
Venue: Heimathafen Neukölln
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 26 October 2018
Opening Act: Black Heino

First set (Monarchie und Alltag):
01. Hier und Jetzt
02. Grauschleier
03. Das sind Geschichten
04. All That Heaven Allows
05. Gottseidank nicht in England
06. Militürk
07. Apokalypse
08. Ein Jahr (Es geht voran)
09. Angst
10. Das war vor Jahren
11. Paul ist tot

Second set:
12. Platz da
13. Das Komitee
14. Urban Innozenz
15. [unknown]
16. Politdisko

17. Dekade 2
18. WWW
19. Große Liebe

Not knowing anything about Black Heino, while doing my advance research, I quickly realized their name was appropriative. (You'll have to forgive me for being previously unaware of the Schlager singer Heino, who is white, just like the members of Black Heino.) I've been unable to find any explanation from the band other than provocation, which is a tired excuse. Despite my reservations, I tried to give them a chance on the merit of their music, but they failed to impress me on that account as well. They were boring, repetitive, and simplistic. Most of their solos and lead melodies were literally just ascending and descending a scale. At first, there were a few little flairs that reminded me of classic 60s pop/rock and garage rock, but even those gradually disappeared. The vocals were whiny and shouted tunelessly in the style of Frank Jürgen Krüger (of Ideal) and other German punks. (Why that style is beloved is beyond my understanding.) Their lyrics might have been good, but I couldn't tell, and I wasn't inspired to look them up.

[Black Heino.]

After that disappointment, I was impatient for Fehlfarben. Thankfully they didn't keep me waiting too long, and they launched right into "Hier und jetzt", the opener from Monarchie und Alltag. As expected, they played the whole thing start to finish, and then they left the stage. They came right back out for a second set consisting of much more recent compositions, and for the encore, they offered more of the same plus their first single, "Große Liebe".

As a result of the format, it seemed as if I saw two different bands with the same members. The first set was dynamic, varied, engrossing, and exciting despite the age of the songs. There was an unavoidable hint of gimmickry due to the premise, but the songs were still strong and largely relevant, and the audience was into it. The second set and encore were subdued, monotonic, and relatively tame. The band was still trying, but the audience wasn't feeling it, and people steadily streamed out while they were playing. The newer songs aren't bad at all, and lyrically they still have plenty to say, but somehow it didn't translate well on stage. The songs blended into one another and I had trouble concentrating and understanding the words.

Although the second half of the show wasn't as good as I had hoped, the first part didn't disappoint. It was awesome to see the entirety of one of my favorite albums played live by most of the original band. Peter Hein, the original vocalist who left after the debut album to work at Xerox for twenty years, has been back in the band ever since they reformed. He danced around stage, playfully messed around with the other members while they performed, tossed around balloons, and joked about whatever was on his mind. His vocals were actually substantially more powerful than they were on the album (although still not exactly trained or proficient by mainstream pop standards). As a result, he changed the original melodies and cadences at will, which was sometimes annoying but often a welcome improvement.

Three other original members were also present: bassist Michael Kemner, saxophonist/percussionist/keyboardist Frank Fenstermacher, and synthesist Kurt Dahlke, aka Pyrolator (although he only played on "Paul ist tot" on the album). Unfortunately, drummer Uwe Bauer hasn't played regularly with the band since 1991 and original guitarist Thomas Schwebel left the band around 2006. (The post-Hein additional guitarist Uwe Jahnke also left in 2014.) In their places were longtime drummer Saskia von Klitzing and relative newcomer Thomas Schneider on guitar. They were both capable replacements that played the original parts with deft skill.

Other than Hein's vocal alterations, most of the songs were played very similarly to the original versions. The exceptions were the three most beloved songs: "Militürk", "Ein Jahr", and "Paul ist tot". "Militürk" was extended and just as extreme as ever. It's admittedly quite strange to hear the crowd chant along to "Deutschland, Deutschland, alles ist vorbei" ("Germany, Germany, it's all over"). How do I interpret the remark from one of the elder punks in front of me to his comrade that the lyric suited the present day just as well?

"Ein Jahr" was also somewhat extended and rearranged, starting with the drums and then bass instead of the distinctive guitar riff. As if designed to prove the allegations of the band being a one-hit wonder, the audience response was conspicuously drastically more enthusaistic. The entire crowd tried to dance or sway to the mock-disco beat, and the sound of their singalong was louder than Hein. Something about it felt forced. Perhaps the band's claim that they never liked the song was true. The performance didn't quite live up to the studio version.

The album closer "Paul ist tot" was the other highlight. It wasn't until recently that I finally began to understand the song; until then, I'd never been able to figure out why German fans would often cite that as one of their favorites. Again, the audience sang along with the despondent lyrics, even when Hein forgot a line. The band extended the song about as far as it could go, and they made it work. Hein wandered off stage after he finished his part, but most of the band kept going. Von Klitzing eventually left too, but since the rest of the band kept going, she came back and drove them to a finish. Even then, Schneider kept hammering away at his guitar until he too grew tired.

I was a bit disappointed that Fehlfarben didn't play anything from the other albums released during their initial incarnation in the early 80s. However, of the musicians on stage, only Kemner played on 33 Tage in Ketten (1981) and none of them played on Glut und Asche (1983)! That said, they did play "Große Liebe", their first single that preceded even Monarchie und Alltag in 1980. It was originally recorded by S.Y.P.H. under the title "Industriemädchen" and presumably brought to Fehlfarben by Schwebel, who was an original member of both bands and wrote the lyrics to it. The industrial love song was just as ironic and appropriate as ever. It brought the show to an end on a (relatively) high note.


The concert gave me a wild assortment of conflicting feelings. The original album is a classic, and the band can still do a solid rendition of it. However, there was still a lingering feeling of being pandered to. I liked that the band adapted and extended some of the songs from the album, but "Ein Jahr" didn't quite work, and it took a few songs for the mix to sound right. Hein's vocals were an interesting change, but he forgot some of the lyrics and took a playful, uncommitted stance. And after they finished the album, the rest of the show just couldn't live up to it. The words are perhaps the most important part, but they were often indiscernible. The band is still relevant, but they are aging and their energy seemed to wane. The audience followed suit – or maybe it was the other way around.

It was a weird show, especially since they played basically the same show last year. It's hard to blame them, since this show was sold out, but the artistic merit is questionable. For better or worse, Fehlfarben fell in the trap of having released an album that captured the voice and spirit of a particular generation in a particular time and place. Judging by the sales numbers and the audience reaction, nothing else they do can quite reproduce that magic, no matter how hard they try.

Black Heino: D-
Fehlfarben: C+

[This is a terrible photo, but I took in a rush because the slideshow in the back was displaying the album cover. It rotated through a set of something like a hundred photos with similar elements of historical bleakness and commercialism.]

P.S. The only other review I've found so far of the show (in German, of course) is from the Berliner Morgenpost. It's a bit harsh but not far off from what I observed.
P.P.S. The Berliner Zeitung has a review of last year's show (again in German) that also has some elements in common, although it says very little about the actual performance.