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+