Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Britta / Barbara Morgenstern / Mint Mind - Live 2019.02.18 Volksbühne, Berlin, Germany


I was only recently tuned into Barbara Morgenstern, and when I learned she'd be playing a show with Britta at a great venue in my neighborhood, I was sold. Britta, oddly enough, entered my awareness many years ago at the height of my Smiths fandom thanks to their delightful "Wie ein Smith-Song" [sic].

Artists: Britta / Barbara Morgenstern
Venue: Volksbühne
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 18 February 2019
Opening Act: Mint Mind

As if the co-headliners weren't enough, they still had an opening act: Mint Mind. Fronted by guitarist/vocalist Rick McPhail (perhaps better known as part of Tocotronic), they played a slightly scuzzy blend of old-school garage rock and punk. They reminded me a bit of 80s Sonic Youth but with less of a political angle. The lyrics I could follow were mostly about motorcycles and similar rock 'n' roll fare with only mildly wry deviations. I liked the vaguely psychedelic drone of the guitar fuzz, but I found it a bit odd that in lieu of a bassist, they had a second guitarist that almost exclusively played bass riffs. The cover of Billy Bragg's "A New England" was pleasant if unexciting, and the closing number was an amusing take on the Sesame Street tune "I Don't Want to Live on the Moon".

[Mint Mind.]

Barbara Morgenstern appeared on stage accompanied by Christian Biegai on baritone sax. She played a keyboard to the beat of a drum machine, but also added some effects, loops, and processing to build up the sound. (Biegai did some of the same as well.) She focused on songs from her latest album, Unschuld und Verwüstung, but whereas the studio recordings are heavily electronic and a bit cold, the live renditions felt a bit warmer and more human, perhaps closer to the sound of her earlier albums. This impression was emphasized by her animated and excited demeanor. I appreciated the lyrics I could understand and I liked the subtle (and occasionally unsubtle) touches that Beigai's bari sax added. Some of the instrumental passages went on a bit long, but Morgenstern's keyboard skills and vocals were impressive and well-matched with her electronic production.

[Barbara Morgenstern with Christian Biegai.]

I'm still not entirely sure what I like so much about Britta, but they strike some sort of chord that works for me. They're a bit simple and unrefined, yet they have a subtle charm. Their music is approachable and instantly familiar. Maybe I just like their style of social commentary. At any rate, they were a bit loose on stage, but they seemed to be having fun with it, and musically it still worked. Vocalist/guitarist Christiane Rösinger was humorous but unapologetic. Barbara Wagner mostly played rhythm guitar, which left enough room for Julie Miess' bass (and occasional keyboards) to fill a lot of harmonic space, and thankfully she was up to the task. The core trio was rounded out by the energetic and precise Sebastian Vogel on drums. They didn't offer "Wie ein Smith-Song", but of course they played their signature tune, "Lichtjahre voraus", which is still just as relevant today as it was in 2003. I didn't catch any new songs, but if this reunion is for real, I wonder where it will lead them. It might not be Rock am Ring or Rock am See, but I hope they stay an active unit.

[Britta.]

Scores:
Mint Mind: C+
Barbara Morgenstern: A-
Britta: B

P.S. Thanks to Jochen!

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Amazing Grace (2018)


One of the many joys of living in Berlin is being able to see films premiering at one of the most important film festivals of world, the Berlinale (officially the "Berlin International Film Festival"), with hardly any effort. However, if you stay clear of Potsdamer Platz (as most locals do), the festival is actually easy to overlook as a resident. That's what happened to me last year. This year, I almost suffered the same fate, but I at last came to my senses and managed to get tickets for Amazing Grace.

The backstory is already gripping without knowing much about the actual content. A young Sydney Pollack was given the opportunity to film a young Aretha Franklin at her commercial peak, recording a hugely successful gospel double album live in a baptist church in Los Angeles. However, he didn't do anything to note which cameras were recording which songs on which reel, and the effort of synchronizing the audio to the video was such a tedious and challenging chore that everyone involved gave up.

Sydney Pollack kept the idea alive, though, and right before he died in 2008, he passed the project over to Alan Elliott. Elliott, aided by modern computing, was finally able to get the synchronization job done, only to be blocked from releasing the film by Aretha Franklin herself. She was apparently upset about money, a missing contract, or permission, but after her death last year, her estate finally assented to the distribution of the film. Almost 47 years after the two nights of the performance, the film started making the festival rounds.

The film has almost the same running time as the original album (just under an hour and a half). There are no unreleased songs, almost no rehearsal footage, and very little in the way of framing the performances. The choir marches in in full silver-vested glory, the Reverend James Cleveland introduces Aretha, and about half of the songs from the first night at shown. It switches to the second night for the rest of the songs plus a scene introducing Clara Ward, who alternates between sitting awkwardly and dancing frantically, and Aretha's father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, who delivers a speech about Aretha's gospel roots.

Regardless of how one feels about gospel, the music is stirring, and Aretha's performance is stellar. She doesn't say a lot (Cleveland handles most of the hyping), and the only apparent emotion she shows is deep passion for the music. It is that very intensity that makes her entrancing. She plays piano on a couple songs and she does it without even looking or seeming to notice the effort; her voice doesn't even register the distraction. The rest of the band is similarly talented, although they are generally overwhelmed (or at least overshadowed) by the handclapping and vocals of Aretha and the powerful and enthusiastic Southern California Community Choir.

There is some irony that the weakest song of the set is the title track itself, "Amazing Grace". Aretha's version is overlong, melodramatic, and exaggerated. However, the rest of the material is great. Even for the non-religious, the lyrics are inspirational, and the impassioned spirituality of the performers and the highly responsive audience make the whole thing feel like an overdue celebration. It's easy to get carried along. Everyone appears to be having a good time. The audience is incredibly thrilled to be there and they show it.

I'll admit that I might not have sought out this movie if I hadn't stumbled across it on the Berlinale schedule and gotten taken in by the story. I'm glad I went, though; it was uplifting and insightful. I could've done without cameos by the Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, and I would've appreciated some more footage of the rehearsals, but there wasn't much chaff in what did make the cut. It was a strong performance and a significant moment in musical history, so it's our luck that someone had the bright idea of filming it all.

Score: B+

References:

P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!

Monday, January 28, 2019

Hans-Joachim Roedelius - Live 2019.01.27 Auster-Club, Berlin, Germany


Artist: Hans-Joachim Roedelius
Venue: Auster-Club
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 27 January 2019

Hans-Joachim Roedelius opened the show by talking about his autobiography and then playing a recording of a classical composition by an 18th century ancestor named Johann Christian Roedelius. He cited a contemporaneous review of this ancestral Roedelius that described his music as light, agreeable, and entertaining. I can't recall or convey the poetry of the original German as effectively as I'd like, but the somewhat condescending implication was that the music was not particularly arty or serious. The modern Roedelius delighted in the description and said that he hoped his own work could be described similarly.

Despite being surrounded by a keyboard, two laptops, and assorted other electronics, he spent most of the evening DJing CDs. I'm not even sure that everything he spun for us was by him! Most of the tunes were ambient or at least soothing and peaceful. However, one had a more sprightly drum machine that reminded me of Harmonia or Sowiesoso, and as the night drew on, more of his picks had pop and jazz rhythms and occasionally even vocals (from other performers). A couple tracks would've been called chillwave if they had been made today by someone a quarter of his age. The biggest surprise was a song with a hip-hop beat that featured German rapping from Roedelius! It was just a recording, but still: it was well executed and somehow not embarrassing.

When he wasn't working his walkmen, he read excerpts from his autobiography, played a few numbers on his keyboard, and shared some of his favorite poems (including at least one from himself). The texts varied from the existential and almost spiritual to a thorough run-down of every health problem he has suffered and an extended ode to his wife in honor of a birthday. Instead of an encore, he closed the show with a plea to create not just for oneself but for the betterment of each other and nature.

Over the course of the night, I gradually started to understand what Roedelius meant about living up the quote about his ancestor's music. Cluster and Harmonia were always more about mood and texture than any specific message or medium. I was also hardly surprised to learn that Roedelius worked as a masseur and physiotherapist before starting his musical career. He's well trained in relaxing people and putting them at ease. If one bit of meaning does escape from his music, it's the encouragement of connection to fellow humans and to the natural world.

Roedelius's show was unusual and yet a pleasure. I would've preferred a more active performance, but I can't blame an 84-year-old for taking it easy and telling stories. Besides, the show was cheap and the venue rather unintimidating. I liked the warm and positive tone he set, and his words carried depth and meaning (to the extent I could keep up with the German). I feel like I learned something from him. He said people often ask him if he feels old or whatever, but he said feels like he's been around forever, and he hoped we'd get to feel that, too!


Score: B-

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Girls - Live 2019.01.26 ORWOhaus, Berlin, Germany


Artist: Girls
Venue: ORWOhaus
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 26 January 2019

Admittedly, this show came up in my radar via Facebook. The tagline was "GIRLS - the reincarnation of a forgotten all-female-proto-Krautrock-showband from Southern Germany (1967-71). GIRLS - die experimentelle Tanzkapelle (1967/2019). GIRLS - the female source of Krautrock?" This is the power of well-targeted marketing: I was hooked immediately. I barely looked into the details beyond noticing that information about the original incarnation of the band was extremely scarce and that the show would be taking place in Marzahn, an outlying part of Berlin mostly known for its drab Plattenbau.

Finding the venue was a challenge in itself. After a seemingly endless tram ride, I exited into a massive yet deserted street in the rain and set off in what seemed like the right direction. A well-placed sign guided me to the rear of a building (on Frank-Zappa-Straße), but upon entering, I was left to wander the halls and stairs until I found the commotion and a person taking money.

When the band came on stage after an uncharacteristic 35-minute delay from the scheduled start time, I was given my first surprise: only one of the members was a woman, and none of them looked to be old enough to have been performing in 1967. However, as they lurched into their first song, "Nicht anfassen" ("Don't Touch"), I stopped worrying about the backstory and just got sucked in.


Of all the words in the tagline, the only one that was inarguably true was "experimentelle". The music was disassociative, noisy, and heavily influenced by dada. There were some bits of early Can-like Krautrock, although very little of the steady driving rhythm á la Kraftwerk or Neu! that one might expect when hearing that term thrown around. (Whether it counts as "proto" anything is debatable.)

Instead, drummer "Moon de Marzan" (Maurice de Martin) was fierce and dynamic. The bass of "Stella Mars" (Susanne Sachsse) was minimal and primarily purely rhythmic. Her vocals were mostly spoken or shouted with bilingual lyrics confronting commodification, societal norms, and gender roles. She competed for space with the trombone, trumpet, melodica, recorders, and various effects of "Vally Cloud" (Hilary Jeffery). These same effects often merged with the guitar effects of "Ida van Selbst" (Dirk Dresselhaus) to build a pulsing wall of sound. At other times, the music became sparse and scattered, with bursts of percussion or noise punctuating the tense silence. One song was basically doom. Another was a funk rip. Some bordered on free jazz. Their playfulness and unconventionality recalled Kleenex/Lilliput, and I was also reminded of the noise scene I used to see all the time when I lived in St. Louis.

[With the "Man with the Gin" on guest vocals. Note Sachsse's plastic bag on her microphone, used to simulate a shaker.]

I thoroughly enjoyed the music I was presented with, and yet part of me also felt duped. On one hand, if they hadn't promoted themselves so deftly, I would've missed a delightful and unique concert experience. On the other, their presentation is a farce. Apparently Maurice de Martin is the son of the original band's drummer, and when she died at age 23, the band disintegrated. Their legacy supposedly consists of a badly damaged 20-minute cassette, a few reviews in local papers, some notes and journals, and the drumset that de Martin played on. While de Martin claims to have been heavily influenced by those remnants and the stories of his family, the rest of the contemporary band has no such connection. In fact, Sachsse claimed to know nothing about the original band's music except for what de Martin has told her. While I'm impressed that the band wanted to keep alive the memory of a fascinating historical oddity, their claim to be a "reincarnation" of the same band is rather tenuous. Myth-making is no joke, and the only reason I can't be mad about it is because it worked.

Score: B

References:
Local promotion of the band with most of the same information (German)
A taz article that actually digs quite a bit deeper and includes a photo of the original band (German)

P.S. Thanks to John!

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!

Scores:
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

Setlist:
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]

Encore:
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

Setlist:
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.]

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