The Blue Bird Festival is a local festival that has been taking place at Porgy & Bess – a Viennese Jazz Club – for the past 6 years. It’s organised by the Vienna Songwriting Association, who are a great bunch of music enthusiasts. Since November was a busy busy month for gigs, I sadly didn’t manage to make it to the first festival day, though it had a promisingly fine line-up with Scout Niblett, Sweet Sweet Moon, Grant Hart and James Vincent McMorrow.
On the Friday night however, I am fit for battle early, ready to tackle a long night with my camera. 6pm, Porgy and Bess. I push hesitantly the door, balancing Chris Garneau‘s surprise birthday cake on my left hand and an open, polka-dotted umbrella in my right. The cake gets taken care of right away; I’m told to wait a minute in the hallway and don’t fail to notice how quiet everything is. “It’s probably buzzing downstairs, where the stage is”, I think to myself. A couple of seconds later, the door to the backstage area opens and there he is, Chris G also known as coconut, in a black and white hoodie and a funny, furry hat. After updating each other here and there, taking a look at the Go Find sound-checking while Chris checks his mail, I kindly get invited to head out with them to dinner along with Siegfried (ever-so-funny tour manager) and a couple of girls from the festival crew. As we sit around the huge table, we talk about the opening of Envelope (Chris’ brand new label/venue/recording space in NYC), about my work for Lazy Acre Records (no comment), about common acquaintances (Jenny Owen Youngs and Anika in London, among others), and we get asked how we met (in Norway, after his show, before heading to an abandoned mental hospital and then a cemetery). We head back to the venue between silly chattering and laughter, not failing to notice that the first snow of the season is falling on the city quietly. After getting introduced to some people from the crew – funnily enough, as “Chris’ Friend” and not as a photographer – I do a quick round, trying to find the best spots to shoot from. The venue appears to be completely sold out and most people give up trying to get a seat and stand in the way – at the greatest displeasure of the waitresses, running hectically left and right.
The first band on stage, the Go Find from Antwerp, don’t seem particularly interesting musically; generic indie pop, with slight touches of synth and electronic beats, with a lot of their songs sounding similar to each other. They’re not bad musicians though and after a while the catchy-ness of some of their dream pop landscapes – most to me unknown – is contagious and has me nodding at least half-enthusiastically. “Let me take you back to the 90′s, when we were teens” the vocalist sings in one of their most electronic-sounding tunes; the Belgian boys appear to have taken the best from the disco-electro scene (dismissing terrible stuff like Alcazar, thankfully) and mixed it with folk the likes of Kings of Convenience. Overall a good choice for warming up the audience and maybe a band I’d like to see again, in a different setting with more time to look into the music; in any case, a good contrast to what came next.
After a good 30-minute break – long enough for the grand piano to make its appearance and technical problems to be fixed, for me to gulp down a whole 0.5L of water and make my way to the other side of the stage – Chris Garneau comes on stage. This is my fourth time seeing him live, and as always he is quiet and unassuming, maybe more so than ever, strangely different from how he is when in good company, when good jokes are his best friends. He hardly introduces any of the songs, thinking maybe that chatter on stage is for bands who won’t let their music speak for them, and plays only the saddest from his repertoire, picking and choosing freely from Music for Tourists, C-Sides, and his latest effort El Radio; songs like Relief and Baby’s Romance, painfully beautiful on record already, acquire much more depth when heard live and, as no one around me makes a sound, I feel ashamed of the clicking of my camera. The air thickens and it becomes harder to breathe until I realise it’s because, silly me, I’m holding my breath. Accidentally. Mostly sitting at the piano and terribly shy, Chris goes on to play the Cats & Kids, Not Nice, swooshing past any of the upbeat songs that make El Radio so eclectic and beautiful like Fireflies, No More Pirates, and Dirty Night Clowns. Predictably – maybe to make the Elliott Smith fans in the audience happy – he plays Between the Bars. Harvest however, which I have yet to hear live, is absent from his set, but after his very last planned song on the guitar, while the crew points at the clocks saying it’s time to wrap up, he goes on stage again, this time to make me – but no one will know except for us – happy, and plays a grand, wonderful, gorgeous, heartbreaking version of Jenny O.‘s Sugar, which I am unable to hear in all of its beauty since I am now perched on a chair backstage, now and then stretching my neck to see a bit of his back, arched in concentration to get all the notes from his friend right. This said, tonight really isn’t his best performance, I feel. And then I wonder how the public, out there, most people seeing him for the first time, perceive him and his music, whether they are deceived or extremely pleased; the couple of people I chat to later on in the evening appear to have enjoyed it and didn’t seem bothered by his unwillingness to let anything, other than song lyrics, out of his mouth.
It’s time to breathe. I run away from the crowd who is actually here tonight to see Scott Matthew with Elva Snow and I skip the whole thing, stupidly only hearing snippets of songs here and there mainly from the back, as I chat away with Chris before his interview with FM4 and stand in a corner while he is gone, feeling self-conscious about being surrounded by everyone who was on stage tonight and even a couple of people (including the Hidden Cameras) who will rock the stage the next day; in situations like these I am the atypical journalist who won’t go bothering bands unless they start talking to me first. This doesn’t keep a rather unpleasant and embarrassing moment from following, where I get asked to leave the protected area due to a misunderstanding (and also to the fact that I didn’t have a backstage pass; ops) and I hang around the balcony area, now almost empty, as cake is being handed out. Tired as the day has been long and it’s way past midnight, I half-heartedly watch Nina Nastasia take the stage.
Nina Nastasia is the kind of artist that gets me thinking, “I really should be liking this, shouldn’t I?”, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t really manage to enjoy it at its fullest. It’s a bit like trying to salvage a relationship when it’s very obviously time to call it quits and move on. I’m a huge fan of experimental violin (just watch me swoon over Sweet Sweet Moon at every single gig) and watching Matt and Nina in a duel with their instruments – violin for the former, guitar for the latter – is interesting; Szemela is a virtuoso of his kind, however what I thought would be soothing and intense, turns out to be after half of their set a bit exhausting, in spite of Nina’s truly impressive voice and lovely stage presence.
All in all, the second day of Blue Bird Festival was, though overwhelming, also a bit deceiving. I consoled myself thinking that the third day would be better and eating a huge slice of the cake I made for Chris Garneau’s belated birthday, which was an explosion of chocolate with colored icing and marzipan used to draw the cover of his album Music for Tourists.