Thursday is the official opening day for most visitors, and the venues are likely to be packed; I plan ahead by getting to the club early. Flex is a venue sandwiched between the Danube channel and a subway line, a venue that smells of stale beer and looks very underground. It’s still early; finding yourself at a club surrounded by darkness at seven pm on a week feels like something bizarre and exciting. With my festival schedule printed out and band names highlighted and circled, I somewhat start to wonder whether I’ll manage to survive the four-day marathon I have ahead of me.
Dry the River are first on stage; the Stratford quintet, with a musical background as diverse as the ecosystem of the rainforest, are a folk band turned rock. They have already impressed journalists and music enthusiasts alike since mid-2010, playing sold-out shows in London before even releasing a ‘proper’ debut album. Their music, set between à-la-Mumford-and-Sons acoustic lows and Biffy-Clyro-ish rocking, melodic highs, sounds louder and stronger live.
Apart from No Rest, I was partial to a lot of their studio work heard here and there; but Dry The River have so much raw energy together in front of an audience that every song feels completely different from how you’d expected it to be. A real pity that they played to such a small crowd.
After a quick drink at the bar, I bump into a musical acquaintance who happens to be heading to the same next venue as me next: Projektraum Viktor Bucher, a small gallery hidden away in Vienna’s rising 2nd district. It’s a ten-minute walk along the channel and then up into the heart of the city; we rush and make it right on time, sitting down on the floor as the band start.
Diver are a young local band formed by multi-intrumentalists, with a keyboard player who hugs an accordion and a guitarist who plays the melodica. Wolfgang, the mind and heart behind the acoustic trio, strums his guitar and quietly tells tales of love and alcohol, balancing on a tightrope between rationality and emotions, looking down at scenes of the past, concentrated and lovely.
Diver‘s music is reminiscent of chanson acts like Francois and the Atlas Mountains, delicate with a touch of self-irony. They don’t ever try to be complicated or sophisticated; their melodies and rhythms are kept simple and the lyrics, though tinged with melancholy (“but darling you ignored me / like you have before”), never fall into bitterness and sometimes even manage to make one smile.
It’s hard to pull away from that small, self-contained cocoon, but after one encore, their time is up and I start heading to the next show. On my way there, I stop at Café Dogenhof where an inarticulable act from Iceland, Svavar Knútur, appears to be playing. Though the couple of songs I’d given a quick listen to on youtube didn’t impress me at all, I’ve learned my lesson and give him a chance nevertheless. And good thing I did!
The Dogenhof is a typical Viennese-looking coffeehouse, with heavy marble tables, dark wood and baroque ceilings, mostly visited by retired habitués and, once in a while, confused tourists; surprisingly, it is a delightful setting for singer-songwriters and Svavar Knútur, a musically-inclined Jack Black in disguise, fits in there perfectly as he hands out his childhood books about trolls and horses to the crowd, asking them to draw or write in them. Yes, Svavar is hilarious, as he plays song after song and chats to his audience, asking them to sing along, saying that “if you sing along you’re actually using more centres in your brain than a NASA scientist”. And so everybody sings, loud and out of tune.
His song Leipzig is a fast strumming, spoken word piece where he fakes a German accent, an ironic take on stereotypes and drinking, disrupted in the middle by a tall, possibly drunk guy screaming out “Fuck You!” from the back, but the Icelandic singer-songwriter just raises an eyebrow and improvises, winks and keeps playing his ukulele, as his words fade into a new, acoustic and raging, interpretation of The Prodigy‘s Smack My Bitch Up and Firestarter, melting into something that could very well be – and in fact, is – a Jon Bon Jovi cover. Yes: Svavar Knútur is hilarious by all means, and entertaining, but he is also touching. As he sings about faith and love, I am reminded of a milder, less punk-rock, Nordic version of Austin Lucas, and with the opening lines of While the world burns my jaw drops.
I half-heartedly leave the show in-between encores to rush to fluc wanne to catch the last bit of the PILOTS. show, a local quartet that define themselves as playing “postfunk”. It’s true, there is something funky about them on their EP Our Taxidermic Tongues, with tracks like A Rope Dance having a certain retro-feel to them and the opener Hands Turn with obvious influences from Bloc Party‘s work, especially in the vocals; live however the upbeat, playful tone hardens.
The band have recently had a turnover, with only two of the original formation remaining, and at first they feel a bit out of step to me, maybe because the audience seems quiet and tired, but it takes me little time to get into it. Shortly after having arrived, I sink into darkness and into their disruptive, explosive, ear-shattering math rock, mesmerized and nodding my head gently, my heart heavy and scorched.
If their debut album is as good as their EP, PILOTS. most certainly have the talent and attitude to make it far and join the ranks of bands the likes of Adebisi Shank and Rumble in Rhodos.
Fluc is a versatile venue with two concert areas; in spite of the one upstairs – Fluc Cafe, where Plastic Swans from Slovakia will be playing – being free to non-festival public, the L-shaped bar is less than crowded for a Thursday night.
Having anticipated this show for some days, I am eager to have them start their set; when I arrive, rather late according to schedule, I’m surprised to see that the band are still not satisfied with the sound. Already they appear to be perfectionists and I spot a couple of people from the audience looking impatient; the vocalist seems like one hell of a prima-donna and I’m biting my lip nervously. Finally, they start their set. Yes, they are singing in Slovakian, and for a minute I am taken aback, until I remember my big crush on Russian singer Mumiytroll as a teenager – and this in spite of my Russian being less than perfect.
In fact, Plastic Swans feel like a cross between Mumiytroll and Interpol with the looks of tall, skinny, wide-trousered Richard Ashcroft. And I’m loving it. The vocals are deep and shimmering, clearly taking their cues from new wave, and though the other members of the band stay rather quietly in their corners, the singer is a real frontman, with his hand gestures stealing the spotlight. If the music wasn’t so good, something about this staging would feel off, but it works remarkably well and after a couple of tracks sung in English (“Jane” and a song inspired by William Blake) I find myself humming along as people get onto the tiny dancefloor to sway to the music.
The last stop of the night is at the Open Corsa Stage, alongside the Prater amusement park. The stage is a tent – a pretty big one at that – but it appears to be rather empty. As local singer-songwriter Clara Luzia takes to the stage with her band, there are no more than 20 to 30 people. The young woman’s record Falling Into Place, which came out earlier this year, received outstanding (and well-deserved) reviews; it is a beautiful, honest and clear album, with everything almost nailed down to perfection, from the instrumentation to the production, with heartfelt and mature lyrics.
And Clara Luzia’s shows are exactly like that: honest, powerful, radiant – and surprisingly noisy. The band work together perfectly on that low stage, almost as one entity. Clara’s usual habit of forgetting a couple of lines from her song as she sings makes her all the more sweet and human, and there is laughter and warmth in her voice as she speaks between tracks, introducing the musicians and making jokes, happy to be there no matter what, clapping hands with her audience on her big hit Morning Light, closing with the tearjerker The Scale. If I could be anywhere, I wouldn’t wish to be anywhere else on that clear early autumn night, quietly whispering along:
just read the signs / and if you think that you can’t see them / turn on the light.