Nils Frahm, Alexander Tucker at Band on the Wall, Manchester, 08/11/2011

Just a couple of days after arriving back from Japan, I decided to go to a gig. Nils Frahm had made by favourite record of 2009 (Wintermusik), and although the follow-up (The Bells) was disappointing, I needed to see the show.

So, after leaving work early for a rest before the show (still a bit jet-lagged), I arrived just as the 2nd act, Alexander Tucker, had started playing. He played some electronic/doom/drone (with occasional ethereal vocals) which was fairly standard but I found it pleasant. Just the tonic I needed after my recent diet of J-Pop.

One thing I missed about the shows I saw in Japan was the silence the crowd held. The talking throughout Alexander’s set bothered me, whilst in Japan they don’t even talk in the intervals between songs! At least the crowd were better for Nils’ set.

Nils started his set and it sounded so good from the moment he touched the piano. He opened with that “let’s bang the same key on the piano for ages” song from The Bells. On record, its full of nuances, with each press being a different intensity, but live, it kind of fell flat, just the same note repeated over and over. Hence, he added “a new section” which wasn’t that interesting.

The following songs were better though. When on form, Nils can conjure pure beauty out of the piano, as his best recorded works shows. Live, he could also manage the same magic, but less frequently. I think he needs to focus less on the improvisation and really write some songs which have those best moments in. This was what I felt was better about Wintermusik compared to The Bells – it was more sculpted, with less wasted time. In Manchester, he was friendly and performed well but lacking a little in the magic I felt. The crowd lapped it up though, and seemed to be really enjoying themselves. I think he has a way to go to reach the best of today’s modern indie pianists like Dustin O’Halloran and Olafur Arnalds.

Nils occasionally played the organ at the same time as the piano. This was a nice touch, as it let him play two parts on almost the same notes, adding a much different feel to the normal bass/treble separation of the hands on the piano. The sound of the piano was much nicer than the organ though. He also performed a “synth song” which was quite electronic but pretty average.

Towards the end, he brought out a local string quartet who performed a cover of one of his songs from The Bells, whilst Nils himself sat in the audience. This was a real highlight, the sound of the strings was lovely. They had re-arranged the piece themselves and read it off sheet music. This structured piece sounded so much more complete and focussed than Nils’ improvisational approach. What was different about this quartet is that it was led by the female viola player, rather than the first violin.

Next, Nils joined the string quartet for an improvisation. Much to my disgust though, he set up a loop beforehand for the five of them to play over. Isn’t five performers enough? Especially since the 2nd violinist took it upon himself to lead the piece with a pizzicato arpeggio, which the others then joined in. He proved to by the main draw of this improvisation, with the best solo lines as well. The rest were slightly disappointing and it suffered from the standard problem a lot of performers have when they first improvise together – each is scared to add some nothing new and break the status quo. So it was much repetition, and no-one dared move the piece in other directions. It also suffered from that other standard group improvisation problem – no-one dares finish – so it drew on for far longer than necessary.

After this, Nils played some more on his own and I had to leave to catch my last train. As I was leaving, someone (I presume the first act?) joined him on the organ for a duet. On the whole, I’m a little disappointed with Nils. I keep track of all his releases (although haven’t listened to his new album, Felt, yet) but he seems to be straying from the excellent Wintermusik. I think he just needs to really spend some time crafting songs rather than banging out repeated improvisations.

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