Monday, October 1, 2012

Superfly On The Danube

When we first arrived in Vienna in 2010, one of the biggest surprises was the music.   Vienna was home to Mozart, Strauss, Beethoven and other composers and musicians whose work defines Western classical music.  Indeed, the streets of the First District are replete with costumed Mozarts selling tickets to the many performances of his work.

Mozart in Vienna
The other traditional music here is German/Austrian folk and band music that is just a step removed from American polka and square dance and is typically played happily with tubas or sousaphones  (I have a recurring image of Mozart, in lederhosen, slap dancing [Schuhplatter] in a Viennese bier hall.  It must have happened).  It isn’t unusual to see bands playing German drinking music as you walk around downtown.

I lived in Germany when I was a kid, so I’m familiar with the traditional music, and although I’m a rube when it comes to classical music, I do know the major players.   With that background, I turned on my new Austrian radio back in 2010.  There was no Mozart or Beethoven.  Nor did I hear sousaphones. Instead it was Chubby Checker, the Tokens, Joey Dee and the Starlighters, and a slew of lesser-known American “artists”.  What was truly odd was Chubby Checker wasn’t singing “the Twist,” the Tokens weren’t singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and Joey Dee and the boys weren’t doing “Shout” or “The Peppermint Twist.” The radio stations in Vienna seemed to have the greatest collection of the “B” sides of obscure old American pop records imaginable. 
Joey Dee 

The tunes were “B” sides for a reason.  The songs were mostly awful and I wondered why they were being played.  The answer came when Keir discovered “rock” music sung in German.  Listening to a few of those songs helped explain.  Even atrocious old American songs were better than many of the European rock tunes.

Of course the British rock and pop music rates highly.  Who could dis the country that brought us the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and a host of other first-rate rockers? But they don’t get much airtime either.

An Australian colleague at IIASA who was addicted to Joni Mitchell (not a bad thing) and candles in her office eventually alerted me to FM4, the cool, hip radio station that has disc jockeys from England and Austria. Their on-air conversations shift between English and German in the space of a few seconds. They assume a lot of their audience.

“FM Fear” was a godsend.  The music is progressive and mostly American, with the good European tunes – and there are some -- mixed in. The on air talent – be it Nina of Austria or Stuart of England – is entertaining.  On the hour there is news in English, usually read by a Brit, and on the half hour – depending on which half hour – there is news in French or German. 

The message from all of this? If you want to find a field in which America still leads the world, listen to music almost anywhere.  Much of it will be American.  With some notable exceptions, when you listen to the other stuff, you know why.

We have attended a classical concert or two since we’ve been here, listened to traditional German/Austrian music played on the streets, and been to a jazz show by an American singer.  But, given the prices of concerts, our live music experiences have been limited.

So imagine our excitement when we came across “Swingin’ for Obama,” a night of rock and blues at the hip Vienna nightclub Metropol.  The price of admission was a donation to the Obama campaign (for U.S. citizens) or 25 Euros for EU citizens.  We arrived, bought our Obama T-shirts (again, only U.S. citizens as the proceeds went to the campaign and no foreign money is allowed), and were immediately blown away by American singer and piano player Joey Green and his soul review, known as RayVille (see top photo).  Ray Charles tunes, followed by more Ray Charles tunes, and capped off with Percy Mayfield’s “Hit The Road, Jack,” filled the club.  The Jolettes, the Austrian version of the Raylettes – in red dresses of course – were exactly what they were supposed to be.

The T-shirt

As we used to say back in my rock band days, “these guys can play.”   And RayVille was just the opening act.   There were six other acts, including “Big John” Whitfield  and Carole Alston.  When Big John did James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World,” followed by “Sex Machine,” … well, you had to be there.  And to make sure this was an American night, there was a set by J. Reuben Silverbird, who took a break from preparing his one man show, “Memories of Geronimo,” to sing love songs from his new CD, “Ageless Love.”

Silverbird Sings
Sitting in a hot Vienna nightclub with 300 or so mostly Americans listening to a Native American singing love ballads in between sets of Ray Charles and James Brown is . . . not typical.    The love ballads were wanting, but when Silverbird performed a traditional Apache chant, with the audience participating, it somehow worked.

Müller and "Big John"
The stars of the night were the Austrian backup band – The Surfing Zebras -- who blew the house down on almost every song.   They bill themselves as a “groovin’ bugaloo band,” but they were shifting gears and playing complex blues, soul, jazz, rock, and even show tunes from charts, for several hours.  The lead Zebra, Tom Müller, is a stunningly good sax player.

We came out of the Metropol around midnight with our Obama T-shirts, enormous amounts of energy, and the joy that comes from hours of watching fine blues and jazz musicians working hard.

And since that night I’ve added an unlikely Vienna radio station to my auto tune buttons in the Kangoo: Superfly Radio.  The station, an ode to the 1972 movie, is all R&B, all the time.  Doesn’t quite go with a drive along the Danube, but goodness is the music good.

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