Nils Frahm, The Barbican

Nils Frahm, The Barbican, London, February 23, 2018

The last (and so far only other) time I’ve seen Nils Frahm in concert was at The Roundhouse, a standing concert, which had me retreating to a corner to sit down about halfway through. Not out of boredom, but just because a Nils Frahm concert doesn’t seem like a standing concert to me. But this time, touring his latest album, All Melody, he’s playing a seated venue, The Barbican. There’s no need for me to retreat to any corners, even though for part of the concert I kind of wish I could, because a woman sitting right behind my concert-going companion and me keeps breaking into fits of laughter for no known reason. Maybe she thinks she’s at a comedy show. Perhaps she hears the music differently than I do. Whatever the reason, the laughter doesn’t go well with the music and disturbs my enjoyment of the concert in places.

Luckily the laughter stops after about 30 minutes (or maybe I just blanked it out after a while), and either way, this is not about a loud attention-seeking audience member; this is about the attention-seeking (!) performing artist on the stage that we’ve all come to see.

Not Quite Classical, Not Quite Trance
The set-up on stage is pretty much what one would imagine Frahm’s Funkhaus studio in Berlin looks like, with its warm lights and homely feel. So when Nils Frahm enters the stage, it feels more like he’s arrived at his studio one evening, as if we’ve all been invited round to watch an artist at work, creating elaborate sounds in real-time.

His music is not quite classical, not quite trance. It’s like repetitive blocks of chords and patterns that translate into something quite meditative and beautiful, like on one of the first songs of the evening, My Friend the Forest, which evokes feelings of a walk through empty city streets or perhaps a desolate beach, or, indeed, a forest. However, there’s nothing desolate about a Nils Frahm concert. He has sold out all four shows at this residency stint at The Barbican.

It would be fine just seeing Frahm sitting and playing, but it elevates the live experience to see his very active movement on stage. Several times he gets up from whatever keyboard/harmonium/toy piano/organ/grand piano he’s playing at that time to go to his ‘soundboard’ to create his loops of beats and basslines and then rushes back to his keys and resumes playing. It almost gets comical at times; will he make it back from the soundboard without tripping over a monitor?

Dry Wit
Frahm is also an engaging and entertaining storyteller. He will pick up the microphone and tell us an anecdote throughout the evening. One is about the huge organ he’s travelling with (no pun intended), which is too big to make it to the stage. Towards the end of the concert, he tells the audience that he’ll be back in a moment to play, ‘A great encore set that I’ve prepared meticulously.’

His dry wit goes well with his compositions, which are in their own way, quite deadpan, perhaps best illustrated in the piece, For Peter – Toilet Brushes – More, where Frahm plays the strings on his grand piano with, what I assume are unused, toilet brushes (will his next album be called Music for Toilets?). The brushes create a more ‘plucking’ stringed sound than if played on the piano’s keys, momentarily rendering Frahm not only a key player but also a string player. 

This section makes me think of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, which consists of hands clapping together rather than a toilet brush beating down on the piano strings. Still, the piece offers the same kind of break in the rest of the music – a toilet break, if you will – before Frahm returns to playing meditative patterns on the keys.

After the two-hour solo concert, Frahm comes out in the foyer to sign autographs. He is friendly and talkative, and full of energy. It takes a particular talent to do what Nils Frahm does on stage, but it also takes a particular person to be so forthcoming towards a bunch of strangers who all essentially ‘want something from him’. He doesn’t seem to mind. Sure, the concert is over, and he’s now working overtime, but he gets paid extra in the form of endless compliments and admiration. Not a bad way for him to spend an evening. And not a bad way for the rest of us either.

Nils Frahm setlist
Not available

Ezra Furman, The Barbican

Ezra Furman, The Barbican, London, July 13, 2017

Ezra Furman’s performance at the Barbican this evening is sold out. He has played in London before in sizeable venues and received good reviews, but this seems like the ‘big one.’ For starters, he’s without a band because ‘they’ve gone back to the States’ as he says without further explanation. Except for Ben, more of whom later, and some other assorted guests that join Furman later in the evening.

But for the first quarter of the two-hour concert, Furman is alone on stage, and it suits him – being alone. His songs about loneliness and awkwardness signify a lone person fighting back against the crowd. But Furman is not here to fight the crowd. Instead, he’s a gracious and friendly host to tonight’s audience, sharing his innermost feelings through his songs and balancing the heavy load of self-pity that some of those songs express with a heavy dose of self-deprecating humour.

He certainly has the ingredients required to pull a solo performance off. The too-many-cigarettes-gravel voice sounds like Tom Waits’ younger and slightly cleaner living brother. His guitar playing is raw rock and roll. Furman has proved to be a strong songwriter and has built up a repertoire of songs that can easily last him through a two-hour concert. Furman excels in the art of good banter, and he has no trouble keeping the audience entertained between songs.

Like all good performers, he knows how to spin an awkward situation in his favour, like the moment when his guitar makes no sound, and he tries to fix the problem, a roadie rushes to the stage to help, just as Furman sorts out the sound himself. As the roadie runs off stage again, Furman says, ‘Always test the crew.’

When he introduces a song as ‘This is for everyone who’s been depressed,’ a girl in the audience woo-hoos, to which Furman drily shoots back, ‘That’s not a sound a depressed person would make.’

When an artist performs a solo show, there’s always the danger that things will get boring. The best way to fix this problem is to invite guest musicians and dabble in the art of instrument-switching. Furman makes use of both ‘methods’ in tonight’s concert. Though mainly switching between two guitars, he also bangs a simple beat on a single drum while wailing out a song. And later, when Ben, the pianist, joins Furman on stage, the piano adds a variation to the mood of the songs that a lone guitarist wouldn’t be able to bring by themselves.

The piano parts work especially well as a sonic backdrop when Furman reads three poems, including one about a mail order bride that never arrives.

Then it’s time for another guest, Furman’s friend, Du Blonde, with whom he sings a subdued version of Haunted Head. For good measure, they also cover one of Du Blonde’s songs, Isn’t It Wild and finish off with a brilliant rendition of one of Furman’s heroes, Leonard Cohen’s So Long Marianne.

A string quartet joins Furman on stage for the last part of the concert. The quartet adds gravity and finesse to such songs as Day of the Dog and a new song, The Refugee, in which Furman imagines his grandfather’s struggle in escaping from Poland just before the outbreak of the 2nd World War.

Furman himself seems overcome with emotion and genuinely taken aback at how well the evening went, and he describes the audience’s appreciative applause as ‘encouraging.’

The final song is Wild Feeling, which is possibly how Furman feels at this moment. And I venture a guess that it’s also how the audience feels after a two-hour tour de force of an excellent songwriter performing his songs with the confidence and brilliance of someone who, despite his assumed reluctance, was born to be on stage.

Ezra Furman setlist
1. Cherry Lane
2. The Worm in the Apple (Ezra Furman & The Harpoons song)
3. Penetrate
4. The Queen of Hearts
5. Restless Year
6. Watch You Go By
7. Amateur
8. Hark! to the Music (drum solo – Furman banging on a drum)
9. Dirty Gutter
10. Hour of Deepest Need
11. That’s When It Hit Me (as a poem)
12. Cold hands
13. The Mail Order (Poem)
14. Bad Man
15. Haunted Head (with Du Blonde)
16. Isn’t It Wild (Du Blonde cover, with Du Blonde)
17. So Long Marianne (Leonard Cohen cover, with Du Blonde)
With a Bella Union string quartet
18. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
19. Down
20. Day of the Dog
21. Ordinary Life
22. The Refugee
Solo
23. Wild Feeling (Ezra Furman & The Harpoons song)