Anna Von Hausswolff‘s music, to me, lives not in live performances but in the pure and almost too-perfect image her music creates. Within her records I have heard the swell of waves, the ancientness of old stone, the way old cathedrals and rotting churches seem to sag with bowing wood beneath the weight of time and history. You can smell the must of graveyards and old Bibles still in their pews. You can watch the funeral veils of mourners waver as they step toward the edge of the fresh dirt mounded beside the pit their loved one will be consigned to. This is gothic music in the truest sense, capturing the ripe melodrama and trembling wounds of novels like The Monk or Melmoth the Wanderer or Les Chants de Maldoror rather than the spacious, almost aqueous sounds of mid-period Cure or early Bauhaus. Her music is, of course, made by real people, flesh and bone, a human sensibility that is deeply imbued within both the compositional and production choices of her records and a humanity upon which the necessary frailty and contemplation of the mysterium tremendum of the gothic rests. But never had I conceived of her music as one that would transition well to a purely live environment.
It becomes intriguing, then, to approach a live document from her. Live at Montreux Jazz Festival, as the name states, captures her performing at the famous Swiss festival which has over the years spread its wings a bit. Montreux has been the site of one of Yes’ greatest live albums, the fiery reunion of Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin as well an absolutely killer performance by Voivod, showing that the concert organizers’ sense of the boundaries and extensions of jazz-thought are far more forward thinking than one might assume. In this case, Hausswolff and band arrived in support of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds as part of the festival. There are, in retrospect, great similarities between Hausswolff’s music, especially at its most thrillingly direct, and Cave’s own; Cave, being a master live performer, using that human space to convey a more ruined and haunted view of his southern gothic morbid tales, should have given me some clue as to her own approach to the quandary of the live setting.
The first matter she deals with in a satisfactory manner is that of the combination of lineup and setlist. This set was recorded in 2018 on her tour for Dead Magic, one of her records in her band milieu of arrangement rather than albums like Ceremony or All Thoughts Fly which are more conducive to solo performance. As such, she drew the setlist exclusively from material from Dead Magic and its predecessor The Miraculous, those being the two records most unified by a near-metallic approach to folk, post-rock and prog. This deliberately limited palette of the full range of her capabilities winds up being a blessing; it offers strong shape to the potential performances, one that was clearly carefully considered by Hausswolff, who on this set errs not for a blown-own performance cataloging type of composition she can pen and feeling she can evoke but instead focusing on a defined almost novelistic set of songs. The lineup for these recordings is more or less a full-band plus Hausswolff, with the players comprising a drummer, bassist, keyboardist and two guitarists before including her as a floater on various instruments (as well as her sister on additional vocals). The fact that this setting allows a stable band lineup while Hausswolff herself is free to move to whichever instrument needs to be the focal point at any given moment is one that the group clearly was aware of; there is a consistent and rich nearly symphonic force swelling behind her as she shifts the eye of the song across a variety of instruments and vocal lines. The level of discipline shown here almost feels more like listening to peak Godspeed You! Black Emperor recordings than the touring band of a songwriter, a testament to how locked in every single player was to their role in creating a cohesive aesthetic expression.
The next element that strikes out my worry about her transition to a live record world is her choice of sequencing, offering all but “The Marble Eye” from Dead Magic as well as appending both “Pomperipossa” and “Come Wander With Me / Deliverance” from The Miraculous to the proceedings. This leaves her three lengthy pieces to account for and three smaller and more concise pieces to break them up, a wise allocation of emotional time. But my apprehension of her live capabilities were once again proven overly cautious in the way she played with the space and grandeur of those smaller pieces. It’s not so much that it’s bold to play longer, more intense versions of your work live, but there’s the real concern of misapprehending the energy of the room and the players to see if, in the context of an entire concert, whether an extension makes emotional sense. Here, they do, and so her indulgence of the energies of the band and crowd in these moments feel like a sensitive decision on the part of a performer rather than pre-planned move tone-deaf to the emotional fiber of the evening.
What is perhaps shocking about the setlist is less its contents, which err toward the strengths of her full band setup, and more that she chooses to end the setlist with “Come Wander With Me / Deliverance” from The Miraculous rather than the record she was touring at the time and, further, that it was a track that at the time of The Miraculous‘ release wasn’t considered the most immediate of them (an honor that would fall to its opener “Discovery”). But the wisdom of this choice is validate when, in its closing minutes, the formerly somber and stormy gothic tone, like a hurricane rattling an Georgia home or summer thunder terrorizing a Swiss lodge or old Italian castle, suddenly breaks apart with the sound of a guitar solo. I actually had to go back and double-check the original recording off the back of hearing this; the guitar on this live record does not emerge naturally and organically within the arrangement as all of the instrumentation before it across the whole of the set had, working in synchrony toward a harmonious whole, but instead roars out like, well, a guitar solo. The best part is how immaculately it works. Suddenly, after nearly an hour of growing tension and smoldering energy, Von Hausswolff sees fit to let her band explode the room, gives her guitarist reign to choose a tone that ripples like lightning striking in the open air. There is heat and passion, a fire which before had been subliminal and embodied through angst suddenly given a powerful voice. Lo and behold, the solo is in fact on the studio recording, albeit there mixed into the body of the song in a less eye-catching way, folding instead into the fabric of the continuing album.
This live record is not a record of wild left-turns in arrangement and performance. The songs as captured here don’t diverge much at all from their studio counterparts. What makes the difference are these small gestures and the shape they amount to, be it placing “Come Wander With Me / Deliverance” in a position where it can suddenly fully shine or letting the natural echo and reverb of music in a live space inform the color and spaciousness of their performance. This recording captures a performance that, like all great sets, isn’t a random and haphazard set of songs plucked at random but a crafted experience, one where each song builds upon or modulates the energies of the last, where a narrative thread is maintained across the entire proceeding and a proper ending is given in the most glorious and god-fearing of ways, the guitar solo. What’s more, it proves something I should have known all along; Anna Von Hausswolff, a master composer, arranger and aesthete of studio records, carries that same level of craft and intention to a live setting. Whether this offers much to a newcomer is questionable but, knowing the psyche of most of her fans, it’s hard to imagine it not being of interest to those who already know her work.
Label: Southern Lord
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.