Despite what its name might suggest, Vienna’s Arena is not really an arena in the traditional sense of the word. In reality, it’s a collection of a few concert halls, none particularly large, inside a heavily graffitied courtyard. The place feels like an overgrown punk/hardcore venue, sprawling beyond the tiny size typically allotted such a place and invading the surrounding buildings and yards. It’s an appropriate place to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a band whose idealistic punk roots sit uneasily beside their multi-instrumentalist grandeur and worldwide acclaim and audience — a punk ethos stretched out on a global scale, three chords reaching toward a symphonic infinity.
Opening was Colin Stetson, sometimes member of Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre, who brought an ensemble of various-sized saxophones out to produce his swirling, repetition-centered solo performance. His sound was surprisingly effective despite the large hall, with deep, full bass tones and twinkling half-melodies filling the space with a decidedly rich sound for a solo act. He was charmingly nervous in his brief between-song comments, dedicating a tune to his father and thanking the audience profusely for its time. With his combination of emotional directness and light experimentation, he was a fitting and engaging opening act, and was appropriately well received by the crowd.
And then Godspeed You! Black Emperor came onstage. They assembled slowly, patiently, in front of their now-fabled loop of 16mm film with the word “HOPE” scrawled directly onto each black frame; seeing the image in person for the first time was a decidedly emotional experience, setting the stage for a night charged with desperate despair and hope. Yet it also set the tone for a strange current of nostalgia running through the entire show, one that complicated the experience in ways the band’s powerfully uncomplicated sound did not — with no new material performed, the collective has now edged towards the sort of experience I imagine from, for example, a recent Pixies or My Bloody Valentine performance. There’s something about GY!BE live self-presentation and audio/visual aesthetics that allows them to shy away from the easy category of the “reunion show” — they always seemed too engaged with the world to ever let their sound live outside of its social time and place. It all added up to an occasionally thrilling and occasionally off-putting performance, at least for this dutiful TMT-er.
If we focus on the music on its own terms, the show was as deeply affecting and powerful as one could hope, at once meditative and visceral. Onstage, the collective was paired down to seven members. While still a huge presence by any other band’s standards, this was enough to render their sound more direct and immediate, bringing the sound closer to that of a guitar-centered punk band — again — despite the group’s lush sound and patient approach, it was impossible to keep the halfway-punk aspect of it all out of mind. With the band leaning particularly hard on their taut, relentless, near-martial rhythm section for nearly the entirety of the performance with only brief moments of rest, the whole show took on the feel of dirt-simple punk song stretching into ambience by sheer force of will and duration, the power of a minor chord redoubled endlessly through repetition. There’s also something wonderful about audience members cheering for spoken-word samples employed in their pieces — lacking breaks between songs, the audience latched onto these now-familiar recordings of street people, preachers, and others as moments of recognition, clapping for each in term. Ambiguous but always heartfelt in their content, they placed the audience in an unusual but powerful place, grasping onto the voice as a moment of definition in the swirling mix of misery and hope.
The collective pulled pieces from their full discography, though in a move that seemed to hold to their uncomfortable relationship with fame, they avoided “East Hastings,” the one song that brought them closest to truly mainstream recognition with its prime placement in 28 Days Later. Among the wealth of material they did play, in a show that stretched to about two hours, it wasn’t missed. The band played beautifully, and when they walked off-stage without an encore, it felt appropriate. The mixture of careful restraint and widescreen scale, of obscurantist stand-offishness and popular appeal, has always been at the center of their identity. Taken along with a sound that merged a static sense of nostalgia with a rawer sound and sense of immediacy, it was a night of blunt, powerful emotion carrying more complicated, sometimes uncomfortable undercurrents. Which, in the case of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, isn’t a bad thing.