Amon Düül II - Spirit of '66, Verviers, Belgium 13.04.2003
From Aural Innovations #23 (April 2003)
For me personally, the 13th of April in the Year 2003 will always be an important in history... the date that I finally fulfilled my own 20-year dream of seeing in person the three legendary space/psychedelic groups that make up my 'Holy Trinity.' In 1989, Hawkwind set this journey in motion when they ended a 10-year hiatus between North American tours and came to my (then) hometown of Cleveland, OH (though impatiently I'd already driven to Toronto the following week to see their first show on this side of the pond since the disasterous '78 tour). Around the same time, I'd caught Daevid Allen doing a one-man performance art 'thing,' as well as a show fronting the Magick Brothers... but soon enough, the "Trilogy" Gong band reformed (minus just one particular guitarist whose name rhymes with "spillage") and made similar rounds during the mid-90s and continue to this day to have a worldwide presence. So in all, I guess I've now seen Hawkwind at least 20 times, and Gong at least on four or five occasions.
So, it was the third member of this triumvirate that was the challenge. Ignoring for the moment the Wales-based 'Amon Düül' that was only tangentially-related, there was virtually no group activity from the 1981 semi-reunion album 'Vortex' to the mid-90s, when a couple new recordings were added to a retrospective compilation. And then finally the studio album 'Nada Moonshine #' appeared and a number of live performances began to occur (including a mini-tour of Japan that resulted in a less- than-stellar live CD). Although John Weinzierl was not yet returned to the fold, the core membership involved was certainly strong enough to call this a legitimate reformation. In my opinion, the new studio tracks were quite intriguing, with a number of surprisingly excellent moments, given that a slew of modern conveniences (e.g., programmed beats and such) were thrown into the mix, at times quite awkwardly. Anyway, it was quite a hit-and-miss affair, the latter causing some folks (I think) to shrug it off as nothing but diminishing to the established (albeit 'well-travelled') name. I preferred to view the merits of the high moments as a sign that perhaps the band had a future yet, and that one day our paths would cross. But alas, it was only a year or two later that the period of silence about their activities led to the confirmed conclusion that they'd all hung it up again and gone off on their own separate ways again.
Fast forward to 2001 (I think it was), and suddenly rumours that they'd come back together *again* started to float about. And this time Weinzierl was said to be part of the equation, which then completed in earnest the rebirth of the 'Wolf City' lineup. So, when I was making up my mind (around this same time) to have a go at life in Europe, it was with this hope of temporal confluence that in part spurred it on to reality (well, there were *other* bands I wanted to see too, but...). And then, indeed reports of their performances at events like the Burg Herzberg festival in central Germany shepherded that distant dream into an attainable hope. It was pretty obvious to me, anyway, that the expectation of them touring North America was a little too unrealistic. I start to get nervous, though, when I spent the entire Autumn 2002 (once I was settled here in Switzerland) anxiously searching the web for announcements/schedules about a possible tour across Europe. While that didn't materialize, I was suddenly encouraged several months ago by a report of a possible gig in Belgium this spring! Certainly this was only just the start of something larger to materialize with shows in other corners of Europe. And not waiting idly by, I sent an email of 'suggestion' to my favorite club here in Basel, hoping that they would contact the management and bring Amon Düül II here to my backyard (sadly, that hasn't happened, but I still hope). Well, the day came closer and closer and curiously a complete tour schedule never was widely publicized... in fact, the band doesn't even maintain an official website where such information could be readily available. In the end, worryingly I contacted the club owner in Belgium myself and he did confirm their expected appearance in mid-April, saying that they'd played there the previous year (something I confirmed as there existed a review of this show on the web) and so it was a reliable booking.
OK, so confidently, I scheduled my train and hotel accommodations early enough to get the discounted rates, and took a day of vacation from work as the show was on a Sunday night. I left home early on Saturday morning though, given that this was perhaps to be the only time I'd ever visit Belgium so I might as well make it worth the cost (I was thinking). The 7-hour train ride was bearable, but much of the countryside I'd already seen on previous trips through Frankfurt and Köln. The weather was very nice in the rolling hills of the Ardennes region (famous for the Battle of the Bulge), and both afternoons I spent wandering through Verviers and the nearby towns of Limbourg and Dolhain. My hotel was atop a big hill in Petit-Rechain to the north, not the greatest access to the Verviers city center (where the gig was) - plus I was exposed to the presence of bleating sheep each morning. Belgian sheep are damn noisy. Anyway, I had a good visit, gaining valuable experience with my new digital camera, and learning a few important French words in order to get by. (Dilemma: OK, do I announce that I don't speak French in English still, or now that I've learned a fair amount of German, do I say "Entschuldigung...ich verstehe kein Französisch"? Which second language are *they* more likely to know?)
Well, ok, enough rambling...the 'gates' were already open at 8 PM sharp when the club was advertised to open its doors. The Spirit of '66 club is an American-themed establishment with an interior décor devoted to that famous east-west artery through the southwestern US. The beer though was decidedly local, and I sampled the Jupiler Pilsner, and not only did it take me a long time to notice that the 'L' in the name wasn't a 'T', I also had to ask a newly-made acquaintance (who inquired about my Hawkwind t-shirt) how it's pronounced (zhoo-pe-LAY, or something along those lines, I learned). While I then annoyed the bartending staff with my complete inability to grasp the bizarre 'token' system of purchasing drinks at the bar, Amon Düül II behind me was going through a final half-hearted soundcheck of "Flowers of the Orient." And although the five well-travelled souls were easy enough to identify, I struggled to figure out who the youngish guy singing the lead was (see below). Anyway, it was obvious that there was to be no opening act, given the way the stage was currently arranged (Chris Karrer has a *lot* of instruments!), and then this was quickly confirmed as Renate Knaup (the 'K' isn't silent!) announced that they were just going to head off to their private room for about 30 minutes and be back to start the show.
I don't think that estimate was quite accurate, as I think it was just past 9 PM when they scrambled down the stairs and took their place on the stage. The club itself is quite small, but the stage is of sufficient size to give everyone a bit of space over which to move about. I think the number of patrons on this night may just have reached into triple digits (capacity is listed at 400, which seems to be stretching it, unless the upper 'loft' or balcony is able to hold more than it appeared), and we were all pretty excited, given that I think a lot of us had traveled some distance. Soon enough, the opening bars of "Eye-Shaking King" tipped off a show that was (with just one exception) exclusively 70's material. I had already seen the planned setlist back on the sound desk (peeking perhaps ruined the fun, but it helped to copy it all down for this review, without having to recall it by memory), so I didn't expect much excitement from "Apocalyptic Bore" (remembering it as only a jangly folksy bit of music of Karrer's). But then, suddenly I realized after about another five blissful minutes of full-on psychedelic jamming that they were still on this particular tune! (Certainly it's not this way on the album (is it?), or else I've ignored it for too long... well, the Vive la Trance album has never been among my favorites).
Well, musically-speaking, that moment may very well have been the highlight of the night, but really special was the long string of my very favorite tunes that they performed on this night from this point on. I fully expected Lothar Meid's signature pieces "Dry your Ears" (sic) and "Deutsch-Nepal," and these were both solid renderings (though I would have hoped for a little more sheer power on the latter). Then, borne out of a bit of strangeness that was this peculiar version of the title track from 'Wolf City' (hard to say 'peculiar' in what way exactly... it just was) came the cyclical crazed riffing of "Cerberus" (the latter half, where things get decidedly 'electric'). The three-headed dog of Karrer, Weinzierl, and the rhythm section of Meid and Hans-Peter Leopold fought to stay together in time during all this madness, but in any case, it was a good way to bring things up to a first climax.
The 'first lady of Krautrock' Renate Knaup-Krötenschwanz (she claims it means "toad's *tail*," and not the other connotation... though I don't know if she was just being coy or what?) took a moment somewhere around this point to mention how much she enjoys coming to Verviers (later claiming that "this place always inspires me") and then casually announced the next tune; "We're going to do "All the Years' Round" now." This wonderful song typifies the completely fearless attitude that Amon Düül II has (nearly) always maintained. And Knaup is ever a most-fearless vocalist... so not surprisingly, she started the a-cappella opening line ("At first I saw them in the bright morning light") at some seemingly-random point in the frequency spectrum. Anyway, I was sure it must have at least a coupla half-tones too high, but no matter... the song has a certain anarchist character to it (musically-speaking I mean... I have no *clue* whatsoever what it's actually about!). And so I doubt that any band, no matter how talented or practiced, could make much sense of this composition, at least in an on-stage performance. (Same goes for the equally-brilliant "Green-bubble-raincoated Man," almost a companion piece in character and attitude... chosen as their similarly-chaotic finale piece on this night.) So a great deal of scrutiny, on my part, of the band's current ability to match the performance on the album really seems irrelevant. And so I kinda figure these tracks have always been a little chaotic and challenging starting from Day One... that's the way they were meant to be, and indeed that's a large part of the Amon Düül II legend. In fact, I think 1972's "Live in London" sounds much the same way, so you'll hear no revisionist history from me. Not that I was ever there to see them in the Seventies!
Throughout the show, Chris Karrer went through quite a few instruments, large and small, four-, six-, and twelve-stringed. Following an impressive extended intro on a 12-string acoustic, the full band played his 1976 composition "Flowers of the Orient" which (in contrast) translates quite easily to the stage. Here it was that the sixth member of Amon Düül II took to the microphone to deliver the lead vocals (with accompaniment from Knaup). (Maybe Stefan Zauner originally sang this tune on record (?), so perhaps that's why Karrer didn't sing it himself. I can't remember off-hand.) Anyway, Jan Kahlert has been with the group for some time, including the previous mid-90s reunion. His major role is for additional percussion, and on this night he used both acoustic drums (those you strap to your waist) and an hi-tech electronic pad (capable of at least four sounds at any one time, from the looks of it). While Kahlert seemed *far* too young to share the stage with these legendary figures, and came off as a bit presumptuous in being a little over-animated at times, I must admit that his musical role was very beneficial. Certainly, the early works (while Shrat was a full-member) involved a lot of extra percussion, and here I was surprised at how well the trigger-pad produced "believable" sounds. And Kahlert was quite adapt at manipulating it. Interestingly, the band used no other synthesizing devices of any kind... Falk Rögner I think was always more of a visual artist than musician, and he was the group's main keyboardist. So, his absence was probably felt more because there wasn't much of a lightshow here in Verviers. A few colored lights, and a few moments of fog during the final moments of the show, that was it. No matter.
The biggest set-list surprise (to anyone who had enough willpower *not* to peek at it beforehand) was Kanaan from "Phallus Dei," their very first release in 1969. Another spooky bit of chaos, and a special moment for those having followed this journey for that long (or at least long enough... for me just 20 years - and this was the first album of theirs I bought, the purple & white LP reissue that is). In another throwback move, Amon Düül II did two separate improvisational bits, the first apparently unscripted as it wasn't written into the set plan. It began with a motif entered by Meid and eventually the whole band joined in the fray, while Knaup offered up a number of different lyrical fragments mostly with a general theme of "Revolution." Wrapping up the main part of the show was appropriately "Surrounded by the Stars," which was treated to an odd, teasing workup at the beginning, but eventually the song's signature power chords came through with flying colors. With that, the group said the first of their 'Adieus' and returned for another bit of improv, and more fabulous power chords in the form of their one classic-period 'hit' "Archangels' Thunderbird." Well, this got off to a poor start as John Weinzierl's guitar/amp cut out at the wrong moment and the whole thing came crashing down in a heap. Knaup chuckled unfettered and fashioned a quick apology, then turned and cued them up again for a second go, once the technical problem was addressed. The jubilant crowd was pleased for this three-minute air guitar moment, and got them back for "GBR Man." But sadly, they didn't save time for "Ludwig" which I would have loved to hear, being the only number they'd prepared from (IMHO) the vastly underrated "Made in Germany" rock opera.
Well, ok, this has already made for quite a long review, but as you can tell, this concert was not just *any* concert, as I said at the top. And frankly, I didn't really expect the band to play so well... I had been disappointed in the performance archived on the "Live in Tokyo" CD, and thought that they might not really be capable of playing some of their old music anymore. And yeah, there were certainly times on this night that things got a bit too 'loose,' but that might have been more to do with the fact that this was the first show of the tour. (Yeah, afterwards I learned that there were other shows in Germany to come in the following weeks, which sadly are probably not well advertised.) But I thought that every one of the group can still perform, and having the Karrer/Weinzierl tandem back in the fold makes a great difference on the positive side. One odd thing that I would be remiss in not mentioning (lest I fail my 'journalistic duty'), is that following the very last note of "GBR Man" as the band was prepared to take their final bows, Weinzierl took a second to lean over Leopold's kit and give him a fairly stern word or two. I thought it was a little strange to do this so publicly, given that 30 seconds later he could have done likewise in private once backstage. So I don't know what that was all about, I didn't really get the sense that Leopold was responsible for any particular failing of the band during the encore bits... everything was heading towards the realm of 'looseness' there, but I sensed that was just the band being even more 'playful' and 'undisciplined' in general. Perhaps it was just one of those things that musicians, like professional athletes, do to each other in the heat of battle and neither carried much away from it (?), I dunno.
So, following the show, as hoped, the band came out to mingle with the fans that remained (it was still an early night). And because the merchandising table featured really nice large posters (based on the 'Wolf City' artwork), autograph-signing of said posters commenced. With a bit of extended patience (i.e., waiting for Chris Karrer to *finally * come out and collect his myriad guitars and such), I managed to get all six to put down their Kaiser Wilhelms ("John Hancocks" auf Englisch) on my now- precious artefact (still can't find the right-size frame to match!). I was quite pleased with myself to get this accomplished, but comically I learned the next morning that I'd needn't have worried! As I awoke to bleating sheep on this pleasant Monday morning, showered, and casually strolled down to receive my complimentary breakfast in the quiet front foyer area, I was shocked to find one Lothar Meid sitting alone at a large table munching on toast and having coffee. In the end, all the group appeared out from their various rooms, and I had a second visit with my "Krautrock Helden." I was more than happy to have the chance to ask Meid a few more questions, including the status of Kronwinkl 12 in rural Bavaria (near Landshut), the story behind the song "Deutsch-Nepal" and such. Of course, you get home kicking yourself for not remembering to ask them this-or-that, but then you don't really expect this sort of opportunity. So then, I rode home to Switzerland (an extra 90 minutes this time due to train delays... only in Germany, never in Switzerland!) a happy man, but anxious again to catch them again later this year. That is, if I can actually find out when and where they might play again! And yes, I did ask if there was a new album in the works... they indicated 'yes,' but I was given the impression that this was not imminent, and therefore to be patient. As Meid said, "We still argue about the same old shit."
Amon Düül II Setlist:
Apocalyptic Bore/Extended Jam
Riding on a Cloud (aka, Dry your Ears)
Cerberus, Pt. 2
All the Years' Round
Speed Inside your Shoes (slow-dance version)
Chris Karrer acoustic solo
Flowers of the Orient
(Unplanned) Improvisation ("Revolution")
Surrounded by the Stars
Green-bubble Raincoated Man
(Ludwig; on set list, but not performed)
Reviewed by Keith Henderson