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Swans and Baby Dee

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Hearing Swans on record may not be enough for me anymore. After seeing them live for the first time, it's clear that their recorded output only offers their audience a tiny glimpse of the whole Swans picture. What's missing is the consuming and immensely physical side of their live performances. On September 30th, Michael Gira and the latest incarnation of Swans completely shattered my image of them, performing one of the most impressive shows I have ever witnessed. Over the course of a nearly two-hour set, they arrested the sold out crowd at the Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge, MA and choked the already hot room with their air-shaking vibrations and dominating presence.

By the time Swans had wrapped up their "final tour," I was only 15 years old. I wouldn't buy my first Swans record for another four years and I wouldn't even dream about seeing them live until I was 21 or 22 and in love with Soundtracks for the Blind. I listened to Swans for close to ten years before seeing them last week. That being the case, I spent a little time reading reviews of their shows from the '80s and '90s, many of which made the band sound like a mythical beast of impossible quality. Audience members allegedly vomited thanks to excessively loud volumes and many people would leave early just to escape the band's unrelenting rhythms and dark subject matter. Gira has confessed that some nights he or someone else would lock the doors to a venue from the outside, forcing attendees to endure an entire show whether they wanted to or not. I figured there was a lot of hyperbole in most of those accounts, but such stories were exciting, and I reasoned there had to be some truth in them.

Walking into the Middle East Downstairs on the 30th of September, I was cautiously excited. I like the new record, but I'm a little disappointed by how familiar it sounds. The bonus disc is more exciting, and I knew the band wouldn't be playing anything from it. Furthermore, I had doubts Swans could live up to the reputation they had earned for themselves. Hoping for the best, I worked my way to the middle of the venue early and waited for Baby Dee to come on stage, thinking I could hold that spot and be in the best possible position for the entirety of the show. The audience that night quickly made sure that didn't happen.

Dee came on stage accompanied by a violinist and a cellist, both of whom used a combination of sheet music and visual cues to support Dee's playful style and oddly metered songs. They were all clearly skilled musicians, handling uneven tempos and sudden changes without a hint of difficulty. Unfortunately, the crowd was so loud and inattentive that I had problems hearing anything but chatter after two or three songs. Standing in front of one of the speaker stacks was the only way to hear Dee clearly, and by then I had become too angry to enjoy the music. This sort of problem pops up all over Boston. Besides the Institute of Contemporary Arts, most venues in the city are very unfriendly to opening acts, and many crowds are more interested in being seen than listening to music. On more than one occasion I've watched angry fans yelling at other people and nearly fighting in between songs because they couldn't hear the music they came to hear. I couldn't help but feel disappointed, for both Dee and her fans, many of whom were eagerly pressed against the stage. Shows I've attended in St. Louis, Chicago, Atlanta, and New York City have all played host to much more welcoming crowds. Maybe I've just been lucky in the past, but as far as I can tell Boston audiences are so spoiled that they don't mind paying $30 to see a show they're going to ignore half the time.

Even when Thor Harris came on stage and began playing bells, many people in the audience continued chit-chatting. Over the sound of droning feedback, he played a variation on the opening seconds to "No Words/No Thoughts" for close to five minutes. The rest of the band had to pick up their instruments before the crowd finally hushed up and paid attention. Gira strolled around the stage waving his arms in a circular motion before conducting the band into one of the loudest, most unrelentingly vivid passages of music I've ever heard. When Chris Pravdica and Phil Puelo blasted the opening notes of "No Words/No Thoughts" out of their body and through their instruments, the air in the room rushed past me and shook the walls. The floor rumbled, my body vibrated with sound, and my head buzzed with Christoph Hahn's and Norman Westberg's electric din. Nothing could have prepared me for just how impressive Swans were live. I let out a stupid, half-maniacal laugh and closed my eyes in the opening minutes because what Swans were doing sounded great, but it felt even better. I wanted to ignore everything but that sound and that feeling, at least initially. When Puelo hit the drums, it was a tangible experience, and when the group gelled completely, the music they made affected my entire body, not just my ears. If anyone was talking at that point, it didn't matter because nobody could hear anything but the noise Swans were making. Even with my earplugs in, the music was almost too loud. There's simply no good way to emphasize just how massive a sound this band makes live.

"No Words/No Thoughts" lasted more than 20 minutes without once becoming tedious or tiresome. When Gira conducted the band into silence, an applause of disbelief and joy erupted from the crowd. Swans sounded better live than I could have anticipated, and it was obvious that their long hibernation had done nothing to quiet Gira's intensity. The second and third songs in the set were "Your Property" (from Cop), which took me a few seconds to recognize, and "Sex, God, Sex," which was instantly recognizable and much like the version on Children of God. "I Crawled" and "Beautiful Child" were also played and elicited the biggest reactions from the crowd. Along with "No Words/No Thoughts" and "My Birth," these represented the best performances of the night. They might have sounded better to me because I was most excited to hear older Swans songs, but Gira's delivery was another reason. Hearing him yell "Come into me, Lord" and "Make me nothing / be my father" was intimidating and frightening. The music's daunting quality helped add to the effect, but Michael was at his most intense and personal during those songs. He meant what he was saying, or at least I felt like he did. There was no apparent pretense nor affectation, either in his voice or on his face, and whether that was an effect of good acting or honesty, it doesn't much matter. Feeling that close to the music and lyrics instantly became uncomfortable, and it occurred to me that this is what Michael might have meant when he told the audience he wanted them to feel like they were all part of a single body. In my case, the band achieved that goal almost too well.

With each successive song the show slowly turned into an endurance test. The Middle East Downstairs was packed full, the room was almost suffocatingly hot, and the music was punishing. As Swans drew me further inside myself and further into their music, I became increasingly reluctant. The rush of joy I felt when Puelo and Pravdica first started playing became a provocation in the final minutes. With lyrical themes like slavery, ignorance, sex, and despondency in the mix, one might assume the music is too cruel or oppressive to handle in large doses, but that isn't quite the case. The music isn't cruel so much as it is too close for comfort. When Gira uttered the final lines to a stripped down version of "Little Mouth," I felt relieved that it was over. I was quick in getting upstairs into the open air and happy to hear little more than people's excited conversations and nearby traffic. Water was essential.

The next day I wanted more, though. Listening to My Father, my mind flashed to the opening crashes from the live version and I instantly wished I could feel it again. Hearing the new songs played live made the album sound much better, too. But more is going on in Gira's music than my small speakers or headphones could ever hope to capture. Even on a nice system, no Swans record will come close to reproducing the experience I had. It isn't an exaggeration or overwrought memory that compels me to say this, either. Swans do more than play music on a stage. There's an extra dimension to their performances, something I want to call spiritual or at least psychological. They dig down deep, into the chest and heart and gut (maybe even the soul), and bring something recognizable back with them, like that's always been their mission. Their live shows are more ritual or trial than entertainment. As uncomfortable as that experience might be, it's thrilling, too, and a big reason why Swans is among my favorite bands. There are other bands that aim for the body as much as the ears, but none of them do it as well as Gira and company.

I was ambivalent about Swans being the band name on the new album, but their performance in Cambridge totally changed that. There's no doubt in my mind that this is Swans, and they're easily the most unique and potent band on the road. Actually, they're one of the best I have ever seen.

Last Updated on Sunday, 03 October 2010 22:12  


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