Concert Reviews

Over The Weekend: Swans at South Side Music Hall

South Side Music Hall
February 19, 2011

Better than:
a stirring live reading of The Ugly Duckling.

Considering that its name conjures images of immense, flowing beauty, seminal New York City No Wave outfit Swans sure makes some ugly music. And painstakingly ugly music at that.

Which is all part of the band's mystique, really. Since forming in 1982, focusing on the immediately beautiful has never been the band's forte. Rather, mastermind Michael Gira and his rotating cast of backing players travel the opposite route, instead highlighting the darker side of the sonic spectrum, reveling in often jarring sounds and repeating them, without fail, until the beauty of their flaws are revealed.

It's not easy music to listen to -- not in the slightest. More often than not, it's rather uncomfortable, actually. On Saturday night at the South Side Music Hall, where the band performed as part of a tour supporting its first release in 14 years, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, that much still rang true. At one point, an audience member noted to no one in particular, "This band just makes me feel really conflicted."

And, surely, that's an apt way to describe this performance.

Performing just eight songs over the course of an almost two-hour show, Gira and his band were in no rush to get anywhere -- something that was abundantly clear from the show's start. In fact, the opening number, which started with Shearwater's Thor Harris hammering away on a set of chimes before the rest of the band slowly joined in, one by one, lasted a half an hour on its own. To say that it set the stage for the night would be an understatement; with this move, Swans forced its direction for the evening onto the crowd, whether it was prepared to be aimed in that same direction or not.

But this crowd, filled noticeably with area musicians recognizable to those who pay attention to the things that take place on the odder, darker end of the local music scene, seemed eager to be taken wherever Gira would lead them. They stared upwards at him with mouths agape -- a stark contrast to the disdain Gira so often wore on his own face.

He, of course, was more than likely just playing his role. Thematically, Swans' music is based in religious realms, as Gira shouts lines about God and religion over repetitive riffs and beats. It's angry, immense music -- this was among the loudest performances heard in the region in some time -- and Gira gets this point across quite well, showcasing the gravity of religious ideals and the often confusing ways in which we mere mortals attempt to interpret spiritual ideals. It's brutal and intense -- and as uncomfortable as it's intended to be, forcing listeners, willing or otherwise, to inwardly confront their own religious stances.

And, oh, is there time and space to do so. Aside from a two-minute encore, every other song in the set was at least fifteen minutes in length, and filled with enough peaks and valleys to fill a continent. The peaks came as blasts to the eardrum, with all six performers wailing away at their instruments with visceral glee. The valleys came across as attempts at summoning unholy spirits.

Intense stuff, indeed.

It helped that the band looked the part, wearing their collective ages well and dressed like a horde of evil henchmen in a Tarantino film. It helped as well that their playing was impeccable, especially that of the drummer, who, despite losing his grips on three separate drum sticks in the opening song alone, was a menacing visual treat.

No, skill was not a concern on this night. Nor, really, was enjoyment.

But enjoyment isn't the game Swans plays. Rather, it implores its listeners to dig deeper, to find some sort of catharsis.

It's fair to say that those who welcomed this idea on Saturday night, left having experienced what they were looking for. They might not have enjoyed what they'd just witnessed. But they no doubt appreciated it nonetheless.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
I've listened to Swans sparingly in the past. It's tough music to spend too much time with. Having now seen them live for the first time, I'm interested in listening to more of their material, just to see what kind of response it elicits within me. But, no, I don't think I need to see them live again. Once was plenty.

Random Note: I'm not gonna say that the security at South Side Music Hall were encouraging recreational drug use on this night, but they weren't exactly discouraging it, either.

By The Way:
In pretty much every possible way, this show was the exact opposite of the show that was held in this same space the very night before.

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Pete Freedman
Contact: Pete Freedman