Swans With Little Annie Trees, Dallas Saturday, April 4, 2015
To say Swans is not everyone's cup of tea is an understatement. Even the super fans among us can admit to having to be in a very particular mood (not to mention alone) to listen to the band's music. But we never pass on an opportunity to see Swans live. The mass of sound, the musical tension and the intensity that leader Michael Gira brings to each show and each song is a singular live music experience. Saturday's performance at Trees was the band's third show in three years at the venue, and it may have been their most satisfying.
Off stage, Gira is a very charming guy, meeting and mingling with fans before and after shows. But on stage, he channels a touch of the edginess of the Frank Booth character from Blue Velvet, intimidating and demanding his partners on stage to create the perfect performance so he can achieve some personal musical gratification.
On the first of the band's recent performances at Trees, there was an early-set tirade by Gira at the Trees staff for having the many TV screens scattered throughout the venue advertising future concerts. It seemed to darken his mood for the rest of the set. And while the music was still incredible, he seemed to snarl throughout the set, as though that early insult to his sensibility would neither be forgotten nor forgiven.
There was yet more excitement at last year's show. Early in the set Gira's amp melted down, requiring an extended pause in the set. After the amp (a large Orange amp) was replaced with a Fender, Gira and company resumed play. But it seemed that between the interruption and use of a B-string amp, he was resigned to the fact that he was not going to be getting off that night. Good show, but not ecstatic.
Saturday night was different. Gira and the audience, at last, got off. The issues that had created obstacles to Gira's satisfaction in the past performances had been dealt with in advance. The TVs were off, the amp failure fortunately had happened the night before and the replacement dialed in.
Starting off as usual with the 20 minute or so "Frankie M," the evening began with percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris alone on stage, creating a gathering storm of noise with his gongs and tubular bells. The storm's intensity increased as by turns drummer Phil Puelo and steel guitarist Christoph Hahn mounted the stage and joined in. When Gira, guitarist Norman Westberg and bassist Chris Pravdica finally joined the stage, the storm built to the organ-melting signature of a Swan's opus.
Gira, appropriately dressed in black with shoulder-length gray hair slicked back, genuinely leads his band through their paces. They are playing for his pleasure, not for the audience. In fact, throughout the evening I can't recall any particular moment where the band is not looking inward, full attention on Gira and his tics, stomps and gestures, oblivious to the audience.
As in a concert hall, the Trees audience also provided the respect and intensity demanded by Gira. There was a nearly complete absence of talk, or even movement, throughout the evening. As each song ended, the applause was intense, Gira acknowledged the appreciation with a few words of thanks, and it was on to the next piece.
This incarnation of the Swans has been touring almost non-stop since the release of last year's two-record masterpiece To Be Kind (recorded in Texas by Oak Cliff's John Congleton). And while they look a bit weary, they played together like a well-tuned machine. Rolling through what seemed like a 90-minute set with little pause between songs, the intensity never diminished.
Most tellingly, there was a look of satisfaction on Gira's face after each song. And as the set closed with the astonishing, savage, 25-minute "Bring the Sun/Black Hole Man," Gira, having chanted and coaxed all the juice he could from himself and his band mates, smiled and gave thanks. There was no call for an encore. We had all gotten what we came for.
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