Monday, March 30, 2015

Little Annie

photo by Nick LeTellier
I'm still reeling after being blown away by Swans' performance at Terminal West on Saturday night and don't yet have much to say, but I did want to share this amazing picture I found of opener Little Annie performing at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville on Sunday.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Swans at Terminal West, Atlanta, March 28, 2015

Little Annie and Swans were at Terminal West last night for what is probably my last March Madness show for the year.  Damn, we have some shit we need to talk about.

March Madness, at least in concept, is about all of the musicians passing through Atlanta on their way to or from Austin's SXSW, a sort of informal Savannah Stopover festival.  But this past week, it has been dominated by artists on their way to Knoxville's Big Ears Festival - by Wednesday night's performances by Sam Amidon and Nels Cline at Eddie's Attic, who performed at Big Ears yesterday, and by Swans and Little Annie, who perform at Big Ears today (Sunday). 

Little Annie was last night's opener (obviously).  I had never heard of Little Annie before, except that she's the one singing with Gira on Swans' Some Thing We Do, and so was surprised to meet someone at the show who told me that he was there last night specifically to see Little Annie.  I had no idea what to expect but was still more than a little surprised when a woman closer to my age than what I suspect is yours walked onto the stage carrying a cane.  

According to Wikipedia, Little Annie is a New York-based singer, songwriter, painter, poet, writer, performance artist, pastor, and stage actor.  She first performed on stage as a teenager at Max's Kansas City, singing with her band Annie and the Asexuals.  She later moved to London where she was in producer Adrian Sherwood's house band, singing on the numerous dub (Lee "Scratch" Perry) and industrial (Nurse With Wound) recordings produced there.  After moving back to New York, she became a painter, an actor, and a writer; book titles include You Can't Sing the Blues When You're Drinking Milk, and a collection of poetry called Hell Is A Place Where We Call Each Other Darling.  Now, in addition to singing backup on songs for Swans, she is a cabaret singer, performing with keyboardist Paul Oakenfish last night at Terminal West.   

Amazingly, she took control of the room and had the audience of Swans fans, mostly boisterous young men, in the palm of her hand.  Her songs opened with a number about a "homeless tranny" and included a cover of Tina Turner's Private Dancer that emphatically brought out the pathos at the heart of the song.  Her voice sounded, at least to me, at times like jazz legend Jimmy Scott's, and musically she touched on blues, cabaret, jazz, and other largely ignored musical forms.  The audience clearly loved her and she seemed genuinely touched and appreciative of their approval.  It was a wonderful performance, and not something that I ever would have expected to hear opening a Swans show. 

Is there a band with as fearsome a reputation as Swans? Their music can be abrasive, uncompromising, and confrontational (as well as hypnotic, beautiful, and cathartic), and their volume has legendarily been described as "loud enough to induce vomiting in the audience."  The band members are the very picture of gravitas and seriousness, and frontman Michael Gira once reportedly jumped off stage to beat up an audience member for being "too into" a particularly daunting part of a performance.  Jars full of complimentary ear plugs were available at the front door and at Terminal West's two bars.

After Little Annie finished her set and the band went through a quick check of their set up, the audience busied themselves inserting plugs in their ears and bracing themselves for the show.  The band's big Orange and Ampad amps were set up near the  front of the stage, certainly in front of the drum kit and the percussion area, practically looming over the audience.  There wasn't much chattering, maybe because of all the ear plugs or maybe out of anticipation for the show about to commence.  In any event, as we waited for the band, there was a general sense of suspense unlike any other show I can remember.

I had plugs in my ears as well, which is not something I normally do.  Even more uncharacteristically, soon after percussionist Thor Harris (formerly of Shearwater) started the Swans' set with washes of sound from a gigantic gong, I gave up my position right at the front of the stage and retreated back several rows out of anticipation that all hell was about to break loose.  It did, but not in any way that justified giving up that front-row spot.  In any event, I could see and hear fine from my fall-back position, so not to worry.

Thor was soon joined on stage by drummer Phil Puleo. who added splashes of cymbals and bass-drum kick to Thor's gong, and then by pedal steel player Christoph Hahn, who added thundering screeches of sound that reminded us why we had the earplugs.  Soon Gira and the rest of the band took the stage, and launched into the first song of the long set, an extended mantra of brutalizing guitar riffs and ominous chanting.  I'm not sure what song it was, although it sounded at times like Lunacy, the opener of 2012's The Seer, but it could have been any of several other exercises in extended post-rock crescendo and catharsis, or even a new composition altogether, 

Words simply cannot describe a live Swans' show and I won't try to - it really has to be experienced in order to be understood.  But I will say that thirty or so minutes into the set, when that first song finally concluded and the band had launched into A Little God In My Hands from 2014's To Be Kind, I got sick of the earplugs and took them out during the loudest portion of the song, the sonic blast right after the words "the universal mind," if you're familiar with the song.  I was shocked at first at how much louder everything really was, but also noticed that it wasn't actually painfully loud, and that I could hear all of the dynamics and ranges of the instruments so much better without the earplugs. What's more, I wasn't vomiting, nor was anyone around me.  Listening with the earplugs was like hearing a great band but while underwater and with a bad head cold.  I can honestly report that while the band was certainly loud, they never hurt my ears and at the end of the show, I experienced no ringing or tinnitus like I had with other bands with less fearsome reputations (Acid Mothers Temple, Thee Oh Sees, even Red Baraat).  If you're concerned about going to a Swans show out of fear of hearing damage, don't worry - you may not want to stand right in front of the amps and you should bring earplugs in case you're more sensitive than I, but I found the show so much more enjoyable once I took the earplugs out, and as people in front of me moved away during the course of the evening, I even got close to my original spot at the front of the stage.

After A Little God, the band spent about the next hour or so performing Toussaint L'Ouverture (without the Bring the Sun lead in) and Just a Little Boy from To Be Kind.  I was hoping that they'd bring Little Annie on stage to duet Some Things We Do with Gira, but that didn't happen, It may say something about me that I wasn't able to identify any of the songs performed last night that weren't from To Be Kind, but the next song was another extended exercise in suspenseful build up and release, and the sixth and final song of the 2 1/2-hour set sounded at first like the brutal head-banging intro of Bring the Sun, followed by the equally brutal and equally head-banging finale to To Be Kind, but then launched into a breakneck-speed new song (new to me at least) that might fill the spot in the playlist that Oxygen used to occupy.

The set ended with the band lined up on stage for introductions by Gira and theatrical bows.  There was no encore but after two and a half hours, I don't think anyone was expecting more or felt disappointed by the absence of an encore.  Swans gave a hundred-percent effort, holding nothing back, and by the end of the set there truly was nothing more left to be said. 

I'll grant that Swans' music might not be to everybody's tastes, but those interested in post-rock, post-music, experimental rock, and the avant garde would have loved last night's show,  I love folk-rock and jangle-pop and shoegaze as much as the next person, but in my humble opinion, the trilogy of albums by the reformed Swans, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, The Seer, and To Be Kind, are the most significant works of art in any medium so far in the new millennium.  No exaggeration.     

Saturday, March 28, 2015

New Algiers

A new song and video from ex-Atlantans Algiers.  We like these guys.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Father John Misty at Variety Playhouse, Atlanta, March 26, 2015

Back-to-back shows this week with Father John Misty at Variety Playhouse following Nels Cline last night at Eddie's Attic.

Variety Playhouse was sold out for this show.  This was not our first time seeing Father John Misty, having already caught him at Terminal West and at The Masquerade.  I believe both of those shows were sold out as well.  But a new Father John record dropped this year, his second, I Love You Honeybear, and J Tillman has upped the performance ante with a larger backing band (six musicians) and a louder sound - he basically brought a stadium show to the medium-sized Playhouse last night.   It was a big sound, but all too often it sounded like Tillman had to shout the lyrics that he croons on the new album.  

Speaking of loud, King Tuff opened with a set of highly amplified garage rock.  The were able to keep the audience's attention, if only by sheer volume, far better than Misty's opener at The Masquerade, the quiet and introspective folk singer Jessica Pratt.  I don't think most of the Masquerade audience even knew Pratt was on stage, and fewer still acted like they cared, which was too bad.  La Sera opened for Father John at Terminal West and provided just the right balance between Pratt's acoustic strumming and King Tuff's Marshall amps.   

I didn't get any good pictures of King Tuff, but Variety Playhouse posted this one on Facebook, below, followed by some of my shots of FJM: 

The most prominent feature of the stage was a large, neon "No Photography" sign conspicuously placed behind the band - they occasionally played in silhouette back-lit by the sign - but many people apparently ignored the rule based on the number of illuminated cell-phone screens I could see from my usual Variety Playhouse position back on the first riser, right.

Father John Misty played the expected songs off of Honeybear and Fear Fun, and included Leonard Cohen's I'm Your Man in their encore.  Stage banter included references to Squidbillies, Bronze-Age desert myths, and gold-plated dollar-sign necklaces.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Lost Lander

Lost Lander at MFNW (RIP), 2012
Oh, look.  Portland's Lost Lander, whom we saw perform at the Doug Fir Lounge during MFNW (RIP) 2011 and 2012, have a new album out, Medallion, and their song Gemini was recently The Current's Song of the Day.  Here's Lost Lander performing a set at Oregon Public Broadcasting. 

They haven't announced any tour dates in the Deep South yet, but they do have a show in Richmond, Virginia in May, with no dates announced at least a month before and after, so who knows?, maybe they'll work in a swing through Georgia and the City of Atlanta either going to or coming from the Richmond gig.