Saturday, July 23, 2016

Swans at Terminal West, Atlanta, July 22, 2016

At least a couple of times in life, one ought to experience some extreme or another of human experience: childbirth, summiting a difficult mountain, extended sensory deprivation or deep meditation, completing an ultra-marathon, and other such activities.  I would add to that list my experience last night at the front of the stage for a live Swans' show.

Only slightly less intense was the opener, avant-garde cellist Okkyung Lee.

Lee's approach to the cello is more visceral than compositional - she's seemingly more interested in exploring the range of sounds she can produce from the instrument than sticking to something that can be written down in musical notation.  Her fingers slide rapidly down the strings producing sounds like ambulance sirens, and she holds the strings down at the very end to produce other effects that sound like bird songs. She plays with a furious intensity that, while certainly not anything one could call "rock" music or any of it's subgenres, would appeal to certain fans of thrash, metal, or extreme post-rock - in other words, Swans' fans.

It was a refreshing and bracing warm-up act.  Coincidentally, the last time we were at Terminal West, exactly one month ago - in fact the last show to which we've been - the opener was also a soloist on an instrument not traditionally the whole of a set, the drummer Majeure, opening for Black Mountain. Like Majeure, but also unlike him in so many other ways, Lee galvanized the audience and opened our minds for what was to follow.   

Swans came on stage at 9:30 sharp.  We got to Terminal West a little after 7:30 and were able to get a spot right up front at the center of the stage, arguably the spot spot in the house, and there wasn't even the usual security barrier separating the audience from the stage.  We watched the entire show maybe two feet away from Lee and Swans' frontman Michael Gira.

Sadly, percussionist extraordinaire Thor Harris is not touring with Swans, although his playing is a prominent part of the new Glowing Man LP, as he is now pursuing his own, solo project (which comes to Eddies' Attic, of all places, October 15).  However, the band was augmented by keyboardist Paul Oakenfish, who backed opener Little Annie when Swans played Terminal West last year.

Swans opened with a new, or at least unrecorded (as far as I know) song, followed by Screen Shot from To Be Kind.  After these two openers, which by the way, lasted a combined 45 minutes, the band launched into The Glowing Man with the first two tracks from the new LP, Cloud of Forgetting and Cloud of Unknowing.  Those two songs took us to about 11:00 pm, when Gira had the other musicians clear the stage and brought out a special guest musician, former long-time Swans member Jarboe.

Jarboe joined the band in 1985 and was the most prominent member of the band beside Gira.  She was in the band, despite many other roster changes, until Swans initially disbanded in 1997.  There were many reports of bad blood and a falling out between Gira and Jarboe, but apparently nothing that 19 years couldn't heal.  It was also significant that Jarboe, an Atlanta native, chose to support her friend Gira, whose reputation has been tainted by rape allegations brought by singer Larkin Grimm. Addressing those allegations, Jarboe told Creative Loafing
"When I first got wind of all of that, my support was very clear. On my Facebook page — for me, pictures speak louder than words — I posted a photograph of him with his arms around me, and the two of us embracing each other when we were younger. That was my statement about the incident. My fans on that page got it. They understood what that meant. I wouldn’t have posted that if I had any remote belief in those accusations. You’re talking about a major mentor for me, and a great love of my life, and I will always support him in that way."    
Photo posted to Facebook by show promoter Alex Weiss
As expected, Jarboe performed only one song, Blood On Your Hands, nearly a cappella, with only a droning background provided by lap steel guitarist Christoph Hahn.  It was mesmerizing and, as you can see in the picture above, held the audience spell-bound for the entire performance (for the record, I really was front and center for the show; that girl in the hat stepped right in front of me when Jarboe took the stage, but after the picture was taken, I later got back to the edge of the stage between her and the dude in the white shirt). She looked and sounded great, and although Gira's announced that this tour is the last by this incarnation of Swans, her appearance and the obvious warmth between her and Gira on stage support our hopes that she might be included in the next version of Swans, whatever that might be. 

The best received record of Swans during the Jarboe era was arguably Soundtracks For the Blind, and Jarboe is often criticized in some circles for the live performance of the controversial song Yum Yab Killers on that record.  The song is intentionally abrasive and confrontational (hey, this is Swans we're talking about), but I think the studio version of the song on Jarboe's solo Sacrificial Cake (1995) LP is the better version.

But anyway, although historic, Jarboe's reunion with the band after almost 20 years was less than 10 minutes of a 2 1/2-hour show.  After Blood On Your Hands, Jarboe left the stage and Swans launched into the title track of The Glowing Man, slightly shorter than the live version in the video below.  Last night's performance started in at about the 11:00-minute mark of the video version, which is more faithful to the recorded, studio version.

So about those "extremes of human experience":  the entire set was intense and emotional and unrelentingly loud - I didn't regret wearing earplugs at all, and my ears were still ringing anyway after the show was over.  Swans have developed a fearsome reputation, founded mostly on their earliest, per-Jarboe years, of playing at painfully loud volumes during concerts, sometimes leading to police stopping shows.  Legend famously has it their music was loud enough to "induce vomiting in members of the audience." Gira was also notably confrontational with the audience, stepping on people's fingers resting on the stage, pulling people's hair and, notably, physically assaulting anyone caught in the crowd headbanging, something he detested.  He has mellowed over the years, and the only negative interaction he had with the audience was stopping one person from video-taping the set, and that was just by finger-wagging and shaking his head "no."

Some of the drones went on a little too long, in my humble opinion, but when the band got going, like in the "Joseph" portion of The Glowing Man, the band was an unstoppable juggernaut.  It was exhilarating, it was exhausting, and for all the doom and gloom, it was strangely uplifting.  The likes of this particular line-up of Swans is not likely to be seen again any time soon, and I'm grateful that I've had the opportunity to experience them twice, and to witness Jarboe's reunion with her old band.

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