If I'm honest I went to this gig a little afraid of how brutal it might be. I'd heard stories of people passing out or vomiting due to the volume & intensity of Swans live. It certainly was VERY loud but the ear plugs I'd bought specially for the occasion were worth the money, allowing me to enjoy the show without fear of permanently losing my hearing.
I'd not explored the Swans' catalogue until fairly recently. When My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky came out in 2010 (their first studio recording for 14 years) it got great reviews and I gave it a couple of listens through Spotify. I found it a bit dense and difficult and didn't persevere, something I've subsequently rectified - turns out its bloody ace! Then I read a live review of Swans (I can't find it now though it might have been this one by superlative gig photographer Valerio Berdini) which basically suggested Swans were the best live band in the world and my interest was piqued. With a number of tour dates announced (including the Concorde 2, which is one of my favourite venues) I downloaded new album The Seer to have another go at getting to grips with the Swans sound. It took me a while (The Seer is almost 2 hours of music) but after several weeks heavy listening it finally clicked into place. I can't recommend The Seer highly enough, it's a legitimate masterpiece. Then I had a piece of good fortune as the Concorde 2 provided me with free tickets after I submitted a live review to their new blog.
I found myself a spot not too near the front but close enough. Somewhere that gave me a good view but allowed me an escape route should the volume reach the mythical vomit inducing levels. I've never worn ear plugs at a gig before and felt a little self conscious putting them in but have reached an age where I've started to fret a little about damaging my hearing and just about everyone I'd spoken to who'd seen Swans before had recommended wearing them. After a brief technical pause Swans kicked off with To Be Kind a fairly mild start but a chance to ensure that I was hearing nice and clearly. Around three minutes in Michael Gira's vocal power did something incredible. An immense deep throbbing noise that made me wonder if the ear plugs were cutting anything out at all. I could see the bloke in front tentatively rubbing his ears. Crikey, if this is what he can do with his voice, what's it gonna be like when they really get going? Then the band did up the volume and, whilst it was loud, everything seemed to settle down.
Gira prowled the stage, at times like some prehistoric predator, stomping about and cranking out guitar chords like whip cracks of sound. In the instrumental sections he'd use his hands like a conductor, urging the band on to greater exertions, often focusing on drummer Phil Puleo and pushing him to drive the beat on. Drums and percussion are an integral part of the Swans sound and I was excited to see they had two sticks-men. The wonderfully named Thor Harris was tucked in a corner but seemed quite a character with his flowing locks and collection of things to hit that included tubular bells and a medium sized gong as well as a brief parp on a trombone. The rest of the band were smartly dressed and well drilled. Long serving guitar slicer Norman Westerberg looked imperious throughout and alongside bass player Christopher Pravdica formed the basis of a wall of sound that underpinned most of the show. Christoph Hahn added interesting guitar noise over the top using his double lap set up which included some funky tremolo device for when he needed to hit the really high frequencies. Gira was the star throughout though. He seemed unexpectedly affable, keen for us to stay afterwards so he could "say hello and sign a few things" and at one point asking for the blue light set to be dimmed as they were shining into the eyes of a lady down the front.
A large proportion of songs Swans played on European tour were, as yet, unrecorded songs. I like the idea of touring new music before recording it, I think it gives a band the chance to really explore a tune and get it perfected before committing it to acetate (or whatever the hep cats are suing these days). That said, the epic half hour version of The Seer was the undoubted highlight of the show for me. That merged into Toussaint Louverture Song taking the final track of the night to close on an hour of uninterrupted music. They played close to 2½ hours but it never lagged and come the end I was half hoping for an unlikely encore. A simply stunning show from start to finish and one that will live long in my memory.
Review by Dave Harris || All images © 2013 by Mike Burnell. Images may not be copied, printed or otherwise disseminated without express written permission.