Michael Gira, Vienna Chelsea, 23 April 2012

There’s not much that can stop Michael Gira from singing when he’s in full-throated rage mode. Those who foolishly spend their time talking instead of listening will probably earn themselves a caustic putdown. The last time he played solo in Vienna, some hapless individual with a video camera (who was, unbelievably, part of the promoter’s team) clambered onstage and started filming Gira in close-up, causing the singer to break off in mid-song and shout “get off the f***ing stage” repeatedly until the miserable cur backed away. And last month at the Chelsea, Gira met a new nemesis: a wasp. He called it a bee, but I was close enough to see it, and it definitely looked like a wasp to me. The wretched vespid landed on Gira’s microphone mere inches from his mouth, whence it could easily have flown had he not expectorated forcefully in mid-song and driven the little bugger away.

That was just one of many fine moments in this intense and draining concert, during which Gira presented stripped down acoustic versions of Swans and Angels of Light tunes, plus several as yet unrecorded songs. For all Gira’s easygoing onstage banter, what came across most strongly were the anger and tragedy that flow through these relentlessly bleak songs. There seems little room for warmth or hope in Gira’s universe, little sense that the despair he evokes is anything other than an immutable condition. He communicates that despair not only via his texts – long, discursive lyrics shot through with violent and apocalyptic imagery – but in his stark, bony guitar playing and the extraordinary reach of his baritone. That voice dominates the performance. Stricken, vulnerable and brimming with pain and rage, it is a voice of immense and unutterable sadness. And listening to the inexorable force which with Gira sings, you come to the conclusion that his harrowing worldview is the only one that makes sense anymore.

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