I never got around to writing about Swans’ last Vienna concert in 2014 or whenever it was, so this review can probably stand as a review of that one as well, especially since not much has changed chez Michael Gira since that time. Other than by exchanging Thor Harris for a new, nondescript and barely noticeable keyboard player, the group has declined to refine its approach from previous outings. The long, monotonous riffs, rudimentary songwriting and entirely predictable use of dynamics (The loud bit! The quiet bit! The loud bit again!) are all present and correct, testaments to the creative dead end into which Gira has steered himself since reactivating Swans six years ago.
Here’s some kind of list of the most memorable concerts I attended this year. (By the way, you won’t find a list of albums of the year here. I hardly ever listen to recorded music any more; increasingly, music to me means live music.)
It’s been an excellent year for my kind of music in Vienna, and shows by The Walkabouts, Tindersticks, Shearwater, The Cherry Thing and Bruce Springsteen might all have made the top ten on a different day. I was also gutted to miss, for one reason or another (work, illness, domestic commitments) many shows which I was looking forward to, including those by Brötzmann/Lonberg-Holm/Nilssen-Love, Death in June, Broken Heart Collector, Bulbul/Tumido, The Thing, Kern & Quehenberger, Sonore, Nadja, Josephine Foster, Double Tandem, Kurzmann/Zerang/Gustafsson, Glen Hansard and A Silver Mt Zion, not to mention the entire Konfrontationen festival.
A few of the concerts listed here have links to the reviews I wrote at the time, but most of them do not. This is partly because I haven’t had time to write those reviews, but mostly because it’s getting harder and harder to keep this blog going, to the point where I’m considering giving it up altogether. Very few people read these pages, and of those who do, only a few bother to leave comments. Those people, and they know who they are, have my eternal gratitude; but it’s rather disheartening not to be making more of an impression on the wider world.
In chronological order, then:
1. Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, Barbican Centre, London
2. Codeine, Szene Wien, Vienna
3. Peter Brötzmann’s Full Blast, Chelsea, Vienna
4. Anthony Braxton, Jazzatelier, Ulrichsberg
5. Peter Hammill, Porgy & Bess, Vienna
6. The Thing, Blue Tomato, Vienna
7. Marilyn Crispell/Eddie Prévost/Harrison Smith, Blue Tomato, Vienna
8. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Martinschlössl, Vienna
9. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Arena, Vienna
10. Swans, Arena, Vienna
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.
In 1998 Swans released a live album called Swans Are Dead, a double CD from the group’s 1995 and 1997 tours. That title carried with it such a sense of finality and certainty that there seemed no prospect whatsoever of Swans getting back together again. In truth this wasn’t something that overly bothered me, even though Swans were then, and remain now, the most important group of my life. I had lived through every second of that marathon final 1997 tour of Europe, working the merchandise table every night on my own and travelling with the band and the rest of the crew in a big black tour bus. (See here for the story of how I came to be doing this.) Night after night I had heard the show begin with the crushing tumult of “Feel Happiness”, Michael Gira’s deeply affecting valediction to the band. The infernal chords of the introduction would fade away, leaving Gira to intone the words “I’m truly sorry for what I never did, and I forgive you too for your indifference”; and it seemed to me as though the sorrow and forgiveness he was singing about were universal, and that I was wholly and unavoidably implicated in them.
Here’s some kind of list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2010, with links to the reviews I wrote at the time. In no particular order…
1. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Martinschlössl, Vienna
2. The Swell Season, Museumsquartier, Vienna
3. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love/Lasse Marhaug, Blue Tomato, Vienna
4. Swans, Arena, Vienna
5. Naked Lunch, Arena, Vienna
6. Suzanne Vega, Konzerthaus, Vienna
7. Peter Hammill, Posthof, Linz
8. Heaven And, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf
9. Oliver Welter, Radiokulturhaus, Vienna
10. The Thing XL, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf
The news that Michael Gira is resurrecting the Swans name for an album and tour this year is scarcely believable but overwhelmingly thrilling. I just want to bump this piece, ostensibly a review of a 2008 solo show in Vienna by Gira, but really some kind of fumbling towards an explanation of why Swans are so hugely important and special to me. For this and other reasons, 2010 is shaping up to be a beautiful year.
The first time I came across Pan Sonic (or Panasonic, as they were then known) was on a cold evening in 1994, in an empty outdoor car park in East London. On that occasion, they (at least one had to assume it was them, since they were never actually seen) had stationed themselves inside an armoured car belonging to Jimmy Cauty of the KLF, which had supposedly been customized to make it into a sonic weapon. This vehicle was driven repeatedly around the car park in circles, with sounds (supposedly generated by Panasonic) emanating from it. The whole thing was tiresome in the extreme, since these sounds were nowhere near as loud as they should have been, while there was nothing at all to see. A failure, then, in both its acoustic and visual aspects. But then one has come to expect failure and empty gestures from Paul Smith, the smug and irritating drudge responsible for the Disobey Club (of which that Panasonic event was part, and a number of other evenings of which I attended in the mid-90s), Blast First Records and sundry other cooler-than-thou ventures.
A couple of years later I found myself on tour, no less, with Panasonic. On the same tour bus, to be exact, since they were the support group on Swans’ final tour of Europe in 1997, on which I was the merchandise seller (see here for a brief reminiscence). An unlikely pairing, you might think, but in fact their pummelling and uncompromising electronic noise was a highly effective curtain-raiser to the main event – even after listening to it twenty-odd times as I did. With their spare and lugubrious humour, Mika and Ilpo were also excellent travelling companions on the long drives from show to show. During a lengthy tour-bus debate on the merits and demerits of tenpin bowling, Mika responded to a criticism that the scoring system was perhaps unnecessarily complex with the doleful comment “It does not matter what is the score.”
Another twelve years, and Pan Sonic (having lost an ‘a’) wound up in Vienna for what was apparently their penultimate live concert ever (the last one being next week in Athens). The venue was also notable, being a tiny club in the basement of the Secession building. After a long wait outside to get in and an interminable support slot, the duo came on and proceeded to shake the Secession to its foundations. Augmented by unnerving rhythmic patterns, the heavy drones and sine waves were wildly diverse and crushingly loud. Mika and Ilpo sat at their dial-strewn consoles, seemingly generating all their sounds from analogue equipment (there didn’t seem to be any computers in use). The only visual accompaniment was a flickering back-projection of a single thick vertical line, which mutated in response to the music (they had used the exact same visual on the Swans tour). This stuff was disorientating yet vastly entertaining, its endless arcs and twists the product of fierce and highly musical intelligence.
Since Jarboe’s planned concert in Vienna was cancelled in murky circumstances, it was a no-brainer for me to make the trip to the nearest place she was playing, which turned out to be Budapest. This is no trainspotters’ blog, but I do feel obliged to mention the excellent ÖBB Railjet service which whisked me from Westbahnhof to Budapest in exactly three hours, in remarkable comfort and to-the-minute punctuality. British trains, I do not miss you at all.
I wrote a short reminiscence of Swans under the guise of a review of Michael Gira’s concert in Vienna last November, which touched on the kindness and generosity Jarboe showed me in the early days of my friendship with her. Ironically, while Gira has for the most part opened up his muse to softer and more acoustic elements since ending Swans, Jarboe’s own post-Swans work has recently been heading in the other direction, towards the theatricality and brute force of black metal. But this really shouldn’t be seen as too much of a surprise. Intensely aware of gods, demons and other spectral presences, Jarboe’s music has always revolved around the kind of incantatory invocations that the BM scene also relishes.
What makes Jarboe extraordinary, though, is the sense of humility and abasement that she brings to her on-stage persona. For at least half of this concert, she came down from the stage and sang while standing amongst the (almost exclusively male) audience, her long blonde hair shrouding her face, her voice howling and trembling in supplication. This was no mere theatrical diversion, but a deliberate strategy on Jarboe’s part to place herself in a position of utter abjection. The resulting cauldron of lamentation was both sexually charged and unbearably moving.
Jarboe’s songs are protean; they refuse to take on the properties of songs, sounding instead like hectoring blasts of black energy. The guitar, bass and drums pulsate menacingly, as though calling up apparitions given voice by Jarboe’s sepulchral keening. The performance resonates with an elegiac, mystical beauty.
Michael Gira has indicated that he may resurrect the Swans name for a new album and tour, a move which (needless to say) I would wholeheartedly welcome. Jarboe, sadly, is unlikely to be a part of any such endeavour; but on the evidence of this show, Gira will have to go some to match the level of draining intensity reached by his erstwhile bandmate.
The Vienna Songwriting Association are a fine group of individuals who promote concerts of folk and acoustic music all year round in this city. As well as this, every November they put on a three-day festival of internationally known artists, the Bluebird Festival, at Porgy & Bess. There are some great names at this year’s event, such as Okkervil River playing almost a year to the day since their last appearance in Vienna. I raved about them in my November 2007 column, so let’s talk instead about one of my all-time musical heroes, American singer and songwriter Michael Gira. Gira initially made his name as the driving force behind Swans, a crushingly loud and formidable outfit who emerged from the creative ferment that was early ’80s downtown New York. When they first came to public attention, Swans presented a vision of rock music as a form of abjection, with bone-crunching percussion to the fore and lyrics that focused relentlessly on traumatic explorations of work, sex and the body. Over the years they gradually let the light in, bringing softer and more acoustic textures into their music. After Gira ended Swans in 1997 he began a new project, the Angels of Light, which placed even more emphasis on acoustic elements. In all of these incarnations, however, Gira has never swerved from an implacable belief in the atavistic power of the song. Straining with every muscle and sinew of his body, he sings with immense authority and commitment, every moment of his performance filled with tenderness and rage. This rare solo appearance by one of rock music’s most exceptional talents should on no account be missed.
Early next month, soulful British group Tindersticks stop off in Vienna on their first tour in several years. Like many others, I had doubted that they would ever return to active service. Over 15 years and seven albums, Tindersticks have perfected a literate and highly listenable blend of alternative rock, chamber music, soul and jazz, defined by rich string-laden orchestrations and the desolate croon of singer and lyricist Stuart Staples. Having released nothing new since 2003 and with rumours of a split rife, their story seemed on the brink of an end; to my great pleasure, however, they are back with an excellent new album, The Hungry Saw. Although three of the original members have now left, the new album is a worthy addition to the group’s catalogue and will no doubt be subjected to passionate live treatment. Staples is an enigmatic figure, rarely speaking onstage and often seeming to be transported elsewhere as he performs; he has remained tight-lipped about the reasons for the split. But the group bring a marvellously intuitive sense of drama and mystery to their songs, with violin, brass and organ enveloping the listener in a warm and tender embrace.
There seems to be an occasional series of concert reviews on this blog — see Leonard Cohen, Whitehouse and Einstürzende Neubauten — that mostly consist of Epiphanies-style reminiscences of my first awareness of the artist in question. This, though, is the one I’ve been waiting to write — how I fell in love with Swans, the most important group of my life.
I recall the time very well. I was at Sussex University in 1987, casting around for new music to love. I had outgrown the obsessions with Gary Numan and Pink Floyd that marked my teenage years, had taken quite happily to the subdued acoustic muse of Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Vega, but was undoubtedly in need of something more acute. Every week I would scour the pages of the NME — still then my main source of music news, although not for much longer — in search of wisdom and enlightenment. One week I read a review of Swans’ Children of God that was to change my life, although I didn’t know it at the time. I can’t remember who penned it, but this is how it concluded: “And it’s ugly, and it’s difficult, and it’s long and sometimes wearying, and peculiarly beautiful, and utterly essential.” Well, that was it for me. I had never heard a note of this music, had no great history of liking this kind of thing, but when I saw that Swans (not The Swans, as I quickly learned) were playing in Brighton soon, I bought a ticket straight away. I got the album the day after the concert, and I was hooked for life.
Over the next few years, I saw Swans live a few more times (at the Zap Club on the seafront, and in London at the Town & Country Club and the now defunct Kilburn National Ballroom), and bought each new record as it came out, enthralled by the beauty and power inherent in this music. The real turning point, however, came when I wrote a fan letter to the address printed on the cover of 1991’s White Light From The Mouth of Infinity. I expected to hear back, if at all, from some kind of management flunkey; what I certainly didn’t expect was to receive a long and detailed reply from singer and keyboard player Jarboe herself. This kindness and generosity continued over many years in her correspondence with me; in those pre-email days it was a genuine thrill when a letter postmarked Atlanta dropped through my letterbox.
The apex of my association with Swans came in 1997 when Michael Gira asked me to be the merchandise seller on their farewell tour of Europe. As one might imagine, this was an offer I mulled over for perhaps 1.5 seconds before accepting. It was the experience of a lifetime, with 30-odd concerts over six weeks in such widespread countries as France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria (yes, the Szene Wien), Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Slovenia, with the last ever Swans concert taking place in my then home town of London on 15 March 1997, in the rather dingy surroundings of the now defunct LA2. Out there somewhere, there’s a recording of that night in which Gira makes a between-songs announcement thanking me for my work on the tour. I don’t have a copy myself, so please get in touch if you do. Rather mind-bogglingly, those words were the last he ever spoke (as opposed to sang) from the stage as a member of Swans.
I have a tour-bus load of memories of those six weeks, the good, the bad and the ugly, but if it’s all the same to you I’m going to keep them to myself (with the exception of this rather facetious letter which I wrote to The Wire last year). I will say that it was by some measure the hardest work I’ve ever done; this was not a matter of a few T-shirts. There were shirts, books, CDs, records, tapes, badges, stickers and wooden boxes, all of which had to be loaded in and out, sold and accounted for in any number of currencies (no euros then!). I’m well aware, though, that I was slumming it compared to the Herculean nightly efforts of the band and the rest of the road crew. And if anyone reading this bought anything from the merch table on Swans’ last European tour, I hope you were happy with what you bought.
Fast forward eleven years and I’m at Porgy & Bess for a solo concert by Michael Gira. This form represents a distillation and finessing of everything I ever loved about Swans: the brimming rage, the barely controlled power and the passionate intensity. The lyrics, as ever, are extraordinary: visionary, convulsive flashes of elemental forces, drenched in deep colours hewn from the strings and wood of Gira’s guitar. And when he plays my favourite Swans song, the overwhelmingly bleak and nihilistic “God Damn The Sun,” as the encore, I think… well, at the very least, I’m in the right place tonight.