Tuesday, September 27, 2011

SWANS - 09.17.11 Mercy Lounge, Nashville, TN

Having satisfied a longtime wish of finally seeing the mighty SWANS live last year in Chicago alongside longtime Godsend/Goatsden friend MXV (keeper of the Punk Vault), I was more than pleased to be able to catch them so soon again, this time much nearer to home, in cozy "Music City", Nashville. Oddly enough, this same night the city hosted shows by both Taylor Swift and Earth.

Performing in the tiny Mercy Lounge (upstairs from the larger Cannery Ballroom, where I saw Nick Cave's Grinderman last year), possibly due to a wedding party being downstairs (funny, that, seeing the ladies and gents in their nicest dresses and suits--hah!), the show opened fairly promptly with former Sun City Girls frontman and Sublime Frequencies founder Sir Richard Bishop. His brand of Middle-Eastern and Indian-tinged guitarwork was fun, lively, and quite good. After a while, Bishop's between-song banter became off-kilter, surreal/dada storytelling, beat poetry, and some freaky folky stuff that likely harkened back to his proto-punk days with Sun City Girls. As keeping with M.Gira's unusual and left-field opening choices (last year he featured transvestite vaudeville performer Baby Dee), Bishop was a reasonably well-received opening act. During this time, SWANS' steel guitar player Christoph Hahn took a seat next to us. Though we introduced ourselves and shook his hand, he turned down an offer of a beer, and didn't hang around long.

A short intermission between acts, and after what seemed like an interminable period of guitar feedback from the empty stage (it must have been at least 15 minutes), Thor Harris appeared, adding chimes and percussion to the din. There was plenty of shrill overloaded noise, and members of the crowd held their ears as they were assaulted by the painful sound. Drummer Phil Puleo took stage next, adding more drums and noise. Gradually, Hahn, bassist Chris Pravdica, and guitarist Norman Westberg joined in, with Michael Gira appearing around the same time.

The group continued with the assault, building and building to a feverish overload, before beginning with "No Words/No Thoughts", from the latest SWANS album, "My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky". The band was tight and prone to expanding the songs into densely-packed clots of heavy-duty, cement-packed walls of sound. Pravdica's bass had some troubles early on, and showed Gira becoming visibly agitated. In fact, his orchestrations led the group, and I witnessed all the members intensely watching him for their cues throughout the show. Indeed, Gira is the mastermind and leader, and his humble but commanding presence warranted the band's full attention at times. Crossing the man was simply not an option, and this reminded me of the Chicago show where Gira stopped the show to point out, shout at, and spit on a slam-dancing goon who was disrupting other fans' enjoyment of the show. Bouncers soon converged and threw the fool out. Bravo! Nothing of the sort happened here in Nashville, though. The audience here was respectful and reverent.

The band ground through many of the songs from the latest album, and I noticed what seemed to be a couple of new songs, as well, presumably from their upcoming release. As well, a singular throwback to the old days was dusted off, that being "I Crawled" from "Young God", which ended up being 10 minutes long. Most of the tracks tonight seemed to be expanded and broadened, showing more in common with both the gut-churning density and aggression of early SWANS and the "Soundtracks For The Blind" era, with broadstrokes of instrumental post-rock atmospheres and orchestrations. Whereas last year's tour had more linear songs, this one was more sprawling, epic, and mountainous. And much stronger.

Forget half-baked metal, SWANS are as vicious and monumental as anything out there, even 30 years after their initial inception. This was an amazing show, with such a tremendous volume that my ears rung for a day afterwards, and the impact of the bass was felt throughout my body. Stunning! Gira still has it, and he's collected a band that has all the sheer power and tension that SWANS were known for in the past.

After the show, we managed to meet most all of the band and shake hands. Gira himself appeared in a new, clean shirt (and graciously signed my brother's copy of the now-rare book, "The Consumer" as well as posing for photos and chatting a bit). He was good-spirited and very affable with fans, some of whom we spotted holding a stacks of vinyl for him to sign. We also approached drummer Puleo, and reminisced about his days in Cop Shoot Cop and their 1992 show at laundromat/bar/venue Sudsy Malone's in Cincinnati, where we saw him after a Skinny Puppy show across the street. He remembered Sudsy's and was a gracious host as well, and so thanked him before hitting the highway for home. All-in-all, a wonderous night, dulled only by our ringing ears.

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