Live Review: Swans

by Mitch Goldman

The Fenix, Seattle, WA 1/14/97

This was a night of conflicting emotions: the Swans' Seattle stop on their farewell tour. Leader/founder Michael Gira announced last year that the outfit he'd fronted for 15 years no longer served his musical purposes. After a final studio album (Soundtracks for the Blind, a 2 cd set released last fall) and a last tour around the world, the Swans would be no more.

Clearly Gira and longtime cohort Jarboe know how to go out on a triumphant note; Soundtracks is a brilliant sound collage of dialogue, gothic melancholy, and shrill post-punk. At every turn is Gira's deep voice and deeper sense of empathy and feeling for the despair, disease, and dystopia affecting the alienated beings that populate the Swans' dark world. Gira and Jarboe have covered a lot of ground since the band's early '80's "no wave" days, and lush melodies and pulsing, jarring rhythms now dominate the Swan's music.

An uncharacteristically cheery Gira and the usually enigmatic Jarboe took the stage of the Fenix to the sound of one bass note repeated at a snail-like tempo; the opening tune contained all that is great about the Swans live. Building upon the opening notes, the band added melodies, instruments and rhythms until the piece organically transmuted into a sweeping, majestic epic. That it seemed like a straight line from the opening bass note to the chiming guitar sounds that dominated some ten minutes later is the magic of the Swans. Gira didn't sing his first word until 15 minutes of music had hypnotized the Seattle crowd. 25 minutes after the first bass note, the opening piece ended.

Like past Swans tours, this show featured mostly new material (to appear on an upcoming live album, the final Swans release) with only a few tunes off their last couple of releases. Recognition may be the payoff at most concerts, but not for the Swans; rather the process by which they take you through the changes of each tune is the end result, and each song is merely a vehicle on a dark musical journey.

The show alternated lengthy epics with shorter songs, several featuring Gira on acoustic guitar (one of which he introduced as being a "quasi country-western tune", which was actually a fair description). Jarboe sang all three of her songs towards the end of the set, a mini-set of rich, scary emotion. In fact Jarboe has never sounded better; her first song was a quiet, near-accapella traditional Irish tune. The other Jarboe songs were steeped in the post-punk angst that used to be Gira's trademark. In fact the two have reversed roles over the years; where once Jarboe provided the quiet solace that gave relief to Gira's relentless no-wave agonizing, now it's Gira who soothes and Jarboe who abrades.

Following Jarboe's mini-set, Gira delivered two intense rearrangements of "I Am the Sun" and "Blood Promise" (both from 1995's The Great Annihilator), rendering the songs in nearly unrecognizable form. At the end of a particularly cathartic climax to "Promise", Gira smiled, told the crowd his voice was tired, and the music was at an end. No encores, no good-byes, and certainly no "see you next time"s.the Swans are gone for good. It's a loss the music world can ill afford in 1997, but for those of us who've experienced the thrill of the Swans live, memories will have to suffice. At least until Gira hits the road with the next personification of his musical vision.

Copyright © 1997

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