It has been almost exactly two years since Swans last visited San Francisco, and once again their visit managed to coincide with what was supposed to be my first night back at work at science camp. Needless to say, I took the night off. I’m extremely thankful that I have coworkers who are happy and willing to jump in when and where they are needed.
The drive up to the city was uneventful. On our right, between low foothills along Highway 280, the immense, yellow full moon illuminated the bay. Using an app on Jeanine’s phone, we deftly avoided a couple of potential traffic jams and entered the city by a different route than usual. For once, we found a parking spot almost immediately and actually made it to the venue before Carla Bozulich started. There was a fair amount of merch, including some nice looking posters and shirts, but none of the “tour only” limited releases I’d been hoping for. I got a nice new Swans shirt though.
I’ve seen Carla Bozulich relatively recently, performing as Evangelista, but this particular performance reminded me much more of the first time I saw her, supporting Silver Mt. Zion. Joining her on stage were John Eichenseer and Saaela Abrams, both of whom played percussion. Eichenseer also played duduk, and Abrams had along a musical saw.
Her set ended up being more like the first time I saw her, and less like the Evangelista show I attended more recently, but I suppose that makes sense, since she was performing under her own name rather than as Evangelista. What we got was choppy and aggressive, with lots of percussion and Carla alternating between a normal microphone and a little toy one, which made her voice sound like it was emanating from an old recording, or perhaps over a CB radio. It’s a good sound, haunting and full of associations. Unfortunately, the normal microphones, or perhaps the cables, weren’t cooperating, and during the last song, Baby, That’s the Creeps (which is one of my favorites), the vocals kept cutting in and out. Carla has a powerful voice, so apparently it didn’t matter so much for those near the front of the stage, but it was annoying for those of us toward the back. Add to that the general inaudibleness of everything but the drums and guitar, and it wasn’t the best of sets. I would have liked to hear the duduk and musical saw, rather than just see that they were being played.
After a bit of a wait, Swans took the stage. The line-up hasn’t changed since last time, but a new album, “To Be Kind”, has been released. The set started with Thor Harris creating a drone using just the large gong hanging stage right, and continued with the arrival of drummer Phil Puleo, who added a layer of dulcimer to the proceedings. Christoph Hahn took a seat behind the lap steel guitar and added his own brand of din before the remaining three members, Norman Westburg (guitar), Christopher Pravdica (bass), and of course, Michael Gira on guitar and vocals. Once all of the members were in place, the band did what it does best: take us on an epic journey through their harrowing soundworld.
The first song, Frankie M., probably lasted almost as long as Carla Bozulich’s whole set, was mortared together with sonic sheets of lap steel, thunderous percussion, and relentless, monstrous riffing. The second song, A Little God In My Hands, introduced a thunderous, lock-step riff which reminded me of the band’s earliest days, despite the fact that it’s from this year’s release. To give an example of the kind of energy and aggression channeled by the band, there was a moment during Puleo’s drum solo (which resembled an all-out attack more than anything else) when his drumstick snapped and a piece of it hit Westberg in the head.
Gira was in fine form, howling into the mic, conducting the other members through crescendo after crescendo, and waving his arms like a man possessed. The amount of crescendo-ing was cathartic and exhausting, and I imagine that this tour is much like the others in that the songs are stretched and reimagined from date to date.
This time out, no dusty gems from the ancient past were polished and played, but it didn’t matter much. What the band is doing now is exciting enough. Nobody is doing this kind of thing as well as Swans
By the end of the evening, seven songs (or six, since the last two were performed as a medley) and nearly two and a half hours had slipped by. I had no idea that much time had passed. The songs pull me into a groove and make me forget about the outside world. This is rock music for people with attention spans. This is entertainment for sonic adventurers. This is perhaps my favorite U.S. band, and has been for years.
See the set list here.
Jeanine, who has been with me to see Swans three times now, had an opposite reaction. She opined that the set was boring. In fact, she has liked each one less than the previous one. I’ve liked each one better. I guess you either get it or you don’t . At least she’s willing to try.