BECAUSE YOU MISSED IT: Swans Slay Gracefully and Xiu Xiu Hate Your Ears (and the PA)!

Pictured above: Michael Gira discusses various Sonic the Hedgehog strategies.

What I need to be doing right now is sleeping. I broke my own cardinal rule on a weeknight, to attend a show with a start time of after bedtime, an exception I make but rarely and only for special things. This was in fact, a very special thing. The Swans, or I guess just “Swans” if you’re nasty, aren’t just a band, they’re a monolithic force of nature. Michael Gira and crew absolutely slaughter, living proof that punk, or at least punk spirit, has and will yet age with a kind of brutal grace. If I can maintain a ferocity even half as much as Gira on stage at 60, I’ll die satisfied.

While I’m not a fan of late night shows on weeknights, it did afford me the opportunity to spend time with some friends. Rather than waiting in line for the Swans show, a line that went half way down the block, unprecedented at The New Vintage in my experience, I went with a few of my top homies to meet Phil Olympia, our illustrious Never Nervous founder, for a birthday beer at Zanzabar. After Phil tried to explain to me the importance of basketball dudes and numbers, we walked back to the venue with the hope that the line had diminished, only to see that it had grown instead. Le sigh.

We spent our time speculating about what was in the Swans tour RV, which I assume has a hot tub and plenty of video games to get riled up on. Now that I think about it, they probably have a Foosball Table also. Makes sense when you think about it with your mind’s eye. I bet Michael Gira is the king of Sonic the Hedgehog, and probably hustles people at Foosball. This is the world I want to live in.

Upon entry to the show, we came to the unfortunate realization that the nothing had started. Or so we thought. There was a shrill note emanating from the PA speakers, which I wrongfully assumed to be the feedback that would kick off something righteous. Psych. Super Psych. It was Xiu Xiu literally “playing” a bunch of noise. There were different sounds occasionally, which again I thought to be indicative of some change on the horizon, but then it just went back to this ear-piercing note that continued for what had to have been 45 minutes. I heard from someone up front that apparently it was just Jamie Stewart alone rubbing some contact mics on things, and that he did so with such derision that he blew a main PA speaker, smoke pouring out and all. So that happened.

Honestly, I’m not sure what that noise is all about, no pun intended. Is this an experiment on the audience? Is this just to make Swans seem even more awesome, since, you know, they were actually going to play songs with structures? Or was this just some kind of penance the audience had to endure for some sin that we were all completely unaware of having mutually committed? And why did this need to be so long, if it was the same insanity inducing tone over and over? I know that Phil was more excited for Xiu Xiu than Swans, and was crushed by his “set.” All I can really say about any of it was that Xiu Xiu was unequivocally the worst act I’ve ever had to endure, a surprise considering what I know of their recorded material.

By contrast, Swans could’ve done literally anything and it would’ve been a crowd pleaser. But they didn’t just do anything, they played some of the most brutal and deliberate music I’ve heard in years. That I cannot think of a word better than “pummeling” is indicative of their sonic assault, and make no mistake: this was an intentional assault. Swans may not have the seething brood of yesteryear or the sauntering goth of Jarboe’s dulcet moan, but they have an ear for groove and the patience to pull off near glacial compositional movements that rely as much on repetition as they do nuance. Every Swans song sounds like a swan song, the last and most glorious number played before the big kiss off, like a wave always cresting, but never quite breaking. There was a hint of quiet/loud post-rock a la Mogwai, but Swans lean towards the loud part, building continuously into something even greater, perhaps their greatest trick.

I’m not sure how long they played. I think they started around 11:30, and I believe it was around 1:00 or so when they played what I assume to be their last song. What I know is that the New Vintage must hate AC or at least air circulation, and that it was approximately 3000 degrees in the room. You could wring the sweat out of my shirt, and I was not alone in this. The room was blanketed in a wash of jazz cigarettes and stale farts, made only more intense as the evening progressed. As Gira and company sped to the end of their set, I had to leave. Just get out of the intense heat, intense sounds. My brain needed a break from the onslaught to my senses. I walked outside, and for once, the Kentucky evening was cool and relaxed. I can’t say if they played an encore, but I can say that if they did I wasn’t there to catch it, and don’t know that I would have had the wherewithal to process anything beyond what I’d already experienced.

The Swans are living proof that music can be something you live in, that it’s as natural an extension as the way you breath, and I was honored to have had the opportunity to experience it. While I was less than thrilled by the long line in, Xiu Xiu’s social experiment, or the sauna inside, it was worth my time and yours. Many thanks should be extended to the venerable Joel Hunt for taking the time to assemble the Swans. He’s kind of like the Nick Fury of getting badass shows in town. Get that dude an eyepatch already.