Concert review: Swans (with A Hawk and a Hacksaw) descend on the Firebird, Tuesday, October 23
The line at the door of the Firebird snaked through the parking lot. This was the first sign. Then — the smiles, the excitement, no one worrying about not getting in — a sense of fate in the air.
Then, everyone making it inside for the Swans show, beering up, eyeing the crag of instruments looming, knocking around dreams and rumors of set lists (“Christoph Hahn just had a smoke with us, said, ‘We’ll do ze title track, zen an old one, zen a new one — one hour 45 minutes, exact. . . .’”), something began happening onstage.
The sound of Jeremy Barnes’ hammered dulcimer sucked all other sound from the room, sounding like myriad rattle-cage voices quivering through amps. Immediately, opening band A Hawk and a Hacksaw established the tone of the night: power through sincerity and space. Barnes and violinist Heather Trost play it straight — even their virtuoso finger-work and ascending solos in 11/8 come across humbly — but because of their lack of embellishment, and the solid energy of their music, I fully immersed myself in the sound.
A Hawk and a Hacksaw takes most of its cues from many Eastern European folk traditions, weaving a set of traditional songs and originals seamlessly. Their dance numbers featuring accordion and violin created a soaring feeling at times, and their ballads pushed away the walls of the room. Barnes and Trost had a fine sense of dynamics and tone — their instruments came through the amps angelic instead of distorted. Trost wove her voice through with vulnerability, but not overwrought emotion.
Swans’ six members appeared quietly, like ghosts out of a forest. After a roar from the crowd, a ubiquitous hum grew out of the amps onstage. Michael Gira swayed like a crazy lion, letting his band heap up the inertial textures of their music. Then, he sang, “To be kind, to be kind, to be kind, to be kind. . . .” His voice would command everything for the next two hours.
As the ambient swell continued to build, Gira sang, “To be lost in the sound of this rooooooom.” This was his purpose: forget what you’ve heard, forget the emotional and physical shit you’ve brought to the show, forget what Swans was long ago because if you’re here, it’ll only benefit you to experience here. When the song erupted into sustained one-chord bursts, repeated for nearly four minutes, it seemed Gira was hammering this point home.
The new incarnation of Swans has become famous for its marathon, operatic sets, but what really hooked me was the slow, controlled oscillation between ambient space, the liberated groove of songs like “The Seer,” and the brutal repetition and insistence of songs like “No Words / No Thoughts.” Sometimes this happened all in the course of one song.
Gira remains one of the most engaged and engaging musicians performing. During the course of long songs (which, nearly all of them are), he becomes a sort of avatar or visual aid, conducting our eyes while he channels his band’s swell. Live, the directness of the ideas in his music came across where the recordings sometimes seem pretentious and disembodied. I also attribute this to the physicality of the show — the band was loud in a way that you could not escape; no matter where you were, you were involved.
After a long instrumental spell that pushed the show over the two-hour mark, Gira returned to the microphone, cooing, speaking in tongues as the violence of the music receded. A kid hanging over the stage raised a camera phone in Gira’s face, and he shoved it away as if it was a spy device. When he did it though, he kept crooning the lyrics, as if he hadn’t been interrupted. As if he’s been doing this forever.