Concert review: Swans | 05.10.24, Delmar Hall (with photo gallery)

Photo of Michael Gira of Swans by Bryan J. Sutter

In a week where I was photographing or seeing Slowdive, Death Cab for Cutie, the Postal Service, and Portugal. The Man, I found myself perhaps the most excited to see Swans. I had seen the revered post-punk band, which has evolved into something beyond that genre since reforming in 2010, in late 2012. I was in awe of their stage presence and energy, particularly when it came to frontman and principal songwriter Michael Gira. In the time since that night at The Firebird, I have experienced few bands that could match what Swans put out that evening, and I will admit I had been jonesing to see them a second time for a good while. Their 16th studio album, 2023’s The Beggar, is a slightly lighter affair than previous records like The Seer or To Be Kind, but is still the sort of unforgiving and abrasive journey that has become the band’s hallmark. While we would only be treated to the titular song from The Beggar at Delmar Hall, we got a full glimpse into where the band is now, and what we could expect from them next.

Opener Kristof Hahn, who also plies his trade in Swans, gave us a lovely start to the evening. Well-dressed in black, with gray hair combed back and a short beard, he looked the part of a distinguished gentleman. He started off with an improvised, noisy drone. While I have witnessed something like this many times, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this approach to music performed with a lap steel guitar. The crowd loved it, much to Hahn’s delight. While his set included spirited covers of both a John Cale and a Roxy Music tune, as well as a song from his former outfit Les Hommes Sauvages, it was the closer that really got me. Hahn surprised us with a minimalist cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” sung in his native German. He took the song to its bare elements and it took me a moment to realize what he was performing, but when I did, I was all smiles. Kristof seemed genuinely touched by the crowd’s cheers and hollers as he said his thanks before departing.

If there is one thing someone will tell you about a Swans live show, it will probably be that it is loud. I wish I had a decibel meter with me, but I can say that wearing good earplugs and a pair of earmuffs typically used at the gun range may have not been enough. As you may imagine, exposure to such an environment can foster curious events. I witnessed a woman collapse early on in their performance, during “Hanging Man.” Thankfully, she seemed like she was just a bit overwhelmed and was quickly back on her feet. Later, I noticed a couple next to me were hugging and swaying like they just witnessed a horrible car accident. For a brief moment, I experienced a sensation that felt like someone delicately slicing my face with a straight razor. Later on in the evening, Gira faced bassist Christopher Pravdica while playing guitar, putting his back to my side of the venue. I could not help but become entranced by the way the fabric of his black shirt wrinkled and smoothed in jagged pulses from one shoulder to another in sync with the rhythmic action of his fretting hand. This matched perfectly with the beat of the drums, and I thought how much it felt like watching an exposed heart.

It is perhaps no surprise that some compare a Swans live set to a spiritual experience.

For as aggressive and abrasive as this all could be, the second half of the set provided some balance. If it were just 2 hours of the same mode and vibe, at some point it would feel more exhausting than interesting. The second half of the set was composed of unreleased material, starting off with the very heavy and very awesome “I Am a Tower” but things began to mellow out as Pravdica started to play the opening of “Away” on a small instrument that sounded like a hammer dulcimer, but did not look like any example of the instrument that I was familiar with. “Away” is a much more sparse and subdued composition than what came before, and featured what was perhaps Kristof Hahn’s most subtle playing of the night. There was a haunting sense of beauty to be found here, wrapped in pathos. “Red Yellow” moved back towards heavy territory, with Hahn summoning a massive, distorted tone that might honestly be the coolest a lap steel has ever sounded to my ears.

The finale “Birthing” was a dynamic, tense bit of music with more than a few peaks and valleys, bringing us back once more to the intensity experienced early on in the set, with Gira’s voice full of gritty, gloomy melancholy. We were taken to the edge one last time, peered into the abyss, and poured back into our corporal forms. Gira thanked the crowd, and the band received a thunderous round of applause from the packed room at Delmar Hall.

It was their turn to be loud. | Bryan J. Sutter

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