It’s been a bloody long time to wait since that sickening abomination of a Residents gig, but finally, after the abject horror of such pitiful frivolity, came the sublime bliss of the pitilessly bleak and austere. Swans are a band I’ve been in awe of for a long time, but seem to like more the older I get, and in the last year or so in particular they’ve been knocking insistently on the door of “all time favourite band” status, which no doubt reveals something about my state of mind recently. This wasn’t always the case, I remember feeling decidedly uneasy upon first hearing them as a timid sixteen year old goth suddenly confronted with a band that was authentically, deeply gothic. Trying hard not to quake in my boots, I wondered if all this alarming savagery was really necessary; soon enough the answer came back a resounding yes. Nevertheless, though I grew to love them, they remained one of those very few great bands I never got round to seeing when I had the chance – I can’t recall them ever touring when I was in my most committed gig-going phase back at university and a couple of years beyond, but I do remember passing up an opportunity to see them on their farewell tour in Prague back in 97. Soon after and ever since, at least until I heard they were touring again, I despised myself for it. What on earth was I thinking? Consequently, and with the uncomfortably nagging memories of not only the loathsome Residents but also of that comprehensively mediocre Butthole Surfers gig last year crying out to be erased or at least compensated for, this week’s concert felt like one of those rare moments of deliverance and undeserved kindness that make life worth living. The words “I’m not worthy” have never seemed more fitting.
Swans have of course been mythologised for being one of the loudest bands in the world, to the extent of making fans physically collapse or vomit at gigs. Perhaps thankfully, they evidently didn’t feel the need to prove this in Prague this time round, even if the entire room was shaking throughout the performance. Still, though they may have stopped short of inflicting actual pain they fully lived up to my expectations by producing one of the most intense live shows I’ve ever experienced. Gira these days looks like a character out of a William Faulkner novel, as if he’s just walked in from a long day sweating thanklessly in a scorching field somewhere in the bible belt. He may be as strong as an ox, with a booming, commanding voice to match, but this just makes him all the more appropriate a vehicle for a burden of torment that would crush the life out of any ordinary mortal. He has the stage presence of a man desperately struggling to remain stoical in the face of a past, present and future of remorseless toil, misery, an unforgiving religion and a Spartan, loveless existence. The thought occurs that if this were done badly it could be excruciatingly awful, the religious symbolism awkwardly clunky, the dark brute force and heart-on-sleeve presentation of suffering an unbearable exercise in tedious machismo. However, this just goes to show what a risk Swans are taking here, and the effect is the precise opposite; in the event they come across as utterly unpretentious, direct, heartfelt and as a result, truly generous. Most of the set is unknown to me, and whilst it may have been slightly disappointing not to hear some of the old favourites, up this close and in this closeted environment it may have been just too much to bear to hear him shouting “FLEX YOUR MUSCLES!” at the top of his voice. Now without Jarboe, Swans are pretty much back to their most bludgeoning, although there are discernable tunes this show is essentially about pure power, if not for its own sake. Tonight was one of those gigs that are genuinely meaningful, in fact this was nothing short of beautiful.
It seemed slightly amusing at the end to see Gira smiling and waving at the audience, but not entirely incongruous given the magnanimous spirit of the performance. Later on he strode out to sign CDs etc wearing a huge white Stetson and smoking a cigar several inches long, managing to look immensely imposing and authoritative whilst coming across as relaxed and friendly at the same time. Just before I left I even got to shake hands with the great man. Reassuringly, his hands are fucking enormous.