Swans & Chelsea Wolfe @ Warsaw

June 13th, 2013

It's not often I feel nervous about going to see a band.  The Swans, however, had me feeling apprehensive as I made my way through the soggy streets of Greenpoint to catch their show at Warsaw.  My buddy is a big fan and was beyond excited when I secured some tix for us.  I, being admittedly clueless, figured they were some sort of noise rock band.  Those always get my friend excited.  What I didn't know, but learned as the show approached, was that Swans are legendary for giving some of the loudest and most grueling performances in the history of music.  There are stories of fans getting nauseous and vomiting from the intensity.  It's common for large chunks of audience to bow out before halfway through their set, unable to stay on the ride, which is precisely what happened at this year's Bonnaroo Festival.  My friend texted me the night before, "Prepare for your ears to bleed!"  Entering Warsaw for the show felt like strapping in for some sort of extreme activity.  My pulse was quick with anticipation and butterflies danced in my gut.

Goth folk crooner Chelsea Wolfe was the poor soul assigned the unenviable task of performing before Swans.  I'm a fan of hers.  Saw her in January at the Music Hall and left impressed.  Her albums were even in my heavy rotation for a while when the days were short and the nights were long.  Unfortunately, her set at Warsaw fell flat.  It was more a product of the situation, than any fault of her own.  Chelsea was in fine form and her ethereal sound was pitch perfect.  The problem lied in the fact that Warsaw is a poorly managed venue.  They had too few security guards and the pair they had at the entry were overly thorough.  The guy who patted me down ran his hands over every inch of my body, then finished things off by cupping my nuts.  Let's say it was a bit much for a small show at the Polish National Home.  Thanks to the "about to meet Obama" security level, the flow of people entering was squeezed to a trickle as the sky dumped rain on the long line of folks wondering what the hell was taking so long.  Once they got in they wanted warm pierogies and cold Zywiecs, not dark folk music.  She sang softly to a half empty hall of people struggling to hear her over the din of bar sounds and chatter.  It actually got depressing, so I dipped out the "smoker's door", met up with my friend and grabbed a bite to eat in the market across the street.

By the time Swans took the stage, the place was packed wall to wall.  Wary to move up front and closer to the speakers, I found a spot for us to hang near the back and shoved in some gel ear plugs.  Over the course of the next 2 hours, Michael Gira and his motley crew of musicians took us on an epic journey through dark waters with the earth shattering power of an extinction level event.  Where Chelsea struggled to be heard, Swans packed a wallop that sent the crowd home struggling to hear.  The double drum thunder of Phil Puleo and Thor (aptly named) Harris laid a firm foundation with trance inducing repetitive percussion and the air cracking splashes of oversized cymbals.  Long time member, Norman Westberg, painted in noise on his Telecaster as an intense Christoph Hahn worked his slide on a filtered steel guitar to add textural depth and fast finger picking to the mix.  

Up front was Michael Gira, the main brain behind Swans since the band formed in 1982.  As a performer, he was a variegated vocalist, singing, screaming, reciting incantations, and howling, all with equal intensity.  As a band leader he was mesmerizing to watch.  At one point, he stood at the front of the stage with his arms outstretched and his eyes closed.  Then he busted out some Thom Yorke style gyrations.  Soon after he was hammering away on his guitar, jumping in the air to come down in a thrash as they hammered out the last note of the measure.  He regularly directed the band from the center while their eyes fixed on him for cues in his movements and glaring eyes.   The longer the show went on, the closer we got to the stage.  While most lacked the fortitude to stay to the end, we persevered til the last notes rattled the chandeliers.

I'm happy to report that not only did I survive the Swans, I reaped a sweet reward.  Instead of a breakdown, I had a breakthrough.  During their performance of The Seer, which lasted a mind blowing 50 minutes, I suddenly realized I was listening in a different way than I ever had before.  It was like the aural equivalent of a Dream Machine's strobing lights.  The repetition smoothed out my perception til the smallest of variations seemed substantial.  Then, like one of those Magic Eye posters from the 90s, indescribable forms appeared in the noise.  It was then I understood the beauty within the beast that is a Swans show.