For over 30 years, I have been waiting for the opportunity to see SWANS live. Seriously.
My mind reflects to my days as a teenaged music geek working at my college radio station. That day when a copy of Holy Money was produced, we put it on to listen to on our studio monitors. Very loudly. It gave me a headache, but, oh, what delicious pain.
While I should have seen them live last year, such was not to be. Thanks, COVID.
As you can imagine, I was on a mission this time around. So, with taking time off work and a two-hour drive to Los Angeles, I was finally going to have the experience I’d longed for since college.
In a way, seeing SWANS live now worked out even better than I thought. SWANS are currently on tour to support their 19th studio release, The Beggar. And while I’m not as fully immersed in the new material as I should be, I looked forward to having some surprises over the course of the night.
The gig took place at the Lodge Room, a repurposed Masonic hall that had no visible signage from the street, not far from Figueroa Street. My friends and I almost walked past the entrance as it was only accessible on our side of the building from the alley.
After traversing some treacherous stairs and purchasing a seven dollar coke, we entered the main hall where SWANS alumnus Norman Westberg was already onstage.
Since leaving the band, Westberg has developed a one-man ambient performance that creates textured sound that sort of hangs in the air. Melodic elements blend in and out of the sound that at times has a rhythmic quality. As we arrived, Westberg was already performing and the hall was already nearly full. Everyone seemed transfixed with the strangely accessible wall of sound Westberg projected into an otherwise ghostly silent hall.
Now, I had been warned that SWANS is not a band that panders to the crowd with fan favorites. So I had no idea what to expect. It turns out that the set was all selections from The Beggar, which was fine with me. Talk about a crash course on their new material.
I had just enough time to go outside for a smoke before the band took the stage.
Slowly, oh so slowly, the band built an ever-increasing cacophony; both in volume and intensity. A few minor tech glitches were sorted out quickly as the stage crew were on top of their game.
The crowd remained hushed throughout the show, as if in a trance. The occasional vocal jump scare from Michael Gira would draw a wowed response from this surprisingly young audience.
Musically, the expected impenetrable wall of sound was ever-present. Earplugs were definitely my friend this night.
Newer SWANS material shows signs that they have not abandoned their industrial ties. Atonal sounds came from out of nowhere, especially towards the climax of the show. The folk-flavored pulsating rhythms of new material harkens back to their Children of God days.
The half dozen songs performed over the 80-minute performance went a long way to reinforce the legacy of SWANS as unpredictable and dangerous as ever. New fans were clearly satisfied, as was this college radio music geek.