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Swans (live at The Roundhouse)

21 May 2015

Swans live at the Roundhouse– The Conscious Pause –

It is daunting to write about a show that was attended by so many Freq contributors because I know they’ll all read this and I am sure they will all have things to add (or deny). But what does that matter? It is daunting to write about a Swans show, because – Swans –

This was my second time at a live Swans show. And of course as I write that I realise live swans makes it sound like some Tudor feast centrepiece and really that’s not it at all. I had forgotten I was even going until last week, although perhaps that’s not quite accurate — it hit me last week that the show was sooner than I thought, but only really thought about it that morning during my morning yoga practice — as I breathed out with a hum my teeth vibrated — that’s when I remembered.

There was a consensus meeting point before the show at The Enterprise, the pub across the road from the Roundhouse. It’s a familiar place. I grew up around north-west London so it seemed natural but slightly odd to be in a Camden pub on an early summer evening because I don’t do that much these days. There assembled a sedate gathering at a table in the back of beer-drinking forty-somethings — a common demographic for Swans fans, no doubt. I did not feel out of place.

As we made our way into The Roundhouse too late for the support acts, collected another drink and watched the pearlescent sky, we contemplated Camden of old, the shape of the building and the general atmosphere of calm that a long awaited balmy evening can bring. We took our seats in the gallery and I was reminded again of the Tudor references I’m trying to avoid, but really that’s where it all started — theatre. Spectacle. It is a fitting venue for a spectacle.

Swans live at the Roundhouse

Of course the stage looks too small with all those amplifiers, the extensive percussion section; yet the immensity of Swans’ stage presence is notable — that all five of them still look huge in spite of the amount of stuff that dominates the space. They loom. Well, perhaps with the exception of Thor Harris, the first to take his place. He appears quietly behind his percussion array and commences what will be a two and a half hour set with a gong bath. It makes me want to lie down on the stage right next to the source of that sound. It is a mighty sound and a relief; to be here and to be feeling this depth and reverberation is a good thing. I have needed this, I realise, and in putting off remembering maybe I did myself a favour. I can feel it in my teeth.

Swans live at the RoundhouseAs drummer Phil Puleo, table guitarist Christoph Hahn, Christopher Pravdica‘s bass and Norman Westberg‘s guitar emerge to add their mysterious analogies to Thor’s insistent song, the arrival of Michael Gira on stage is somehow more delicate. That he exudes presence and majesty is striking, but I am struck by the sense that this is not the messiah, nor even a very naughty boy, though he has been called both such by fans and detractors alike. He has been pied piper too, to others. But no, I see him. He sees us: He tells us to pay attention.

Swans live at the RoundhouseHe does this by ringing the bells. It is a cue. It is a call to attend and to listen. Here, now. Be here. Listen now. There is something happening here. And what happens is that Swans play some music. It is loud, but I’ve heard them louder. It is at times immense. Some of it is sublime and some merely sound. There are sounds behind the sounds, many things to pay attention to. The percussion is important. The rhythms of it dictate the shape of the thing. Melodies occur and are structured around the rhythms. This is music distilled.

If I tell you that they played the epic “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” off To Be Kind it will not convey what happened (though they did, and other tracks too), but to roll-call a set list is to miss the point. You can listen to songs on your iPod. This was about a journey into the minutiae of the moments between the moments. The immediacy of a live experience taken to its extreme. It’s what Swans do. I’ve seen them do it better, and I’ve heard they’ve done it worse. But this was a genuine moment and something to be there for.

Swans live at the Roundhouse

What Swans do in their live shows puts me in mind of the Picasso quotation: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” It reminds me of what yoga and meditation teacher Erich Schiffmann calls “Moving into stillness” — when Swans are at their best they are like a spinning top, so in balance they appear to be motionless, that the audience are part of this spinning is the real immensity. To be held in this: complicit, passively active. It is the conscious pause: there is nothing else for it but to be here and to attend.

Swans live at the Roundhouse

If called to make a summative statement then I have to say: this was good. It was cleansing. Yes, there were moments of extremity in all directions. Yes, there was a moment where Thor was playing trombone and dancing and hitting things with his little hammers simultaneously and my heart was made whole and split apart over and over. Art is life. Life is art. Swans remind me of this.

At the end, as Michael Gira thanked the audience effusively from the stage, his arms spread wide to encompass all, his final word rung out and told the truth of this story better than I ever could. LOVE.

-Words: Arwen Xaverine-
-Pictures: Richard Fontenoy-

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