...

It’s been argued that the proper space in which to experience a Swans show is the most cramped, sweaty and overheated venue available. This is a band notorious for turning off the air-conditioning during performances to induce a “sweat-lodge” atmosphere, after all. Providence’s Columbus Theatre, cold and cavernous in the very dead of winter, doesn’t exactly fit the bill on paper. Still, perhaps as a result of the psychological battering that weeks of near-apocalyptic weather had inflicted on New England in the weeks preceding February 18th, the darkened confines suited maestro Michael Gira and company’s sonic assault perfectly.

The genre-defying sound of Xylouris White – the duo composed of Dirty Three drummer Jim White and Cretan folk musician George Xylouris - greeted audience members filing into the theatre with an easygoing and subtly entrancing set. Gira has a tendency to choose openers for Swans tours that complement the band while sounding nothing like them, and the combination of White’s fascinatingly unconventional percussion with Xylouris’ more traditional tendencies on lute and vocal was another such pairing.

Of course, the choice to tour with such a comparatively pastoral act also has the effect of luring an audience into a false sense of calm. Swans’ rising profile in recent years is increasingly bringing out people who may not know precisely what to expect, even if they have become acolytes of behemoth post-reunion albums The Seer and To Be Kind, judging by the number of high-school aged faces mixed in with the grizzled old-school fans on this night. A number of those same faces were looking thoroughly dazed by the end of the evening.

But Swans never fail to enthrall, regardless of whether it’s your first or your fifth show. The six-piece lineup which has remained constant since Gira reactivated the band in 2010, and includes guitarist Norman Westberg, lap steel guitarist Christoph Hahn, drummer Phil Puleo, multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris and bassist Christopher Pravdica, has only become a tighter and more punishing unit in the meantime, pounding out the sweeping post-rock/post-punk/post-everything maelstrom of bandleader Gira’s design at bone-crushing volume.

Though the band is technically still touring on last year’s highly-acclaimed To Be Kind, only two and a half of its 10 songs made appearances during the two-plus hour set (and only one in a form that actually resembled its original recording). “A Little God in My Hands,” the closest thing the record had to a lead single, played its mutant Talking Heads-from-hell groove fairly straight, but a somehow-even-more-warped “Just A Little Boy” and a re-worked version of the brutal opening section of “Bring the Sun” were the only other hints at familiarity in a set that otherwise focused on developing new material.

Gira has never been one to indulge in nostalgia, and that’s proven especially true as the Swans reactivation has progressed over the past five years. He and the band have doggedly pursued new ideas at every turn; they’re a veteran act who work like they’ve still got something to prove. On this night, the eve of his 61st birthday, Gira was likewise running the show with the energy of someone a third of his age. He’s one of the modern day’s more fascinating frontmen, alternately crooning and snarling his lyrics and directing the band’s peaks and valleys of sound like a mad orchestra conductor. His compatriots are no slouches either; Puleo and Pravdica’s rhythm section can propel a 15-minute groove like no other, while Westberg and Hahn’s guitars drone, shriek and stab with Harris’ bells, trombone, gong and other ephemera offering textural flourishes around it all. Together they create a beautiful, towering cacophony that’s quite unlike any other live show out there at the moment. Wandering punch-drunk out of the large theater and back into the snow when it was over, the whole thing felt just as right in that time and place as any more traditional sweat-lodge setting.

—Ben Stas

Xylouris White

...

...

...

...

...

Swans

\

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...