It began with the slight yet forceful reverberations of a gong. For five minutes, percussionist extraordinaire Thor Harris elicited the low hum of his instrument while no one else occupied the stage. Then drummer Phil Puelo came out to add another percussive layer. The lights dimmed and brightened to match the rhythm, almost like a pulsing heart. One by one more band members of Swans entered the fray. The song, “Frankie M,” like all of their work on performed Monday night at Union Transfer, lasted in excess of 20 minutes. To call it or any of the other pieces simply a song would be to dismiss their nature; they were mini-rock orchestrations, hinting at the essence of the music itself and the boundaries of the human ear’s comfort level with their powerful sonics.
Led by the inimitable Michael Gira, Swans unfurled a set that ran in excess of two hours and twenty minutes. The reverent crowd swayed throughout the affair, like trees being tested by a powerful wind. The air current was the calculated result of the fine-tuned mix of instrumentations. The pedal steel was helmed by Christoph Hahn. Christopher Pravdica’s bass and Norman Westberg’s guitar punched through the night. And Gira was leading the ship. Sometimes his voice would enter the fray, while his guitar and ferocious presence anchored the show.
Maybe not for every taste, Swans is a live music experience that should be required for any live connoisseur. Sure, they are pushing the limits of listening stamina, but they’re an organic machine working together to shift each cog and gear into a soundscape that will cascade over the room. Unique and challenging, and certainly taking aural capacities to their limits even with earplugs in one’s ears, Swans are an experience like no other.
Opening the night was Little Annie. With an air of Tom Waits, she made a grand counterpoint to Swans. With tawdry songs of a mid-20th century vintage, she was earnest and compelling.
Swans, Union Transfer