The last time I was at one of the North by Northeast free concerts at Yonge and Dundas Square, everything was late, so this time I stupidly showed up late for Swans, expecting them to be late.
Swans were something. It’s hard to compare the volume of one show to another – especially a show inside with a show outside – but Swans might have been the loudest show I have ever heard in my life. I was over 150 feet from the stage (give or take) and I found the volume hard to stomach.
I have only ever heard Children of God but it seems to me like not much has changed: still the same repetitive, brutally loud semi-industrial “post no wave” assault. The instrumentation was interesting though: Gira “sang” (really shouted) and played guitar, there was another guitarist and bassist and a drummer – all expected – but there was also a pedal steel player and a second drummer who also played clarinet and violin (among other things).
Though I respect their noise and violence, I can’t say I love them and they actually sort of convinced me not to buy their highly celebrated recent record. It doesn’t seem like much has changed since they ’80s, when this shtick of theirs was really quite unique.
I first started taken an interest in St. Vincent when I saw her on Austin City Limits, maybe 6 years ago. On that show I think she played a “cello guitar” and generally showed herself to be an excellent performer. So I was looking forward to this set.
Unfortunately, I got something quite different. Annie Clark is an excellent guitarist and a good singer, and she is an above average lyricist. She is also quite willing to use unconventional riffs and hooks in her compositions. All of these things are good.
But her ever more pronounced reliance on electronics for her rhythms – even with a live drummer – means that her performances feel completely predetermined. This was reinforced by her new “robotic” stage performances which are choreographed, and her stage ‘banter,’ which felt canned (deliberately so?). Even when she “let loose” on guitar, it felt like it was rehearsed. Only during the encore did it feel like (some of her performance) was improvised.
And though she is clearly a very talented person – and a wonderful role model for young women who want to get into pop music – Clark and her band left me feeling like I saw the same show they do every night in every venue. And that’s not something I enjoy in live music. Of the two songs I knew from Actor, one was very close to identical to the recording, and the other, though different, felt like this was how they do it now, almost a “new” recording.
Though I think Clark is a far, far more accomplished songwriter and musician than Gira, I had no doubt which band was the more exciting: Swans.
I don’t know whether its the venue or my expectations, but I never seem to love the shows I see as part of NXNE at the square. But I shouldn’t complain; they are free after all.