Last night, James Jackson Toth, aka Wooden Wand, was joined by two other guitar players -- Brian Lowery and William Tyler. And although there were three guitars and the guys were playing through Orange amps, they did not produce a huge sound so much as they created subtly deep layers of interlocking dynamics that brought a high degree of expressiveness to what were otherwise traditional folk and country songs.
Toth was engagingly humorous, even though the subject matter of many of his songs is less than funny, and after performing the title track to his 2010 album, Death Seat, he told us a joke that was told to him by someone else who heard it from David Yow of Scratch Acid and Jesus Lizard fame. He also told us to tell it to Boyd Rice or David Eugene Edwards. The joke: "What's the last thing a woman wants to hear after she sleeps with Willie Nelson?" The punchline? "I'm not Willie Nelson." Afterward, he dedicated "Eagle Claw" to his friends in Akron//Family.
Halfway through the show, Toth told us he suggested to Michael Gira, as they were recording the Wooden Wand album last year, that they do a cover of "Close My Eyes Forever," with Gira being Ozzy and Toth being Lita Ford. Gira didn't go for that, evidently, so Toth and company wrote "Tiny Confessions" instead. Closing the set alone, Toth performed a song that he said will probably appear on his next album, which he's recording in April: "The DNR Waltz," with clever lyrical phrases centered around the term and notion of "DNR" -- "Do Not Resuscitate."
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Long before Swans took the stage, Thor Harris set a tone that seemed like a mistake in the backdrop of the music played over the PA, including an odd cover of "She Sells Sanctuary" with female vocals, and Gira made an appearance and set another drone running with the pedal steel. After what seemed like countless minutes, Phil Puleo, formerly of experimental/post-punk band Cop Shoot Cop, came out and made the sounds of a clockwork device unraveling using a dulcimer, adding to the layers of ambient sound.
He was followed by Thor Harris, who played chimes so that it sounded almost like a cathedral without a pipe organ that had become haunted. When Kristof Hahn came out to manipulate the pedal steel into making oscillating atmospherics, the sonic picture was nearly complete. And when Chris Pravdica, Norman Westberg and Michael Gira joined the rest of Swans on stage, the whole ensemble launched into a sprawling and colossal version of "No Words/No Thoughts."
Was it cacophony? Perhaps, but with a purpose. And the clash and interplay of sounds produced something more than merely just music. It set the stage for the rest of this remarkable performance. With just six songs clocking in at around two hours, the set did not feel like it was made up of tracks that were roughly twenty minutes long. Probably because this was not merely music. It was an experience that was not hypnotic so much as gripping and transporting, in a way that can only happen when you encounter something that gets under your skin and forces you to change your view of reality for several moments at a time. Norman Westberg, when he wasn't playing, stood nearly still, arms crossed at the wrists, like a guardian waiting for his call to action. When he did unleash his arsenal of sound, it was impressively versatile and visceral. Some fool in the audience kept screaming for the band to be louder, but this was not a band that was only about volume. If the beginning of "No Words/No Thoughts" was any indication, Swans knows how to make a long and inexorable build better than just about anyone, and the band got plenty loud when the song, or part of the song, required it.
Gira's gestures were like those of a jazz singer and bandleader with his hand counting out the rhythm at times, while directing or guiding Harris and Puleo in where the song would go next at others. During "Sex, God, Sex," Gira implored Jesus Christ to come down and slapped himself ritualistically, making for a slightly uncomfortable moment that worked to cauterize the image in your mind. The sheer onslaught of inspired soundscaping and sonic brutality was brought to bear in perfect moments, but Gira and the band made expert use of quiet and space and that only made the crashing/crushing rhythms and flood of savagely beautiful noise all that more effective.
Before the set ended with "Eden Prison," someone in the audience yelled out something about Arcade Fire while the band tuned, which Gira had offhandedly mentioned early in the show. Gira responded with, "Who said that shit about Arcade Fire? Why don't you come up here and blow me." When the guy in the audience made some reply, Gira followed up with, "No, I value my cock too much for that."
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After the emotional and musical apocalypse that was "Eden Prison," I'm sure everyone forgot about the incident or Arcade Fire, for that matter. A lot of people filed out, but Swans came back on for a brief encore of squalling noise and a short line of lyrics from Gira. With the sheer intensity of the music and the fact of its being more a cathartic and inspirational experience rather than merely a concert, it would be difficult to entertain there might be a better or equal show the rest of the year in Denver.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: Somehow missed the last Swans tour in the late '90s and absolutely wanted to be here. Random Detail: Ran into Jacob Archuleta of Skully Mammoth and Andy Rauworth of Gauntlet Hair. By the Way: Yelling song titles at a band will, at best, get a bemused reaction.