Michael Gira @ St. John’s In Hackney. March 12th, 2014

Well well, it’s been a while since the informal live performance anecdotes were busted out; I believe the last time I actually saw any live music was Fuck Buttons at the HMV Institute so whoever followed had a little bit of something to live up to. I have a few more coming up in the next couple of months with some more pretty big names, notably Tim Hecker and Neutral Milk Hotel, so keep your eyes peeled.

Of course, no trip to London is complete for me without fucking up at some point in the journey, or in this case multiple points; yes I forgot there was a code for the train tickets order and yes, I had 1 minute to get to my train so I bought some new ones. Yes, I may have misplaced my tickets for the door entry somewhere between getting off the train and getting on the Tube, but miraculously it all seemed to work out in the end and we arrived with minimal trouble despite being sardined on the Overground.

The set was part of an art series being performed around London over the next week or so in memory of the Arcadia, a famous venue in New York which has hosted and spawned a fantastical number of influential artists over the years (The Quietus did a comprehensive article you can read here if you’re interested in the history, of which I am poor on), Basinski and Gira both included within that. So in many ways acquiring the use of a church to celebrate the memory of that loft seemed apt, the reappropriation of a space for an alternate purpose. The setup was simple and bareboned; altar removed to leave an enclosed space for the artists with just a couple of spotlights for lighting and a few monitors for the sound, but it was enough; it was a pretty intimate space, especially when you’re only 4 rows from the front.

The lights dimmed, Basinski came on to say a few cursory words to introduce the show and we began with support act Aino Tytti, one I must admit I’ve never heard of before. He has at least one album in existence according to his RYM page and he appears to have a number of live installation performances under his belt but he’s flown below my radar up till this point. It was only a brief performance, some 25 minutes or so just to get people warmed up, and I must admit I was pretty disappointed at the number of people who didnt give him the time of day, which tends to be the way with supporting artists. His sound fit the space perfectly, with transcendental drone shimmers and incrementally introduced waves of soft choral vocals mirroring some of that beauteous, churchly aura. You didnt necessarily feel like you were in a church when the lights were dimmed, but I couldnt help but be made rather aware of the religious space we were in through his music. Will definitely be having a look into his work, it was, well, heavenly if you’ll pardon the pun.

And once the sounds had faded away he gave a small, awkward nod of the head and departed, his time done; then, after a little break and a little bit of equipment fiddling, Basinski introduced himself with little fanfare and began his luxurious 40 minute set, running two tapes decks and delivering some insight into his soon to be released new album (Cascade?). I have to say it was a pretty fascinating experience; I was worried that it might have been a bit linear I suppose and more of just some practised recital but it was a pretty dynamic and organic performance of 3 loose phases. The first two were heavily dominated by piano; the first was extremely fractured and decayed, losing focus from the soft tinkles to drone thrums and washes of distorted static, whilst the second was slower, clearer and less syncopated and more heartwrenching, the two decks in a state of constant fiddling as he adjusted the playback and overlapping notes. Then there was something of an awkward transition into the brief final phase of oddly juxtaposed jovial violin orchestration before that too crumbled and faded out.

And even before he had a chance to complete the set and let us reflect the applause began prematurely, and the most surreal moment of the night happened when some drunk mouthbreather shouted jokingly “vocals! some vocals!” in a thick Cockney accent. Needless to say it got a few giggles but bizarrely Basinski actually took to the mic and did a little impromptu a cappella performance of “After I Say I’m Sorry” by Ella Fitzgerald, much to everyone’s surprise. It was actually surprisingly good although unquestionably bizarre, and kind of ruined the moment a little bit for me. It was funny for sure but it killed that reflective atmosphere he’d built up a little bit.

Gira took to the stage a little later and was obviously more eager to get going that Basinski was and so pressed on to forego Basinski’s introductory spiel. Now I should make it clear that I was probably one of the least educated people in that room when it comes to Michael Gira and Swans; I obviously know of him and have made attempts to explore their rather extensive back catalogue in the past but sufficed to say I’m not their biggest fan and have never really enjoyed their work, so I was a bit hesitant and didnt honestly know what to expect sonically. But it turned out to be just Gira and his acoustic guitar and a fat amp, and he blew me away…figuratively. There’s something eternally fascinating about live performances like that where there’s little extraneous detail and the set is so pared back and the music is so loud, just the energy and physicality is incomparable and Gira certainly does have a presence. It was unquestionably an eccentric performance but it was so fucking strong; forgive me I dont know many of the track names but his rendition of a track called “Oxygen” from his upcoming release was certainly a centerpiece of the set:

“FEEDĀ 

ME”

he screamed and growled repeatedly during its main phase, supplemented with violent guitar work. It was raw to say the least, and that was but one example. There were too many individual moments of violent terror to recount, but somehow he has this entirely different personality trapped alongside this leviathan, one which was especially noticeable during the two encore tracks where the sound was almost delicate and heartbroken, worn out and life-weary and low-key, especially in his final track “God Damn The Sun” which was probably the most tender track of the set.

Make no mistake, it was an incredible performance but I’m not suddenly inspired to revisit Swans; it was a very, very different sound and I dont think I’m gonna be able to get that kind of experience out of some pre-recorded music. Being able to see the spittle fly and see the pained expressions on his face during the most angsty and impassioned moments is exactly why I go to see music live, you just can’t bottle that.

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