Music Hall of Williamsburg


Devendra Banhart

Mon, October 29, 2012

Doors: 8:00 pm / Show: 9:00 pm

Music Hall of Williamsburg

Brooklyn, NY

$32 advance / $35 day of show


This event is 18 and over

This show has been postponed.

The voice of Swans frontman and founder Michael Gira is one of stentorian command. Even during the lightest moments of his three-decade career, Gira's bellow has been deep, dark, and direct, both an apt vehicle for his raw lines about spiritual tumult and human filth and a compelling accompaniment to Swans' stylized roil...We Rose comes culled from Swans' first tour in more than a decade, an intercalary period in which Gira introduced the world to Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family, played solo acoustic shows, and led the comparatively mild-mannered Angels of Light…
The 100 minutes of music that precede "Eden Prison" on We Rose make for an exhaustive listen, with 15-minute sprawls of suffocating noise, drums that suggest a fleet of fists to the face and loads of shouts about praising God, committing infanticide, and welcoming slavery. It's the kind of hyper-brutal album that requires an intermission or, at the very least, a long hard look at a plain white wall when its two hours have ended. Though We Rose pulls from gigs in Melbourne, Berlin, and New York City, this collection offers a mostly accurate recapitulation of the 102 sets that this iteration of Swans played since the 2010 release of My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, the band's first album in 13 years. Loud, mean, and complicated, this six-piece is an articulate goliath, capable of drowning out Gira in waves before disappearing into pools of silence without warning. Each piece of this unit deserves mention: The finesse of Norman Westberg's guitar playing offers the perfect foil for Gira's general force. Christopher Pravdica's bass snaps as much as it throbs, while Christoph Hahn uses his double-lap steel guitar not as a country-music accent mark but as an origin of general abrasion. Drummer Phil Puleo and multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris often double the rhythm, giving that old Swans stomp bigger feet. This band is at once visceral and subtle, reverent with the source but relentless with the sound. During "Sex, God, Sex", Swans suggest the sound of a thousand whips lashing at once; during "The Seer", they shape feedback into geometric patterns that Sonic Youth and Sunn O))) alike might admire…
Both times I saw Swans on this tour, they pounded harder than I could have remembered or imagined; Gira lead them through these live shows for two years, so of course he was tired. For one gapless, 30-minute expanse, Swans segue a new sheet-of-noise instrumental, "The Seer", into the barking-and-marching classic "I Crawled". Gira spends the last quarter of the track moaning, sighing, and doing whatever else he can to sound completely mad. The band lashes together one more time, more malevolent and urgent than before, Gira hollering like he's finally lost. When it's over, he verifies the drain: "If I had a fucking knife, I'd cut my head off right now." Somehow, Swans then manage to play a 12-minute version of "Eden Prison" that starts and finishes like a whisper but, at its middle, reaches an apogee of high-volume repetition and reward. It's a marvelous payoff of perseverance, a promise that, no, this band or its leader isn't done.
In January of 2010, when Gira announced that he was reforming Swans, he wrote a predictably didactic open letter that made his purpose with the band clear: "After five Angels of Light albums, I needed a way to move FORWARD, in a new direction, and it just so happens that revivifying the idea of Swans is allowing me to do that... THIS IS NOT A REUNION. It's not some dumb-ass nostalgia act. It is not repeating the past." Some will see this 10-song tracklist and bemoan the absence of old material; four of the tracks come from 2010's My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, while two supposedly come from The Seer, the new Swans album that the first, very-limited edition of this package helped fund in a sort of de facto Kickstarter campaign. ("I decided to start touring Swans, and it's like mainlining heroin," Gira told me just before the tour started, prophesying the apparent addiction.) But there are plenty of other Swans live albums if you need to hear that old stuff, and Gira has long clung close to what's most recent, trying new sounds and new members and new modes ... We Rose is a perfect void of nostalgia that comes at a moment when similar indie rock heroes have reunited to defile the corpses of early works for lump sums of cash. For the last two years, one of the world's most bellicose bands has paid respect to its legacy largely by leaving it alone and tried to expand it by testing its old limits. Here, they do just that, beating past successes with the purpose of the present and showing that-- reunion or no, 58-year-old frontman or no-- this is exactly the kind of forward-pointing roadmark Swans deserve.
Grayson Currin/ 5/8

All Tomorrow's Parties, Asbury Park New Jersey, October 1st 2011. Shortly before Swans come on stage in the dilapidated theatre I'm looking over the shoulder of the man seated in front of me, and watching him scroll through pictures on his phone (a girl holding a dog an amusingly-named confectionary brand) and reading his BBMs: "the layout is awesome, the bands are great. Jeff Mangum nearly made me cry," he writes. Fuck knows what Swans made him do.
Encountering the might, majesty and physicality of the Swans live experience is in one moment transcendental, masochistic, liberating and an act of feeling subjugated to brute force expressed through the bloodying lashes of sound. They are, as the recordings collected on We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head show, a 'with us or against' us kind of band, Old Testament in their offering and demanding of zeal and commitment. This is, of course, a very good thing. At that ATP show, M. Gira put it rather well himself: "Just because you have seats here doesn't mean you can't stand up, you lard-ass Americans. Stand the fuck up and get some exercise. Come forward. This is a rock show. I am not your polite act."
"Come forward": there is indeed something very Pentacostal about the Swans live experience, and not just in the sonics. The bells, of course, and then Gira's throaty roar on 'Sex God Sex' as the band remain silent "Praise the Lord! Praise Jesus! Jesus Christ! Come down, say his name out loud!" like the industrial Reverend Ian Paisley.
And as well as God, there is Man. So many of the aesthetics of the wild men of rock are based around cliché and empty gestures, the clowning around as cowboys, the toying with occultism, the pretence at degeneracy by men who probably never offer their poor spouses anything but the missionary position, and oral only on odd-numbered Tuesdays. Swans, on the other hand, with all their belligerence (on 'Yr Property' grunts that sound like fucking) and sonic brutalism, do it all so hard and so well it feels like masculinity toppling back and falling over itself… so heavy with anger and sweat and violence that it actually transcends gender, and instead breaks apart what it means to be human, and confronted by the overwhelming joy and pleasure of sound.
You don't really need me to tell you about the power of these performances, the brilliant withholding and unleashing of energy, the mastery of volume, crescendo, rythym and dread. The cannonade of 'No Words No Thoughts' is potent enough, one guitar squeal howling into infinity like a hurricane through a high mountain pass, or the wild stampede that closes 'Eden Prison' . 'The Seer (Intro) I Crawled' features Spaghetti Western harmonica and guitars before disappearing into a blood-red pool of noise. 'The Apostate' transcends the boundaries between rock and electronic music, with the repetitive thrum of the rhythm, distorted woodwind and fragments of vocals sounding not unlike Throbbing Gristle. Indeed, in many ways this record makes for a fascinating partner to Carter Tutti Void's Transverse. Like those three, Gira is an artist for whom 'compromise' is scratched out of every book on his shelves. He's similarly misunderstood as a nihilist, when in fact what is offered here is a communal experience of release and joy.
The remarkable achievement of We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head is to capture in digitised file format the very spirit of Swans, these great, dark eddies of sound, these barked exhortations from M Gira (you can almost sense his sweat and his spit, the terrifying glares he sets upon his compadres) is the distillation of the energy that can come from men with guitars and some things to bash and rattle, but so rarely does. This is not a live album, but an alive album, one of the most visceral, beautiful records you'll hear this year.
Luke Turner/ 4/27

Swans founder and sole constant Michael Gira was stern and adamant when he announced in 2009 that his intention to revamp his then-defunct flagship project was no mere grab at cheap nostalgia. Indeed, it was easy for his audience to be cynical following the flurry of classic post-punk/indie rock acts that decided to reform throughout the 2000s, most of them nakedly and blatantly grabbing at every dollar to be squeezed from their post-mortem fame. But there’s something about Gira’s rather prickly integrity to suggest that, of all the musical figures to really mean their dismissal of cheap opportunism, he was one to believe.
And indeed, as it turned out, Gira was astoundingly astute in his motives for restarting his most-celebrated endeavor after using the end of the 1990s and bulk of the 2000s for his comparatively pastoral Angels Of Light project. His first studio album under the Swans name since 1996, 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, was a stunning return to form for the songwriter, adding a distinct aggressiveness and hypnotic doom that many would perhaps say had been sorely missing during the bulk of the Angels years. Garnering even further, and perhaps more intensified, accolades than this new Swans record were the expansive tours the group has since embarked on, explosively intrepid and physically purifying performances that offered irrefutable proof that this was indeed a genuine Swans reformation, and one that went above and beyond what any such expectations may have carried when it was announced. Without question, in an era of increasingly detached digital artificiality, including in the realm of often meticulously pre-programmed live performance, Swans’ return to the stage was a visceral, unsettling, and intensely cathartic experience for all involved, with shows lasting for well over the two-hour mark at severe volumes while the band ran through bracing new material and a few impressive re-imaginings of some classic Swans moments for good measure.
As anyone who has thus far witnessed Swans live in this new formation can no doubt attest, a live album of the recent tours would be foreseen as an inspired move. So it came to pass that this anticipated Swans live double-disc package entitled We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head sold out in less than 24 hours when it was announced to the band’s mailing list, leaving many understandably frustrated and disappointed in the wake. (It doesn’t help that eBay flippers are asking for prices well above $100 at this moment.) Regardless, its intent as a fundraiser for their upcoming studio release The Seer is an impressive method on the band’s part, and becoming of their staunch principles, Gira and company have put a lot of care into this project, crafting a beautifully-recorded, exquisitely-packaged set that stands as the obvious next best thing to actually seeing the band in the flesh.
Edited together so that the running more or less mirrors the gestation of one of the band’s recent sets, the collection begins with the infamous static drone with which the band has opened all of their shows, this penetrating overture presented undiluted for over 15 minutes before leading with heart-stopping aggression into a particularly fierce take of “No Words No Thoughts” from My Father. This entire performance in itself is beyond masterful, the gradually building and churning hum of the band’s instruments melding into a violent and impassioned tantrum of histrionic tension. There’s not a second of sound wasted during this risky venture, each intentional false start emphasizing the precise bludgeon of guitars and percussion, all articulated with utmost meticulousness.
Much like this rendition of “No Words,” all of the material from My Father stands head and shoulders above the studio recordings, which, while outstanding in their own right, lacked this particular unsettling intensity showcased on the stage. The thrust accented on We Rose is explicitly befitting of the band’s earliest work and its cementation with the somber melodicism at the core of these songs precise and seamless. “Jim” from My Father similarly bridges this road, tying together the distinct 80s and 90s eras of Swans, the more dour, almost Gothic songcraft associated with a record like 1995’s The Great Annihilator finding a bedfellow in the pounding, staccato, metallic backbone reminiscint of 1984’s Cop.
The stylistic similarities with the band’s earliest work, or at least everything prior to the band’s rather controversial 1989 major label jaunt The Burning World, is further expressed with the appearance of some notable classic Swans songs. “Beautiful Child” from Children Of God welds a stripped-down sinisterness that was arguably tempered in the studio by some of the melodramatic synth flourishes and Jarboe’s chillingly ethereal backing vocals. Likewise, the same album’s “Sex God Sex” is presented sans noticeable tweaking, save for perhaps a more spare overall persona, the lack of studio embellishment highlighting the raw severity of its base. A mantra to masochistic spirituality, Gira’s proclamations of “Praise God” on “Sex” carry on a distinctly unsettling fanaticism, his voice resembling that of an end-times proselytizer reaching out to his damned. Likewise, “Your Property” from Cop is treated to an almost unrecognizable makeover, with its industrial sadism replaced with unusual seething calm and contempt.
The one fully-fleshed, unreleased piece,”The Apostate,” is driving and almost anthemic, a burning churn of slinky EBow’d guitar, motoristic riffs, ominous bells, and some cryptic references to, of all people, Lady Gaga. Obvious parallels to The Great Annihilator’s “Celebrity Lifestyle” may spring to mind, and indeed, while there is a certain gothic resonance to the affair, the piece is explicitly in keeping with the singular vehemence exposed in this new phase of Swans. Another unreleased track, an introduction to the as-yet-unfinished piece “The Seer,” has an almost Krautrock-derived propulsion, a satisfyingly compelling persona to ride next to the band’s trademark pummeling doom; that it leads into the Young God EP’s “I Crawled” further drives home Gira’s theory that his new concerns are following a straight path from the most austere corridors of his past as a musician.
Takes on My Father’s “Eden Prison” and “Little Mouth” round out the live material, both pieces finding the aforementioned grandiose expansion implicitly intact. (“Little Mouth” in particular sounds hauntingly fresh as tied with the unreleased and cacophonous “93 Ave. B Blues.”) Following these pieces, the limited edition of this live collection ends with a collection of stripped-down acoustic demos of various songs set to appear on the band’s upcoming studio album. In spite of Gira’s explicit recorded plea preceding these songs that these versions are never to be shared outside the owner’s personal space, they feel impressively developed and professional, each piece embodying an almost orchestr sparseness that stands as gorgeous in its own right. While these may not be what Gira has in mind for their eventual fleshed-out studio takes (Gira narrates before playing each piece exactly how he envisions the finished full-band versions of each of these songs), they are an illuminating window into Gira’s unimpeachable talents as a songsmith of stark vigor.
As it stands, this is an essential document of Swans in the midst of their successful resurgence, a collection that finds the band captured as an untarnished entity that derives endless power from Gira’s songwriting and presence while also exhibiting an animalistic dynamism keeping this far from being a glorified solo affair. It’s unfortunate that this collection was unable to reach all of those fans who missed out; no mere souvenir, this deserves a wider audience and, thus, a more permanent release.
Paul Haney/
Devendra Banhart
Devendra Banhart
Devendra Banhart

For his Nonesuch debut, Devendra Banhart chose the title Mala, literally the Serbian word for “small,” but used colloquially in Eastern Europe as a term of endearment—“like sweetie pie,” Banhart explains. It was a placeholder during most of the recording, a working title offhandedly inspired by a ring his fiancée, the Serbian photographer and artist Ana Kras, had given him with that word on it. But the name stuck, and it proves to an apt one for an album so intimate in scale and open of heart.

Banhart’s previous effort, 2009’s What Will We Be, took him to Northern California where he cut the disc accompanied by a full band and producer Paul Butler behind the board. Conversely, Mala, his eighth studio album, took shape back in his own “tiny, tiny home” in Los Angeles, where Banhart until recently resided. He and longtime cohort Noah Georgeson produced it together, playing most of the instruments themselves, using borrowed equipment and a recorder they’d found in a pawn shop. The recorder is a couple of decades’ old piece of gear “that a lot of early hip-hop had been made on,” says Banhart. “And knowing my songs are not hip-hop whatsoever, we thought it would be interesting to see how these kinds of songs would sound on equipment that was used to record our favorite rap. Let’s see how this technology would work for us.”

The arrangements, beguiling yet relatively unadorned, harken back to Banhart’s earliest recordings, the do-it-yourself tracks that first garnered him acclaim a decade ago. The songs themselves, though, are less fractured fairy tales than real or artfully imagined depictions of the vicissitudes of romance, even if Banhart does lace his often seductive delivery with liberal doses of surreal humor.

These days Banhart appears more suave than shamanistic, though his gently delivered words still have an incantatory quality. His trademark falsetto warble is often supplanted by a lower-registered croon, especially when he vocalizes in Spanish on a track like “Mi Negrita”—a song he conjured up while envisioning himself “in an oversized suit, slightly sweaty” on the set of the Venezuelan variety show Super Sabado Sensacional, a program he’d watch as a child growing up in Caracas in the ’80s.

“In Spanish, I can have a lot more flexibility,” Banhart admits. “I have a limited vocabulary—in English and in Spanish—but with Spanish I can get more into the sound of the words, I can have more fun with it. I can even get more autobiographical in Spanish. I feel comfortable revealing more, expressing something sincere about trauma or pain, which is not really a space I’m comfortable occupying. I can take things further in Spanish.”

Speaking of his native tongue, Banhart acknowledges that “mala” in Spanish is the feminine form of “bad,” and, given the more outré, gender-bending garb he donned earlier in his career—featured most notoriously in a fashion spread for the New York Times’ T style magazine—he jokes, “I could be that bad female.”

A hint of darkness does exist around the periphery of Mala, bracketing the album, in fact. The opening cut, “Golden Girls” is downbeat and bass-heavy, evoking a young man isolated on a dance floor. Closing number “Taurabolium”—named after the altar/structure from ancient pagan ritual upon which a bull was slain, its blood pouring onto a white-robed priest below—is basically a syncopated chant: “I can’t keep myself from evil.” Banhart was thinking West Side Story when he arranged the tune, its finger-snapping rhythm coming from “a switchblade, a chain, a whip, and a box full of glass that we just stomped on.”

Mostly, though, the mood is lighthearted, mischievous, and, on a reverie like “Daniel,” pleasantly nostalgic. On “Für Hildegard von Bingen,” he casts a contemporary life for the 12th-century Catholic mystic and composer: “In my head there was this little movie, an alternative universe, I guess—Hildegard is sequestered in her cloister, and one day she gets a VHS cassette and it’s the prime era of the MTV VJ, and she just goes wild. ‘That’s it for me,’ she says. ‘That’s how I’m going to get my message across.’ So she escapes the cloister…and becomes a VJ.” On “Fine Petting Duck,” he duets with his fiancée Kras or, more precisely, duels with her as they portray ex-lovers with very different perspectives on their relationship. She wants to get back with him; he reminds her, in their wry call-and-response, what a thoughtless boyfriend he actually was. (And somewhere along the way, Banhart and
Kras switch—inscrutably, amusingly—from English to German as the arrangement morphs from a ’50s-tinged R&B/Doo-wop/Mickey and Silvia-type vibe to a Teutonic house beat.) The anti-romantic banter is more playful, even more honest, than your average love song; Banhart admits, “It’s so hard for me to write a sincere love song. It’s got to be about what a piece-of-shit relationship we’re in now, always, somehow. But there are some sincere things here obviously—they’re all sincere, really, but you have to keep a sense of humor about it.”

Banhart emerged seemingly out of nowhere in 2002 with his first CD collection, Oh Me Oh My…The Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit, compiled by Swans frontman Michael Gira for his Young God label from homemade recordings the itinerant Banhart had amassed as he traveled the world. He was born Devendra Obi Banhart in Houston, Texas, but spent his childhood in Caracas, Venezuela; as a teenager, his family returned to the States, relocating in Southern California, where he soon became enamored of skateboard culture. “Ballad of Keenan Milton,” in fact, is an homage to the legendary skateboarder, who died tragically in 2001 in a freak accident.

Music was always a passion for Banhart, and he discovered it in ways both magical and haphazard. As a boy in Caracas, says Banhart, “I was surrounded by salsa, merengue, cumbia, some bossa nova—that was ubiquitous, you’d hear it on any street. But oh my God, at home we had Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction and the Rolling Stones’ Hot Licks. I don’t know what these things are, I don’t know who these artists are, I’m just eight years old, but I know I want to do that, I want to sing like these people.” In what could be an excerpt from a David Sedaris monologue, Banhart claims he found his own voice one day when he was home alone and impetuously donned one of his mother’s dresses, grabbed her hair brush and started to sing. What came out—wobbly, high-pitched—didn’t resemble Axl Rose or Mick Jagger, but it was a prepubescent sound he could call his own, a touchstone, something that echoed, years later, in the falsetto of his early albums. In high school, Banhart became obsessed with rocksteady, bluebeat, and ska, which he’d learned about via skateboarding videos.

Finishing high school, he thought he would pursue a visual arts career so he enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, but he soon dropped out in favor of exploring music. He has, however, successfully maintained a parallel career as a painter: Banhart’s distinctive, minutely inked, often enigmatic drawings have appeared in galleries all over the world, including the Art Basel Contemporary Art Fair in Miami; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels; and Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. He has created the cover art for most of his records, including Mala, and in 2010 his artwork and packaging for What Will We Be was nominated for a Grammy.

San Francisco had an indelible influence on Banhart; the flamboyant dressing he adopted that entranced the fashion crowd (and fueled the “freak folk” and “New Weird America” labels the press attached to him) was inspired in part by the seriously subversive cross-dressing culture of San Francisco’s legendary performance troupe the Cockettes.

Like Nonesuch label-mates Caetano Veloso and David Byrne, with whom he shared a stage at Carnegie Hall, Banhart has embraced an astonishingly wide range of musical ideas, from folk to blues to the avant garde. He extols the late Arthur Russell, a relentlessly eclectic artist who was impossible to pigeonhole in his brief lifetime, and Banhart has brought back into the spotlight forgotten artists like late-’60s singer Vashti Bunyan, whose psychedelic folk he championed. He has collaborated with Brazilian legends Os Mutantes, the Swans, Antony and the Johnsons, and Beck, among others, and has engaged in art projects like conceptualist Doug Aitken’s monumental 2012 Song 1 video installation on the façade of the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, DC.

For Banhart, his career remains “an adventure and an exploration.” Mala reveals a natural maturation of his style, especially as a singer. Banhart admits, “I don’t really take care of my voice, but, just like with playing guitar, you get more familiar with it, and you get better at it. I’ve always said that I’m very good at not knowing how to play the guitar but, really, it’s just that I’m very comfortable with the utter uncertainty of my approach.”

—Michael Hill
Venue Information:
Music Hall of Williamsburg
66 North 6th St
Brooklyn, NY, 11211