Concert Review: Swans and Xylouris White @ The Phoenix – Toronto (A Music Blog, Yea?)

I had certain expectations when I walked into the Phoenix concert theater on Friday, with Swans as the headliner I had prepared myself for a fairly loud evening. As I made it past the coat check I heard music that I wasn’t prepared for… klezmer music. Passing the stage, a large crowd basked in pale white light was gathered listening in relative silence to Xylouris White. Consisting of drummer Jim White and virtuoso Cretan laouto (lute) player George Xylouris, the the duo played a mix of jazz, psychedelia, and folk music (not just from the Balkans, but from many different traditions). With George singing intermittently, Jim White played complex but subtle drumlines while playing with his drumsticks like a baton twirler, spinning them around with flourishes of his arms with every other beat.

I found a spot between two older men near the sound booth and had started settling in when I heard a scream. Behind me someone had collapsed on the ground near the back bar. Staff rushed over but didn’t seem able to do much because a lot of the rest of the set was punctuated by cries and moans of the injured person. This added in a weird way to the atmosphere being created by the music, casting a dark cinematic spell. The screaming stopped (hopefully because the EMT’s had shown up and the person was taken to hospital) and Xylouris White finished with a softly spoken thank you as cheers erupted from the crowd, most of whom were totally unaware of the drama that had taken place behind them.

As more and more people filed into the venue the temperature went up. So to escape the heat and general oddness of the two men standing next to me (one of them had not stopped staring at the sound guy for the entirety of Xylouris White’s set) I made my way to the balcony. After a fairly fast change over, the stage went dark and a deep bass drone emanated from the speakers. As the drone continued, a tall man with long hair and a long beard began beating out a soft slow rhythm on a gong on the left side of the stage, adding a steady chugging rhythm like a train or a beating heart and harmonics that blended with the drones, thickening the sound. Getting louder and louder the sound began to pulse, adding even more to the feeling that this was someones heart beating. A drummer and keyboardist appeared, adding light symbol taps and more texture to the building crescendo. I have used the term wall of sound a lot in my reviews (to the point where I’ve stopped enjoying its use) but this was the granddaddy of them all, the great wall of sonic architecture.

After 10 minutes, Swans’ frontman Michael Gira joined his bandmates, chanting into the mic in a low baritone. It felt like I had accidentally stumbled upon a secret ritual being performed. Every time I looked at the stage I half expected them to be wearing black robes and masks over their faces. Even though the balcony was less crowded than the main floor, it was still difficult to see what was happening through the crowds of people, but the music was hypnotic, grabbing and holding your attention making it enjoyable whether you could see the band or not. With songs averaging about 15 minutes there is a lot more chance to add more parts and to explore the themes being created which is exactly what took place, with instruments like trombone, violin, and vibraphone being played by the gong player from earlier, who by 3 songs in had removed his shirt. He was dancing while playing both the vibraphone and gong that he was wedged between, holding a trombone in one hand (I later found out this impressive man’s name is Thor). The drones changed from a pulsing heartbeat into waves of sound crashing luminously onto a sonic beach and then finally slowed.

As the show finished I left thinking I had gotten to be a part of something really spectacular, even if part of me still thinks I might have joined a cult.