M. Gira | Live at the Derby | Review

L.A. Weekly | Jay Babcock

alone onstage with acoustic guitar and his many demons

"Is it going to be like this all night?" someone asked me at the Derby's bar, three songs into an uneven, morose set by W.A.C.O., which followed an uneven, morose set of murder ballads and sea chanteys by Dame Darcy. I replied, "It's only gonna get worse -- or, I guess, better." Realizing that she and her pals were here looking for an evening of Johnny Red Hot and His Rootin' Tootin' Snazzy Dressers or whatever swing-type action used to be Friday-night fare at the Derby, I told her, "It's not gonna be a dance party here tonight."

And it wasn't. It was Michael Gira, founder of '80s/'90s power-rock gods Swans, alone onstage with acoustic guitar and his many demons, singing to an audience seated on the Derby's dance floor and standing 'round the bar, straining necks to get a view of the man who almost single-handedly birthed, for better or worse, the industrial-rock genre.

But there weren't really demons up there with Gira. When you see him play -- working himself into a red face, howling, playing repetitive guitar parts so ferociously that his fingers' calluses swell and bleed -- you realize that he's up there utterly alone. In songs like the Swans' "Failure," which he performed tonight, Gira occupies the furthest existential position imaginable, where the only options seem to be disgust for others, for oneself, for commerce, for the servant-master setup at the root of every human relationship -- followed by a wry laugh at the self-seriousness and self-pity of all that disgust and fatalism. (Then there's the sadistic humor of last resort, the kind of pitch-black jokes you make when confronted with the bottomless cruelty of the human race. Deep in the set, an audience member yells, "Call the police!" Gira instantly replies, "No thanks, I don't feel like sex right now" to gasps and laughter.)

At the same time, we can be in the presence of absolute, puzzling beauty. That's what's in Gira's songs too, and that's what happens tonight during this stunning, magnificent, tiring and distinctly un-dance-party performance. Breaking through the morbid drones and laments, through the lyrics filled with nooses and snakes and shame and rape, is an occasional pretty guitar line or vocal melody, sung in that deep, authoritative voice of Gira's that is as fundamentally true as all those other men in black: Ian Curtis, Scott Walker, Johnny Cash, etc. It might not be what you want to hear on a Friday night, but it remains a voice -- a vision, really -- to be reckoned with.