SWANS – THE MABUHAY GARDENS, SAN FRANCISCO [APRIL 12, 1986]
THE SWANS – THE MABUHAY GARDENS, SAN FRANCISCO [APRIL 12, 1986]
This particular show was a revelation, on a number of levels. The most impressive one was the fact that this band could be so sonically overwhelming, and yet, it was a delight to witness. I had been introduced to their earlier recordings, thanks to my colleagues, John and Lexy, at the small “mom and pop” record store we worked at, at the time. While I was in charge of ordering the mainstream releases, and a selection of independent releases, they were responsible for bringing in the more adventurous and experimental releases of the day, most of which were distributed through Rough Trade Records.
The vinyl I had heard by The Swans, up to that point in time, had not grabbed my attention so much, but there was just enough to make me curious to see them – and, of course, there was a bit of urging from a few people, assuring me that it wasn’t to be missed. So, off we went, and getting there early enough to grab a prime spot, at the center of the stage, between the stage monitors, I set up. This time, it was clearly obvious that the lighting was going to be very, very low, so I was forced to use a flash for the majority of the pictures. For some reason that escapes me now, I shot this show in color film, which was quite unusual [it must have been left over from a previous concert, and since I do not have any black and white images from this performance, it might also have been down to not having enough cash to purchase more film!].
In any event, the opening band, Trial, went through their particular brand of “industrial dirge” music, but it was not all that memorable for me [I may dig up some frames of their performance, as I go through my archives, but I am not certain if I took any of the band, or not]. Once the stage was rearranged, the house lights went down, and stayed that way for quite some time. I attempted a few frames without the flash, of which, only a couple turned out, and then went back to my tried and true method of using a cable extender for the flash unit, placed a few feet away, and angled up from the floor….
As the performance began, it was plainly obvious it was going to be very loud, and it remained that way throughout the set. Between the visual sequence of watching Mr. Gira going through his slow motion movements, and eventual disrobing, and glancing at the rest of the band each moving in their own particular synch to the recurring cascade of chords, made it easy to keep one’s attention on the proceedings. But what made the performance particularly pleasing for me, was the simple fact that I had never heard a band create such power from their instruments before – and with not a particularly large P.A. system to work with! The drums, synth and bass guitar would keep building up the rhythm of the chord structure, while Mr. Gira would contort a bit to the sounds coming from the deepest parts of his lungs, but the real revelation was the sound coming from the guitar: the only way to describe it, in words, is to compare it to the sound of propeller engines, from something like a B-17 bomber, as it waits for take-off. The decay of each chord was a delight to hear, and I couldn’t believe such sound could come from just one Marshall stack, of two cabinets, and the limited number of effects pedals that can be seen in the photos below!
I have been to a lot of concerts in my lifetime, but nothing before, or since, was quite as impressive, when speaking of the sheer force of the music performed on that night. No recordings I’ve heard of them since [including the KALX-FM broadcast of this show], could ever translate what occurred live, on that evening. Admittedly, this is the only time I ever saw the band perform, but, in a sense, I knew that any subsequent performance would be a let-down for me [especially when, only a short time later, the band would shift direction somewhat – which only makes sense, because it would be difficult for anyone to maintain the kind of intensity required for what transpired during that show – on a routine basis – without suffering physical ailments of one sort or another, IMO].
The photographs, themselves, were not easy to work with, because of the limited lighting, and the awkward flash, but there are a few very satisfying images. As for the names of the band members, I am certain of everyone except the drummer: there are two drum kits on the stage, but I do not recall seeing a second drummer that evening. And from the very few publicity stills that I can find of the band members at that point in time, I am making an “educated guess” that it is Ronaldo Gonzalez manning the sticks on this evening?!? Any corrections or confirmation on that would be appreciated!
Enjoy, if they are your “cup of tea”, and of course, constructive criticism of my work, is always welcome!