Michael Gira + Grouper at Cafe Oto, 07 April 2012

Michael Gira (photo: Tim Owen)

Magnificent as the latest incarnation of his band SWANS are in concert, there’s nothing like the intimacy and immediacy of a solo performance to highlight just what a great performer and songwriter we have in Michael Gira.

At Cafe Oto, Gira concentrated on recent material, playing one song, “Song for a Warrior”, from the as-yet unreleased SWANS album The Seer (due out later this year), four from the sessions that produced their last, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky (2010), and two from Gira’s solo offering of the same year, I am Not Insane. There were few songs from SWANS early hardcore phase, with only “She Lives” and “Blind” representing the nineties, and “God Damn the Sun”, which closed 1989s The Burning World, reserved for the encore.

Gira has undoubtedly come into his maturity in the last five years, particularly since reconstituting SWANS after thirteen long years with Angels of Light as his focus. He still channels that raw and abrasive SWANS energy, but he carries it now with some elegance, and certainly with the vested dignity of maturity. His famous intensity is leavened these days by studied propriety—there’s a touch of Southern Gothic to both his attire and demeanour—and an almost radiant benevolence.

Gira pulled his chair up close to his audience, and although he probably couldn’t see us for the lighting, engaged us conversationally and drew us into the performance. Still, his songs are raw-boned, sung with raw passion and hard-struck on an electro acoustic guitar. Gira’s vocal delivery is impassioned, but with little trace of theatricality beyond that hint of the Flannery O’Connor’s, and convincing enough to make lines like “And I breathe my brother’s love. / No God will ever understand. / I crush him in my brother’s hand. / I am the God of this fucking land!” (from “My Brother’s Man”) ring with conviction.

It’s remarkable that a performer as seasoned as Gira should still be taking his inspiration straight from the heart. I don’t think there’s anyone else like him for the honesty of his emotive impact. Consider this remarkable quote, from a 2010 interview:

“Both my mother and father are dead and with the song…called ‘Oxygen’, it was about not being able to breathe. It had to do with my chronic asthma, which has gotten better since I quit smoking, and this rope of smoke going up to heaven and me inevitably dying and following my parents up to Heaven on a rope of smoke.”

The contrast between Gira’s set and the night’s opening by Liz Harris, a.k.a. Grouper, could hardly be starker, yet they complemented each other beautifully.

Where Gira’s sermonising delivery tends toward the stentorian, Harris’s approach is meditative and introspective. She accompanies herself with pre-recorded cassettes, washes of ambient sound sourced perhaps from electric keyboards, gongs and wordless incantation, perhaps from undifferentiated environmental recordings; it was hard to pick out specific sources; equally hard to discern just how her gentle strumming of a guitar fed into the blend, or the lyrical content of her hushed vocals. Harris was content to let her songs unfold at length, and the effect was druggy but the opposite of unfocused, rather meticulously immersive, and at the heart of each of those songs was a watertight melody.

Michael Gira set list

  1. “Jim” (SWANS, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, 2010)
  2. “Eden Prison” (SWANS, My Father…)
  3. “Oxygen” (Unreleased song from the My Father… sessions)
  4. “She Lives” (SWANS, Great Annihilator, 1995)
  5. “Blind” (SWANS, Various Failures 1988-1992)
  6. “On the Mountain Looking Down” (Michael Gira, I Am Not Insane, 2010)
  7. Two Women” (Angels of Light, How I Loved You, 2001)
  8. “My Birth” (SWANS, My Father…)
  9. “Promise of Water” (Angels of Light, We Are Him, 2007)
  10. “Song for a Warrior” (SWANS, The Seer, 2012 (as yet unreleased))
  11. “My Brother’s Man” (featured on both We Are Him and I Am Not Insane)
  12. “God Damn the Sun” (SWANS, The Burning World, 1989)
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