Leeds live music review: New York rockers Swans deliver transcendent set at the Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen

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In my 16 or so years of watching live music, I’ve probably averaged over 50 acts each year.

During that time I’ve seen jazz quartets, singer songwriters, metal bands, Afro-beat acts, superstar DJs, UK rap’s finest and some of the biggest artists in the world.

However, I’ve never seen anything during that time that remotely compares to the experience of seeing Swans.

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Witnessing the famed avant-garde, experimental noise-manipulating band at the Belgrave Music Hall in Leeds was as close to a cathartic experience from watching live music as one can get.

Swans at the Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen in Leeds. Photo: Natasha KoziarskaSwans at the Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen in Leeds. Photo: Natasha Koziarska
Swans at the Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen in Leeds. Photo: Natasha Koziarska

The band, who have been active on-and-off since the early 1980s, stopped off at the intimate Leeds venue as it marks its 10th anniversary during a tour that has seen them grace crowds of a much bigger size.

Having had a few friends insist that “YOU HAVE TO SEE THEM LIVE”, I joined the other few lucky hundred in the compact room for the nine-song set of apocalyptic harrow stretched out for a full two-hours.

Taking to the stage to huge applause, ponytailed frontman Michael Gira – who has been the group's only consistent member over the decades – takes a pew on a stool and clutches his acoustic guitar while the other five members of equal grasping magnetism huddle around him. But any sense that this will be a stripped back, traditional set are soon gone.

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Opener ‘The Beggar’ from their latest album of the same name sets the tone appropriately as it rumbles and festers along while 69-year-old Gira intones imagery of his body spinning and his eyes being “eroded by derision”.

Swans at the Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen. Photo: Natasha KoziarskaSwans at the Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen. Photo: Natasha Koziarska
Swans at the Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen. Photo: Natasha Koziarska

The song peaks about eight minutes in with two of Gira’s equally engrossed bandmates holding their own swaying battle over bass riffs before coming to its brutal end with the frontman conducting crashes of cymbals and searing guitar feedback like the conductor of a manic orchestra. The crowd roars and jaws (mine, anyway) are open.

Gira only becomes more animated and shamanesque as the set draws on, waving his arms emotively and raising one hand to the sky as he bellows ‘I am the hanging man’ into the void. It’s a startling experience that is felt only too keenly by the crowd, who bob languidly through the more driving tracks (played at bone shaking noise levels) like a corn patch in the midst of a Biblical storm.

Admittedly during the second half some of the slower numbers don’t hold the same level of magnetic palpability (and have me considering checking the football scores on my phone) but when executed well, there are moments of utter transcendence.

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It’s during the closing song ‘Cloud Of Unknowing’ (if you can call a 25-minute musical dive into the abyss a ‘song’) that the group become their most animated. Gira howls messages of Jesus, monsters and zombies over an ebbing mix of Krautrock bass and steady drumming and by the conclusion is on his feet jolting his hands in the direction of his bandmates and summoning an outrageous cacophony of noise.

After demanding the lights be turned on to offer an appreciative applaud to the enraptured crowd, Gira and his band of dishevelled cronies leave the room to contemplate how we’re meant to return to the normal the world after what we’d just witnessed.

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