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Concert Review: Michael Gira/Norman Westberg

Concert Review: Michael Gira/Norman Westberg

Gira played a nearly two-hour set of unfamiliar new material and deep cuts from his prolific solo career.

The Old Church Concert Hall, Portland, OR
10/04/2018

At the beginning of Michael Gira’s solo acoustic set at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall, the Swans frontman asked the people in the audience to keep their cell phones in their pockets and, most all, to not film him. He didn’t want to see himself on YouTube, the musician explained. It was a reasonable request, especially in a day and age where people seem to enjoy watching a concert through a screen.

Perhaps there is a tertiary reason to why Gira wants those cell phones put away. The singer is notoriously picky about concert conditions and there are multiple recordings that exist of Gira berating both unfortunate soundmen and disrespectful audiences when things go awry. It is strange, because of all the bands I’ve seen multiple times, Swans almost always has an equipment malfunction (and sadly, it usually centers on lap steel player Christoph Hanh’s instrument). Call it karma.

Over the course of Gira’s haunting, eight-song performance, there were a few things that didn’t agree with the singer. At times, the lights were too dim for him to see his laminated lyric sheets. His guitar sound got dimmer at points, a problem he at first blamed on the sound guy, but he eventually realized that the battery in his pick-up was likely dying. It may have halted one song in its tracks, but it did little to mar an excellent performance.

Following Norman Westberg’s ambient, opening performance that featured the musician playing more with a board of pedals than the guitar slung over his neck, Gira played a nearly two-hour set of unfamiliar new material and deep cuts from his prolific solo career. Though Gira did introduce the songs, he didn’t give any indication if they were new or if they would be included in his upcoming solo album. Among the titles Gira introduced were “My Phantom Limb,” “The Hanging Man” and “Sun Fucker,” keeping with the sunny music he has put out over the past eight years with his reformed Swans project.

Portland’s Old Church, the city’s oldest church structure, was the perfect venue for such an intimate performance. Gira, impeccably dressed and hair slicked back, looked a far cry different than the wild-haired madman look he assumes with Swans. He did comment about the irony of playing his material in a church and introduced his opener as the “cock-suckin’, motherfuckin’ Norman Westberg.” Sadly, the two never shared the stage that evening.

It is easy to get lost in the hypnotic nature of a Gira performance. His baritone voice sounded as though he could split a note in two at points, as if he learned the gift of throat singing. Even during any dull moments in the set, it was impossible to look away. It was a show made for fans of Michael Gira. Even though he isn’t a musician that wields any “greatest hits”-type songs in his oeuvre, Gira didn’t play any favorites from Swans. Alone and vulnerable without that band’s wall of noise, how could he? If we learned anything, Gira can hold his own.

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