Gira Scope

"As you can see," deadpanned Michael Gira from a crowded Bowery Ballroom stage last Wednesday, "we have a major extravaganza planned for you." Pause. "Full of hope, joy, and beauty." This is a cue to snicker. But, really: his initial Swans excavations of a severe, ritualized pound gave way long ago to lengthy works that plumbed the whole beauty-in-agony thing (and vice versa). As with the work of Mark Eitzel, at its best sadness is rendered so gorgeously its net effect is uplifting, if not necessarily hopeful. (If Gira's melodic and lyric-writing skills don't match Eitzel's, well, Eitzel's work can't touch the physicality and grandeur of Gira's.)

Gira's set headlined a benefit for his ex-wife and collaborator, Jarboe. Her trip to Israel late last year ended with her face getting mashed, thanks to an Israeli-Palestinian bar brawl she got caught in one night. (She made it home OK, but needs surgery so she can breathe through her nose again.) The show spotlighted Gira— who's between two projects, last year's Body Lovers/Haters and the upcoming Angels of Light— and nine accompanying musicians. Gira still goes for orchestral width, and ensemble crescendos more or less to die for. This time around, he did it with a largely acoustic palette— accordion, ukulele, multiple vibes players, occasional trombone, melodicas. At times the lineup— an extended version of the one he played with at Tonic last month— could have been more precise, which the suddenly talkative Gira acknowledged something like 453 times.

The odd old Swans song popped up, and the sonic massiveness survived the translation into acoustic spheres, but the real surprise wasn't so much the reworked material as the emergence of Michael Gira, affable jokester. "Here's another song about fucking my mother," he said cheerily, going on to describe an old drunk with "a nose like a kitchen sponge" and relating a tale about the time she pissed in a supermarket aisle in front of him. And: "This is a song about anal sex. What other kind of sex is there?" Ba-DUM-pah! The '90s wind down with some of the '80s' most notorious onstage badasses— Gira, Blixa Bargeld, and Henry Rollins— getting downright genial or going for yuks. And jaded audiences thought they'd seen it all. — Jon Fine

Crescendos more or less to die for: Michael Gira headlining the Jarboe benefit at Bowery Ballroom
Hiroyuki Ito
Crescendos more or less to die for: Michael Gira headlining the Jarboe benefit at Bowery Ballroom

Never Been in a Riot

Frankly, we were just praying it was a put-on, a parody. There we stood in Worldwide Plaza, 1 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, at the smallest rally my friend Leslie, a radical activist nonpareil, had ever seen: a "sonic riot," sponsored by the "Music Militia," to protest the layoffs of bands and industry workers caused by the Universal-Polygram merger. The organizer had called the Voice and promised 200 people; reached by cell phone, he upped the prediction to 500, including, he hoped, Pete Seeger. Well, there were six, no louder than a blocked intersection: the leader on bullhorn, screaming things like "They don't give a rat's ass about music, or musicians, they only care if it sells," a saxophonist, a drummer, two plastic olive buckets, and one clever fellow banging a gong attached to a jacket, shirt, and pants— take that, suits! All neatly displayed inside the rectangle of police barricades that Leslie told me leftists call a demo pen.

She'd heard about the Music Militia at two recent political meetings where fliers got passed out; there was also a Web site,, filled with rants about the "slash-and-burn tactics" of major labels and plans for protests of the Grammy Awards February 24, to be held in L.A., New York's UN Plaza, and with luck around the world. Based on this setup, presumably, the organizer had figured a large crowd was ensured. But New York's a tough town: this same day also featured rallies for community gardens and street vendors; anyhow, it's hard to get people out on a workday. Tactically, you have to know the size of your forces. A small group, Leslie suggested, might infiltrate a company press conference. One outfit conned the cops into thinking they were much larger, resulting in an extra-big demo pen, then held tea inside the coop while others passed leaflets out about the regulation of public space.

I still entertained hopes that the rally was a satire; the Web site did have links to the Church of the Subgenius. But when we returned after lunch, the demo pen was neatly stacked up and the leader was talking to a woman Leslie knew from the gardens fight. We said hello and the organizer asked if we remembered an earlier garden rally, where Pete Seeger attended. "I was the guy who made that happen!" — Eric Weisbard

Royal Trucks

The Wetlands Preserve swung three marathon nights last week with the Derek Trucks Band— Yonrico Scott, Bill McKay, Todd Smallie, and Sweet Derek— who soul-mined the light from the South's shadowlands. Haunted by fallen ax-slinging specters and steamy juke joints, Derek made of this whole fabled world his stage, as if Ernie Barnes's famed Sugar Shack were animated. Scott's face flickered its never ending reels of an unfathomable horse opera, whether his brushes were whispering across the cymbals or he was calling down the ancestors on "Kickin' Back." Smallie became gargantuan whenever his bass thumped us into the promised land. And, for this organ junkie, McKay, soul-shouting on "Preacher Blues" and the rest of the repertoire, was channeling gospelized sound worthy of Ray Charles.

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