Listening to The Swallows’ album Witching and Divining makes it seem like this band belongs nowhere and no place, but seeing them live is completely different. They made it clear that they were part of the Whiskey Junction family and moreover, they seem like they are each other’s family—it’s apparent that this rock group practices together at least twice a week.
Themes of alchemy and the devil are at home within rock and roll, which for a hundred years has drawn its spiritual strength from the “dark side of the force.” This concert was a musical communion that reminded me of how, in tarot, we see the Devil as a real crossroads which eventually can progress to the Star, a moment of pure redemption, joy, and triumph, which is what I am anticipating will be the case on the new album from the Swallows, In the Shadow of the Seven Stars. This album promises to be a make-it-or-break-it moment for the band, which has gotten some good press and a fair amount of college and local radio play, and the members of which have a dozen side projects, indicating their dedication to the craft.
The Swallows Bring a Friend Along
Before the show, I caught the opening musician, a singer-songwriter named Jezebel Jones, asking Jeff Crandall from the Swallows how her vocal soundcheck sounded, and she ended up asking the sound technician to add a little reverb. Jones said “Jeff and I are old friends. He was at my very first show in the Twin Cities.” Later on, she asked if he’d like to play a song with the duo of her and Aaron Kerr, virtuoso cellist of the Swallows, but he respectfully declined. The Whiskey Junction was going to be missed, Jones said, as did Jeff from the Swallows when he had us propose a toast to the imminently closing venue later on in the show.
Even I got nostalgic, even though it was my very first time there. I decided I would miss the padded black VFW chairs the most, but the quaint concession stand-like outdoor pizza windows were also memorable.
Death and Christmas
Jones referred to her music as a “strange combination of Folk Americana and Gothic,” saying that she had collaborated with some of the Swallows musicians on her new record (listen at byebyebanshee.com). Jones opened by saying, “Hello, good evening, thank you so much for coming out on a cold night,” then told us she was going to play some songs about death, dying, and Christmas, but the first song had a June Carter Cash vibe and content about drinking alcohol and smoking “a little” weed. The second song had a nice bowed cello solo by Aaron Kerr, who then went back to plucking his instrument. Kerr went on several such solo side quests, which distracted from the music but were enjoyable in themselves. He kept the bow down his shin in the ripped open knee of his jeans. Where else would you keep your bow? Jones played both the guitar and the ukelele. She was more musical with the ukulele, but switched to a tiny black guitar for few songs.
There were a few moments in Jones’s singing that were irritating, especially when she raised the volume of her voice for expression’s sake. She sang better and better throughout the performance, which makes me suspect that the culprit wasn’t the singer’s incompetence, but rather a lack of proper warm-up exercises before going on stage. A sad truth about singer-songwriters is that a serviceable singer cannot carry a minimalist musical arrangement, which is meant to highlight subtleties but can be a double-edged sword, magnifying one’s errors, as well. Although her middle voice was hit or miss, when she went into full head voice, she was very melodious. Her persona was confidently brooding, not at all inhibited, but also a bit shell shocked, with interesting in-between song banter which made us feel like we were having a wonderful evening.
Her voice grew sweeter as she passed the midway point of the act, and it seemed like the talented cellist took her lead better, respecting the percussive element of her strumming instead of overpowering her chord progressions with more interesting tonal material and a louder volume. She ended with “Santa Baby,” which was engaging and over too quickly.
Betraying the depth of her experience as a performer, there was a notable moment in the “holiday suicides” song where the musical accompaniment stopped and she kept the beat a cappella before strumming a few for finality. She definitely had an “I’m not from here” attitude, the same attitude that felt less prominent in the Swallows this time seeing them perform. Their sound has changed drastically over the past three or four years, sounding previously similar to Iron and Wine with folk and country predominating and now less so with more blues/rock.
A Sad Loss, But a Necessary Change
The Swallows have a mandolin/percussionist/utility player, Mike Nordby, who added a lot of flavor, an acoustic guitarist and singer with a hat that had a brim going all the way around, Jeff Crandall, a Les Paul copy player with a full pedalboard and a Mesa/Boogie amplifier, Tyson Allison, the same electric cello guy who played with Jezebel Jones, Aaron Kerr, and a guy holding it down on the drum set, Justin DeLeon. The last time I saw them, there was a female cellist/singer who really added to the band, but she is no longer with the group. Having twin cellos was apparently unsustainable architecture.
I would love to see the Swallows again many more times, and I hope the recording engineer on their new record gives a more accurate reflection of their live sound than what we hear on Clearskyrelapse or Witching and Divining, not to mention the Songs for Strippers album, which sounds almost nothing like the Swallows I’m familiar with. I know other reviewers, such as Hymie’s Vintage Records have praised Witching and Divining, but I am not impressed and think the pressing I’ve got compares unfavorably to the same songs’ live realizations. Also, I was disappointed to not hear a few songs from J. Briozo, the alter ego of singer Jeff Crandall, whose solo release was down just a very small notch from William Patrick Corgan’s newest acoustic guitar and piano release. The Swallows are set to release a new album called In the Shadow of the Seven Stars. I hope they continue to increase both in accessibility and in depth and that their producer encourages them to record and re-record until they get it right so that people from far away can hear what they really sound like. They played a few songs off of Stars Thursday and we’re seeing this necessary transition away from having a few catchy choruses and gimmicky instrumentation as their trademark to a truly viable band having a strong lead singer accompanied by really fun, clunky percussion and jazz-influenced bass playing.
The Battle of the Buzz
“Long Long Shadow,” a song with a nice hook, was rudely intruded upon by a loud tattoo-parlor buzzing. Somehow the band maintained composure and battled through it.
In “The Winnowing,” their second song, we had more musical interludes and improvisation, and especially notable were the cello solos. Noticing the absence of the trademark “hai hai hai” call harmony with the female vocalist, I still felt the band was able to adequately provide the high range that we craved by using the mandolin’s plunk-plunk-plunk. Expert acoustic guitar fingerpicking was complimented by the effects-laden electric guitar, followed by much more modest banter than what we heard from Ms. Jones. Finally, the source of the buzz was tracked down by the sound guy who traipsed over and figured it out with only two minutes of downtime.
With the conclusion of the buzz battle was the song “Home,” which started with a slow introduction. Our favorite flavor enhancer played a garbage can and the drummer used mallets to create ambient cymbal noises. Essentially, this sounded completely different than on record, with the band utilizing a way more open arrangement—we had a Jimmy Page cellist totally shredding with a Slipknot garbage can player—the acoustic guitar player and the drummer held it down with an extended high energy jam peaking cleanly and ending in a planned chord progression. Heads of the next band to play, Counterfeit Democracy, were bobbing at their table as they waited to go on. The drummer was going hard with cymbal catches and loud, artistic toms.
But Is It Groovy?
It’s always exciting to see tambourine excellence, and in this case the flavor enhancing utility player caused one person to dance, which is no small feat in a soon-to-be condemned bar on a frigid Thursday! My wife and I were tempted to get up and do the hustle to one stompy four count, and “Baby, Do the Walk” was a splendid up-tempo rock jam. Jeff Crandall’s gritty voice sounded great.
A serious highlight was “When the Levee Breaks.” Wow! Crandall’s gravelly voice with the acoustic guitar started us off. This man can also hit his high notes cleanly. The cello slowly got added to the mix. Crandall also really shined here with an interstellar acoustic guitar solo which included thought-out, rapid chord changes all over the neck and self-imposed harmonies that really brought down the house. When he hit the final (augmented?) chord, the whole band seemed like it was going to stop, but drummers are, of course, amazingly headstrong. We got some neat wah pedal melodies on the electric guitar as well. And I must again emphasize this sounded far more groovy live than it does on the record.
Again, the ambient cymbal work using a soft mallet or wire brush made it feel like we were all gathering around for storytime, giving a background element to the marching blues songs and vocal harmonies. There was not a single bad note in the vocal performances! Our singer (insert inevitable comparison to Tom Waits) was able to mix weird, exploratory parts with rock and roll, and the band showcased their ability transition without losing the time.
They played a song called “Wrecking Ball,” and someone in the audience said at the end, “I thought it was Miley Cyrus,” which the singer acknowledged was an unfortunate naming coincidence.
There was fun with metal pipe and maracas, with a meandering bass line: the kind of stuff that makes you want to sway in your chair and tell your friends what you really think. Overall, from this group we saw exploratory yet efficient arrangements that were executed well. There were thrown into the mix interesting scales and contrasts of weird slow parts with fast parts. The group was less dark than I had remembered hearing from them, but definitely were on the “dark side of the force,” as one might feel in the bones of the blues, like from Howlin’ Wolf. The last song had an introspective acoustic introduction as the final band impatiently set up their expensive looking professional photography equipment, but Jimmy Page on the cello continued to work the crowd. Moreover, our full pedalboard guitar player added cleanliness and modern legitimacy to an old fashioned band.
Every time I’ve seen the Swallows, it has been an intimate show. I loved the arrangements, and even better, my wife enjoyed the music, too. I think being able to appeal to all genders is the cornerstone of what makes a good band a great one. What makes them stand out in a field of indie rock, blues, roots, singer-songwriters and metal is that these guys manage to be quiet without being tedious and loud and driving without being bland.
The Swallows are like dinosaurs left over from an era when guitars mattered, people cared about music, and there was a chance of a five-piece band making it big based on their merits. On Thursday, I saw this band that knew its music was fantastic playing to an audience that has simply been oversaturated with music. There are so many people trying to make quality music that the air in Minneapolis, and probably the entire country, is completely stifled. But this group plays tightly together and really has a good ear for catchy hooks, while also providing cool rhythmic and tonal material for those of us who are really listening. The group hasn’t completely changed from folk-y to blues rock, but when you have two guitar players that’s likely to happen. A sad change, but a necessary progression.
I do need to see the lead guitar player, Tyson Allison, step it up. I think he has good taste in the melodies he’s fusing with the songs and I do think he’s contributing, but I’d like to see more David Gilmour from him—taking the spotlight to drop in a few well-placed emotional notes and then knowing when to be silent. His vocal harmonies were all on pitch and quite pleasant, but occasionally his lead lines seemed more meandering like he was trying to keep up with the rest of the crew instead of getting down into the jam. I would also like to see more dual percussion attack from the utility player and the drummer.
This is a viable band idea featuring a strong, dynamic rhythm section and two excellent guitar players. The Swallows have a strong lead singer accompanied by really fun clunky percussion and jazz-influenced bass playing.They would beat the snot out of most bands I’ve seen at the Roots Rock and Deep Blues festival or at Grand Old Day.
Licensed professional and poet extraordinaire