Counterflows is an innovative new festival taking place simultaneously in three cities, Glasgow, London and Berlin, celebrating underground and experimental music. While Clash would have loved to have gone to Berlin to see it, we can think of no finer venue for Glasgow’s opening night, a Good Friday, than the gorgeous, 18th century church St Andrews in the Square, and its heavenly acoustics.
Arriving in time to see Grouper, initially with a couple of other musicians lending a drone support, then drifting offstage to leave us alone with Liz Harris. She accompanies herself on guitar and keyboards, using her vocals almost as an instrument. Liz has fans in high places (she’s toured with the Animal Collective), but having seen a lot of fragile young women playing by themselves in a post-Fennesz electroacoustic haze, it’s hard to see where she really stands out from the pack. That is until her closing piece where she doesn’t sing. It provides a shoegazey pulsing drone which goes perfectly with the light projection to create an atmosphere that’s nothing short of magical.
Church is a perfect setting in which to witness Michael Gira. Creator of some of the most intense, darkly poetic music ever to emerge from the States, he inspires a devotional following from the musicians and fans he has influenced over the decades. Without the pummeling percussion of his regular band Swans, here he is solo and dressed like a Southern gentleman, complete with cowboy hat. Armed with just an acoustic guitar, he opens with ‘Jim’ from the last Swans album, and soon announces “no more hits” with some irony, as he meanders through some of the Swans back catalogue. ‘Blind’ is revealed as one of the greatest songs ever written about the foolishness of youth; indeed, without the overwrought excess of the band, the songs just stand as exactly what they are; great songs. However, Gira, reverbed to the max, still manages to create a more intense, richer sound, than we’ve ever seen from a single acoustic performer, helped by the space’s great acoustics. Ed Sheeran would shit himself.
While he might come across as some demented character form a Flannery O’Connor novel, or a Nick Cave song, in person he is avuncular. He’s obviously enjoying himself, whether getting boys to bring him JDs on stage, or telling the audience that he shares their lack of enthusiasm for their city. He ends with ‘My Brother’s Man’, and no encore, but this gig has been so intense, so spiritual even, that nobody feels shortchanged. It’s hard not to feel that, while we may have been too young to see the likes of Johnny Cash, Michael Gira is his equal in every measure. Just considerably darker than the Man in Black.
Words by Brian Beadie
Photo by David Graham Scott