Out of the many alternative rock bands of the 1990s that have reunited over the last couple of years, Swervedriver might be the one that most deserves a reappraisal. The band had a distinctive sound, one that fused the ethereal textures of shoegaze with the heavy riffs and hard rhythms of grunge. They’re also one of the few shoegaze bands to have lyrics that are both intelligible and good; listen to the heartbroken revenge fantasy “Last Train to Satansville”, from their second album Mezcal Head, for proof. The band’s discography is a model of consistency: Four albums that ranged from good to amazing, interspersed with various singles and EPs of often-higher quality. Unfortunately, Swervedriver may have also been one of the decade’s least lucky bands. They went through two bassists, two drummers, and three record labels before going on a well-earned hiatus in 1999. All of their records, save for 2005’s double-disc compilation Juggernaut Rides, are out of print.
When Swervedriver announced last fall that they would reunite for a world tour, I was a bit shocked. It seemed almost masochistic of them to do this after the calamities that befell them during the previous decade. That didn’t stop me from awaiting their Austin show with bated breath. I was first exposed to their music 10 years ago, when they released their final album, the criminally underrated (even front man Adam Franklin unfairly slates it) 99th Dream. Unfortunately, I didn’t live in a major city at the time, I was too young to go to shows, and the band was on its way out anyway. As Franklin said in an interview before their performance at this year’s Coachella: “This time around it’s 10 years on, and the people who saw us ten years ago would love to see us again, and a bunch of people have sprung up in the interim—it could be a good time!” Accuse them of cashing in on nostalgia if you want to, but I thank them for giving me a chance to see what I missed the first time around.
I also have to thank whoever was responsible for booking the opening acts, because they couldn’t have been more appropriate. Between the quintessential shoegaze of local quartet Ringo Deathstarr and the equally quintessential grunge of Scottish quartet Terra Diablo, the poles of Swervedriver’s sound were outlined to the audience before they even walked on stage.
I’m pretty sure you could break every Ringo Deathstarr song down into separate components using various My Bloody Valentine songs. For instance, the appropriately named “Swirly” equals the guitars and vocals from “Slow” plus the bass line from “I Can See It (But I Can’t Feel It)” with drums culled from “Only Shallow”. Still, criticizing a shoegaze band for being unoriginal is pointless, especially when the mimicry is done this well. The guitars made me woozy, the bass lines (which were played by a woman who looked almost exactly like Anne Hathaway) made my chest vibrate, and the songs lingered in my head long after front man Elliott Frazier ended the set by slamming his Fender guitar on the floor.
Initially, Terra Diablo’s set was inauspicious, sounding like any number of bands with detuned guitars and raspy singers that Geffen—in its shameless attempts to release Nirvana’s Nevermind over and over again—signed in the mid-‘90s. It took a turn for the better, though, when the band launched into a convincing cover of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”. After that, Terra Diablo played a few more originals that were exponentially better than the ones that they started with. These songs experimented with odd meters and Middle Eastern scales; bold moves for a band that’s still finding its feet stylistically.
Swervedriver’s set exceeded all expectations. It amazed me how close the band came to replicating the densely layered arrangements on their records. Guitarists Franklin and Jimmy Hartridge were masters of synergistic guitar interplay, blurring the distinction between rhythm and lead, stepping on their pedals to change textures with the same frequency that most bands switch from verses to choruses. Bassist Steve George and drummer Jez Hindmarsh were slightly less flashy live than they were on record, but they compensated with power and dynamics. They accelerated “Son of Mustang Ford” to a tempo that would make many other bands careen into a wall, and decelerated “Deep Seat” and “Duress” to tempos that seemed to make time stop. Franklin’s singing was flawless, the sole exception occurring when he stopped during the last verse of “Rave Down” after accidentally getting hit in the face with the microphone. Needless to say, the front row lost its marbles when the band played that song, which was arguably the closest they ever came to a hit.
Although Franklin’s banter was limited to the occasional “thank you,” and his band mates did very little moving around on stage, at no point did Swervedriver look bored. Instead, they seemed imperturbable, content to simply bask in the audience’s appreciation. When Franklin lost his guitar strap during the intro of “Son of Mustang Ford”, his facial expression didn’t change a bit. He just connected the strap back on, and waited until the first verse to start playing again. It wasn’t as if the music was any less loud without him!
If there are any complaints to be made about Swervedriver’s set, it’s that it leaned a little too heavily on their earlier work. Out of the 17 songs they played, 10 were from their first two albums, Raise and Mezcal Head. As great as those albums are, another song or two from 99th Dream or Ejector Seat Reservation wouldn’t have hurt. Still, the band paid lip service to train-spotters like myself by throwing in two excellent B-sides (“Juggernaut Rides” and “Kill the Superheroes”). If any more evidence of their undiminished live prowess is needed, just ask my friend Leonard (guitarist of local shoegazers Honey Thief), who saw Swervedriver’s previous Austin show 10 years ago. He confessed to me that they were better this time around.