This was a rare and special event for fans of Swell, a San Francisco cult band who haunted the peripheries of '90s underground rock and gradually drifted away. It was part of a reunion tour, yes, but the inspiration for it was anything but typical. The members regrouped for a four-date West Coast trip to pay tribute to their late leader, David Freel, who passed away last year at age 64.

Fans swarmed to Madame Lou's on Saturday night from far-flung places such as Denver, Dublin, and Dubai (allegedly!). But no matter their citizenship, everyone in the venue—which was about 80% full—seemed deeply invested in this rare occurrence. 

Dubbed "Everyday Sunshine: Tribute to David Freel 1958-2022," the tour has been focusing on Swell's first four albums, which most observers consider to be their peak era, encompassing 1990's Swell through 1997's Too Many Days Without Thinking. The job of recreating Freel's deadpan vocals, cryptic lyrics, and plangent acoustic guitar playing fell to original guitarist John Dettman-Lytle, and he nailed all tasks with stoic zeal—while using Freel's old axe. Bassist Monte Vallier (now living in Seattle) locked in with OG drummer Sean Kirkpatrick for surprisingly robust and occasionally funky grooves (for a psych-rock group). Veteran touring lead guitarist Niko Wenner—who also plays in Oxbow—doubled on keyboards and reveled in these '90s vintage tunes that sounded timeless and moving, as they homaged a gifted songwriter who never received the accolades he deserved. Even releasing their masterpiece, 41, on Rick Rubin's (Def) American label did not help Swell to break through to the masses. 

Maybe that's down to Swell's odd combination of melancholy and bliss, qualities that toggle frequently within individual songs, leaving listeners feeling a complex and engrossing ambiguity. It's hard for a record company to market that. Before launching into "Love You All," Vallier said, "In show business, sometimes you gotta put up with the good and really enjoy the bad," an axiom that summarized Swell's perverse approach to psychedelia, which, at its best, is as tinged with regret as it is majestically escapist. 

In "Love You All," Wenner's electric guitar skree contrasted with Dettman's steady-state acoustic guitar strums, a striking counterpoint that recurs throughout Swell's rich catalog. "At Long Last," a highlight from 1992's ...Well?,  spotlighted Swell's knack for combining easygoing lugubriousness with wrenching ecstasy. "Everything" showcased the ease with which Swell can shift from slanted folk to steely rock, and from the strange to the familiar. As a bonus, the spasmodically funky rhythm recalled Opal's "Rocket Machine." 

Blessedly, Swell performed one of their towering peaks, "Forget About Jesus," which features Freel's most memorable line: "Thank god for sin to show the way." Unfortunately, Wenner's keyboard part didn't quite soar with the grandeur of the recorded version, but that was one of only a couple of letdowns in Swell's 80-minute set.

Kirkpatrick left his drum stool to announce that "What I Always Wanted" was the last song that he, Vallier, and Freel wrote together, and it epitomized Sean's feelings about his deceased bandmate. What ensued was tense, martial rock with mesmerizing guitar chimes that featured the lines "Now I'm failing to come down/What I always wanted." The sentiment foreshadowed another crucial Swell tune, "Get High," which they performed during the three-song encore. "Get High" found the band paradoxically at their slackest and most sublime. It's a stoner's spiritual and it artfully eluded the potential corniness implied by the title. 

The last track before the encore, "Sunshine, Everyday," ("A very special song for all of us," said Vallier) was a beautifully somber ballad radiating an indomitable will to optimism against the odds; it came off as a mantra of hope, even amid its melancholy gravitas.

With news from the stage of a 30th-anniversary reissue of 41 and another tour slated for September, Swell gave us some good reasons to keep on living through 2024.

Opening the show were Seattle quartet somesurprises, who now include Benjamin Thomas-Kennedy (Fungal Abyss, [blouseusa], Shitty Person, etc.) on drums, in place of Nico Sophiea. Led by guitarist/vocalist Natasha El-Sergany and guitarist/keyboardist Josh Medina, and bolstered by the supple bass lines of Laura Seniow, somesurprises began with the ice-water soul of "Empty Threat" from their self-titled 2019 album, which shimmered and "oooo"ed like a sedated Galaxie 500. 

A song destined for their forthcoming album Perseids (out in April 2024 on LA label Doom Trip), "Be Reasonable" iridescently glided, whispering of endless motion and liberation, as Medina brought measured abrasion on guitar and cyclical hypnosis on keyboards. "High Rise" remained an incredible highlight of somesurprises' live experience: one moment you feel as if you're sinking in molasses quicksand, the next you're zooming down the Autobahn in an ecstatic, clangorous chug.

The group's love of Neu!'s efficient, elated propulsion came to the fore in "Cherry Sunshine," which kept on building and building into cascades of krautrockin' gold. Clearly, somesurprises' dynamics are becoming sharper as they go, with the songs' transitions moving from lunar glow to sunburst ascension with utmost smoothness. It's a trick that never fails to induce euphoria—a product desperately needed in these hellish times. 


01 Love You All

02 At Long Last

03 Don't Give

04 Everything 

05 Forget About Jesus 

06 What I Always Wanted

07 Down 

08 Suicide Machine 

09 Smile My Friend

10 Song Seven

11 Kinda Stoned 

12 It's Okay 

13 Sunshine, Everyday 


14 Is That Important?

15 Get High 

16 Bridgette, You Love Me