Swaying But Not Quite Swayed Sway Machine In Concert At NMAJH

The music group The Sway Machine made its Philadelphia debut the evening of September 20, 2012, at the National Museum of American Jewish History, performing a cycle of songs titled “Hidden Melodies Revealed,” which the group describes as “a secret celebration of Rosh HaShanah.” For this Philadelphia performance, The Sway Machine was Jeremiah Lockwood (guitar, vocals, composition/storytelling), John Bollinger (drums), Stuart Bogie (tenor sax), Jordan McLean (trumpet), and Nikhil Yerawadekar (electric bass). Each of these musicians is a prolific performer and collaborator, with each other and with many another group. The group’s ‘sound’, its ideal to which it is attuned and its traditional referential of origin, is a confluence and combination of various, call them, lineages of music: Klezmer, Jewish cantorial music (Jeremiah Lockwood is the grandson of cantor Jacob Konigsberg), the music of Mali guitarist, singer, and composer Ali Farka Toure, to name just these.
“Sway” is related to “swing,” without which, as we know, any music absent its presence “don’t mean a thing.” And the music of The Sway Machine is meant to mean, intensively and exponentially.

The Sway Machine, like the millennial Jewish people, has a story to tell “that is both of the moment and beyond the ability of history to contain.”  Time itself, or what may better be qualified as the Jewish notion and experience of Time, and what the writer Bruno Schulz called “that Great Eccentric,” is precisely this: “beyond the ability of history [whether personal or social and collective] to contain”.  It is — or, in principal, can be, this experience of Time into which Rosh HaShanah immerses us, and in which otherwise hidden possibilities of ‘return’ (teshuvah), of Bereshit, of Beginning and, therefore more popularly, of “renewal,”  disclose themselves, whether in study and prayer, vesseled by the word, or melodically in sound and song.   We might dare to say, then, that Rosh HaShanah is the “swing” or the “sway” of Time; a “secret” alluded to in Jewish tradition’s remembrance of Rosh HaShanah as the anniversary of the ‘creation of the world’ and, in particular, of the ‘creation of the human being’.  For The Sway Machine, we may assume, the “secret” of Rosh HaShanah is, or calls forth, the “secret” of their own proclaimed music celebration.  

“The music of The Sway Machinery invites the listener to become like children wandering in the forest, discovering something mythic and wonderful,” the group’s website states.  Perhaps, intentionally, there is an allusion in this statement to the two children, a girl, a boy, in Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav’s story “The Seven Beggars”, who, after an unexplained cataclysm, are lost in a forest.  In this story, the secrets of certain melodies possess a healing and revelatory power.  However, if The Sway Machinery’s audience, is, during a concert, to become like children, open to ‘melody revealed,’ and to discover the mythic and wonderful, the music itself must be heard in a child-like manner, as one hears, in an attitude of reception — of kabbalat, but also with the bold soul-assertion of being unbound in Time, the uninhibited, unimpeded voice of the Cantor or the voice of the Shofar.  “A bird of the air shall carry the Voice,” says Kohelet, “and what has wings shall tell of it.”   Which, by a slight-of-transposition, makes the sound system for such a concert a ‘vessel’ of the music’s essential “sway” and, in this instance, of Rosh HaShanah’s ‘secret swing,’; that is, as was said, of its melodic passageways into its own originative realm of Time.

Unfortunately, for its Philadelphia debut, the ‘voice’ of The Sway Machine did not carry, and had not the wings to tell of the “secret” which it, and its melodies, had come to convey.  Due to a seeming lack of an adequate sound-check and a, frankly, atrocioius sound mix, the group sounded like a cover-band of its own music.  Specifically, for the room and acoustics of the performance venue, the bass was much too loud, droning and humming and engulfing the voice and register of Jeremiah Lockwood’s lead singing (all the more frustrating to listeners, as much of the songs’ words are in Hebrew); while the two horn players could not decide at what distance from the microphone to position themselves, often producing a muddied indistinct sound, made more of a blare when combined with the indistinct guitar sound with its chords buried in the drone and blare.  

Which is to be much regretted.  When one listens to recordings of the same songs (available on the group’s website) — voice and instruments, if not clarion at least well mixed, one hears something of what The Sway Machine intended to transmit, but which, on this night of memorial Time and Memory, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the sound system, a machine without sway, prevented.  

In this regard, The Sway Machine still awaits a Philadelphia debut adequate and equal to their music and musicianship, and to the “secret” of Rosh HaShanah they profess to convey in the music they play.  

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