Sensory Overload: The Black Swans

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

The Black Swans have never been known for their optimism. Something about mournful folk tunes at a snail's pace conveys ultimate despair, even when Jerry DeCicca moans about inner peace and "joyful noise."

Noel Sayre's violin playing was always a ray of light peeking through the cracks. So when the band lost Sayre, a founding member and beloved friend, to a heart attack and drowning last summer, I worried the sonic and emotional fallout might render their music irredeemably bleak.

When I encountered the Black Swans last Wednesday night in Clintonville's brightly lit Wholly Craft, darkness had not prevailed. DeCicca led his remaining bandmates - bassist Canaan Faulkner, drummer Keith Hanlon and guitarist Chris Forbes - through a set dominated by major keys, with tempos closer to a summer breeze than a death march. By Black Swans standards, it was sprightly.

In the wake of personal tragedy, they have persevered.

"There was never any talk about not continuing," DeCicca explained over the phone, adding, "There was never any talk about getting a new violin player."

Minus Sayre's fiddle, the Black Swans had to adjust their sound. But the band had already begun an intentional transformation, an effort they felt obliged to carry on.

Before he died, Sayre recorded most of his parts for the next Black Swans album, a collection of "agnostic power ballads" called Don't Blame the Stars.

"It's this concept record about being agnostic and placing your faith in music and friendships instead of a higher power," DeCicca explained. "It's kind of about how you walk and why you get out of bed when you don't have something else that you believe in, and you've just got your friends and your records and yourself."

Those ideas, conceived before Sayre's death, take on new resonance in light of the profound loss his bandmates endured. The set at Wholly Craft was full of songs from Stars, including "Blue Bayou," a song DeCicca wrote about Roy Orbison's tune of the same name.

The album, which the band hopes to release in the coming year, is part of a recent flurry of activity. Another full-length record commissioned by the St. Ives label is nearing completion and may come out first. And next month's Sunken Treasure Records is releasing a 7-inch single featuring DeCicca and Sayre's intimate recording of "Country Cookie #3."

The track is a classic Black Swans dirge that sharply contrasts the group's recent direction. These days, Forbes' delicate plucking fills the space where Sayre's fiddle once soared. But despite a brightened outlook as they soldier on, DeCicca senses a less tangible despair in his band's music.

"To me, I hear it. It's the absence of a sound. It's the absence of a friend. And how that plays out, I don't know," DeCicca said. "Nobody in the band's the same person. Because when something like that happens, nobody's going to be the same."

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