When word circulated in early July that Richard Swift had died in Tacoma, Washington, where he had been receiving treatment for a then undisclosed illness, the music community responded with stunned sadness, and not just because he was only 41. The multi-instrumentalist/producer was such a ubiquitous presence in indie-rock and Americana circles that his absence was almost unthinkable. This was the versatile artist who played bass with the Black Keys and keyboards with the Shins; the producer of Jessie Baylin, Foxygen, Gardens & Villa, Guster, Valerie June, Damien Jurado, Pure Bathing Culture, and Nathaniel Rateliff, among others; the unsettlingly prolific songwriter and arranger who assayed all the parts of a Motown-emulating band on his single “Lady Luck” (from his splendid 2009 album “The Atlantic Ocean”); the truly independent solo artist who opted to live with his family and produce from his own studio in small town Oregon rather than chase corporate success. His looming absence was too depressing to contemplate.
When Swift’s family issued a statement revealing Swift’s alcohol addiction as the cause of his death, it wasn’t wholly unexpected. But the finality of that news weighed heavily on those who’d been lifted up by his buoyant pop melodies and adventurous creativity.
Next Thursday, Dec. 13, at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever, friends are gathering to pay tribute to Swift by performing his final album, “The Hex,” in it entirety. The event is a benefit for his family. At press time the list of artists scheduled to pay tribute included Cold War Kids, James Mercer, Damien Jurado, Lucius, Foxygen’s Sam France and Jonathan Rado, Gardens & Villa, Pure Bathing Culture, Mynabirds, Fruit Bats, Eric Slick, Harley Cortez, and hosts Time Heidecker and Nick Thune.
Digitally released by Secretly Canadian in September, “The Hex” is a beautifully layered piece of work. Tracks like the dreamy title tune and the instrumental “HZLWD” wash over the ears like a warm bath of nostalgia, while “Dirty Jim” ruefully references his addiction over a hopeful piano melody and “Wendy” quotes “Da Doo Ron Ron” and incorporates gospel-y handclaps and baptismal allusions in memory of his mother. Intimacy with anxiety and depression isn’t necessary for composers to craft songs that lift the spirit, but Swift’s familiarity with darkness makes the songs more believable. The soulful “Broken Finger Blues,” the most melodically beautiful track, echoes a memorable Shondells riff and backs Swift’s falsetto croon with ’60s-style harmonies, but that sweetness is cut by the piercing sadness of his lyric:
“When you call/ Call my name/ I need a shelter, I need a friend/ Someone to hold me, to lend a hand/ I fell on hard times, I lost the plot/ No understanding the pain I got.”
A Tribute to Richard Swift at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, at 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 13; tickets are $45 and available at hollywoodforever.ticketfly.com. Doors open 7 p.m. Info: (323) 469-1181. Richardswift.us