The Union, Athens, Ohio – September 29, 2017
As ever, Screaming Females have me at a distinct disadvantage. In the immediate wake of their whirlwind show at Athens, Ohio’s delightfully cozy college strip bar (not the kind you’re thinking) The Union, I was struck with two immediate feelings, both conflicting and complimentary: that I could well spend the rest of my lifetime and never quite fully figure this band out, and that the effort expended might somehow still be worth it. For a little less than a jam-packed hour, I was so engaged by the music I was experiencing, I was damn near mesmerized. When it was over, suddenly and with zero ceremony, it fell on me to collect myself for the walk back to my car and to take stock of what I’d seen – the high points, the disappointments, the might’ve-beens, the oh-my-gods. Technically, my list of complaints from a purely selfish perspective should’ve been robust, but the truth is that, both in that moment and this one, writing on four hours sleep on a picture perfect still Saturday morning, I honestly couldn’t care less. From my perch at the immediate front, stage center-right, so close I could tap out their insistent beats in tandem on one of Marissa Paternoster’s two monitors, the band felt at once fluid, nailing their signature caterwauling guitar and bass interplay with nary a dip in output or concern registered for potentially dangerous altitude, flawless, with nary a misplaced note or intention unfulfilled, and deliriously alive, an instrument-punishing, headlong adrenal rush shabbily but winningly disguised as a standard-issue indie-punk power trio.
Even that last descriptor belies an important takeaway, if not a crucial distinction: there is nothing the least bit standard about Screaming Females. I’ve written at length, of course, and on multiple occasions about the fractured soul of the modern music industry, how its aimless diversity redefines success in unfairly reductive, though possibly personally liberating, terms, putting every new mom and pop outfit into a neat little box right out of the gate, while it seems only the most vapid pop confections or brainless club bangers have a prayer of wider breakthrough. I’ve been both an observer and a consumer of music long enough to see startling sea changes in my time, trends both coming to fruition and breaking against the rocks, with many more simply petering out, and, though it’s probably just as attributable to age – for I was surely among the elder statesmen in the Union crowd Friday – today’s climate depresses me on the whole much more than it inspires me. As fonts of renewal, I have, with not a small amount of desperation, seized upon underground metal and indie rock as my buoys against a whipping, patently unfriendly, sonic current. In these twin realms, so outwardly disparate, artists have the implicit freedom to both be and find themselves with minimal penalty for nonconformity, provided they can deliver the goods. As a well-wisher who evolved into a fan and then into an avid one, I felt myself excited and generally prepared for what Screaming Females might produce in a live setting. In retrospect, I sold them exceedingly short.
“When I was born,” explained brilliant stand-up jokesmith Emo Philips once, “they threw away the mold… though some of it grew back.” I search for fitting analogues to Screaming Females’ explosive brand of full throttle garage punk and tend to come up with thin air. I’ve heard this sound before, obviously, from bands whose commitment to the act was borderline scary, though rarely done so well. Much of my issue is that I am unfashionably late to this party. This isn’t a particularly novel look for me. So many of my favorite artists lately had full to medium careers already in the rearview before I graced their respective bandwagons with my presence. I’ve gone from having my finger pretty appreciably on the pulse of new music to searching in vain for any signs of life, but, once a worthy target is finally acquired, my enthusiasm remains comparable to the me of a decade or two ago. My front-center-right night at the Union was certainly something akin to time travel, in that way that almost nothing but good music can provide. The rest of my issue is that I am only truly familiar with the Females’ recent catalogue, namely 2012’s sprawling Ugly and 2015’s by turns monstrous and majestic Rose Mountain, which ended the year at #12 in my countdown but never really left my headphones and would likely be a solid top five on a redo. The progression from the former album to the latter, with snaky, post-Sleater-Kinney workouts yielding to precision riff demons like the cutting “Ripe”, the arresting “Criminal Image”, and the towering “Triumph”, felt profound. The sneaky little so-and-sos just kind of lingered in my consciousness, wearing away at my defenses with an incredible mixture of songwriting craft and fuzzy, low-fi toothiness until they finally, improbably, became one of my very favorite bands going.
At first, second, and, probably, third glance, the New Jersey trio hardly lives up to the drama inherent in their ear-grabbing moniker. They’re a truly odd lot of apparent loose ends – drummer Jared Dougherty rocks an aqua paisley hippie shirt tonight, looking for all the world like someone recklessly tried to apply the term “rugged” to R.E.M.’s Mike Mills; hulking bassist King Mike, with his curly, shaggy mane of hair, makes a striking visual contrast to singer/guitarist Paternoster, who, in her trademark black half-sleeve button-up dress and hosiery with one prominent run, seems to be the very picture of diminutiveness. Then they start playing, and all hell breaks loose. Dougherty is a subtly tasteful indie drummer with an array of powerful extra gears – ranging from Berry to Weiss to full-on Nirvana Grohl – at his disposal, and King Mike is a forceful and fairly exquisite bassist, fortifying and embellishing the backbeat expertly, regardless of what tempo it’s played. A scant three feet in front of me, the textbook unassuming Paternoster explodes intermittently into the Screaming Female of her namesake*, which would itself be terribly fascinating as a happy counterweight to the toxicity of first impressions if not for the fact that she is also a bona fide guitar goddess. Marissa Paternoster is far and away the best guitarist in indie rock that I’m aware of – dexterous, adventurous, simultaneously loose and disarmingly technical. I’m well aware of how limiting such a designation might seem, but you’ll remember that, as a metal fan, effusive praise for such guitar-slinging prowess is both hard-earned and practically marinated in real world context. Honestly, the sky is her limit. The stage is her playground.
*By contrast, Paternoster’s inside voice is so slight it barely registers, with ultra-reserved stage patter that sounds like forced community service instead of any attempt at traditional audience engagement. This isn’t a criticism, by the way. I honestly found it charming, though by the third time she thanked the crowd and the openers and reiterated that it was their first time in Athens, the bloom was definitely off the rose. So what if she’s not a “rock star”? Especially since she’s such a frigging no-quotes-necessary rock star.
Watching Paternoster rip out a smorgasbord of blistering solos and clever riffs is the best kind of sport for this spectator, even as the set – as I would learn later from a fellow traveler – leaned heavily on the Females’ apparently sub-light-speed second album, What if Someone is Watching Their TV? Who knows, honestly? The Females’ recent history on invaluable songtracking website setlist.fm is an apocalyptic wasteland of incomplete and M.I.A. recaps, and was no help whatsoever to this review. Oh well, I’ll have to look smart some other time. The lack of familiar material hardly put a dent in my overall enjoyment, such was the band’s visceral impact and the sheer pleasure of head-banging participation. When the set finally opened up to include Rose Mountain sleeper “Wishing Well”, I perked up even more, and was eventually rewarded with a spectacular version of “Triumph”. That song is such a magnificent sustained build, with Mike’s loping bassline barely containing the accumulated tension of Paternoster’s vocals before erupting into a chorus that, yes, probably could best be described as triumphant. It was just that kind of night, short though it may have been. Athens, Ohio treated me well on my maiden voyage. I got to visit local institution Jackie O’s Brewpub, engage in some varsity-level people watching, and soak up the buzzing campus color. And, almost a year to the day after I shamefully hemmed, hawed, and waffled my way out of seeing Screaming Females in my hometown, I finally got to right the wrong.
What I was able to piece together from setlist.fm is that the Females draw liberally from all six of their studio releases when constructing a set, and that on any given night you’re liable to both see something special and something you wouldn’t have expected, perhaps simultaneously. That intrigues me preemptively, and I’ll definitely be back for another round when the chance arises. I’m sure I’ll get to hear “Ripe” someday, and “Criminal Image”, and “Empty Head”, and maybe even the lovely “Hopeless”, which has been lodged in my head lately at particularly melancholy moments of the type this show on this night had rightly little time for. Maybe I’ll even get back to The Union for the reunion, have an obscure pint downstairs and then head up to the show. I’ll make a beeline for my position right down front, at stage center-right. And I’ll watch this tiny indie-waif stereotype spontaneously transform into a troubadour-gunslinger, flanked on either side by a bank of seven different distortion pedals and her fireball band, and do another lot of something special. They say the stage just brings it out of certain people, and as someone with a storied history of watching those certain people shine, I’m grateful. Marissa’s black guitar is embossed with the word “Paternoster”, as if it were a guitar type all its own, like a “Stratocaster”, say. Maybe one day it’ll be a true brand name. I already know it should.