Screaming Females, Public Service Broadcasting, Black Kite Walters Downtown March 17, 2015
Tuesday night, a couple hundred miles to the west, people from all over were in Austin hoping to see the next great rock guitarist.
Too bad for them, she was right here in Houston. Her name is Marissa Paternoster and she's the diminutive front woman for New Jersey's Screaming Females. It was the band's second Houston gig in the last five months and a triumphant return to Walter's to tout the band's newest release, Rose Mountain.
As bands sweep through Houston headed for SXSW, there are going to be some interesting and exciting shows on the local calendar. Pound for pound, few shows will be able to match Tuesday's, though.
New Houston act Black Kite followed an unbilled stand-up set by Gabe Bravo. Vicki Lynn and James Templeton form the electronic duo, which reminded me of Oh Land, but with a darker tinge. The set was dramatic and well-received by a packed room. The only locals on the bill, they clearly benefited from that, but anyone who left following their set missed some diverse and exceptional music.
Another difficult-to-describe duo, South London's Public Service Broadcasting, followed, announcing during their set via pre-recorded sound bites that Houston was the kickoff city for their U.S. tour. Think Devo with only Mark Mothersbaugh and its drummer churning out dance-inducing jams focused less on ironic lyrics and more on the beat. Beneath a movie screen showing stock footage that sometimes served as vocal tracking for its infectious, beat-driven pop, they won over the audience and had it moving to boot.
Providence, R.I.'s Downtown Boys followed the electrocool with angst-riddled, unapologetic punk. Vocalist Victoria Ruiz did her vocal warm-up by singing a few lines of Selena's "Como La Flor," then abandoned all notions of the songbird with politically-charged commentary on race, patriarchy and empowerment. Backed by a tight band that featured an exceptional sax player, Adrienne Berry, they were a worthy lead-in to the show's headliners.
Anyone in attendance who'd heard of Paternoster's guitar prowess didn't have to wait long to witness it firsthand. She and bandmates Jarrett Dougherty (drums) and "King" Mike Abbate (bass), opened with a blistering version of "Starve the Beat." From there, the pace rarely slowed for the trio, which put off more energy in an hour than a stand of West Texas windmills.
They moved seamlessly from one power-song to the next, in a set that was a nod to the band's collective work since its start ten years ago. Offerings included "A New Kid," "Empty Head" (the standout opener from the new album) and "Normal." The only calm to the torrent was "Wishing Well," the melody-driven first single from Rose Mountain. It was situated in the middle of the set, like the eye of the proverbial hurricane.
If there's a single song in the Screamales repertoire that allows for comparison to past legendary guitar heroes, it might be "Skull," from 2009's Power Move. The song was a highlight in the set, which was fewer than a dozen songs long, giving Paternoster the time to fully explore what she does from fret to fret. The technical dexterity with which she handles her instrument never dulls the passion she brings to every song.
It's no slight to her rhythm section and longtime friends to rail on about her expertise on guitar, though she'd clearly deflect any accolades. She is simply astonishing to see live.
I've seen Screaming Females three times in the last year and a half and at each show, Paternoster has been retiring and shy when visiting with fans and even between songs. Last night, she was much more expressive. Unfortunately, she was also tested by someone who didn't have the good sense to keep his mouth shut long enough for the focus to remain on the music.
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About two-thirds of the way through the set, a random dudebro stood at the side of the stage and suggested Paternoster strip down. He is hardly worth mentioning, just a footnote to remind us all that with great power comes great responsibility. The power we have as show-goers at an event like this is we get up-close, within-earshot access to a talent the music universe has unanimously decreed one of the best at her craft. The responsibility we have is to not get in the way of the show, to allow artists the safety and comfort needed to give us their best. But they can't do that if you're intent on being a goddamn asshole.
Without missing a lick, Paternoster crooked her head at the moron and said, "What did you say to me?" Thereafter, she mean-mugged him so intently some of the women in the crowd -- including Downtown Boys' Ruiz -- came to the foot of the stage to crowd the guy out with maniacal dance moves. Tail planted firmly between legs, he slinked off. It was a powerful feminist moment that fueled a raging fire Screaming Females had already begun burning several songs earlier.
Personal Bias: By now, it should be evident, but if an exclamation mark is really required, let me say that anyone who stood in the shadow cast by Paternoster last night stood in the shadow of greatness.
Also, it's been thrilling to be near enough to stand in that shadow, but seriously, how does this act not have a much larger following? Admittedly, it was tougher to crowd up front this time than a scant five months ago, but it still perplexes me that the Females aren't playing larger halls everywhere.
The Crowd: It occurred to me, watching the kids in skinny jeans, dark-rimmed glasses and Adidas as they herky-jerked to Public Service Broadcasting, those Peanuts kids dancing to "Linus and Lucy" during the Christmas special truly were the first hipsters. One person wearing a Misfits tee, another in a Ramones shirt and everyone else dressed like Charlie Brown and friends.
Random Notebook Dump: All thanks to whomever booked this solid night of talent, which was a welcomed respite from green-beer-drinking hosers and the general St. Paddy's debauchery. Also, is there a nicer music person in Houston than Zack Palmer? Going to a show at Walters is a bit like stopping by a friend's house to watch world-class talent blow us away, all while Palmer genially assures you're having a good time.
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