Hardly Art, Hardly Garbage: Concert Review: The Thermals & Screaming Females at Bowery Ballroom: May 28, 2013
It only seems like I’ve moved into Bowery Ballroom; it hasn’t actually happened. Though I wouldn’t complain if they let me call it home.
My third appearance in the last three weeks at the small Lower East Side venue – which might be my favorite venue in New York City – was to see Portland indie-punk trio, the Thermals, with support from New Jersey’s Screaming Females. Anyone who claims that rock music is dead simply isn’t paying attention. These two power trios rocked through two hours of sweat, noise and showmanship that would have made Jimi Hendrix proud. Rock music isn’t dead – it needs more bands like the ones playing Bowery Ballroom. Especially ones who live and breathe the music, which is what I feel when listening live to both Screaming Females and the Thermals.
My mention of Hendrix was not accidental. Watching Screaming Females’ singer and guitarist (not to mention lone female member) Marissa Paternoster was reminiscent of the images I have of Jimi. I don’t mean to compare her to Hendrix – there can be no other Jimi – but watching Paternoster play was an experience unlike any I’ve seen in person. In her black clothes and with dark hair falling over her face, it would be easy to assume that her performance would be more style than substance. You’d be very wrong. All at once Paternoster screams into her microphone with the angst of a 1990s Riot Grrrl, falls to the floor writhing like I’ve only seen Kim Gordon do, and plays extended stretches of ferocious guitar (often from that position on the ground) as if she believes she is carrying Jimi’s torch. I’m far from an expert but I knew that I was watching something special; when I searched her name this morning and discovered that this relatively obscure performer was named by Spin as the 77th best guitarist of all time (for context: one spot behind Joy Division and New Order’s Bernard Sumner!), I felt vindicated and not the least bit surprised. Here’s what Spin wrote, which I copy here to impress upon you, dear reader, one reason why it’s imperative that if you like guitar rock, you must see Screaming Females live:
Paternoster’s guitar … sounds way too massive to be wielded by any human being without superpowers and way too confident to fit comfortably within the confines of indie rock. If Sleater-Kinney joined forces with J Mascis in a New Jersey basement to channel late Black Flag and early Smashing Pumpkins, they might come up with something approximating Paternoster’s maelstroms.
And that is only part of the show. Consider that Paternoster is also the lead singer and heart and soul of the band, something that most of the artists on that list are not. The show she puts on – twitching, writhing, screaming, even spitting – is a sight to behold. And just as suddenly as she screams, she changes – between songs Paternoster is a sweet girl with a shy, delicate voice, saying things to the crowd like “I’m glad you like it” when the crowd cheers. Paternoster somehow brings to mind not only Hendrix, but this woman (also from New Jersey). Yes, if you can imagine Raj’s girlfriend on The Big Bang Theory morphing Teen Wolf-style into a mix of Jimi Hendrix and Kathleen Hanna, you might be able to imagine being at a Screaming Females show.
With the crowd in an appropriate frenzy, the Thermals were in position to blow the roof off of Bowery. When it was over, the band called the show “epic.” It was easy to understand why. Their unique brand of punk music featuring short songs with catchy hooks could have caused a riot. Twenty-two total songs, little pause for banter, non-stop jamming and jumping – that’s what you get a Thermals show. Looking to feature music off of their new album, Desperate Ground, they opened somewhat curiously – first with an unknown new song (“You Will Find Me”), followed by an older, lesser-known song off of 2006’s critically acclaimed The Body, the Blood, the Machine (“Returning to the Fold”), then another new one (“Faces Stay With Me”).
With six total albums, including one released just last month, it would be easy for the band to lose the crowd by sticking with more obscure tracks. The incredible energy of all three members of the band wouldn’t allow that to happen though. Lead singer Hutch Harris reminds me a lot of Matt & Kim’s Matt Johnson, only if Matt shredded on the guitar rather than sang bubbly indie-pop made-for-TV-hits. With their frenetic pace and contagious energy (there really is no other word), Johnson and Harris aren’t all that different – except that one sings “Daylight” and the other “Born to Kill.” Bassist Kathy Foster brings it as well, as she continuously bounces up and down and sings along to herself for each and every song, at once a band member and its most enthusiastic fan. Drummer Westin Glass gets the least opportunity to show off his extreme exuberance, but when he does he gets his money’s worth, jumping off of the stage and into the crowd when a song permitted it.
The fourth song – “It’s Trivia” – was the beginning of the epic scene. It was another Thermals song I hadn’t heard before (from their debut lo-fi album More Parts per Million), but most of the crowd clearly did and the lyrics are really easy to get swept up in.
Where the hell you wanna be?
All systems intact
The red and the black
Harris made his first foray into the crowd during Trivia, with everyone dancing around him as he still played his guitar. After making it back on stage, the band played new single “Born to Kill” and “I Might Need You to Kill” (from The Body …) back to back, as if trying to make a point. (Perhaps Harris just wants us to consider 24 hours worth of “Born to Kill” movies.) The unfamiliar “An Ear For Baby” (again from The Body …) was followed by another pair of crowd-pleasers, “How We Know” (from 2004’s Fuckin A) and “We Were Sick” (from 2009’s Now We Can See). At this stage, about halfway through the show, the moshing circle was getting larger and the amount of sweat was increasing exponentially. There would be no letdown from here on out.
The next few songs were more obscure, including two more off of Desperate Ground (“I Go Alone” and “The Sword By My Side” ), but that concluded the lesser-known portion of the evening. “Pillar of Salt” (yet another from The Body, the Blood, the Machine!) was followed by the band’s latest single, instant (and extremely loud) hit “The Sunset.” The Sunset is ear-splitting Thermals at their finest. One lyric – “Now I feel free to kill!” – fit the motif of the band and the evening. The frenzy at Bowery was now a contained delirium, with person after person surfing the crowd and many (not one, not two, many) climbing up on stage to dive off into the bedlam. Several songs ago security had become a presence on stage for the duration of the show, but even the amiable security guard recognized that this was a friendly, if overly-excited, crowd. This was a fireworks show, not a powder keg. The band launched into their catchiest hit, “Now We Can See,” and there wasn’t a person in attendance who didn’t sing along. From that point on they played three more songs, and though at this point it wouldn’t have mattered what they played, I’ll mention that it was “Here’s Your Future” (from The Body …), “Born Dead” (from More Parts per Million), and (I think) “The Howl of the Winds” (from Desperate Ground).
Hutch, Foster and Glass walked off the stage, high fiving everyone they could get a hand out to, and the crowd screamed for “one more song.” Of course, the band did more than just oblige. Though they weren’t on the original set list, the Thermals played two amazing songs as an encore. First was “I Don’t Believe You” (from my favorite Thermals album, Personal Life). The bedlam in Bowery continued as if it had never paused, stage diving and crowd surfing continued, and I couldn’t imagine a better closing song. They topped it though by playing their first ever single, “No Culture Icons.” Once again, Hutch may have been trying to make a point, this time with the song’s famous refrain: “Hardly art, hardly garbage.”
After the final song, Foster and Glass both hung around a bit to talk to admiring fans. This is a band that understands its place in the music world. With a sixth album out, on their third record label and now ten years having passed since their debut, the Thermals are not going to change the world. The same can be said for Screaming Females, who haven’t been around the block quite as many times but did debut in 2005 and have released five albums themselves. Unlike Vampire Weekend, neither band is going to reach #1 on the charts. Unlike the National and Phoenix, neither is going to play the Barclays Center anytime soon. And unlike the Strokes or the White Stripes, neither is likely to be cited as the band that brought back guitar rock. These are just a couple of kick-ass bands who entertain their fans, work hard at what they do and seem to genuinely enjoy every minute of it. Making the Bowery Ballroom shake on a Tuesday night in May is just as important to the music landscape as selling out the Barclays, or at least these bands make you feel that way. It may not be art, but it’s definitely not garbage.
PS I had a chance to meet and talk to Marissa Paternoster after the show and she was an absolute delight. I would have written about how much I liked her performance even had she not been sweet and funny and shown me pictures of her handsome cat Earl. So much angst on stage, so much sweetness off. I asked her how she could be so different on stage; she said it was the clothes. Marissa, if you’re reading this, I pray that Earl lives forever.
 Last week was Stones Fest (review here). Two weeks ago Mudhoney (review here).
 Unfortunately I missed the first opening act, Hop Along.