I’ve tried to write this piece without focusing on—or, ideally, even mentioning—gender, but it just doesn’t work. The truth is, you can’t attend one of the barnburner sets on this Screaming Females/Waxahatchee tour without noting that these bands, two of the best rock bands going in 2013, are fronted by women and, at least in Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom, are bringing out a more female-dominated crowd that at your usual indie rock show. What I mean is: I would like to exist in a world where the fact of women excelling in a traditionally, maddeningly male-centric scene would be a matter of course and not worth the breath it takes to remark on it. But, even in the ostensibly progressive world of indie rock and its politics, the conversation is dominated by men, both onstage and off.
Let’s have at it, then: Screaming Females’s Marissa Paternoster and Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield are writing some of the sharpest, most evocative rock music in the world. Cheeringly, they’re also becoming increasingly recognized, by fans and critics alike, as two writers at the top of the game. By touring together, they’re giving audiences an implicit reminder that, yeah, you’re used to seeing dudes at the mic and behind a guitar, and though rock music might remain in the popular imagination as the provenance of self-concerned men in leather jackets and tight jeans, it’s worth re-imagining the notion of a rock star.
About those dudes in leather and skinny denim: I’m sure Wisconsin’s Tenement is a fine band in its own right, its fuzzed-out punk revivalism matched nicely with Amos Pitsch’s classic rock shredding, but the trio’s opening slot on this tour doesn’t serve it particularly well. Tenement’s songs—elemental, stripped bursts of hardcore’s scuzz mixed with power pop’s lightness—are excellent specimens of a certain type of songwriting. But paired with Screaming Females’s inventive dynamics and unstoppable momentum and Waxahatchee’s razor-sharp lyrics and intuitive melodies, Tenement seemed nothing more than a few dudes with serious chops going through the noise pop motions. Expertly, yes, but there’s only so much one can do with such a well-trod, limited formula. There were highs: when Pitsch finished the set with a smoldering, screeching guitar solo, the improvisation brought a life to his band’s set unseen in its workmanlike beginnings. Still, I couldn’t shake the sense that this type of rock music—Pitsch’s quick soloing and generic rock uniform could have him switch places with either Black Key without that band’s audience blinking an eye—is the type typically rewarded with screaming crowds and headlining spots (and, it’s worth noting, the only rudeness in the audience came with Tenement’s set, dudes rushing into the crowd to pogo and shove, more routinized punk behavior, as boring now as it was ten years ago). Perhaps it would’ve been different in another setting, but on this bill, they seemed retrograde, the embodiment of indie rock’s tired machismo.
It must be nice to be one of the two men in Screaming Females. When Marissa Paternoster is onstage, she’s a whirling vortex of awesome, such an immensely captivating and talented performer that the people backing her on drums and bass could do whatever they liked—play naked, drum upside-down, cure cancer during a bass solo—and the audience would still likely pay them no attention at all. That kind of anonymity is hard to come by. Paternoster, as a frontwoman, is the stuff of rock dreams: an intensely physical performer, her contortions turn the stage into the scene of a punk ballet, though she never seems anything less than completely poised while wailing in her unmistakable vibrato and pealing off insane, firestarter riffs. Hearing it on record is one thing (please hear it on record), but seeing her fingers storming the neck of a guitar is entirely another. It’s worth noting that, for whatever reason, the pit during Screaming Females’s set was respectful and effusive in a way entirely different from the machismo of the pit during Tenement’s set. And not for lack of energy: Paternoster and her band held the crowd in the palm of a sweat-slick hand the entire time, a joyous riot of energy in the best spirit of punk rock and the communal feeling the genre can instill within a room. This is the sort of band to follow from city to city in an ancient minivan. Let me know if you’re planning to drop everything to do that, and I’ll come with.
Waxahatchee headlined the evening, a swap in order from the tour’s stop in Williamsburg the previous night, and one that marked a decisive shift in the room’s energy. In a way, it was a smart move: a similar adrenaline-soaked band could try to upstage Screaming Females after that set, but I wouldn’t want to watch that band try. Katie Crutchfield amps up her songs for the bigger rooms she’s finding herself playing, a far cry from her early shows where she didn’t even mic her guitar, but Waxahatchee’s songs find their muscle in words and subtle shifts, not in Screaming Females’s theatrics or virtuoso displays. Crutchfield’s vocals were likely too low in the mix for the unfamiliar in the crowd to make out her barbs and diamond-cut observations, but she managed the transition from hushed recordings to fully-fleshed live reconstructions with ease. The tracks from American Weekend, her entirely acoustic, lo-fi Waxahatchee debut, obviously sounded different in a full-band setting, but Crutchfield reworked several songs from this year’s stellar (and my favorite record of 2013) Cerulean Salt, too. She turned the heartbreaking, perfect “Swan Dive” into a lilting waltz, the night’s best reinterpretation, while “Lips and Limbs” gained a satisfying distorted crunch. She knew to leave well enough alone with “Brother Bryan” and closer “You’re Damaged”, and they were easy highlights. I prefer the solo electric version of Weekend’s “Noccalula” she’d been pulling out on earlier tours, but its full-band version turned that track’s heartache into something of an affirmation. “And I’m going to New York,” Crutchfield sang to the city, “And I’ll be much better there.” I’m convinced to trust her.