The most striking thing about Mike Hadreas’ live presence isn’t that his voice and music somehow sound less desolate stripped of the background buzz and crackle of his recordings as Perfume Genius (even with an extra warble apparent tonight, due to a “case of SARS” picked up in Vegas). It’s not even the presence of Alan Whitefold on backing vocals and synthesizer, given how hard it is not to think of Perfume Genius as an intensely solitary thing. It’s the way that, at least once a line, Hadreas has to almost force the words out of the side of his mouth. This is music that dwells on what simultaneously must and cannot be said; and while Hadreas is charming and funny between songs, once the music starts Hadreas and Whitefold seem to ignore the audience, gazes either bent to their keyboards or locked on the other musician, looking for cues.
A sensationalistic take on Perfume Genius would probably focus on things like the song about a pedophile math teacher (the powerful, closely-observed “Mr. Peterson”) and lines like “no one will answer your prayers until you take off that dress” (in “Learning”), but that focus doesn’t do justice to the full scope of Perfume Genius’ virtues. “Mr. Peterson” ends with the line “I hope there’s room for you up above, or down below,” and Hadreas sings it with a complete lack of either approval or bitterness; the sound of a man who’s moved past rationalizing away or being crushed by what happened. And “Learning” also contains what might be the most telling line Perfume Genius has produced yet; when Hadreas sings “and you will learn to survive me,” not only is it impossible to tell whether he is “you” or “me” (or both), but the line is imbued with a gentle, hopeful quality.
Perfume Genius’ music is ultimately less about the horrifying things that lurk in the background of these songs, and more about the inescapable, beautiful fact of survival. Telling the story of what happened to you, after all, can’t be done if you’re not there to tell it. Especially live, with Hadreas right in front of you, there’s a quiet joy and humanity to these songs presented simply and quietly, just two men playing keyboards and Hadreas’ high, clear voice. The only minor shortfall of Perfume Genius’ live show is that the densely pulsing “Gay Angels” and “No Problem” are too hard to reproduce live (Hadreas and Whitefold considered rendering the two as “super dramatic lip synchs”, but decided that would be too much). Even without those standout songs, the small but rapt crowd fell hard for Hadreas and Whitefold’s performance, and even if Perfume Genius had played for twice as long, they still would have wanted more.