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Girl in a Coma

(4 Dec 2011: The Casbah — San Diego, CA)

There’s been all manner of teeth gnashing about the decline of the music industry over the past few years. But when three gals from the far-flung outreaches of San Antonio can carve out a career for themselves simply by knocking out consistently strong songs and then hitting the road in their van, it shows that anything is still possible. The ladies of Girl in a Coma have been doing exactly that since their debut album dropped on Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records in 2007, and now they’re out on the road again in support of their new LP, Exits and All the Rest.

The trio have been relentless road warriors over the past four years, trekking all over the country time and time again to bring their music to the people. Singer/guitarist Nina Diaz is the ringleader, one of the most uniquely talented performers of her generation, putting the rock in “women in rock” every night. The dual threat sings with a compelling charisma that at times recalls a shamanic medicine woman harnessing the very forces of nature to her will. She also delivers guitar work that exhibits an impressive influence from the early ‘90s alt-rock revolution, something many of her male peers would do well to study as devotedly.

But Nina Diaz might not have reached her potential if she hadn’t been nurtured and set up for success by older sister Phanie Diaz on drums and friend Jenn Alva on the bass. The latter pair were looking for a singer ten years ago when then-13-year-old Nina knocked their socks off with her own original tunes. It’s been a steady progression since then as the band’s unique “Tex-Mex grunge” sound has consistently won over new fans from adoring teenagers around the country looking for musical role models to established stars like Jett, Morrissey and Dave Navarro.

The ladies of Girl in a Coma are also as down to earth as a band can be. All three are spotted hanging out at the merch booth before the show, shooting the breeze with fans and autographing various items. Phanie also chats regularly with fans on Facebook, encouraging a friendly sense of rock ‘n’ roll community. This appreciative vibe is reflected back at the band during their Sunday night set here, as a fairly packed Casbah showers the band with love after each song.

“Static Mind” from the band’s 2009 Trio B.C. album is an early highlight, with Nina delivering some great guitar sonics in one of the band’s most rocking numbers. Phanie Diaz and Alva lay down a furious rhythm, getting the crowd bouncing in unison. A new number mixes things up with a slower blues vibe but then a crunchy chorus. A tune apparently called “Texas Luck” features a hard rocking sound with Nina hitting some impressive high notes, conjuring an energy that gets the crowd clapping.

A peak moment occurs with the band’s magnificent rendition of George Harrison’s classic, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, recorded by Girl in a Coma on their 2010 LP, Adventures in Coverland. Nina demonstrates herself as one of modern rock’s greatest chameleons on the album and here she and the band re-fashion the timeless Beatles song into their own unique arrangement. They don’t just deliver a faithful rendition, but rather a new version that retains the character of the original while also making it all their own. This is the essence of a great cover, and Girl in a Coma show themselves to be consummate pros here. Nina’s vocal delivery at the end is particularly impressive, and Harrison is surely smiling down from the heavens upon hearing this gem of an arrangement.

Nina introduces the next song as the band’s “most morbid”, which turns out to be “Knocking at Your Door” from the new album. She sings some high syllables as an intro, almost as if delivering the opening notes of a ritual to conjure a séance. Alva lays down a bluesy low end as Nina sings of a character who’s “not afraid to die”.

The band shows their diverse ability to channel many moods when the romantic ballad “El Monte” is dedicated to a couple of friends who were recently married. The tune features Nina in a mostly solo mode, declaring her affections for a lover she wants to marry, while also delivering some tasty slide notes on her guitar. The band cranks it back up when they go back to their first album for “Say”, a breakthrough rocker that crackles with vitality as the crowd surges forward. Phanie Diaz crushes this tune on the drums, while Nina and Alva riff out on one of the band’s most infectious tunes.

The new “Sly” is another winner, featuring some acoustic-y riffs from Nina to open the tune, which then develops into a simmering bluesy number highlighting Nina’s torchier side. Then the new album’s lead single “Smart” utterly electrifies the Casbah. The song’s psychedelic pop sound is the closest the band has come (beyond their name) to openly showing their love for The Smiths, and the song ripples with a melodic sonic energy that is downright infectious.

If MTV were still a force in breaking young bands like it was in the ‘80s and early ‘90s,  the “Smart” video would likely elevate Girl in a Coma to a new level of stardom. As it is, the trio are content to do things the old fashioned way—writing memorable songs and touring their asses off.

Greg M. Schwartz has covered music and pop culture for PopMatters since 2006. He focuses on events coverage with a preference for guitar-driven rock 'n' roll, but has eclectic tastes for the golden age of sound that is the 21st century music scene. He has a soft spot for music with a socially conscious flavor and is also an award-winning investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @gms111, where he's always looking for tips on new bands or under the radar news items.

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