11 Feb 2017: The Chapel San Francisco
It’s a Saturday night in San Francisco’s Mission District, where there seems to be an ever-increasing variety of entertainment options on any given weekend. There’s even more than usual on this weekend as SF Beer Week kicks off with tap takeovers all over town. But the standout event is the Let It Bleed benefit show at the Chapel, where four female-fronted bands are set to rock out in support of feminine care for San Francisco’s homeless women.
A collaboration between Sea Witch Presents and sponsors such as Conscious Period, Green Apple Books, Black Magic USA and San Franpsycho with artisan pop-up shops upstairs, the “rock ‘n’ roll tampon drive” encourages attendees to bring tampons for distribution to the homeless through Compass Family Services. The show draws a good crowd as the tampons stack up on a table at the entrance while local openers Wax Idols, Kera and the Lesbians and The Tambo Rays entertain. But the headliners come from the City of Angels in the form of Dead Sara, featuring two of modern rock’s most alluring dark angels in singer Emily Armstrong and guitarist Siouxsie Medley.
One of the most compelling bands to come out of the LA music scene in the 21st century, Dead Sara’s powerful hard rock sound won acclaim early on from the likes of Dave Grohl and Grace Slick. It’s a fitting pair of endorsees since the band’s guitar-driven yet still melodic sound recalls the alt-rock of the Foo Fighters, while their rebellious tone often conjures the spirit of rock revolution which Jefferson Airplane pioneered in the ‘60s. Spinning their name off from Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 hit “Sara”, the band delivers a sound that blends some of that high-level pop rock sensibility with a much heavier approach.
Armstrong and Medley form a grrrl power duo the likes of which has rarely been seen in rock history. The two ladies have been boldly rocking together for years, while rhythm section members came and went as they sought the right fit. But it seems as if bassist Chris Null and drummer Sean Friday have settled in, making the band primed to go to the next level during these contentious times. Taking a break from working on their third album to head north for the show, Dead Sara has a sound that now seems destined to help lead the rock resistance against the Donald Trump regime’s assault on America.
The band hits the stage around 11:15 and sets an early tone with the hard rocking “Test on My Patience” as Armstrong cuts loose with a tangible angst. Dead Sara’s music has always had an undercurrent of disaffection with modern society, but it seems like that undercurrent is about to roll into a tidal wave if Armstrong’s performance here is any indication. “Monumental Holiday” and “Lemon Scent” continue to build on this urgent tone as the band rocks out on a few tunes from 2012’s eponymous debut album.
“Mona Lisa” keeps the set building with its catchy hooks and big groove, while the power ballad “Face to Face” brings things down a notch with Armstrong touching on some tender emotion as she sings of “trying to figure out just who I am…” The turbo-charged “Radio One Two” from 2015’s sophomore album Pleasure to Meet You then cranks up the energy with a blast of catchy alt-rock power that conjures the golden age of grunge.
There was a time in the ‘90s when rising alt-rock stars were coming through San Francisco with electrifying shows on a regular basis and Dead Sara rocks here with a tangible energy that harkens back to that heady era. As the song invokes some mild moshing up front and rocking out all over the room, there’s a sense in the audience that this band is the real deal. If Dead Sara had hit the scene in the mid-‘90s, they would have been all over MTV and likely rocketed to stardom. That fast track isn’t really available anymore, but it’s inspiring to witness a band that’s ready to rally the current era of musical resistance against the forces of old and evil represented by Trump’s arch right-wing administration.
The band taps into this revolutionary current on the new “Un-American” like a genuine force of nature. It’s a heavy tune with an angry tone of rebellion as Armstrong delivers a fierce screed that even includes a defiant declaration of “Fuck you, Donald Trump, I’m not your bitch!” Armstrong has joked a bit about Trump during the set, but it’s clear she’s plenty pissed off and with damn good reason. The band skillfully uses “Un-American” as a prelude to their incendiary cover of Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name”, driving the audience into a fury. Medley has the six-string skills to match Armstrong’s powerhouse voice, leading a power trio of electrifying intensity behind the mesmerizing frontwoman. The Resistance is alive and well here as the band also includes an outro jam on Rage’s “Freedom”, where it seems like Armstrong is singing for life and limb.
But unlike all too many punk and metal singers, Armstrong isn’t just a screecher. She can rage with the best of them, but what makes her special are her dynamic pipes that can hit every tone in the rock register. This talent has been on display throughout the show and especially during the climactic “Weatherman” that closes the set with an uplifting cathartic rock power. It’s been a short but sweet set due to the four-band format, but there’s no doubt that Dead Sara has held nothing back and left it all on the stage.
The way Armstrong and Dead Sara mix memorable melody with electrifying alt-rock crunch makes them one of the most powerful bands that America has to offer the world in 2017. Their bold and courageous inclination to sing out against injustice and tyranny also has them poised to be one of the leading voices in the rock resistance against the Trump regime. It will be interesting to watch how many other bands are ready to join the rock rebellion against the Empire, but it’s clear to see that Dead Sara has been enlisted all along.