Much has changed in San Francisco over the past decade, with the region’s tech boom leading to skyrocketing rent costs that have caused many to seek a lower cost of living elsewhere. Buzz bands that probably would have packed the Fillmore Auditorium or Warfield Theater ten years ago, therefore, find themselves playing smaller venues these days, since there aren’t as many rock ‘n’ rollers who can afford to live in “The City” anymore. But another of San Francisco’s classic club venues remains, and Slim’s keeps the rock ‘n’ roll torch burning in the SOMA (South of Market) district.
The long-running club might not have the pizzazz of the Fillmore or the Warfield, but it does have great sound (which is more than the Independent across town can say with its spotty acoustics.) Slim’s hosted a number of emerging alt-rock bands in the ’90s, and so it seems an appropriate venue for Dead Sara on this mid-October Thursday evening. The LA rockers probably would have rocketed to stardom if they’d come upon the scene in the ’90s when a strong debut album and a hit video propelled numerous hard rock bands to national theater tours. It’s a tougher road for rising rock bands these days, but it seems only a matter of time until Dead Sara becomes a household name.
Electrifying singer Emily Armstrong brings a vocal range and emotional depth to the stage rarely seen in rock history, staking out a position as one of the most compelling vocalists in modern rock. Rarer still is such a band with a female guitarist as well, with Siouxsie Medley teaming with Armstrong to form a truly dynamic duo. Now signed to Atlantic Records, the quartet has followed up their first two albums with 2018’s Temporary Things Taking Up Space, a six-song EP that stands as one of the year’s best releases in rock (featuring one of the year’s top songs for political resistance against the foul Trump regime with “Unamerican”).
“Lemon Scent” and “Mona Lisa” are early highlights, with Medley and the rhythm section led by drummer Sean Friday rocking out while Armstrong belts it out to crank up a high energy vibe. Medley wins extra points with the local crowd by sporting a San Francisco 49ers jersey with Joe Montana’s #16 (though this also serves as another reminder of how much San Francisco has changed in recent years with the 49ers relocating to Santa Clara in the South Bay.) “Face to Face” finds Armstrong showing off a more sensitive side on a soul-searching ballad, while also demonstrating her full range as she veers from heartfelt verses to a powerful chorus.
Soul searching songs are something Armstrong really excels at, which she demonstrates again on the infectiously upbeat “Anybody” from the new EP. Here she sings a song that will resonate for anyone going through a heartbreak or lonely time and wondering if and when they’ll ever “belong to anybody”. When Armstrong sings, “All I know is do or die for the love”, there’s a heartfelt sincerity that lets listeners know she really means it. If this song had been released in the ’90s, it would likely have been a huge MTV smash and propelled the band to platinum album sales. Anyone going through a recent breakup might even find themselves shedding a tear here, with the song tapping into a deep soul catharsis.
The band turns the vibe around by following “Anybody” with “Get Up Get Down”, a catchy new tune yet to be recorded that finds Dead Sara stretching out with a vintage power pop sound that utilizes a funky synth line to explore a groovy sonic landscape. It’s a different sound for Dead Sara, yet it’s great to see the band branching out with a tune that could launch dance parties across America. “Heaven’s Got a Back Door” is another strong tune from the new EP with more of the classic Dead Sara sound, but which also features a big groove that gets heads nodding and toes tapping.
It’s the last show of a five-week fall tour before the band heads home to LA, with Armstrong speaking of being ready to sleep for two days straight. But her performance shows no signs of fatigue as the band rocks one powerful song after another. The short but sweet set comes to a rousing conclusion with the incendiary “Weatherman”, a scintillating hard rocker from the band’s debut album in 2012 that would surely have been a smash hit on MTV’s “Headbanger’s Ball” in another era. Medley’s edgy riffs and Armstrong’s powerhouse vocals make it feel like it could be 1993 as the band drives the audience into a frenzy.
It’s been a powerful set from start to finish, and the only real critique is that the 70-minute set was all too brief, leading some fans to wonder why the band didn’t want to throw down a few more tunes since they have so many strong songs left in the repertoire. A long line of fans then forms at the merch stand, where Medley and Armstrong graciously pose for pictures and sign autographs.
The hardcore fans known as “the Deadicated” know that are few bands in modern rock delivering this kind of energy, something the music world could sure use more of. They also know that there are few singers in music history that can belt out such powerful vocals while also delivering a soul-cleansing catharsis like Emily Armstrong. It would seem to be only a matter of time before Dead Sara’s star rises to the next level.