Being punk rock isn’t about playing three chords and yelling your lyrics out. Punk rock is an attitude. Punk rock is charisma on stage and a disregard for your own well-being (as well as that of your instruments). EMA is punk rock. Sure, the band’s music isn’t what you would qualify as traditional punk rock; it’s a lot more complex and a lot more dark. But EMA the person (Erika M. Anderson) is a punk-rock singer.
Strutting around the stage, owning it, she channels the late ’70s heros who would sooner smash a guitar than play it. One need only watch during the epic climax of “The Grey Ship” to understand. Here, EMA and her band build up a swirl of sound before exploding into a wall of noise, and the six-foot-tall singer explodes similarly, bouncing around and thundering power chords down on the crowd.
This is just one example of the stage presence shown by this blond anti-diva. During the set-ending hit “California,” she wraps the microphone cord around her neck (bringing to mind all the violence that comes from that action) and points her finger gun at the audience, her band and most of all herself. Also, she borrows the very punk-rock move of crotch grabbing as she sings “these red pants they don’t show that!” It’s a menacing set, EMA’s. Tracks such as “Anteroom” and especially the vicious “Butterfly Knife” reek with malice, yet it’s a malice directed mostly inward, which makes for breathtaking live shows.
EMA is also a student of the past, including her own. She took center stage, alone, to perform “Cherylee,” a track first recorded by her old band, Gowns. It’s chilling to see one person produce so much angst and raw emotion, but it is also fascinating. This recalling of past triumphs doesn’t stop there: The cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up” might have been the highlight of the set because it allows Anderson to do what she does best: ramble around a confined space and wreck it to shit. Guitars, microphone stands and her own body be damned.