Due to some scheduling snafus I only caught the second half of Marnie Stern’s set at Santos Party House, the host of Thursday night’s Stereogum/PopGun showcase, but 15 minutes was still enough time to bear witness to the pyrotechnics and the silliness that is a Marnie Stern show. On record Stern careens between power-punk riffs, manic-metal noodling, arena-rock posturing, and proggy excess—often in the span of a single song—but in a live setting some of that wonky density gets peeled back to reveal the truth: Stern writes classic anthemic rock songs. It helps that these finger-tapped manifestos are delivered with all the giddy glee of a filthy kindergarten teacher on a bender (though at one point Stern did insist: “I’m not even drunk.”). My favorite Stern zinger was when she told the crowd to clap then said, “Not THAT clap,” before launching into yet another half-chanted, half-yelped tongue twister. Speaking of tongues (gross transition…), towards the end of her set Stern started flicking hers at her band mates and even they were cracking up.
The ’80s inspired dream-pop of Virginia-based four-piece Wild Nothing was a big drop-off in energy following Stern’s constantly collapsing clatter, but the band’s cloudy Slumberland-lite melodies worked up their own kind of low-key shimmer over the course of the set. Synths sneak under guitars, vocals float into the rafters, people graze arms in weird ways—if you’ve ever seen Pains Of Being Pure At Heart or Crystal Stilts you know how this goes. The guys are visually uninteresting unless you have a passion for flannel patterns; the liveliest moment of the set came early on when Marnie Stern appeared on the side of the stage, dancing along to singer Jack Tatum’s swoon-seeking coo. Later, a dude dove/jumped into the audience from the stage to get to his friend near the front, giving a good portion of the crowd a heart attack. I’m pretty sure it was the closest anyone has ever come to crowd surfing at a Wild Nothing show, which would have been historic.
The big TBA of the showcase had been revealed earlier in the day online, so people were already buzzing about seeing the Drums at a smaller venue like Santos, especially since they had played a show earlier in the night at the much larger Webster Hall. The self-titled debut by these post-punk pillagers-gone-pop is filled with tossed-off witticisms, subtle new wave flourishes, and enough vaguely ironic lovesick misery to inspire a LiveJournal entry or two. None of that meticulous ’80s fetishism quite prepared me for the ferociousness of this set. Lead singer Jonathan Pierce told the audience they were going to play every song faster tonight, then proceeded to just that with the simmering of a kid strutting around like Ian Curtis in the mirror. Dangling he microphone over his mouth, thumping it for effect, leering into cameras, twisting his body into rock-star silhouettes. It was a performance that almost felt too big for the venue in the best, most ridiculous ways. Where a band like Wild Nothing embraces the softer, wounded ambiance of the Smiths, Pierce takes the fun parts of Morrisey and Co.: the melodrama, the stinging wit, the precision. At the end of the group tore into an emotionally grueling, white noise filled version of their ’50s Buddy Holly-esque ballad “Down By The Water” that almost teetered into chaos before Pierce ended it in with a swift pull of his hand, like he was pulling down a giant curtain. He deserved one.