People don’t go to a Screaming Females show so much to see Marissa Paternoster as to experience her. Unless you got to the Bell House on Friday night well before openers Swearin’ and Aye Nako drew attendant headbangers stageside, chances are the most you saw of the Screamales was “King” Mike Abbate’s towering frame tromping around stage right with a trusty Rickenbacker. If you were lucky you saw the top of Paternoster’s bob occasionally catching light in mid thrash. But even if you couldn’t see Paternoster—that five-foot-nada cocoon of solid rawk, black but for an impassive crescent face peering out between schoolgirl bangs and schoolmarm dress—when the New Brunswick bombshell set her fingers to a guitar or her lips to a microphone, you felt her.
Following a record release party in the Screamales’ native Jersey on Thursday, Friday’s performance marked the first on an upcoming U.S. odyssey in support of its new LP, Ugly. The set played heavily with the new material, which, to nobody’s huge surprise, sounds like a slight expansion of the band’s existing material, paced with old favorites. Though the steady riff-rock and punk fury of Ugly tracks kept the crowd hooting, hopping and selectively headbanging, it wasn’t until Paternoster squeaked, “This is an old song,” in the set’s final act that the moshing erupted. Old hits “I Don’t Mind It” and the unmistakable swing-on-steroids hook of “Fun” got the most frantic crowd reactions, turning the front of the stage into a roiling 40-armed organism with a Miller High Life bloodstream. The highlight Ugly thumper was set closer “Doom 84,” a near-eight minute thrash of bopping bass and Sabbath-heavy guitar refrains that got even unfamiliar listeners (myself included) punishing their necks in spasms of headbanging furor.
The set was short and sweet (barely an hour) and would have felt unsatisfying had the Females not returned to play “Boyfriend” in what proved to be Paternoster’s most Paternoster-y display of punk rage all night. Normally when Paternoster solos, she looks content and adrift, as if her soul has become a guitar in a universe exactly the size of one guitar. Conversely, when she parted with her instrument for the screaming finale of “Boyfriend,” she became a creature torn from her comfy reality. Paternoster flailed on the ground like a woman possessed, disappearing from view even to those in the front row until all that remained was her pained, piercing shriek, “As you sit on the fence I will burn in HEEEEELLLL!” This accomplished, she stood, brushed her knees off and calmly disengaged her amp with the satisfaction of a job well done. Those who didn’t see it felt it, and none felt it more than Marissa Paternoster.