First, let’s establish that Marissa Paternoster is a terrifying panic-punk force of nature. The five-nothing singer/guitarist of New Jersey lynchpin punk trio Screaming Females has her way with everything in sight onstage—her amplifier, a microphone, a PA system, and, yep, her electric guitar. When Paternoster solos, you get the sensation of a military jet plane opening up the throttle—a thrilling, “Hey, watch what this baby can do!” that shoots down Paternoster’s spindly fingers into a powerful vibrato. Her singing is declarative, like Jello Biafra on helium. She sometimes lets out name-appropriate roars that end in jaw-unhinging microphone deep-throats. Sometimes she smirks when she’s thrashing, as if to silence any haters that can’t believe she has chops like those. She gets the “solo fingers” from the kids in the crowd, anxious to get a whiff of the liquid metal coming from one of the sickest guitarists in punk that doesn’t remember Ronald Reagan.
Second, let’s maintain that the dissonance between Paternoster on the throttle—screaming, shredding, stomping onstage—and the banged, mousy-looking girl in the floor-length dress is the entry point to Screaming Females. But the main attraction is the inventive playing and tight dynamics of Paternoster with bassist Mike Abbate and drummer Jared Dougherty. All three exhibit a restlessness and technical proficiency that allows Screaming Females to go beyond straight-eighths punk. Together, the band forges a chameleon punk rock, transitioning from pop to stoner rock to noise to even funk; Saturday night, there was even an improbably kick-ass Sheryl Crow cover. Make no mistake, though—this ain’t no jam band. Screaming Females just make punk sound like anything.
Third, let’s not forget that thousands of punk bands lived and died by the hook, and Screaming Females know the crackle of pop. Songsmanship flows through Paternoster’s melodic solos and Abbate’s elastic bass lines. Wherever there’s a melody hidden in a riff, or a riff hidden in a chord change, Screaming Females find it. Instincts and talent lead the members into shredding solos, brochacho riffs, and jamming, but even the most burdened punk warrior can’t ignore the songs.
Finally, let’s take Saturday’s performance as proof that on the cusp of a big-thing record release, Screaming Females still isn’t maxing out on space. The band will always sound best in a New Brunswick basement, in the same way that Jay-Z’s best shows will always be in New York. But big things come from Paternoster’s nimble fretwork. And when a band without a bad show in them has musicians at the top of their skill and heedlessness, big things could happen.