Despite being barely familiar with their music, my expectations were hopeful for Screaming Females’ gig at San Fran in Wellington, based on the glowing reviews (including one from this outlet) pouring in from their Auckland show the night before. Yet despite this, the set still came as a lovely surprise - a fun, feel-good, and unique hour of smart polished punk that made me an instant fan.
It’s the second time the New Jersey trio have made it down to Aotearoa, but significantly the first time since the release of last year’s All At Once - their seventh studio album - drew them a heap of renewed attention. Because of this, I was surprised to find the venue only half full - a shame really. This meant the crowd weren’t the most energetic, as it’s tricky to be with so much empty space around you (though a handful of dancers off to the side of stage did their best to make up for everyone else.) However, the small scale of the gig, with the band members playing on only a slightly elevated stage amidst everybody, did have the nice effect of making it feel almost like a local event in terms of casualness and intimacy.
The turnout didn’t seem to get to the band at all - from the opening notes to the end they played with unwavering energy and dedication. Prior to the event, I’d only given them a cursory glance of a listen - but it only took half a song to deeply impress me and draw me in. Their music does that - jumps out at you boldly and demands your attention and energy. Singer and guitarist Marissa Paternoster threw herself into her performance as though playing to a stadium, bassist Mike Abbate bounced around while mouthing along to the lyrics, and rock-solid drummer Jarrett Dougherty had to get up from his stool multiple times to pull his kit back towards him, as his playing kept sliding the kick drum along the rug further away from him.
As a trio the band are superb - both in their tight and practised performance and in their well-composed material itself. Their cleverly constructed punk songs come with killer riffs, unexpected guitar notes, tight rhythm changes, and massive impactful hooks. Wishing Well was an early highlight, evolving seamlessly from a chill mid-tempo groove to a powerful rocking chorus. The one-two punch of the brooding Glass House and the irresistibly bouncy I’ll Make You Sorry, both popular singles from the recent album, was an energetic peak, with both songs drawing cheers of delight from the crowd and plenty of singing along. The quality of these two cuts, as well as several other newer songs, shows a band at the peak of their powers. Glass House also featured some of the angriest and strongest vocal moments from Paternoster.
Speaking of which - Paternoster is an absolute force to watch on stage. Her presence changes Screaming Females from a good (loosely) punk band to that rare thing - a good (loosely) punk band with a brilliant vocalist, who can sing melodically perfectly while still delivering the anger and energy the songs require. It’s not a choice between technical accuracy and punkish expression like many singers have to make - Paternoster has the skill to bring both at once. I was blown away by the fact that she sounded even better live than on record, and hit every single note so strongly in easily one of the most assured hard-rock vocal performances I’ve ever witnessed, throwing her whole body into the anthemic choruses with one foot up on her foldback speaker. At times her voice took on an almost operatic quality, and at others a menacing directness - though in the small room, her quick-fire words occasionally got drowned in the mix.
And all of this while playing those guitar parts - the musical element which pushes the band beyond the basic realm of punk into something more melodically interesting. Her tone was great and crunchy, and watching her fingers from close-up really made me appreciate how interesting and well-calculated the guitar parts in their recorded and live music are, sometimes playing harmonising melodies against the vocals, sometimes throwing in unexpected notes and changes, and often taking off in furious yet unflashy solos that always whipped up the enthusiasm of the crowd.
The band kept things simple, ripping through their songs with little gaps or chatter in between - though the singer did take time to thank everyone for coming, pointing out what a good time they’d had in Wellington and how they “saw a great tree” that day. When they left the stage, the small crowd managed to get the whole building shaking with their stomping, prompting a return and a one-song encore.
The only complaint I could find was the very short running time of about an hour - but the time they did spend playing was as watertight a set as it could be, with no weak tracks at all, so I guess that’s a worthy payoff. Overall, a fantastic gig, and a must-see band that has everything going for them at the moment - great songs, great musicianship, great energy, and a magnetic presence.