Screaming Females at Cactus Club – 1/29/14 (Live Review)

by Steven Spoerl

Between Dinny Bulca, Tenement, Rio Turbo, and Screaming Females last night and Perfect Pussy exactly a week prior, next Wednesday has a lot to live up to. First off, in regards to last night’s show; what a bill. The pairing of Tenement and Screaming Females has always made sense. That’s now just one of life’s facts. From the very first time they played together at the dearly-missed BFG (Tenement’s old Appleton stomping grounds and now-defunct house venue) all the way through to their most recent split 7″ and Don Giovanni tour, they’ve played off each other to great effect and continue to do so. Bringing up-and-comers Dinny Bulca into the mix as local support was a smart move as their excellent 2013 record Ladies and Gentleman matches up nicely with what both Tenement and Screaming Females are doing musically. Adding the electro-heavy glam-sleaze act Rio Turbo into the lineup was a bit of a puzzler but it’s sometimes nice to have a wildcard just to keep the risk of things becoming stagnant out of reach.

Dinny Bulca played first and managed to make a few converts with consistently high energy paired with well-informed songwriting. It’s fairly clear that the band’s found a way to establish an early identity by incorporating multiple influences without letting any particular one overpower another. There’s still a decent amount of room to grow for Dinny Bulca but it’ll be entertaining as hell to watch them progress. They’ve also got the added benefit of a secret weapon; Scott Cary’s voice. It’s a voice that channels everything from classic rockabilly to early 90’s emo and hardcore while sounding positively at home in the blitz-punk trappings of their music. That element alone may have the strength to open up a variety of doors for them. It’ll just be a matter of time before their name starts coming up in local conversation a little more frequently.

After Dinny Bulca wrapped their set, it was Tenement‘s turn to set up. Tenement’s been exhaustively covered in this site and will continue to receive a large amount of attention and dedication because they’re one of the bands that gets everything right. They’re part of a very small elite class of musicians that deserve to be considered one of the very best and they’ve consistently proven that over the past eight years. Last night was no different. Their set easily lived up to the band’s reputation as one of the most compelling live acts while somehow furthering their growing mystique and identity. Ripping through established classics like “Messy Endings (in Middle America)”, “Lost Love Star Lust”, and a surprisingly tense and gripping tambourine freakout sequence in “Rock Eating People” saw the band firing on all cylinders early, despite lacking some of the low-end in their mix. It was the second half (as the sound steadily improved) that served as the strongest reminder of Tenement and their increasingly distinct aesthetic.

From particular fiery renditions of “Violent Outlet” and “Spit in the Wind” to an absolutely on the mark run through “Dreaming Out Loud”, it was one of the band’s more impressive discography-spanning sets. Easily the best moment of the night (and the moment that reminded everyone this band is far from done) came during a new song that came to a quiet lull at its mid-section to allow Pitsch to rummage through his suitcase of random items (it was the same place he’d pulled the tambourine out of earlier) only to transfix everyone by emerging with a set of handbells. As the rhythm section quietly prodded him on, he carefully arranged groupings for each hand and, kneeling in front of the microphone, finally raised his hands to provide a moment of inexplicably eerie ambient noise that was full of the exact kind of strange energy that differentiates Tenement from most of their peers and makes them one of the most interesting bands on their circuit. It was the definitive moment of a set that absolutely justified the growing public interest (finally) surrounding them.

When Tenement had finished, it was Rio Turbo‘s turn up. There’s not really much to say about Rio Turbo without breaking it down as basically as possible; Rio Turbo is a band that seemingly consists of five members. One pushes a button to trigger a track, one sings along with the track, it seems the only purpose of the other three is to dance provocatively and lip-sync along with the sleazy glam-pop that oozes out of the speakers. There are three males and two females and all seem to project genuinely apathetic fronts so it’s difficult to get a read on whether or not they genuinely enjoy what they’re doing. If they do, more power to them, if they don’t then the act can be perceived as an interesting satire. Either way, there’s value for people that are interested in those two niche markets. They went through the motions of a six song set and definitely provided a few talking points among the growing crowd that was amassing for Screaming Females.

Screaming Females finally took to the Cactus Club stage and immediately sent the crowd into waves of excitement by virtue of Marissa Paternoster’s fretwork heroics. One of the two things that the New Brunswick band is most revered for (the other being her monster of a voice that can flip from winsome and sweet to a larynx-shredding scream on a dime). Having watched their stature (and amp sizes) grow over the past six or seven years has been an absolute pleasure and from the first notes onward, watching the crowd being whipped into an escalating frenzy was a gratifying experience. There are some bands whose talent is so raw and undeniable, that it’s impossible to not want them to succeed. Screaming Females have been one of those bands since their earliest recordings and to see them march through a set just as explosive as the one they played only a few short months back (again, alongside Tenement) in Madison at The Frequency is as good of a sign as any to the fact that they’re a band that will never dial a performance in. That said, it would’ve been easy to construe last night’s set as a sort of practice run for the band’s two-night Chicago stand at The Hideout (which will be recorded for a long-overdue official live release).

Their set at the Cactus Club was another great example of spreading a discography without providing too much emphasis on one particular record. This works especially well for a band as prolific as Screaming Females, as their are bound to be arguments over which of their five(!) LP’s is the best. For every two people screaming in support of the Steve Albini-produced double LP Ugly there may be three or four shouting the virtues of Power Move or Castle Talk (or vice versa). That said, there are a growing number of people who are there primarily to see Paternoster scorch her fretboard which is an element of music that seems to come natural to her and even energize her. There are several moments during a Screaming Females set where she will wield her wood-finish G&L like it’s a firearm, controlling it so completely that it’s frightening.

There are others where it seems to escape her, leaving her to writhe on the ground or come close to tripping herself over. All of which are elements that make Screaming Females a can’t-miss live act, especially when they’re an added bonus of an extraordinarily strong discography. Paternoster’s fiery stage persona is emphasized by the fact that Screaming Females’ rhythm section is as grounded as it is. While certainly not workmanlike to the point of boredom, bassist Jarrett Dougherty and drummer King Mike strike an appropriate balance between stoic and involved throughout their performances that keeps them visible when they’d otherwise be in danger of receding to the background. Helping matters is that they’re both immensely talented players who are capable of providing small moments as memorable as Paternoster’s large-scale performance.

Last time the band played Wisconsin, the highlights from their set were a new song that’s currently titled “Let Me In”, which is among the best they’ve ever written, and Power Move single “Bell”. Both were absent from their set last night in Milwaukee but were entirely made up for by ferocious versions of a pair of Ugly tracks; the propulsive “Expire” and the absolutely massive “Doom 84”. “Expire” appeared slightly retooled for a live setting, with an extended attention-snagging intro and a longer middle-section. Both additions were welcome, as Screaming Females have consistently conjured up bits of magic with their variations (and continue to do so). “Doom 84” has appeared towards the end of their sets for quite some time now- and for good reason. The song’s one of the longest, and boldest, in their catalog. At Cactus Club it was extended well past the ten minute mark, with the band growing more relentlessly passionate as the song progressed. Paternoster found herself teetering on the lip of the stage several times throughout, relying on the audience to keep her on the stage as she had her back to them, which they were more than happy to do.

When their set finally came to a close, there was no encore or indication that one would even be possible. They’d accomplished all they set out to do and the audience repaid their noticeable exhaustion in kind. People stuck around after, offered their admiration, respect, and thanks to each of the bands that had played. Old friends found each other for hugs, high-fives, and drinks. New friends were made. Everyone looked a different level of elated. There was no reason not to; it’s impossible to be upset at a night of memorable performances. Dinny Bulca showed promise, Rio Turbo proved intriguing, and both Tenement and Screaming Females delivered two blistering sets that further solidified their respective statuses as two of the very best bands currently going. Dinny Bulca and Rio Turbo will undoubtedly be making a few appearances in Milwaukee throughout these next few months. Tenement will be leaving for a tour out to New York where they’ll be playing alongside Screaming Females once more as a part of the Don Giovannni showcase. Screaming Females, as mentioned earlier, will be providing some lucky Chicago audience members with the experience of a lifetime as they take to The Hideout for a two-night stand to record a live record that’s worth being very, very excited about. As this show proved, once again, it’ll be memorable. Don’t miss it, Chicago.