Several counterculture groups packed into New York’s famous Kitting Factory on Saturday October 4th. From punks in their broken denim jackets to gender-queer persons to hipsters drinking their Shiner Bock and nodding to the music, everyone awaited the entrance of one the underground’s last hopes for punk rock: Screaming Females. This night was the first date of the perpetually on the road band’s late 2014 tour and the diverse group wanted nothing more than to witness their lead singer, whose scream and fierce guitar towers over the audience the way they tower over her stature. However, before the three-person powerhouse was to perform, the audience reveled in two acts well known in their own rights.
Mal Blum took to the stage first with her electric, 1950s style Gibson guitar, backup bassist, and drummer. In a navy dress shirt and fitted pants, she cruised through her self-identified “pop-punk” music, never losing her proud yet uncomfortable grin. From just listening to her music, one would never imagine Blum to be anything but a hipster straight out of the world featured in the movie Juno. However, her progressive gender expression mixed with rockabilly flair, singing happy melodies about her depression, made her quite a treat to watch.
Describing her newer music, she called her songs “deceptive,’ never failing to let us forget this fact ahead of each song. Before hopping into “Sitting On The Train,” she joked that the song sounds like a train ride through Manhattan when it’s really about her fear of not loving someone. The audience laughed with her honesty and bounced to her surf rock style strumming and charmingly sincere lyrics. In between each song, she stopped to check in with the audience, out of insecurity or curiosity we won’t know. Halfway through, she asked the audience if they wanted her to perform louder and louder songs, to which they screamed for more. “Wow, I feel like we’re at a punk show,” she laughed and sang on in her nearly Californian singing accent.
She closed her 30-minute set with her bouncy ditty “Brooklyn,” commanding the audience to clap with her. “I know we’re in Brooklyn and you’re too cool to clap, but I live in Brooklyn and I know how tender hearted you are,” she pleaded. The jury is still out on the sincerity of Brooklyn residents, but Mal Blum could certainly be the most tender hearted citizen there is, no matter how much her singing voice sounds like she’s from the Wes Coast. And if there was anything the audience could take from her set, it would be how much Blum and her bassist differ in their opinions of Robert Frost.
After a fifteen-minute break, four guys from Nashville took the stage and, in the best way possible, they beat the instruments hard enough to knock the audience all the way back to Tennessee. Dedicated to ripping through their music, the band Pujol barely took a breath between each song, more than ready to scream-sing about fist fights and lost connections. These lo-fi southerners managed to incorporate every decade since the 1950s into their material: 60s style melodies, 70s style grit, 80s style guitar riffs, and 90s/ska punk style song structure and energy. If Reel Big Fish collaborated with The Germs with the overblown production of Sleigh Bells, you’d have Pujol.
This quartet could be seen as the result of a generation desperate to define their own rebellion and anger, but constantly forced to resemble those of the past. Pujol has all the ingredients of classic hardcore punk rock: Short songs, scream singing, musically expressed testosterone, and a confident yet disinterested look (the drummer adorned a skeleton costume and fake moustache and couldn’t have cared less). However, like many modern punk bands, they did not have a performing style one could label as punk. Despite the inescapable energy, the musicians never moved from their spot on the stage nor did they attempt to animate themselves while playing. Perhaps these are the signs of a band still discovering their stage presence or simply a band that doesn’t concern themselves with these things, but the juxtaposition between rowdy music and complacent performing proved to be somewhat uninspiring to an audience who clearly relished in the music and wanted to express it. However, none of this is to say that Pujol was a disappointment. Anyone looking for the overblown, classic punk rock sound of yesteryear will find themselves unable to remove a smile from their face. All Pujol needs is a more defined stage presence and they’ll surely send their audiences into a frenzy.
After an hour and a half of openers, the main event took the stage to a packed and raucous crowd. While drummer Jarrett Dougherty and bassist King Mike were dressed as casually as the openers, singer and lead guitarist Marissa Paternoster came out in her iconic long-sleeved black dress, black socks, and black shoes with her face hidden behind her thick and short black hair. And while Paternoster was easily the shortest person in the room, she made it clear from the first song, “Buried In The Nude,” that her height nor her gender hinders her mighty voice and vicious guitar playing.
The very first sound out of her mouth was a piercing scream, jolting even the most prepared of fans and sending the audience right into a mosh pit. Just after the first song, she proved herself worthy of her place on several “greatest guitarists” lists. She shreds through her songs with the fury of other great players like Joan Jett and Lita Ford, but recites her stream of consciousness lyrics like no other. With a wide open mouth as if she were about to devour the microphone, she roars through the band’s confrontational and declarative lyrics such as “I could be the boss of you/Any day” or “I need you to show me what your genius can do/So I can hide.” Similar to their stage presence, Screaming Females command attention but, unlike said lyrics, they show no hesitation or vulnerability. After five acclaimed albums, these new-age punks know their style and offer no apologies for it.
Barely speaking a word between songs, the players exuded a calm excitement for their music, made clear by their common song structure. The majority of their music begins with rousing introductory rhythms and solos, warning the listener/audience of what calculated madness is about to ensue, followed by a set of commanding yet catchy lyrics which make way for seemingly improvised guitar riffs and drum onslaughts. The Screaming Females really showed their chops during these ending jams with gusto that could shake the biggest of venues. Writhing on stage with her fair flailing every which way, Paternoster finds no greater joy than ripping her guitar strings to shreds and what a beautiful shredding it is.
This is a band that has gone from basements of New Brunswick, NJ to receiving recognition from MTV and NPR while also performing with bands like Garbage and Dinosaur Jr. They may not be selling out arenas any time soon, but that doesn’t make a ticket to their show any less sought after.