Marnie Stern -- she of the portentous hipster buzz -- finally brought her prodigious talent to D.C. this week, leaving her small but fiercely loyal group of local fans satisfied and wanting for nothing more than another album, and maybe a date.
Deep into her first tour with a backing band -- drummer Zach Hill of Hella and guitarist Robby Moncrief of the Advantage -- Stern is still far from a seasoned stage vet, but her music was as exciting live as it is on her debut album, "In Advance of the Broken Arm," released earlier this year. Those who know it and know how she did it were treated to her finger-tapping style of guitar playing, delighted to see it up close and personal. Largely, this set was her album recast, but while little new was revealed in the music, it was astonishing that the trio could so loyally recreate the complexity and intensity of what was achieved in the studio. Often with both hands up on the neck of her guitar, Stern tickles the strings like the keys of a synthesizer -- rather than strumming, picking or plucking -- and the sound is astonishing.
The highlight of the set was "Put All Your Eggs in One Basket and Then Watch That Basket!!!" Stern opened the song with her finger tapping before Moncrief and Hill joined in and a catchy chord progression turned it into the most accessible song of the show, though not as melodic as songs like "Letters from Rimbaud." Like many of her songs do, "Basket" mixes and matches varied segments together -- a breakdown here, a car crash there -- but then falls back on that progression behind the verses. Those lyrics show a writing talent, too. Though always cynical, there is often a counterpoint sense of optimism. Here, the line "Time is what keeps us going" could be construed as a race against it, particularly when cast aside a chant of "Tick! Tock!" but the emphasis seemed to be on the "keep going." Such wisdoms were sung in a sort of cheerleader chant or speak-sing and sung in a range close to that of her guitar, so the two seemed to chase each other at times and walk hand in hand at others, and often the words themselves got lost, adding an element of mystery.
As impressive as Stern was on guitar -- at times dropping jaws -- Hill's drums often stole the focus and almost the show. Like Stern on her guitar, Hill was wild and experimental and technically proficient on his kit. The beats were tribal but extremely fast -- calling to mind the sound of hooves hitting the sun-hardened ground in a stampede -- keeping up with Stern's pace. On "This American Life," different from the album version due to the extended finish, Hill's drumming was the leading character in the music, as Stern and Moncrief's shredding fell to the side, despite the sickest riff of the set.
And they did shred on that ending. They didn't tone it down to let Hill out. In fact, a break was necessary after the song to let Moncrief restring because he'd abused his guitar so much. It was a nice break for the crowd, too. A little rest for the ears and the eyes and the brain swirls. Someone in the crowd called for a story from Stern, and she relayed a brief tale about a gun being pulled on Hill the previous day. "But that's not funny," she said. She searched a moment for another tale but prefaced it with, "This isn't funny, either." She lied. "When we were in Manchester we saw a woman in a skirt reach into her vagina, take something out and put it in her mouth," she said, ever sweet, and the room erupted in laughter. "She did it twice," she continued, as if to defend her story from any disbelief.
Earlier, her tale of swimming in a reservoir that day set the boys in the room to drool. This is a review of her music, mostly, so I apologize for taking a moment to discuss her beauty, but she is even cuter in person than she is in pictures. The set was punctuated with "You're so cute"s and "I love you"s throughout. The visuals are a part of any live show, after all. Marnie Stern needs no light show.
Though not as important as Hill's presence, Moncrief was necessary to make the set a success. His presence allowed Stern the room for her glitchy experimentation, provided that layered guitar effect and a little bit of battling leads. Mostly, it's fast metal riffing with heavy prog rock and occasional math rock influences. Stern tears her fret board apart in a way that would catch Eddie Van Halen's ear and then promptly make him jealous. But she's not playing anything that'll reach the mainstream radio. Unfortunately, in our society, the fact that a woman is doing this will always be at the fore in any Marnie Stern discussion. However, the term "guitar goddess" is long overdue but, hopefully, soon to be common.
Like the album, the live show closed with "Healer" and "Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling." The former was another of the more melodic songs in the set, though a multifaceted adventure. It started with a birth-of-heavy-metal riff and a bit more of the optimism vibe with the chant "Yes! Yes! Yes! The answer's yes!" Quickly, it turned into a math-rock onslaught, then started to fall apart, then regained that melodic speed metal, then repeated the cycle. When the song was at its most disheveled, it was also, strangely, at its catchiest and most memorable. Then Stern closed the set as a storyteller. For the first half of "Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling," Stern is reading a fairy tale, using the tale to introduce riffs and using those riffs to illustrate the story, and it's is another hopeful message: "I am not looking to find a pot of gold. The picture in my head is my reward." When Hill and Moncrief jumped in, this disconcerting journey switched to inspirational heavy metal and the most passionate vocal performance of the show: "See how easy to dream or see yourselves in your head. We must dream on. We must dream on." Like the lyrics from "Put All Your Eggs in One Basket and Then Watch That Basket!!!" "Patterns" was sung with more conviction and feeling than you get from the record. And then abruptly, like the plug was pulled, the song and the set ended.