The Joggers were just kicking things off when I got into the Grog Shop. They quickly served up some fat post-punk chops with a side of indie-funk, all covered in a riff-heavy classic rock sauce. The four-piece was able to combine bouncy rhythms and big clashing rock guitars with four-part harmonies that would make even the Futureheads jealous. I’m doubting the Grog Shop acoustics were that refined, making the band’s vocal prowess all the more impressive. Each voice was clear and in key, with none overpowering the other.
The band’s excitement was not only apparent, but a welcome presence. Between songs the drummer paced behind his kit as if sitting still was just not an option, while the whole band was swaying and slamming during the performance like a crowd of thousands was in front of them. Maybe in an attempt to maintain this stadium-sized vibe, the Joggers also utilized samples from live shows of larger rock acts. Whether it was monstrous applause or just crowd-working banter from larger-than-life front-men, the recordings served as ironic statements -- because of their arena-rock-turned-indie status -- as well as momentum maintaining bridges between songs.
As the Joggers wrapped up their set, it marked one of the few times I’ve seen a crowd demand one more song from an opening act, a response that seemed wholly appropriate thanks to that band’s excitable stage presence and pristine vocal tone. It’s a shame the next opening act couldn’t illicit the same response.
Giant Drag, a female-fronted guitar/drum combo (with drummer playing bass parts on keyboard) inhabited the opposite end of the stage presence spectrum from the Joggers. There were no smiles and dancing here, merely somber looks and disinterested shuffling. The band’s set seemed to drag (no pun intended) thanks to their morose and sludgy rock sound, Meg White School of Drumming (guess that can be blamed on keeping one hand on a keyboard), and bizarre stage banter. Guitarist/vocalist Annie Hardy wooed the crowd by alluding to sex with her father as well as dishing out such delightful tidbits as… “I feel like I am on a reality show. You are all on a reality show right now," "everyone in the room has AIDS,” and “I am catching some Zs between verses cause I stayed up until dawn last night doing nothing alone.” Sometimes outlandish discourses can be forgiven if said band outshines their public speaking skills with their musical abilities, but for the most part Giant Drag simply sounded like a sedated version of Sleater-Kinney that only knew three chords.
I was a little anxious to see not only how Pretty Girls Make Graves approached their new material with its expanded instrumentation, but also how they would pull off older songs sans one guitar player. The results were a bit varied, but entertaining nonetheless.
The band opened with two tracks off of Elan Vital (“Wildcat” and “The Number”) and it was quickly apparent that they had no problems replicating their newly recorded sounds. Even later in the set when songs called for accordion (“Selling the Wind”) and saxophone (“Pictures of a Night Scene”), there was still no deviation from the originals. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for all of the band’s older material. While songs like “This Is Our Emergency” and “Ghosts in the Radio,” (the only song played from Good Health) sounded great, “All Medicated Geniuses” seemed to be lacking some of its fiery punch as former guitarist Nathan Thelan’s jagged riffing and backing shouts were sorely missed. Also, set staple “Speakers Push the Air” was strangely absent.
Pretty Girls Make Graves still bring just as much energy and passion to their performance, a fact that was clearly exhibited by bassist Derek Fudesco. As usual, Fudesco was moving around the stage with his jolting swagger, but he seemed to be sweating just a bit too much, a condition that was later clarified when he told the audience he was suffering from the flu. While this show of devotion was impressive it did come with its downside when the band was unable to play an encore, a pair of songs that may have included the aforementioned “Speakers Push the Air.”
Losing a guitarist may have affected the overall sound of some of Pretty Girls Make Graves' older material, but it has not diminished the quality of their live performance, nor has it prevented them from handling the expanded sonic territory of their most recent release.