Even the light show was colorless in Savages’ concert Tuesday night at First Avenue. That’s how fully committed the sneering, black-wardrobed British quartet was to putting on a dark, gloomy performance, one that continually screamed, “Look at us: We are serious arteests!” They lit the stage solely in stark, naked white lighting, as if even a faint hint of yellow would throw everything off.
There were many other moments in the 75-minute performance when the barely two-year-old, college-aged, all-female post-punkers overstated their mission in hopelessly pretentious ways. Frontwoman Jehnny Beth – no, that’s not a typo (her real name is Camille Berthomier) – offered opaque, rambling, mumbly statements between songs that even Michael Stipe would think a little weird, like when she repeatedly asked “Can you tell me to shut up?” before “Shut Up,” or when she talked about wanting to be thrown up against a wall and “smacked” before “Hit Me.” Her crewcut hairdo and gangly, stand-in-place dance moves reconfirmed all the comparisons to Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, but at times she also came off like a mime with her overacted gestures.
Jehnny and her bandmates also posted manifesto-like instructions at the front doors urging attendees not to pull out their mobile devices or take any photos or videos during the concert. Doing so “prevents all of us from fully immersing ourselves,” the public notice read, and there are “better ways of living and experience music” (bravo on the sentiment, but just a simple “please refrain from using your cell phone” note would do).
Yes, there were many times in Savages' set when the upstart rockers were just one black turtle-neck or Bauhaus cover away from being a “Saturday Night Live” or “Portlandia” skit. But their manic energy and musical intensity proved to be nothing to laugh at. Despite its cringe-worthy traits, Tuesday’s concert was one of the more electrifying and visceral performances by a buzzing newbie act this year.
Quickly following up a local debut at the Triple Rock in July, the band came close to selling out First Ave this time. Not surprisingly, after a year-plus of playing the same songs, the members have their one and only album down pat. While it’s not the universally drooled-over album that the 89.3 the Current DJs have repeatedly claimed it is, “Silence Yourself” does pack quite an impressive wallop that was even heavier and more impactful in concert.
The set opened with the record’s piercing second cut, “I Am Here,” which started off tepidly but exploded near the end -- a fire that kept burning through the second song “City’s Full.” From there, the band tore down the tempos a few times before building them up to frantic levels. The first big teardown came during the slow and atmospheric “I Need Something New” (which nearly qualified as a cover of Bauhaus’s “Bela Lougosi’s Dead”), but it segued powerfully into a frenzied, ear-assaulting tear through “Strife.” Most impressive of all, the jaggedly rocking B-side “Flying to Berlin” made a great set up for the night's most ecstatic, goosebump-inducing highlight, "She Will." As with "Hit Me," the snidely feminist undertones of "She Will" added a powerful bite to the proceedings.
After peaking again with the would-be finale “Husbands,” Savages dragged things out a bit too long at the end by wheeling out the dullard “Marshal Dear” with opening act Duke Garwood on clarinet (and Jehnny on piano). Their opening tourmate from the Triple Rock show, Johnny Hostile (who’s also Jehnny’s boyfriend), also came out for the final song, a F-bomb-titled new tune that crescendoed into a refrain of, “Don’t let the f***ers get you down.” Heck yeah!!!
In the end, Savage’s Joy Division comparisons extended far beyond Jehnny’s stage presence. As with the Manchester art-rock gods, the bass guitar was more the driving instrument than the six-string parts in Savages' set, a point made apparent in more blistering, hard-plodding songs as “No Face.” However, drummer Fay Milton might be the real spark behind the band. With her hair up in a constantly bouncing ponytail and her arms flailing wildly, she displayed a Dave Grohl-like enthusiasm and precision behind the kit. Milton even smiled a lot, and it didn’t ruin the show -- but then, neither did all the scowling, melodramatic elements.