Savages & Palma Violets @ Jericho Tavern – 31/07/12

Whoever said “comparisons are odious” clearly wasn’t a music writer. I have a running joke with a friend about this, the tendency to utter—in all seriousness—phrases like “they’re kind of like if [some band you never heard] of and [another band you’ve never heard of] had a baby and sent it off to be raised by [another band].” But we all do it. To some extent. However, the pre-gig press I’d devoured about the Savages prior to hearing them live a couple of days ago at the Jericho made me a particularly grumpy goat. All the chatter, complimentary though it was, for the most part seemed determined to equate the London-based post-punk foursome to a female Ian Curtis and the IanCurtisettes or something. Praise, surely, yet the kind that leaves a chauvinistic sting. It would be great if they could be evaluated gender aside. But again, what can you do? Frontwoman Jehnny Beth herself has been slightly ambivalent in interviews about Savages being recognised and appreciated for their all-girlness.

Thankfully, the anxious crowd at the Jericho was far less homo-genderous. My friends and I remarked on the age and sex mix that night, from hipsterish misters to a lovely middle-aged lady near me sipping a glass of white wine. There seemed to be quite a long guest list at the door, which made me suspect that probably at least a third of the audience were of the trying-to-be-detached ilk: promoters, label reps, annoying writers who use words like “odious” in the first line of their reviews, etc.

I can’t imagine playing under that kind of scrutiny, but neither band that night seemed too perturbed. First up were the Palma Violets, an all-male (since we’re delineating) four-piece outfit, also from London. They come onstage in blazers of glory, blazers that are quickly shed as their energetic set gets ultra-violet, if you will. These guys definitely have an air of “we know we write good songs” about them, yet their confidence never gives way to cockiness. The young guns deftly maneuver their way through 40 minutes of howling, echo-ey, gnarly-snarly punk-psych with tinges of church organ and marching band thrown in for good time measure. The interplay between the guys, particularly ace bassist Chilli Jesson and singer/guitarist Sam Fryer, is infectious. There’s a sort of lower-voiced Graham Smith-type-exuberance about Fryer and he and pal Jesson elicit a front-row fan frenzy, particularly on the ‘Tom The Drum’. My fave part of the set was the one-two punch they pulled at the beginning—two short ‘n sweat songs that left us aching for them to go full-glottal. Happily, they obliged.

It’s a short break then and suddenly the stage lights are suffused and there are the Savages, uplit by a white beam that makes the Jean Seberg-coiffed singer Jehnny Beth look like a sexy ghostly marionette. Then there’s a nail-on-chalkboard blast of guitar and we’re off on a seamless slide through a dark, assertive, deathly-serious, densely intense narrative of guts and guile.

The musicianship is riveting here and the powerfully austere post-punk sound is well-honed. Jehnny is indeed mesmerizingly angular in her movements, shifting jerkily from the waist up, black patent heels dug into the ground and into the pulsating bass and drums. Though bassist Alyse Hassan and drummer Fay Milton are shrouded in shadows, they are far more than a mere backdrop to Jehnny and genius guitarist Gemma Thompson—they lure us all into a trance-like state of syncopated appreciation, especially on ‘Hit Me’ and ‘City’s Full’.

I was worried about Savages sounding too revivalist or too contrived, but I don’t think they were. What they are is extremely controlled (resisting making Joy Division ‘She’s Lost Control’ reference here). Nothing is left to chance. When a fan cries out for ‘Husbands’, the group’s best-known song by far, Jehnny cracks her only smile of the set and it feels a bit like she’s breaking character. She is an actress, too, after all. Then again, if the worst thing you can say about a band is that they seem calculated, that’s not so bad.

Both of these bands are undoubtedly great live, a precious commodity in these digital days. Even my firmly-folky friend who accompanied me that evening was bewitched by Savages. Whether their somewhat-same-ish sound will stick from a distance is less clear to me — but now that you can actually acquire their music without going Internet-spelunking, we’re much closer to finding out.