Savages @ Middle East Downstairs 7.12.13
by Ben Stas (English/Journalism), published July 16th 2013
photos by Ben Stas
It’s been just over a year and half since London quartet Savages played their very first show, but in that time they’ve managed to garner a huge amount of attention for themselves. Part of it stems from their self-serious ideology and vocal opposition to audience cell phone use during their gigs, but the lion’s share is warranted by their fierce debut album Silence Yourself and their equally arresting live performances. Savages possess the rare and deadly combination of hype-baiting gimmickry and music that’s genuinely compelling enough to justify it. The 575 Bostonians who packed into the sold-out Middle East Downstairs to see it all for themselves on Friday night would probably tend to agree.
The show’s tense and frenetic opening set came courtesy of aptly named Savages tour-mate/associate Johnny Hostile. Bearing more than a passing sonic resemblance to pioneering New Yorkers Suicide, Mr. Hostile’s set laid post-punk bass grooves over minimal drum machines and yelped vocals, lit only by a pair of lamps that look like they’d been stolen from a chicken coop. It was all very gritty, meshing well with the Middle East’s grungy basement vibes as a fitting opening set and a spectacle in its own right.
Two of the four Savages had joined Johnny Hostile on stage at various points already, but they looked a good deal more formidable as a full band, each dressed entirely in black. Just as Silence Yourself’s confrontational sound would suggest, they look like intense people. Their sound is widely categorized as post-punk, and while they do bear plenty in common with the angular sounds of genre mainstays like Gang of Four, in a live setting they’re arguably just as punk as they are post. Frontwoman Jehnny Beth has the mannerisms of a hardcore vocalist, but delivers her words with a snarl rather than a scream. She quite literally points fingers and even swings punches at the air as she performs, amping up the aggression already present in her lyrics. Responding in kind, the first few rows of the audience did get a bit violent.
The band structured its hour-long set wisely, stashing the slow-burners toward the middle and bookending with fire-starters like “City’s Full” and “Husbands,” before closing with the charmingly-titled unreleased jam “Fuckers.” Savages were at their best with the uptempo shout-alongs, channeling a primal energy that hit the crowd square in the face. Conversely, the moodier numbers did have the advantage of showcasing the sharp fretwork of guitarist Gemma Thompson more directly.
Intense as they sounded when they were on point, Savages still showed room to improve as a cohesive live band. Percussion faltered on a song or two, throwing the band into brief moments of confusion before regaining their footing. It’s easy to forgive the little things when a band sounds so damn assured the other 99% of the time, though.
If you missed the show this time around, have no fear, because they’ll surely be back. With a headlining gig already booked for New York City’s 3,000-capacity Terminal 5 in September, just don’t expect to see them in a room this small in Boston ever again.
If you happen to be Chicago-bound this weekend, you could also catch Savages on Saturday at the Pitchfork Music Festival (Green Stage, 4:15). Even if you’re not, be sure to check back with Tastemakers next week for full Pitchfork coverage.