Savages Garden: I Saw Savages Nine Times in 19 Days
The band had a month-long stay in New York as they prep their new album, which might be called 'The Answer.'
Savages / All photos by the author
Here’s a confession: I have never followed a band around on tour. I’ve never even seen the same band two nights in a row, or traveled more than three hours (one-way) for a show. Though I see about 50 shows a year—always intending to go to more—my concert-going habits rarely bend in the direction of obsession or unreasonable immoderation.
And my New Year's resolution was to change that.
The idea came to me in late December, when I noticed British post-punk quartet Savages would be playing nine shows in January, spread out across 19 days and three New York venues—Baby’s All Right, Mercury Lounge, and Saint Vitus—with three shows at each. What if some dumb schmuck attended all nine shows? What if that dumb schmuck were me?
By now it seems clear Savages is one of the great rock bands to emerge in this decade. Though I adored the group’s 2013 debut Silence Yourself, I hadn’t yet seen the band live. But the timing is right. Savages has been out of the public eye for nearly a year. The band’s now back with new material, hence the New York residency. And Savages is still such a young band that it may never have seen such a ridiculous and horribly misguided expression of fandom.
I set some ground rules before the Savageathon began:
1. I will attend all nine Savages performances from start to finish, barring emergency or death.
2. I will write an entry about each performance within 36 hours.
3. I don’t have to catch the opening acts, though I’ll try to catch some.
4. I can stand anywhere within the venue.
5. I can wear earplugs, obviously.
6. The Savageathon will remain secret while it is ongoing, with the exception of some friends, Noisey’s editors, Savages’ publicity team, my girlfriend, my parents, and—okay, it didn’t really remain secret at all, but I did restrain myself from tweeting about it.
As I write this, I’m 12 hours away from the first Savages set and not sure what’s going to happen to me over the next three weeks. I expect I’ll get to feel some of the exhaustion and delirium that bands experience playing the same sets night after night. I expect this will be the closest I come to having an Almost Famous experience, without the whole losing-my-virginity-and-then-almost-dying-in-a-plane-crash-with-Mark-Kozelek part. (I’d rather die in a plane crash with anybody else.) I also expect I’ll be more familiar with Savages’ new material than any other music writer, which is unfortunate, because I might never want to listen to Savages again. Maybe I’ll just hate all music in general! Who knows!
As Savages vocalist Jehnny Beth once sang, “Let’s get it started (ha!) / Let’s get it started / In here.” Allons-y.
Show One: Monday, January 12 at Baby’s All Right
Dear Savages Diary,
On the 12th evening of the year, I walk alone down Bedford Avenue, steeling myself. It’s rainy but not raining. I buy a donut—a reward for going through with this and fuel for the weeks ahead.
I arrive mid-drone: Norman Westberg, of Swans, is in the middle of an opening set, standing at attention over a guitar, goatee spiking downwards. It’s the sort of formless noise piece that sounds like it has going on for at least 15 minutes and will continue for 15 more, though it fades out soon enough. Smoke machines fill the stage, and loud Electroclash blares from the DJ table.
I’d forgotten how terribly designed Baby’s All Right is, and how excruciatingly hot it gets when packed. But it is conveniently located (for me), intimate, and host to a pretty wide range of excellent acts. Plus, my friend Dylan works the door on Mondays. He tells me he’ll be seeing all three Savages sets at Baby’s, and I promptly one-up him (or six-up him, I guess). The Electroclash fades, a gurgling techno theme takes over, and Savages is onstage by 10:17.
“I need something new… in my eaaaars,” vocalist Jehnny Beth howls, which seems like a statement of purpose but turns out to be the opening line of a new song, “I Need Something New.” There’s a maelstrom of bass rumbles and tom-tom-heavy drum maneuvers from Fay Milton, a creeping build-up, then a quick pause and another new song: a droning blare of a punk track called “The Answer,” with machine-gun guitar blasts and a high, sing-songy vocal line. Within five minutes, any ambivalence fades. I’ve chosen the right band to see nine times: Savages is phenomenal. They’re not a “great new band,” or “great English band,” or “great all-female band,” an angle that’s commonly emphasized in press. They’re one of the best bands around, full stop. Abrasive, slicing, and climax-driven, Savages’ live chemistry is extraordinary, and while their appearance not infrequently draws them parallels to riot grrrl acts, the band’s best songs have a rhythmic, creeping dread that owes much more to early-’80s post-punk.
Each member is integral. Even when reading lyrics off a printed sheet, frontwoman Beth’s studied intensity runs in her facial expressions, her oddly frenetic motions (which remind me the slightest bit of German weirdo-star Klaus Nomi), and her vocal delivery, which shifts between a low, menacing murmur to a formidable howl. Gemma Thompson is the unsung hero: though her stage presence is subdued, she’s the rare guitarist who is capable of adding texture and melodic accompaniment simultaneously, alternating between thick, roaring feedback (see: “I Am Here”) and demented surf riffs. Bassist Ayse Hassan studiously holds it together, and gets her moment of glory at the start of “Shut Up,” a consistent show-stopper. The crowd’s odd swaying mirrors Savages’ anxious, stuttering energy. During that song’s climax, I look out and see Norman Westberg standing perfectly still, towering above the crowd, eyes glazed over.
Mostly—with the exception of “No Face” and the hysterical “Husbands,” a personal favorite—the rest of the set consists of new material. This disappoints no one, because (1) Savages has only one album out and (2) the group’s new songs are immediately, strikingly excellent. “We haven’t finished writing our new songs,” Beth explains,”and we figured, what the hell, let’s just play them.” The last song, “Fuckers,” is not entirely new (it dates back to a 2014 live single). It begins with repeating, single-note bass plunks and eventually flames out in a thrashing, full-band drone. The song’s ten minutes revolve around one chord and, mostly, one all-consuming command (“Don’t let the fuckers get you down”). There’s no encore.
Briefly after the show I meet up with Savages’ publicist, who has agreed to press-list me nine times. We talk about Savages’ set and New Jersey and a friend we have in common. Then I work up the nerve to ask what I’ve been wondering all night: “Does the band know I’m doing this?” “I think so!” she replies. Weeks later, my editor will inform me that another Noisey staff member had met the drummer and mentioned my plan to her, eliciting a response along the lines of “why would anyone do that?”
I’d said I wouldn’t listen to Silence Yourself in January, to stave away overkill. But I can’t help it. I get home, and immediately I put on the record.
Setlist: I Need Something New / The Answer / No / When In Love / Surrender / Adore / Shut Up / No Face / This Is What You Get / Sad Person / Husbands / Fuckers
Overheard: “It’s my favorite record store in the city, and no one even goes there!”
Best stage banter: Jehnny Beth: “Do you know a sad person?” [crowd cheers] “This song is for them. This song is called ‘Sad Person.’”
Show Two: Wednesday, January 14 at Mercury Lounge
Dear Savages Diary,
After work, I report to the Lower East Side. It’s an early show, it’s cold as hell outside, and since I’m already a 55-year-old man (read: I’m 24), I’m pleased to be in and out before 9:30.
I enter, yet again, mid-drone—opening duo Drums & Drone fits its name remarkably well, and it’s the sort of multilayered, fluttering drone that makes me want to lie down on a cold, wood floor. Brian Chase, of Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame, is tapping a snare drum with what appears to be a pencil, then gently adjusting the snare itself in such a way that I can’t tell if it’s part of the performance or a mid-show adjustment. Savages is cleverly avoiding full-band openers; the effect prevents some middling rock act from having to compete with the London group’s assault, and helps bring out Savages’ atmospheric side.
Clad entirely in black—a motif that sticks for the rest of the residency—Savages emerge at 8:02. I’m stationed in a tiny gap between wall and stage, close enough to reach out and fiddle with Gemma Thompson’s effects board, if I were a jerk. From such a spot the band’s volume almost seems too crushing for such a small space; Ayse Hassan’s bass licks pulse through my body, and Thompson’s feedback squalls overwhelm on tracks like “I Am Here.” (Every other song seems to open with this same formless guitar rumble. It’s like the Savages equivalent of generic tuning sounds.)
The set is nearly identical to Monday night’s, the audience markedly less so. Mercury Lounge isn’t that much smaller than Baby’s, but it feels more intimate, and a shade older—lots of bald heads and grey hair in the audience. That’s probably a result of the early set time, though it could also have something to do with Mercury’s less fashionable location, in Manhattan a block east of touristy landmark Katz’s Deli. The few shows I’ve seen here (John Vanderslice in 2013, Elephant Stone in 2014) have been pretty low key; this one’s packed. There is more audience–band interaction, an even stronger sense that Savages is playing a club far smaller than their abilities. Jehnny Beth is leaning further out from the stage, shaking hands, acknowledging fans. “You guys are fucking cool!” one crowd-member shouts, and she holds out the mic to his face, and he’s forced to repeat the assertion, a little more sheepishly, into the PA: “You guys are, uh, fucking cool.”
The set’s familiar, mostly, but still thrilling enough that I’m grinning throughout. That white-hot burst of recognition at the start of “Shut Up” is a visceral treat. New addition “City’s Full”—an obvious Silence Yourself highlight—is a flailing shot of adrenaline. I’m struck by the confidence of the new songs, which are beginning to lodge in my memory bank and take shape. These songs are full of veering, chaotic verses and weirdly quotable choruses. There is “No,” an off-kilter, start-stoppy anthem that goes, “I asked the world and the world said, No,” and then there is “Sad Person,” which takes on a menacing, accusatory tone: “You are, you are! / A sad, sad person!” “Adore” is a low, moody build-up that Beth previously dedicated to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It’s as close as Savages comes to conventional balladry, and the most powerful song in the band’s brief catalog. “I adore life / Do you adore life?” Beth repeats as the song lurches towards its immense apex. Nothing about the material seems tentative, half-formed, uncertain; the tracks are as tightly wound as the debut’s fiercest anthems, though maybe more cerebral.
Jehnny Beth’s stage presence remains a remarkable thing, her wild-eyed exertions and utterances a throwback to when rock singers were expected to be a little bit menacing and mysterious. Her hair is short, her arms constantly waving out from her body. I notice how many of the songs reflect the vocalist’s tendency to choose an ambiguously simple, evocative snatch of language and build a song around its repetition in such a way that you wonder how the hell nobody has thought to make this a song before (the obvious example: “I am here! I am here! I am here! I am here!”). You know how when you repeat a word or phrase over and over it loses shape and sounds like gibberish? That’s the way of these new Savages tracks. One goes: “I adore life! Do you adore life! I adore life! Do you adore life!” Another: “Don’t let the fuckers bring you down / Don’t let the fuckers bring you down. Don’t let the fuckers bring you down. Don’t let the fuckers bring you down.” (Clearly, yes, there’s a lyrical motif of triumph, as seedy as these songs sound.)
Again, no encore. Everything’s done by 9:30. No one seems especially bothered by that. “Fuckers,” which again pounds out for seven or eight minutes at least, is better than any encore would be.
Setlist: I Need Something New / The Answer / No / City’s Full / Surrender / Adore / Shut Up / No Face / This Is What You Get / When In Love / I Am Here / Sad Person / Husbands / Fuckers
Overheard: [dude talking loudly to his girlfriend after show] “Well, they’re so bass-driven that they can’t help but be Fugazi-esque, in a sense. Cuz, like, Fugazi’s songs are so bass-driven.”
Best stage banter: Jehnny Beth: “Is it too early? I think it is. I just woke up.”
Show Three: Saturday, January 17 at Saint Vitus
You know that scene in Groundhog Day when Bill Murray is at the diner with Andie MacDowell’s character, narrating people and events before they happen? “In about five seconds a waiter’s going to drop a tray of dishes. Five, four, three, two, one.”
The third Savages show is a bit like that. I finally have a plus one, so I take my girlfriend, Rebecca, and midway through the show realize I already know what the rest of the set will be. I start showing off: “The next song is called ‘Sad Person.’” “Okay, now they’re going to play ‘Husbands.’” (I had told her about this one, imitating the manic tenor of Jehnny Beth’s delivery—“Huz-bins! Huz-bins! Huz-bins!”—and it didn’t disappoint either of us. I pay attention to that song’s other lyrics for once and finally start to grasp its panic-y grip on marital alienation, how each utterance of the song’s title is another blow to some imagined domestic contentment. Savages, to their credit, render domestic discord as a wailing terror.)
But anyway: Savages has only been playing about half of Silence Yourself at each show. The same half. I keep hoping they’ll perform the rest of the tracks (how about “Hit Me”? Holy fuck I’d love to hear “Marshal Dear”), but hope seems increasingly futile. It’s OK: I’d gleefully attend if the show were “Husbands” performed 20 times. And “Shut Up” and “I Am Here”—still—are immense, revelatory experiences. The “I Am Here” intro alone is formidable, staggering: those distant guitar squalls, those pounding, teasing tom-tom stutters. And, at least, the stage banter varies: “It would be appropriate to tell me to ‘Shut Up’ right now,” Beth joke before commencing “Shut Up.”
But there isn’t so much banter. Even the band seems a bit fatigued this time; they perform entirely in the dark and with markedly less interaction with the audience. What does get uttered has a slightly more sarcastic edge. “The effects of coffee on Jehnny Beth… are not good,” she declares at another point. (Here it’s worth stating that when I refer to stage banter, I am always referring to Jehnny Beth. Over the course of this residency I didn’t see another member of Savages so much as approach a microphone.) Saint Vitus is the most punk-oriented of the three venues, and with its bottleneck design seems the least suited to the sizable crowds Savages attracts. The show audience spills out into the bar area, and there’s no proper backstage, so Savages themselves have to push through a male-heavy crowd simply to take the stage.
I’ve learned the new songs well enough to recognize them by name and intro, so I spend much of the set mentally ranking them. “Adore,” clearly, is every show’s centerpiece. I recognize its low, groaning warning of a bassline, and each time I’m torn apart by the quiet terror of its build-up. It’s typical Savages to merge ostensibly uplifting lyrics with immensely ominous instrumentation; one lyric in particular strikes me: “I know evil when I see it / I know good and I just do it!” (Beth spits out the last two words like it’s code for a violent crime.) Next best new track—if it counts as new—is “Fuckers,” followed closely by “The Answer,” which hardly registered for me at the first two shows but is now something of a revelation, combining a pummeling roar of guitar with an eerie, almost keening vocal melody.
There is also a taut, unsettling post-punk song called “Surrender” and a punkish tantrum called “This Is What You Get,” while “When In Love” is bouncy and the slightest bit New Wave-y. Oh: and there is also a new new song added to the show this time. It is alternately titled “Change” or “Evil” on setlists; the verses feature the sort of outright disco beat Savages have previously only hinted at, while the chorus refrain goes “Don’t try to change! / Don’t try to change!”
Aside from this track, Saturday’s set was mostly predictable, but there is one great surprise of the night. I get home and grab the Silence Yourself vinyl to glance at the lyrics sheet. Just above the barcode is a message I haven’t noticed before. “DON’T LET THE FUCKERS GET YOU DOWN,” it reads.
Setlist: I Need Something New / The Answer / No / City’s Full / Surrender / Adore / Shut Up / No Face / This Is What You Get / Change / When In Love / I Am Here / Sad Person / Husbands / Fuckers
Overheard: “We were just talking about music, it was awesome, she’s into like No Age and—”
Best stage banter: Jehnny Beth: “Are you okay? I can’t see you very much.” Dude in audience: “We can’t see you very much either!” Jehnny Beth: “Yeah, I know. That was intentional.”
Show Four: Monday, January 19 at Baby’s All Right
Dear Savages Diary,
Another Savages show. Another Monday night. Another Baby’s All Right gig. But it’s not all the same shit.
For one thing, the support act, No Bra, is the oddest and most entertaining pick yet. No Bra is the project of performer Susanne Oberbeck. She is onstage in just a pair of shorts, alternately mumbling, shouting, and rambling along with some pre-recorded, tacky-as-Karaoke backing tracks. Oberbeck’s grim, German-accented delivery gives an unsettling edge to what might otherwise be a hilarious aesthetic. The best bit, “Munchausen,” which dates back to 2005, features her reciting a two-sided, cooler-than-thou conversation that name-checks both Kathleen Hanna and Stockhausen while featuring the excellent boast “I was cremated once!”
For another, I am introduced to Savages’ manager, John Best, who flew in from London in time for Saturday night’s show and is still quite jetlagged. He is a charming, smiley Brit wearing a scarf indoors. He is attending three of the nine shows, and allows me an interview just before Savages’ set. (I cannot interview Savages themselves because they have promised another outlet an exclusive.) (To my knowledge, that other outlet is not attending all nine shows.) (I don’t even think it is attending eight of the shows.)
John Best, who also manages Sigur Ros and Cat’s Eyes, tells me that he thinks Savages’ new material is “more sophisticated,” though he didn’t enjoy Saturday’s show, at least compared to the last time he saw them perform these new songs in England just before Christmas. “I came in fully expecting awesome, and I didn’t get awesome,” he says. “It was like, ‘What the fuck?’” Nonetheless, he would go to all nine shows if he lived in New York. He tells me the album will be out at the end of summer and will “maybe” be called The Answer, but he adds that “no one knows what it’s going to be called.” When I ask if he has any role in the creative process, he gets irate. “They won’t let me!” he responds. “I’d love to! This is my fucking job, I should be interfering!”
The author and manager John Best
The show itself, by the way, is a fantastic one. A new week seems to have reenergized the band. “This is the second week of our New York residency!” Jehnny Beth announces, as if tracking progress for me personally, then throws herself into the proceedings. She spends the set stalking the stage, posing questions to the audience, signaling for people to move closer. During “I Need Something New,” I glance up and she’s not in sight; she’s jumped from the stage and started pushing her way through the crowd.
Oh, plus: new setlist. Or revised order, at least. Hearing something other than “I Need Something New” open the set startles me, keeps complacency from creeping in. “City’s Full” fills the opening slot admirably (a good thing), and “Surrender” is gone (a bad thing). “Adore” stills arrives around the midpoint, and Jehnny Beth dedicates it to Martin Luther King Day. “I think it’s an appropriate day for it,” she says. “The message is: love, not hate.”
Setlist: City’s Full / No / Change / I Need Something New / The Answer / When In Love / This Is What You Get / I Am Here / Adore / Shut Up / No Face / Sad Person / Husbands / Fuckers
Overheard: “This is better than Terminal 5!”
Best stage banter: Jehnny Beth: “We came to New York because we needed something new. And this song is called ‘I Need Something New.’ [pause] That’s the worst introduction ever.”
Show Five: Wednesday, January 21 at Mercury Lounge
Dear Savages Diary,
This is starting to take a toll on me. I’m tired. Haven’t slept more than six hours a night since the weekend. Just after Savages’ Monday set, I caught a late train to the suburbs, where I spent a day engaged in the physically and emotionally exhausting task of helping my parents care for our ailing dog, only to catch an early train back to the city in time for work on Wednesday. This one’s not an early set. I want to lie down.
Instead, I arrive at Mercury Lounge early enough to catch an opening set by Savages friend and collaborator Johnny Hostile, né Nico Congé. Paris-based Hostile opened up Saturday’s show (I only caught a few songs), runs the Pop Noire label, and produced Silence Yourself. In a previous life, he comprised half the duo John & Jen, with Jehnny Beth. Pale, gaunt, and very Parisian, he’s onstage in a leather jacket shrieking and sulking about “hours, days, and weeeeks!” with just a bass and drum machine for accompaniment. In one track, there are recordings of what sounds like a porn star discussing her craft. The set reminds me of 1980s Berlin, though in fairness I wasn’t alive in the 80s and have never been to Berlin.
Once it ends, Savages publicist Jackie is leading me to the back, down a staircase, into a dry, dungeon-like space. It’s a bit like a wine cellar, and fits Hostile’s style nicely. There, the Pop Noire founder takes questions. “It’s not a career,” Hostile corrects in a thick French accent when I ask about his solo career. “I do this show cuz the girls asked me to do it.” He designed the set specifically for their shows, he tells me. “The mood, the aesthetic is similar… Everything is important in terms of aesthetic for Savages. So I designed it for them.” He’s not involved in their creative process, but is here “to observe” and get ready for recording Album Number Two. The best song? “‘Adore’ is amazing,” he raves. “‘Adore’ is, like, really touching people's hearts straight away.”
From Hostile, I learn that Savages are spending the month living by the Graham Ave. L stop, which is pretty close to me. “We're like animals,” he says. “We hunt and look for food. That's the only thing we do [during the daytime].” Our interview is interrupted by the sound of Savages shouting the chorus of “I Am Here” from their dressing room down the hall, like some bizarre warm-up ritual. That turns out to be the opener of their set, which I witness from the back of Mercury Lounge. Jackie—the publicist who made this piece possible—and I have the sort of conversation only people who have seen Savages like three times in one week can have, trading notes on the set and just how excellent is that false ending in “The Answer”? (Really excellent.)
By midpoint, my eyes are burning with sleep deprivation, and I’m ready to collapse. From this vantage point, and my physical state, the sharp edges of the set are flattened out; everything seems a little muted and hazy. The highlights of the set, then, are those that startle me, lift me out of the fog of exhaustion. The climax of “Adore” is one. On the last syllable of the song, Jehnny Beth stretches out the word “Life” and circles around the note itself. “Fuckers,” meanwhile, is purged from the set, and remains absent for most of the remaining shows; in its stead, “No Face,” “This Is What You Get,” and “Husbands” make up an unholy triumvirate of fast, brash set-closers. If you are in a punk band, you should strive to close your sets with a song half as twisted and bizarre as “Husbands.”
“Don’t let the fuckers bring you down,” I mumble, dragging myself up towards the L Train before I pass out on First Avenue.
Setlist: I Am Here / I Need Something New / The Answer / City’s Full / No / Change / Adore / Fuckers / When In Love / Shut Up / Sad Person / No Face / This Is What You Get / Husbands
Overheard: Guy talking to his date after the show: “I knew like four of their songs well, but I generally liked the vibe, man.”
Best stage banter: Audience member: “She Will!” Jehnny Beth: “She won’t right now.”
Show Six: Saturday, January 24 at Saint Vitus
Photo at Mercury Lounge January 28
Dear Savages Diary,
What is wrong with me? I should be sick of this by now, right? I should be dreading each set, rolling my eyes at each iteration of the “Shut Up” bass intro, detesting the songs that are played at every show, usually in the same order.
Here’s the thing. Before each Savages show—and sometimes after—I am irritable, perpetually annoyed at the sleep I’m losing and the plans I had to turn down for the sake of another Savages show. But as soon as the band begins, that fades. There’s only glee. Savages are astounding. Those aborted plans—they wouldn’t have been half as good as the opening blast of “City’s Full.” No other band playing in New York tonight captures the weird, menacing swagger of “Sad Person.”
Two quick notes:
1. “Adore,” besides being consistently incredible, gets a new spoken introduction at nearly every show. This time Jehnny Beth explains that it was inspired by a poet who was married and had two kids until “one day she day she discovered she was a lesbian.” She wrote a book called Crime Against Nature, Beth says, and I later learn that poet is Minnie Bruce Pratt.
2. There’s a new new song. It’s an overtly funky track called “Slowing Down the World,” and it closes with an extended, guttural wail that sounds like something snatched from an early PJ Harvey record.
Setlist: City’s Full / I Need Something New / The Answer / No / Change / Slowing Down the World / Adore / I Am Here / When In Love / Shut Up / Sad Person / No Face / This Is What You Get / Husbands
Overheard: [after the show] “Their bass player is the best fucking bass player of all time. The bass player is the fucking anchor of that band.”
Best stage banter: Jehnny Beth: “We want your honest response. If it’s crap, you throw things at us.” [a few songs later] “You aren’t throwing anything.”
Show Seven: Monday, January 26 at Baby’s All Right
Dear Savages Diary,
Here I was hoping to recount a dramatic tale of trekking from my apartment to Baby’s All Right in the middle of a historic blizzard, my hair frozen and fingers raw with frostbite, only to arrive and see Jehnny Beth and co. performing to a mostly empty room consisting of me and their manager and maybe like, I dunno, James Murphy or someone.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, the blizzard proved disappointing as shit, but still ominous enough for Baby’s All Right to postpone the show until Thursday. This means I get to close out my marathon with three Savages shows in four days. Welp.
Show Seven, actually: Wednesday, January 28 at Mercury Lounge
Dear Savages Diary,
I’m asked frequently, when I mention the project, if every show is the same. The setlist doesn’t vary all that much, I explain, but the venue and audience does. Rarely, though, is anyone in the audience obnoxious enough to hinder the show itself. The last Mercury Lounge gig is an exception. There’s one jerk who lightly heckles the band, shouting out crap like “The drummer’s sexy!” and boasting about how far he’d traveled. (Later I notice Lindsay Zoladz has an entire Vulture piece addressed to this ashole.) At one point, it even seems to disturb the band’s concentration; drummer Milton and bassist Hassan fumble the start of “Slowing Down the World” twice before giving up and moving on to “Surrender.” That’s not to mention the two guys ahead of me who insist on speaking in loud French over the intro of “Adore” (SMH).
Audience woes aside, the set’s a good one, if astoundingly sweaty. I attended with my friend Adam, who works for an ad agency in Brooklyn. Adam remarks on how striking it is that the three instrumentalists maintain a stoic, workmanlike stage presence while their vocalist is a furious bolt of post-punk energy. “I think my favorite new track was the one with relentless, fast guitar-playing triplets,” he tells me later, most likely referring to “The Answer.” “It sounded like horses racing.”
Setlist: I Am Here / Sad Person / City’s Full / No / When In Love / Slowing Down the World (aborted intro) / Surrender / Adore / I Need Something New / The Answer / Shut Up / Evil (or Change?) / No Face / This Is What You Get / Husbands
Overheard: “...yeah, well, AdAge fucks everyone over all the time.”
Best stage banter: Some asshole in the audience: “The drummer’s sexy!” Jehnny Beth: “What about the songs? That’s why we’re here—to play songs.”
Show Eight: Thursday, January 29 (or, technically, early morning 30) at Baby’s All Right
Dear Savages Diary,
God help me. I’m exhausted, having gotten stuck on a stalled F Train following last night’s show and made it home past 1:00, only to wake early for work. Now I have word from the group’s publicist that tonight’s make-up set is a late one: Savages goes on at 1:00 AM. My roommate and friend Mickey has agreed to be my plus one. Here’s a play-by-play.
7:40 PM: I am eating a large burrito while watching the last 20 minutes of Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix. It’s the part where Sirius dies, which is sad, but not as sad as the knowledge that I’ll have to leave my apartment in like five hours and trek back into the freezing night for the same fucking show.
8:43 PM: I take a disco nap. It is a bad nap, the sort of nap you take when you know you have to get up soon for something onerous and so drift off into a semiconscious state of suspended dread.
11:38 PM: Fearful of being stood up, I text Mickey: “Hey gonna head over to baby’s in bit.” He walks in the front door 30 seconds after I hit Send. We’re still on: “I’m down to go, and it’s convenient,” he tells me. “But also I feel like this is the part of the run where you need the most emotional support.”
12:20 AM: The night is cold and snowy, the L Train mostly empty. Except there’s a noise, a sudden, squawking cacophony that startles us both. It is a saxophonist, bleating out free-jazz solos at a volume entirely too piercing for this confined space. I wonder, in my delirium, if this guy is Savages’ support act, if they’ve assigned their opening acts to start following me around and serenading me personally, because I Am The Audience. I am all that matters anymore. Who else? Why?
12:48 AM: We get to Baby’s. It’s bustling, even at this hour. I head over to the merch table. My editor suggested I vary things up by reviewing the merch table. I drip snow and moisture all over the merch table.
12:49 AM: How do you review a merch table? There’s, uh, CDs and vinyl. Silence Yourself and the “Fuckers”/”Dream Baby Dream” single. A cool poster. 8.4, Best New Merch Table. The merch seller is named Rebecca. What’s it like working merch for Savages? “Really good.” Did she catch the previous shows? “I’ve seen a few songs,” but mostly she’s been running merch. “We’re pretty much out of a lot of sizes!” she exclaims, pointing to a $50 limited edition sweatshirt.
12:57 AM: I pour myself some water at the bar. “Where you from, bro?” a dude asks me. “You Jewish?”
1:03 AM: Mickey uses Shazam to identify Savages’ warm-up music—the eerie, 70s-tinted techno that blares over the PA just before every set. (His answer: “A” by Nisennenmondai.) This feels like a violation of some sacred, unspoken contract; what happens in Savages’ warm-up playlist stays in Savages’ warm-up playlist.
1:11 AM: Savages launches into a taut, frenetic “City’s Full” and then “I Need Something New,” with a crescendo that’s even more pounding than usual. It’s a speedy, workmanlike set; of course the band doesn’t seem remotely tired.
1:28 AM: “Shut Up” is—as ever—a charging flare-up of a song. But because I’ve just woken up and because I will so soon go back to sleep—and because of the venue’s stoned-punk-grandma decor, and the fact that the guy next to me is lighting a joint and blowing it in my face—the set has a half-faded, dreamlike quality. “Are we making you happy?” Jehnny Beth wonders aloud. They are.
1:35 AM: The band plays the new song it couldn’t get through the previous night. (Official title: “Slowing Down the World.”) This time they conquer it without incident; there’s that piercing vocal wail at the end, and Jenny Beth’s stage moves resemble The Macarena as performed by someone who has never seen it before and is receiving instructions over a walkie-talkie.
1:41 AM: Some shoving breaks out in front of me during “I Am Here.” It’s tough to tell if it’s hostile or playfully; either way, a Savages show is an awful setting for cagey male aggression.
2:00 AM: Jehnny Beth: “You know that feeling when you’re in love and you don’t know how to feel? No matter what you do, you’re in the wrong? Well, don’t fucking listen to that. Just do it.” Cue “This Is What You Get.”
2:05 AM: “Soon you’ll be in bed,” Jehnny Beth quips. “But now you’re not in bed. So let’s dance.” (Is “Husbands”—now the de facto set-closer—even more breathless and frantic than usual, or am I hitting delirium?)
2:24 AM: On our way back to the L, Mickey contrasts this show with seeing Savages at Pitchfork Festival. “The festival was so much bigger than they were,” he says, “whereas here, I felt like they were so much bigger.” Then he tries to explain the typical Savages song: “Like, she repeats something, and everything just gets more intense gradually, in the span of, like, maybe the last 30 seconds of the song. And then they just stop. They stopped maybe six of their songs that way. And it was always really effective!”
Setlist: City’s Full / I Need Something New / The Answer / No / Shut Up / Slowing Down the World / Adore / I Am Here / When In Love / No Face / Sad Person / Evil [previously listed as
“Change”] / This Is What You Get / Husbands
Overheard: [possibly referring to Johnny Hostile] “He’s, like, actually big in France. Johannes was telling me.”
Best stage banter: Jehnny Beth, just before “No Face”: “All right, let me see your faces. Closer. Another step. And from the back. No more fear.”
Show Nine: Saturday, January 31 at Saint Vitus
Dear Savages Diary,
This is the end. But I’m too busy worrying about dying from smoke inhalation to feel sentimental. See, I attended a media party in Williamsburg just before the final Savages gig, and I walked in the absolute wrong direction on Kent Ave, and I wound up circling around a massive Williamsburg fire, and now I’m at Saint Vitus and my lungs sort of hurt and oh God what if I collapse right here and now, just hours from completing the Savageathon—
I don’t collapse. I do, though, spend much of this show pushed up against a stranger’s very bald and very tattooed head. It’s the last Savages set, as Jehnny Beth repeatedly exclaims (Again, it’s like she’s addressing me personally: “This is the end of the residency. You fucking killed it!”), and the lengthiest one (“Slowing Down the World” and “Fuckers” coexist, for the first time on a setlist, because nothing besides “Fuckers” can close out this residency). It’s also the most crowded set, perhaps because of weekend New York Times coverage of the band, though that theory makes little sense, considering the show was entirely sold out beforehand.
You know how when you’re listening to a favorite album, your brain learns to anticipate the intro of one song even before the previous song ends? And when you hear a song out of order—on a mix, say—something feels off, because that anticipatory transition is thwarted? That’s happening to me. The end of “I Need Something New” triggers a sort of Pavlovian craving for “The Answer,” and when “Sad Person” isn’t immediately followed by “Husbands,” it all feels unsettling. To change things up, I stand in the back and watch Johnny Hostile run the soundboard, to see what it’s like to run sound for Savages. This turns out to be as boring as watching me during a Savages show, except instead of pausing every few measures to jot something in a notebook, he pauses every few measures to twiddle some knob the tiniest bit.
“Fuckers” goes on forever, with its brutal, atonal death-groove of a climax, but then it stops. And then I take the B-43 bus home, and think about how much I’ll miss this shit.
Setlist: City’s Full / I Need Something New / The Answer / No / Shut Up / Slowing Down the World / Adore / I Am Here / When In Love / No Face / Sad Person / Change or Evil / This Is What You Get / Husbands / Fuckers
Brief tally of Savages songs never played during the entire residency: “Strife,” “Waiting for a Sign,” “Dead Nature,” “She Will,” “Hit Me,” “Dream Baby Dream” (suicide cover), “Flying to Berlin,” “Words to the Blind.”
Overheard: Absurdly Tall Man, after being asked to move over: “It’s a concert. Just fucking deal with it.”
Best stage banter: Jehnny Beth: “This song is called ‘Fuckers.’ [pause] There are plenty of motherfuckers out there, so just pick one.”
Nine Things I Learned from Seeing Savages Nine Times:
1. If I enjoy hearing a song performed two times—like, really enjoy it, grinning stupidly throughout—I probably also will enjoy hearing it performed nine times. Setlist variety is overrated; the pleasure center of the brain is all about familiarity.
2. I like the feeling of doing something during the most desolate stretch of winter—of leaving my apartment and partaking in some cultural facet of New York City—even if I am just partaking in the same cultural event over and over and over, nine times.
3. A good way to read tons of awful, racist tweets is to search Twitter for “Savages.”
4. I am never as cool and collected during a show as the tall dude from Swans (and neither are you).
5. The guy who opens for Savages probably doesn't care which burrito place I recommend near the Graham L.
6. I will always pronounce the phrase “Nine times” the way the principal from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off pronounces it.
7. Going to shows at 1:00 AM in a blizzard with my roommate is a pretty great bonding exercise and one I should do all the time.
8. If I tell my parents I am seeing the same band nine times they will invariably ask why I don’t just see that band one time, and I won’t really have an answer for them.
9. I already know my favorite album of 2015. It hasn’t been recorded yet.
Zach Schonfeld won't let the fuckers bring him down. Follow him on Twitter.