Incendiary guitar goddess Marnie Stern returned to San Francisco on Sunday night in support of her fourth and most accessible LP, the wondrously titled The Chronicles of Marnia. The show, which transpired at the Rickshaw Stop, drew a full house of giddily enthusiastic fans, or at least what passes for “giddily enthusiastic” on a Sunday night in San Francisco. By which I mean we all pretty much stood there stone-faced for three hours. But we were into it! Honest! I think Marnie might actually prefer our notoriously chill style of audience participation; when she noticed that the only overtly expressive dancers in the entire club had positioned themselves directly in front of her, she actually ordered them to go dance in front of her bassist, Nithin Kalvakota. “It’s distracting! And confusing! And it’s making me dizzy!” she protested in that vaguely “It’s Pat” voice of hers. And what the lady wants, the lady gets.
The show opened with local three-piece E V Kain, which consists of Jon Sortland on drums/vocals, Brian Beller on guitar/vocals, and Jonathan Hischke on bass. E V Kain have succeeded in fashioning a truly unique sound for themselves; it comes closest to what we probably would have called math rock back in 2008, unless that term still exists. Does it? That’s probably the last time I heard it. Anyway! Each member of the band contributes emphatically to their restless, mammoth vibe; Sortland beats the shit out of his drums with almost frightening intensity while howling lyrics in harmony with Beller, who issues his own brand of angular, staccato, complex guitar riffs, all underscored by Hischke’s primal bass.
They combined beauty and noise in a way that made them completely appropriate to open for Stern, arguably more appropriate than official tour openers SISU. The only downside was the band’s attitude, which was decidedly pissy. Sortland trolled the crowd right from the get-go, sarcastically lashing out at us for not being more into them; regrettably, this continued throughout the set. I was prepared to write much more negatively about this, but our illustrious managing editor Dakin Hardwick (who was also in attendance) assured me he was pretty sure they were joking. I personally didn’t pick up on that at all, but am willing to give them a pass due to the strength of their set.
Up next was the Los Angeles-based five-piece SISU (frontwoman Sandra Vu was visibly shocked when she announced the band’s LA origin and was greeted with a smattering of applause; “We don’t get that very often,” she gaped). SISU play a seductively cinematic brand of synthy shoegaze, and really offer the audience a complete multimedia experience; in addition to watching the bewitchingly lovely Vu emit her darkly chilly vocals, we are also treated to a continuous projection of artful black-and-white images on a screen behind them throughout their set. The effect was stylishly entrancing; in short, they were the opposite of E V Kain in every conceivable way, for better and worse (E V Kain arguably had them beat on craft if not presentation).
They played the majority of their new EP, Light Eyes, which was released last Tuesday; they also slayed with a perfectly chosen cover of “If You Don’t Cry” by the Magnetic Fields. Vu even busted out a flute for one number, which was probably the surprise of the night. She was later plagued by technical problems that took her guitar out of commission for their final handful of songs; her concerns about the guitar gradually gave way to a more existential crisis as she noticed the songs weren’t terribly impacted by its absence. “I guess we don’t need my guitar?” she asked with a nervous laugh. From my vantage point in the crowd: no, you don’t. There are two other guitars. We could use more of that flute, though.
And finally, the lady of the hour: Ms. Marnie Stern, joined by bassist Kalvakota and new drummer Joe Wong. They blazed through a fairly brief 45-minute set punctuated by Stern repeatedly saying the word “vagina” like an aspring lady comic at an open mic night. When she wasn’t tossing off nonsequiturs like “Vagina lips are overrated,” she was urging Wong to remove his shirt (it stayed on) and teasing Kalvakota about his “sweaty bat wings” (“She just found out what bat wings are,” he explained apologetically to the crowd, despite the fact that I had no idea what they were talking about; I charitably thought maybe it was a reference to the sweat patterns that formed on his back throughout their set, but upon looking it up just now, I learned that is definitely not what it refers to).
The setlist struck an even balance between the poppier tunes from Chronicles Of Marnia and the more aggressive, spazzier early works. Since this crowd consisted of Sunday-night San Franciscans who’d left their dancing shoes at home, tracks like “Year Of The Glad” and “Nothing Is Easy” seemed to generate the loudest applause; but the five people in the room who genuinely wanted to get down made sure to do so for “The Crippled Jazzer” and “For Ash.” But even at its most melodic, Stern’s music is exceedingly more frantic than that of your average indie rocker. Hopefully the next time she comes around, the audience’s energy will come a bit closer to matching hers.