Marnie Stern July 3, 2011 7th St. Entry, Minneapolis
Experimental guitar player Marnie Stern took a break from her high-profile opening gigs with the Flaming Lips on Sunday night at the Entry to burn through a shorter set of newer material with her noisy trio. Stern's impressive finger-tapping guitar style was undoubtedly the highlight of the show, even though the band experienced a few practical issues with presenting her material live.
With her dense, polymorphous songs, Stern's music is the type that requires all elements to be locked in at all times; otherwise, the intricately-layered wall-of-sound can slip into chaos. On Sunday, the trio too often struggled to lock in with each other, but when they did, the results were powerful.[jump]
Stern's guitar style is heavily based on finger tapping melodies, and then looping those melodies together with more traditional open guitar sounds. The percussion in her songs is just as dense, and on her records, Stern plays with the technical/avant-garde drumming maestro Zach Hill, also of the band Hella. With both of them firing on all cylinders, the songs are relentless bursts of energy that take some time to sink in. However, her self-titled third album from last fall contains her best display yet: Stern and Hill play off of each other with ease as they wind their way through the rhythmic complexities of her songs, all the while maintaining a sense of pop tunefulness that is much-appreciated in such experimental music.
Unsurprisingly, Stern's set at the Entry drew heavily from this impressive record. She opened with the breakneck-paced "Cinco De Mayo," immediately showcasing her powerful vocal range in the song's chorus. It was evident that the crowd loved it too; though not tightly-packed, the crowd at the Entry was filled in close to the stage to catch Stern's guitar techniques and her touring drummer's considerable chops.
Still, something seemed out of sync for the first couple of songs, and it wasn't until the Marnie Stern standout "Nothing Left" that the trio really took off. With its warped, aggressive girl-group chorus and numerous feel changes, the song found Stern and her bandmates reaching a muscular sound much greater than the sum of its parts. Though these breakthrough moments came and passed throughout the set, the wait was definitely worth it.
It's hard to say exactly what happened when things didn't line up though. Perhaps the mix balance made it easier to hear certain parts rather than others in the crowd, or perhaps the band just couldn't hear each other as well as they would have liked on stage. At times, it felt as though Stern and her touring drummer were battling each other to see who could play the most notes at a time, which rarely happens with Hill's playing on her records. Both Stern and her touring drummer are undoubtedly talented musicians, so it was tough to hear them work at cross purposes when it happened.
Still, it was a treat to see Stern and her band live. It can be difficult to pick out everything happening on her records, and seeing the songs performed live with her guitar acrobatics on display made up for the more difficult moments during the set. Stern's music is a lot to take in at once, and perhaps she realizes this too: she kept her set relatively short, and played no encore.
Additionally, her affable stage demeanor and great back-and-forth with her bass player kept things clicking. At one point, her bass player quipped, "I was just thinking about how proud of you I am for not making any vagina jokes while we played those Flaming Lips dates."
"It would have been too easy with a name like the Flaming Lips," laughed Stern.
Personal Bias: I don't really know her first album at all. But this last one is pretty great. The Crowd: Everyone from metalheads digging Stern's guitar chops to a gray-haired couple in the back who rocked out from their seats. Overheard in the crowd: "More guitar!" during Marnie Stern. - "Play louder!" and "This is like whale sounds or something" during second opener Father You See Queen's lackluster set. Random notebook dump: You know it's a problem when the vocal effects are so heavy that you can't pick out a band name. Especially when it's the first two bands of the night.
Set List: Cinco de Mayo Transformer This American Life Vibrational Match Nothing Left The Crippled Jazzer Shea Stadium Prime Transparency Is the New Mystery Risky Biz Build Her Confidence For Ash