Speedy Ortiz & Joanna Gruesome - Manchester Deaf Institute

Ever more of a proposition, Joanna Gruesome parade a sharp set of influences. When they barrel into tonight’s opener ‘Secret Surprise’, a locked-on crowd takes note of that heritage, Owen William’s guitar picking up reference points from the smarter end of the indie pop schema. They reference Brit prime movers from The Wedding Present to The Field Mice to Shrag, while bassist Max Warren and drummer Dave Sandford propel the band with a distinctly hardcore thrust. Much of this crowd (age range: older than the band to a lot older than the band), you suspect, would have turned out for them as headliners and they play with the un-fussed ease that only youth allows, giggling as tuning takes an age, bumping into each other as they career around the tiny stage.

At the centre of it all is singer Alanna McArdle, a figurehead with stature and presence, snapping off those staccato verses and joining Williams for their sweet-sour choruses. Debut album Weird Sister scours your synapses while it quietly takes your hand and the Joanna Gruesome live show is equally rug-pulling. They play really hard, smacking the living daylights out of their songs. But they do it with love. They’re attentive, not sloppy. If they can sharpen up just a little (the extended breaks between songs are a bit of a pain and bassist Max playing with his back to the audience feels a little off), we might just start to love them as much as they probably deserve. For now, don’t take your eye off them.

“That's an adult situation you threw at your childhood contemporary / I was never the witch that you made me to be,” are amongst the first words Sadie Dupuis sings tonight as Speedy Ortiz pile into ‘Plough’. Like much of Major Arcana, the debut album that announced her unique and arresting lyrical mode, those elegantly carved narratives are often opaque, though their troubled tone needs little working out. So don’t expect to see the Speedy Ortiz songbook at your local karaoke joint any time soon. There’s nothing suitably celebratory or maudlin here. The likes of ‘Taylor Swift’ (an acid gender reversal of tired bedpost notch scoring: “I got too many boyfriends to see you tonight”) are raw and uncompromising, a close-up take on awkwardness and insecurity. Dupuis packs huge scale into her outsider poetry. At its best, it captures time, place, feeling with an un-quivering eye. It’s very strange, and a world removed from the pained confessionals or the ironic self-announcement of much US college rock.

If tonight’s show doesn’t quite catch, doesn’t really build, and the full house doesn’t find the voice to call for an encore (causing Dupuis to cover for us later by tweeting that she finds them “pretentious”), it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. Perhaps Speedy Ortiz doesn’t quite fire as a band, their chunky riffola often falling between two stools. At times, you get a sniff of Pavement or Throwing Muses but sometimes the backing is too well-worked, closer to the bread-and-butter middle ground of, say, Buffalo Tom. Bassist Darl Ferm and Matt Robidoux work up a sweat but they’re hardly great characters and, with Dupuis plonked stage left, the set-up feels imbalanced. Perhaps Major Arcana, like any album that fosters an uneasy relationship between listener and performer, feeds off intimacy rather than the collective experience of live performance. And that would be a shame, because Sadie Dupuis is a courageous and confrontational artist, one who delves deep inside seemingly not for her own ends, but for those of her audience.


Photos by Alex Bell

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