EMA - Manchester Deaf Institute

So she skulks on like we're not even here. The t-shirt – get this - reads "F*** You, Manchester" and she finishes a cigarette and grinds it into the floor. We shuffle nervously, gripped by a growing unease. As she straps on her guitar, that curtain of blonde hides her eyes but you can sense glowering. None of this, we ruefully acknowledge, is a surprise.

Toss the script and rewind. The Erika M. Anderson from the serrated but transcendental experiment in sonic displacement that is EMA and debut album Past Life Martyred Saints, she don’t show. In her place she sends a replacement, a wholly convincing doppelganger full of warm audience interaction, pithy asides and heroically un-rock ‘n’ roll smiles. “Thank you so much for coming out tonight,” she beams. “We’re really looking forward to playing for you.” Chew on that, people: these days they let you make big noisy, snarling, sweary rock ‘n’ roll while at the same time thanking your audience for taking the trouble to brave the rain and town centre parking. Jeepers – someone get me Cameron on the phone! The Big Society: it’s working, Dave!

Anderson (previously trading as part of the brilliant but largely unloved Gowns and now reinvented almost iconoclastically as EMA) has previously spoken of the twin evils of performing, a combination of bliss and terror. Tonight, buoyed by a keen crowd, her fear is nowhere to be seen. Talk about a winning stage persona. So often you see young female artists, expressive and brave on record, shrink to coy awkwardness onstage, sucking the oxygen from intimate venues. Between song silences, amplified by lack of control from the stage, become twitchy chasms of downtime and a nail-biting experience for the audience. (A couple of years back, Juanita from Howling Bells, just across the road from here, said "You're very quiet tonight..." Yeah - that's because we've shelled out to see you and we're up for it, alright, but you're making us nervous!) Tonight, potentially a minefield of unexpected endings and acapella intros and codas, is negotiated with veteran skill. If the joke about the local promotional merchandise falls a teeny bit flat (“Hey, you all wear those ‘I Heart Manchester’ t-shirts, yeah?”), she at least offers self-deprecation by way of apology: “Hey, what do I know? I’m from Oakland…” Attentive and wry, but beautifully lost and wholly committed in performance, Erika M. Anderson is the most relaxed, but hypnotic, performer I've seen on a stage in a long time.

But then, of course, the material demands a bit of stagecraft. Like all great artists, Anderson knows only too well that crafting and presenting great art doesn’t necessarily require you to become your art, that live performance can exist a step removed from the harsh, confrontational nature of recorded output. Her debut work is a darkly combative affair, a howlaround collage of sonic and lyrical collision, the past and future welded together in sometimes tender but often bruising arrangements and an undeniable bedrock of accomplished song craft. And, yes, that leap from studio to stage is perfactly managed. Opener 'Marked', looped intros and gossamer backing from an on-the-money three piece band (drums, violin/keyboards, second guitar and de rigueur absence of bass), is an unsettling and demanding start tonight.

The abstract fireball eroticism of 'Milkman', like Patti Smith backed by Nirvana, is enveloping. Then, a sharp masterstroke of artistic contextualising: a cover of 'Add It Up', that folk-punk confessional of deviant sexual frustration with enough references to sons, mothers, guns and thighs to raise Freud from the dead. It's not just the shock of seeing, for the first time, a woman claim those unforgettable words ("Why can't I get just one f***?"): the hush that descends as Anderson sings the acapella intro is genuinely electric. Here. Is. A. Moment. Clattering to a climax to loud cheers, she's quickly out of character and grinning widely; unfashionably open, too: "You got that, right? Violent Femmes?

Album highlights are brought to unerringly accurate life: the spoken word graffiti of 'California' and the intricate chaos of 'Red Star' and 'The Grey Ship'. The second ‘movement’ of the latter, all stop-start jackhammer riffery, blazes and roars. If the salt-in-wound lyrical candour unsettles (references to blood, knives, sickness, violence, emotional instability, and 'Marked' with its "I wish that every time he touched me left a mark" refrain), Anderson's steely poetics demonstrate technique as well as honesty. (Tonight – how the hell did I miss it?! - it becomes blindingly clear just what the grey ship is and, more importantly, what it's carrying. Now there's a moment: file under ‘Epiphany’.)

The black yearning of 'Red Star', a swirl of blissed-out guitar and burning proof of the band's seemingly telepathic ability to play off each other, as loose as they are tight, gives way to the closing 'California', where Anderson snaps off that acid litany, an ode to that most f***ed-up of states and a scrawl of rattled protest. It raises two fingers (“F*** California, you made me boring”) while at the same time putting another couple down its throat (“What does failure taste like…I’m begging you please to look away”.) With the mic cord wrapped around her neck, it careers to a fitful climax and she flops, shoulders hunched, breathless and spent. It’s a shame that the least typical example of her schizophrenic repertoire has quickly become her best known song. Not that it’s not essential, but there are tastier, deeper thrills further in.

Not to worry: this commanding, multi-faceted performance, in the face of a truckload of competition, sets 2011 on fire and raises the bar way, way out of sight. The next time someone says to you “Oh yah, the album’s really good but you’ve just gotta see ‘em live”, and they’re not talking about EMA, give them a smack around the head and send them my way.

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