Screaming Females at Hemlock, by Margaret Allen

As I watched Screaming Females casually blow the minds of the 100 or so fans gathered in the very hot, very smelly, and very dark back room of the Hemlock Tavern, I had a pretty controversial thought. Is Screaming Females one of the last great rock bands? No, I thought. That’s not right, although it occasionally felt as if I was seeing an even more seasoned group than I was, one that had perhaps performed throughout the 90s college rock circuit in its prime alongside bands they are constantly compared to — like Dinosaur Jr. and The Breeders for instance.

But maybe, I concluded, they are the first of a new type of rock band, one formed well after the millennium, one that wasn’t even an inkling in the brains of the New Jersey trio in 1991, the year punk broke. A band that takes its influences both literally and with a grain of salt, one that counts all of rock history as a guide, from classic 70s guitar stylings to the vocal warblings of the blues. A band that neither needs or wants genre definition. A band that takes what they want from their roots, throws the rest out the window, and just puts on a flipping punk show.

During their sold out set, which also happened to be a celebration of their sixth studio album Rose Mountain (out February 24 on Don Giovanni), Screaming Females put on display the best of their virtuosically hybrid rock skills, innate chemistry, and DIY ethos. It’s been around ten years since Marissa Paternoster, King Mike, and Jarrett Dougherty begun playing basement shows in their hometown of New Brunswick, and if copious time on the road and in the studio is something potentially hazardous or draining for some, there was no hint of that in either their vitality or obvious and captivating appreciation of one another as both musical individuals and as members of a singular powerhouse trio.

From the sheer noise level to the sweaty, compact confines of the Hemlock, there was every indication that this was where Screaming Females were in their element. The trio took advantage of the low stage and the aggressively stoked crowd, casually feeding off the room’s energy and siphoning it into a live set that abounded with classic rock in-your-face physicality and a distinctly reserved attitude, the effect of which resulted in a strange but invigorating mix of a crowd that was simultaneously invited to participate and asked to step back and admire while the band simply enjoyed one another’s musical company. 

Paternoster, Mike, and Dougherty constantly and subtly communicated, carrying the set through winding, spun out improvised instrumental breaks, effortlessly accentuated by Paternoster’s outstanding shredding skills (the girl can shred and that’s the only appropriate word for it). She clearly isn’t afraid to incorporate sheer athleticism into her playing, and her exertive performance came so naturally and was so deeply ingrained in her stage presence that when she jumped onto the crowd or lay down on the floor, there were only roaring screams of support and looks of sheer joy from the crowd — as if they had expected nothing less from the soft-spoken singer.

The band simply ended their show with a quiet thank-you, leaving the crowd with ringing ears, a new album, and hopefully burning questions about what it means to be a rock band in 2015.