Written By: Luke Usry
It’s Friday night at the Masquerade and, ensconced in the depths of Underground Atlanta, the crowd inside the Hell stage is really beginning to fill out. I can hear its steadily-growing din from the spot inside the green room where I stand and fiddle with my ISO setting before checking my watch. It’s nine forty. For Emily Armstrong, Siouxsie Medley, and their Los Angeles-based band known collectively as Dead Sara, it’s five minutes to show time. Only a few yards from the entrance to the stage, Emily waits
at the far end of the room, lounging in the corner as her bassist uses the break in the action for an impromptu photo session on his iPhone.
“We’ve got it covered,” he says nodding at my camera with playful laughter before we exchange pleasantries. After a moment, Emily gives me a kind but guarded smile and asks, “do you want to do a couple of photos back here?”
An offer to photograph a performer, especially one as fan and critically lauded as Emily, in the moments right before they take the stage is an honor I never refuse. She poses unassumingly as I fire off a handful of shots. With the band’s next stop scheduled in North Carolina, the hottest conversational topic among the band and crew seems to be the looming threat of Hurricane Florence. But Armstrong seems far more preoccupied with another a very different kind of storm. As I will later learn, it’s the one she’s conjuring up inside her. The one she and her band have thrown every iota of their creative being into honing and channeling into a maelstrom of electrifying sound and energy powerful enough to transport an entire audience into a musical OZ of her and the band’s own creation.
The storm she’s about to unleash.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t warned.
“They’re the most important band in America right now,” announced Glen from Columbus, GA. It was hyperbolic-sounding statement from an otherwise un-hyperbolic sounding man. Standing at the edge of stage right as the crowd began to churn with pre-show anticipation, he flashed a broad, avuncular grin and seemed happy to oblige my request for him to elaborate. His list of favorite attributes included inspired lyrics, meticulous musical execution, and a “Dave Grohl-like” ability to manipulate energy. “I wouldn’t drive three hours and get a hotel room unless their music was really important to me,” he added, shaking his head for emphasis. “I’m 53 years old…I don’t go out of my way like this for just anybody.”
Outside in the alley, Shanda and Clint Irvin shared an enthusiasm for Dead Sara’s music that whole heartedly corroborated the glowing review from my new friend inside. “Imagine if Janis Joplin had fronted Rage Against the Machine,” Shanda said, describing the band’s rendition of RATM’s classic “Killing in the Name Of” at a charity concert they headlined in San Francisco.
“They came up from LA to do a benefit show to collect feminine hygiene products for the local homeless community,” Clint added. “It was really cool to see them using their talents to give back like that…there were boxes stacked up high on the stage. It’s the kind of thing that really makes you want to get behind a band.”
This being the couple’s fourth Dead Sara show, they seemed most excited about hearing thenew material from the band’s EP “Temporary Things Taking Up Space” just released in June. When I told them that this is my first time seeing the band, they smiled with scintillating excitement and assured me that I was in for a treat like no other. Heading back inside to pop back stage, I couldn’t help but believe them.
Down go the house lights and up goes the roar of the audience, voices filling the room in a chorus of high-octave anticipation. By the time I make it to the barricade the band is taking the darkened stage, Siouxsie Medley and Sean Friday leading the way before being joined, after a beat, by Emily Armstrong. Crouching in the narrow gap between the railing and the edge of the stage, I can feel a surge of energy that resonates in frenetic reciprocation between the band and the audience. It is one of a rare sort, the kind that builds like a static charge, raising every pulse rate, every hair follicle in the room. Soon the guttural, beastly drone of bass guitar and gut-wrenching thud of a kick drum march us like soldiers in into the wall of a seething, harmonic hurricane.
We’re on our way.
“Do you ever…feel like dying!?” Armstrong demands into the sonic swarm of guitar bass and drums with the cadence of a dark, cigarette-smoking siren, Medley and her bandmates igniting the sound system with the kind of layered, distortion-laden playing that would make Trent Reznor proud. Winding down the intro track from the band’s 2015 sophomore triumph Pleasure to Meet You Emily straps on a Fender Stratocaster and joins in the rhythm section.
The spellbound audience hanging on every note and screaming out most of the words, the band continues on to power deftly through a career spanning set that delivers such tried and true fan favorites as Weatherman and Lemon Scent while also introducing a generous portion of new material. It is, categorically, a profoundly impressive performance. Framed in the center of the stage by her bandmates, Armstrong leads the collective with an infectious stage presence fueled by the kind of metered gusto that I have found to be the hallmark of groups whose musicians are as comfortable in their own artistic skin as they are humbly cognizant of the fact that every fan cheering for them was hard earned over years of tireless work and dive bar dues paying.
But, of course, all the stage bravado in the world adds up to nothing if a band doesn’t have the musical chops to back it up. Fortunately, this is far from the case. Like most all effective live bands, Dead Sara succeeds due in no small part to a pristine sense of balance and the kind of X-factor, “greater than the sum of its parts” synchronicity that adds to the material a dynamic, three dimensional element that is unattainable on a studio recording.
Wielding her Gibson Les Paul like a scintillating sonic scepter, Siouxsie Medley hammers out riff after riff as she alternates between rhythm and lead playing the rhythmic sensibility of Johnny Ramone and the flair of Bonnie Raitt. Medley really is a blues player at heart. She may be a California girl who favors mid-90’s alt rock guitar tones, but her playing style is rooted so far down in the Mississippi Delta she qualifies as an honorary Southerner. Drummer Sean Friday presents a formidable force from behind his kit, bobbing and weaving like a prize fighter as he delivers barrage after barrage of dynamic percussion that hits with Keith Moon intensity while maintaining a Stuart Copelandesque attention to clean, precise snare work.
But the unmistakable flagship of Dead Sara’s musical armada is Emily Armstrong’s voice. As powerful as it is delicate, as disciplined as it is emotive and organic, Armstrong’s vocal talent is most prominently characterized by its sheer range and versatility. On one stanza she’s shouting into the microphone with unbridled, millennial grunge-soaked fury and then the next she’s belting out notes like a seasoned Broadway singer. It is her ability to execute these hairpin vocal maneuvers with precision-tuned skill that often prompts comparisons to 80’s era female hard rock singers but, at least to this listener, draws much more heavily from the advanced section of Freddie Mercury’s songbook. I think Glenn from Columbus said it best when he quipped “Emily Armstrong doesn’t sing like Joan Jett or anybody else. Emily Armstrong sings like Emily Armstrong.”
Speaking of Glenn from Columbus, it’s a remark he made that reverberates in my head like the ringing in my ears as I drive home in the wake of the sonic storm. Did he get it right? Are Dead Sara the most important band working in America today? It’s a question that this humble photographer is as unwilling to answer as he is unable. But I will gladly bestow upon the band a distinction I normally reserve for their California comrades moniker-cousins The Grateful Dead: Dead Sara isn’t the best at what they do. Dead Sara are only ones who do what they do.