Sat. May 25th, 2024

Seeing a live show at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia can be a peril and an adventure all wrapped in one package. The intrepid descent begins with twists down a flight of narrow, sheer stone steps, past the ticket checker, and through to the dark, dismal basement not for the faint of heart. The venue’s stage is located in a church basement, hence the name. It is dingy, dirty, hot, and thick with perspiration, much like those who dwell there. Grungy hipsters with purposeless backpacks, Pabst Blue Ribbon pounders, and distinct hair configurations meander about the open floor and peruse the merchandise table lining the back wall. Despite, or maybe due to, all these atmospheric conditions of the venue, it makes for a great punk show scene.
Being a returning attendee of the place, I made my way there a few weeks ago to see a band by the name of Screaming Females, with Waxahatchee and Tenement as direct support. Their record label, Don Giovanni Records, was in the midst of a label tour. Being a huge fan of the first two bands, I naturally could not resist paying the $15 for the ticket. Another benefit of the Church is that its shows are run by local production company R5 Productions, so the tickets are usually pretty cheap.
Before the record label’s bands performed, a local band by the name of Trophy Wife played. With the two-piece drum set and amps set up on the floor rather than the stage, they began their set with their dark, ambient punk act. Though they were seemingly outright fuzz punk (sub-genre defined by the heavy use of drone tones, distortion, and electronic feedback; similar to noise pop), the swirling guitar solos and eerie, primeval howling seemed strangely melodic. Between songs, the soft-spoken girls hardly said anything, adding even more to their standoffish, moody veneer. During their slow march of doom metal-infused noise pop, their faces, ranging from intense, tortuous pangs to almost mirthful humility, manifested its own sonic story, making up for their lack of concrete vocals.
With all ears already whining a tinny tune of their own, the second band, Tenement, prepared their set. When all was a go, they began into a frantic, Ramones-inspired punk riff sporting, howling, and growling vocals reminiscent of Californian punk band Joyce Manor. The lead singer, who almost immediately threw his slipping glasses towards his amp, displayed wild star jumps and frenetic Pete Townsend windmills. His frenzied antics added even more to his shredding solos, seemingly ready to attack both sonically and bodily.
Then came a huge change of pace with direct support Waxahatchee. The mellow three-piece released their debut full-length album last year to sterling reviews. Lead singer and songwriter Katie Crutchfield’s heartfelt crooning and raw, sedated guitar, cradled the swaying audience in a golden sea of unrefined and unrestricted emotions. Songs like “Dixie Cups and Jars” and “Swan Dive” invite listeners to that sensation of bliss; despite this, Waxahatchee still has the potential to rock. “Coast to Coast,” while maintaining the soft grunge persona, kicks the guitar into overdrive, with Crutchfield’s wailing voice and sharp lyrics proving the band’s adept dynamic. They even threw a Mamas and the Papas cover into their set list, sparking a flare of commonplace among members of the audience not familiar with Waxahatchee’s original repertoire.
Before the final headlining act, my friends and I decided to ascend into the cool night air. This allowed us respite from the body heat (and odor), but introduced us to the element of a cloud of cigarette smoke. However, another benefit to smaller venues is the prospect of meeting the bands. I was able to stop Ms. Crutchfield and ask for her to pose for a picture with my best friend, a nervous wreck in the midst of her idol. If you are lucky enough, the bands will stay and chat for a few minutes before retreating to the bandwagon or the dismal midst of the basement.
It was finally time for Screaming Females to take the stage. Having seen them live before, I was giddy to see them again. The New Jersey three piece, despite the name, only has one girl: lead singer and guitarist Marissa Paternoster. Standing at around five feet, do not let her stature fool you. This girl completely rips it on guitar. Despite the band being near-unknown, she was rated the 77th greatest guitarist in Spin magazine’s 2012 list. After grabbing a t-shirt and a vinyl record from the merch table, I sidled along the wall and found a spot about fifteen feet from the stage. Propping my arm to defend myself from the manic moshers, I stared, mouth agape, at the set before me.
Song after song of husky, a-melodic vocals, unbridled shrieks, and shredding guitar hardly became dull. Mid-solo, Paternoster rotated between throwing herself back and forth across the stage, standing over the front row of heads and spewing bloodcurdling screams, and simply standing still and upright, menacingly and mesmerizingly staring out at the crowd. People often talk about “face melting” rock and roll: this band brings it to a whole new meaning. I made sure to gingerly touch my face a few times, lest I become disfigured.
Setting out for one last climb out into the night, my knees were shaking, my legs were wobbly, and my face was undoubtedly shining with the gusto of a child opening presents on Christmas morning. A concert at the Church can be a gamble in terms of the environment, but in my experience, the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. Overall, if you’re into punk, rock, or grunge, drop by the First Unitarian Church for an undoubtedly memorable time.
Dillon Sweigart is a fouth-year student majoring in Liberal Studies. He can be reached at

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