At 8:11pm on a Monday night in in the heart of San Francisco, the Rickshaw Stop slowly generates a palpable buzz. Bodies busy themselves with the gentle stirring of ice cubes in highball glasses or chatter indifferently about personal goings-on over frothy headed beers. The doors opened at the top of the hour but the stage is empty; nothing but the backdrop of red velvet illuminated by the soft glow of twinkle lights wrapped demurely around the air vents. The main floor is sparsely scattered with people; the majority of the pre-show action is upstairs around two stained, camel-colored couches. The crowd is eclectic –- a dash of the too-cool-for-school mixed with the misfits and business types, even a guy dressed in the likes of Rick Nielson, Cheap Trick’s famously wacky guitarist.
At 8:46pm, a single guitar rhythm emerges from thin air and with a stroke the evening commences.
Arriving from Vancouver, the three-piece heavy pop band Dead Soft, comprised of Nathaniel Epp, Keeley Rochon, Graeme McDonald began their opening set. Signed by small-indie record label Kingfisher Bluez, Dead Soft are reminiscent of alternative icon, The Replacements, mixed with fizzy pop-rock that is infused with engaging tempo changes and heavy bass lines. Their basic thirty minute set was a modest precursor for what the night had in store.
Dead Soft was followed by another Canadian band, Heat. Heat hail from Vancouver and are perhaps most recognizable for their similarity to Lou Reed in vocals and insouciant persona mixed with dashes of Oasis and Sonic Youth. The four-piece band, as accurately described in their bio, call to mind 1970s New Wave/Punk as well as early ’90s shoegaze with their ambient melodies and raspy lyrics. Despite their cool onstage personality, Heat entertained the audience with witty Canadian antidotes between songs, allowing their forty-minute set the vibe of casual kickback rather than San Francisco venue gig.
As headliner Bully prepared to go onstage, the crowd thickened and the floor filled. The Nashville-based grunge-punk band have gained momentum after the release of their debut album Feels Like (2015) which has been featured as ‘Album of the Week’ on Stereogum and which garnered positive reviews from Rolling Stone, NPR, and Pitchfork. Singer-songwriter-producer Alicia Bognanno, who interned in Chicago with punk producing legend Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio studio (where Feels Like was recorded), is the main face and near auteur of the band, not to discredit other members Stewart Copeland, Clayton Parker, and Reece Lazarus who all make the band a strong, cohesive whole.
The first chords of the blazingly quick “I Remember” began without hesitation, Bognanno’s voice screaming with the perfect combination of rasp and clarity. Heads began to bob and bodies shook against the uncontrollable energy that radiated from the guitars, drums, and Bognanno’s voice. As suddenly as the song started it ended. Bognanno shouted at the audience, “It’s Monday night, what the fuck San Francisco?” She smiled wryly and chuckled, then transitioned with her band directly into ‘Reason’.
On their debut album, Bully already possessed a uniquely raw sound, but live Bully walk the fine line between speed-crazed grunge and artistic incoherence with impeccable precision. The hooks are aggressive in a simple way making them all the more enticing, and the sometimes sloppy urgency of the riffs is prophetic. As the set unfolded, a ‘peaceful mosh’ (dubbed by Bognanno) formed at the foot of the stage making the audience looked like one giant organism swaying to the sonic waves coming from the band. When the telltale chords of “Trying,” the hit single, began the crowd noticeably energized and compressed. But the best performance of the evening was the next song “Trash,” and not because its my personal favorite from the album, but because Bully completely entered another dimension.
“Trash” falsely begins with a slow rhythm while Bognanno croons in one of the select few moments when her voice is soft, almost singing. Then, the tempo and sound builds, becoming aggressive as Bognanno snarls into the mic the title lyric “feels like trash,” evoking the old days of Courtney Love and Joan Jett, before bursting beyond the barrier. Bognanno pushes her chords to the limit; long blond hair cascading and covering her face as she wails “You can’t write a book about what you don’t know / Feels like traaaash.”
The entire band lost themselves in the song that night, blurring into the music and becoming instruments of sound and color. As the night came to a close, Bognanno looks questioningly at the audience, “Who put the Ferbie back here? Has it been here all night? I like him, he’s just sleeping,” before abruptly entering into the final song of their set, the self-titled “Bully.” What was truly unique about Bully was how tangible it was that they were having fun, joking around with the audience, smiling at one another, and losing themselves in their music in a non self-obsessed way.
The lights slowly come up as the encore “Sharktooth” reverberates its last waves of distortion across an entranced crowd. As the audience slowly filters outside the air is crisp and cool, the night beckoning as people wander home beneath lamplit streets and faint moonlight, contemplating the rhapsodic vision that is Bully.
Written by Meaghan Allen