Paternoster played tricky-looking, wiggly guitar lines.
If you found a happier place in Madison Friday night than in the blast radius of Screaming Females leader Marissa Paternoster's guitar, then either you weren't at the show or you're fooling yourself or you're a die-hard Buckethead fan.
Paternoster led the New Jersey trio in ripping a great deal of gratification out of a set at the UW Rathskeller, even though the show was relatively short due to the venue's curfew. Along with drummer Jarrett Dougherty and bass player Michael Abbate, she skipped around among the new Ugly and earlier recordings, providing a crash course in both the band's five albums and a few different styles of searingly tight rock.
The band schooled most others who attempt punk-fired pop ("I Don't Mind It," from 2010's Castle Talk), and proved they can match Young Widows for devilish post-punk (Ugly's "Red Hand"). Screaming Females could probably steal a few stoner-leaning indie fans away from Black Mountain ("Lights Out," from 2009's Power Move).
I was right by the stage, in front of the house speakers, and that wasn't the best place to hear Paternoster's vocals, which are resourceful and jarring and catchy in and of themselves, and made for all manner of impressive face contortions. But it did mean being point-blank in front of her guitar amp. A bit like fellow Jerseyite Ted Leo, Paternoster combines lead and rhythm guitar work that serves to tighten up the songs rather than bloat them with grandeur.
But Paternoster dares to be flashier than Leo usually is, and she's a master. She never had to pull anything sloppy or smear things over with noise. She was sharp and springy on the low end, fluid and slick with vibrato on the high strings, playing mostly with a full, clear tone that made hearing loss a pleasure. There wasn't much messing around with pedals, save for a few deliberately timed bursts of delay. Even for those not inclined to geek out over musicianship itself, watching Paternoster play felt like a treat as soon as she tore into her solo on set-opener "Pretty OK."
A lot of the songs from pre-Ugly albums sounded bigger and richer than on their recordings. There were abrupt shifts in tone, especially when the band followed the fairly lighthearted "Rotten Apple" with the bluesy fury of "Lights Out," on which Paternoster did some of her fastest soloing as the band alternately sped up and pulled back into something more slow and ominous, Abbate countering with a cool descending bass figure.
Ugly's first track, "It All Means Nothing," went over with all its power-pop catchiness intact, as Paternoster played tricky-looking, wiggly guitar lines around her vocal melodies. But those heavier, harder moments made the audience seem both delighted and taken aback at the power of this consummate shredder, who thanked the crowd in a meek, small voice between songs.
The show started with Madison four-piece Giant People, who are young but showed their own capable grasp of friendly yet abrasive guitar pop. Playing songs from the free Giant EP, Tyler Fassnacht and Ty Peterson punched things up with concise and plucky solos. Fassnacht's lead vocals use boyish plainness to an advantage, perhaps drawing on the Weakerthans' John Samson or Superchunk's Mac McCaughan. On a few songs, he also screamed just enough, and here and there he seemed a little stuck in that scream, but generally got to the right balance of charm and anger.
Making this kind of music stick out even a little depends a lot on the drummer, and Jacob Wolbert was a big part of that, pulling off some impressively fast high-hat stuff. It was nice to see other, smaller details in place too, like the way Claire Nelson-Lifson's little bass fills fattened up some of the phrases in Peterson's solos.
It wasn't the fault of New York City quintet Caveman if their search for slow-building drama felt a bit tiresome amid two sets of feisty hooks. Playing a floor tom while singing, front man Matt Iwanusa helped to keep the crowd far from restless -- not always easy to do, especially at the Rathskeller -- yet all the nicely crafted layers of synth, harmonies, and guitar tended to blend into something indistinguishable, at least in this live setting. If the Dears didn't pull off their over-the-top romantic side quite so convincingly, and took solace in the National's dark yearnings, it might come across like Caveman did.
That's not to diminish Caveman's songwriting, obscured though it was by the Rathskeller's confounding acoustics. It's simply that this night belonged to those who play loud guitars and get to the point.