Photos by Kiki Vassilakis
Ah, yes. Skidmore College. The wooded hipster haven which misplaced UAlbany indie kids fawn over for their ever-excellent concert series (Mitski, Porches, Pinegrove and Frankie Cosmos within the past three semesters alone) that continually dwarves whatever SUNY haphazardly tosses together for their annual top 40 bonanza, Parkfest. Somehow Skidmore grabbed Mitski and Pinegrove just as they were on the cusp of attaining notoriety in indie music in 2016, but bringing PWR BTTM (pictured) to their informal lodge-of-a-venue, Falstaff’s, last Saturday was their biggest snag in recent memory.
The Brooklyn duo formed at one of Skidmore’s cousin colleges, Bard, just a couple years back and have already become one of the most notorious bands in modern indie rock. Since the release of their debut LP Ugly Cherries in the fall of 2015 they’ve become darlings of the music press–landing interviews/feature stories with virtually every relevant publication–and have amassed a cult following of young fans that flock to and often sell out their unprecedentedly exciting club shows. Their success–as a two-piece rock band in 2017, mind you–has come about for two reasons. One: their garagey take on the power pop idiom is delightful, catchy and clever on recording, and tenfold that on stage. Two: both members, Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce (pictured below), are proudly queer (Hopkins uses they/them pronouns, Bruce uses they/them as well as she/her) and have built their band around championing queer culture, demolishing the gender binary and creating an important LGBTQ+ dialogue within the indie universe. Nearly all of their songs are about their own struggles and experiences with queerness (coming out, dating men and non-binary individuals, explaining their complex identities to family and friends, etc.) which are still unique and severely underrepresented perspectives within the historically straight and male indie/punk scene.
In addition to their kickass songwriting skills, their identities and lyrical topics are what make them so, for lack of a better term, intriguing; what they’re singing about and how they present that material is incredibly refreshing in a genre that’s so exhaustingly heterosexual. However, as satisfying as it may be to crank them out of a home stereo, PWR BTTM are one of those bands that you have to see live in order to get the full experience–and that’s not a cliched exaggeration, it really is an experience. Seeing them in a cluster of over 200 college kids on Saturday was probably the best way to make that memory, and the band agreed; Hopkins addressed the crowd midway through to say that they “started this band to play crazy, kooky college shows.”
Although they were the clear draw of the evening, they weren’t the only band worth showing up for. Skidmore locals Rent Boy opened with a set of angular, unconventional rock tunes that were somewhere in the neighborhood of Pile, which actually served as a nice appetizer for what would follow: the five-piece, female-comprised Brooklynites and future PWR BTTM tourmates T-Rextasy. Their debut, full of lighthearted, though fierce feminist anthems, Jurassic Punk dropped quietly last year via PWR BTTM’s former label Father/Daughter Records and the band has since gradually obtained buzz due to their outlandishly exuberant live shows (frontwoman Lyris Faron literally crawled around the perimeter of the stage on her hands and knees as two of her bandmates playfully bumped against one another and rolled around on the floor while simultaneously strumming away mid-song) and their throwback to late ’70s/early ’80s punk that’s more Patti Smith than Weezer; a sound no one else in this scene seems to be channeling. Like PWR BTTM, hearing a gang of young women taking savage shots at shady exes and harmonizing over punk riffage is objectively more impactful in this age than if it were men–especially when they do it as well as T-Rextasy (below) does.
In all honesty, there probably aren’t any bands that could’ve followed that up better than PWR BTTM. The duo, joined by their new live bassist Audrey, emerged from side-stage where they’d been excitedly singing and jumping along to T-Rextasy all night and were greeted by a barrage of cheers; the kind of applause that bands who’re on the brink of making it receive, which was much different than the polite, obligatory claps they got when they opened for Ra Ra Riot in Albany just over a year before. “We’re The Chainsmokers,” Hopkins tongue-in-cheekily announced, immediately kicking into the famously effortless wit and comedic banter between the two bandmates that negates the possibility of a single dull moment throughout the performance. Hopkins went on to outline some guidelines for the evening (”No pushing. There’s nothing ‘punk’ about pushing someone over who’s smaller than you,” they said, receiving more applause) in order to ensure a safe environment for their fans. Fan safety, which includes accessible gender-neutral bathrooms for their many transgender and non-binary attendees, has been a revolutionary staple of their shows for over a year now and has been met with widespread praise.
The “no pushing” rule might seem antithetical to many longtime punks (males, mostly) who equate punk shows with physical rowdiness, but the tradition has long-dismissed the threat it poses to smaller audience members (i.e. most women) and PWR BTTM are dedicated to spearheading an inclusionary environment at their gigs which thereby challenges many of the genre’s conventions. In a way, that’s actually more punk. By the end of the show, after respectfully jumping, headbanging and belting along while the band rocks out hard 15 feet in front of you, the pushing suddenly seems gratuitous.
The band opened with what’s presumably the first track on their forthcoming record Pageant (out May 12 on Polyvinyl Records) due to its momentous, stadium-ready finger-picking and Hopkins’ cutting, chest-puffing vocal performance. However, once they kicked into songs off of Ugly Cherries like the title track and “I Wanna Boi,” the crowd’s sing-alongs began fueling the energy of the room and the band visibly fed off of it. They played through a good chunk of that record (even unexpectedly busting out the uber-relatable, acoustic “See Your Around”) but they also played through quite a few new tracks from the highly-anticipated Pageant. The singles “Big Beautiful Day” and “Answer My Text”, which have received mixed reviews from fans despite high praise from critics, were inarguably more fitting in a live setting (being able to shout back, “Answer my text, you dick,” with a swarm of peers is substantially more gratifying than alone in your bedroom) and the yet-to-be-released “New Trick” is easily the catchiest tune the band’s ever penned.
Frankly, describing every detail of their performance wouldn’t come close to doing it justice. This review should serve moreso as a call to action than a document of a moment in time: you have to go see PWR BTTM. You have to watch Hopkins, their face smothered in glitter, rip the top of their dress apart with their teeth and let out an unapologetically barbaric yelp before tearing into a shreddy riff. You have to shake your head in amazement as Bruce and Hopkins switch roles midway through the show, Bruce taking over guitar/lead vocals and Hopkins plopping in front of the kit, and continue to play through like it was nothing. Most of all, you have to participate in a crowd that’s more concerned with acceptance and individualism than earning punk cred. Like so many bands before them that encapsulated a certain era of our culture, who were either ahead of the curve or responsible for the bend themselves, PWR BTTM are an important band to see–and to see right now.
PWR BTTM, Falstaff’s at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, April 1
UPDATE: Photo gallery of the show here.