“Rock is dead.” That’s what they tell us. That’s what they keep saying. “Rock is dead.” Music journalist, aging rock stars, even fans all regularly profess the demise of guitar driven music. Apparently none of them have seen Dead Sara live. While Billboard and radio serve up increasingly sanitized playlists composed of disposable pop, lukewarm country, and flaccid hip hop artists who seem to have little connection to their rebellious roots (has it really been that long since Johnny Cash and Public Enemy?) Dead Sara and their crew pile into a cramped van every day and burn a trail through the clubs and small theatres of America. Friday night, that path brought them to the Masquerade in Atlanta.
Jeh Sea Wells and his band, collectively known as Welles, opened the show. Rock bands from rural America or cities not known for rock music (Welles is from Arkansas) often have a unique perspective in their music. Welles’ songs are full of big guitars and bigger hooks and bring to mind artists such as Soul Asylum and Nirvana without feeling too retro. Their set also included a cover of the Cure’s “Love Song” which was much grittier than the original. I admit this is not a band I was at all familiar with prior to the show, but after their performance I will listen to the full album.
I had tickets to see Dead Sara on the “Pleasure to Meet You” tour in 2015 but unexpected circumstances forced me to miss the show. I’ve waited three years to see this band live and they did not disappoint.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Ann and Nancy Wilson are just a few of the great guitar and vocal duos in the history of rock. Guitarist Siouxsie Medley and vocalist Emily Armstrong may someday be mentioned along those artists. They do what all great duos do –they facilitate each other’s strengths. Siouxsie Medley lays down the crunchy riffs, and along with drummer Sean Friday and new/touring bassist Marc Walloch, creates the song structure that provides a platform for what Armstrong does best -seize the attention of the audience with her raspy vocals and frantic energy. Her voice is suggestive of a punk rock infused Janis Joplin or Stevie Nicks, and she is easily one of contemporary rock’s best vocalists. What became clear Friday is that she is also one of rock’s best performers. Whether playing rhythm guitar or just wielding a microphone, all eyes are focused on Armstrong’s antics. Toward the end of “Lemon Scent” she threw her guitar into the drum kit and had a full on roll-on-the-floor meltdown, and that was just the third song. This isn’t the ego driven fits of Axl Rose throwing microphones, storming off the stage, and refusing to play, but an unbridled energy finding its appropriate vessel for release -live rock and roll. During “Weatherman,” their biggest single to date, Armstrong tossed the microphone over the barricade and into the audience, smiling the whole time as a fan butchered the chorus. Toward the end of the show, another guitar was tossed through the cymbals and slammed on the floor after an apparent technical issue. Twice she leapt from the stage and climbed the barricade into the audience to briefly surf over the crowd and sing with the fans.
I was instantly reminded of the summer of ’92, when two virtually unknown vocalists, Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder stormed the stages of Lollapalooza with unmatched vocal presence and complete reckless abandon. They introduced themselves to mainstream rock fans on that tour and reminded them that rock should have an element of danger and unpredictability; something that had long been missing. That’s what Dead Sara does. At any time you feel like it could all fall apart in front of your eyes and when it doesn’t, it’s magical. Those in attendance in their forties and fifties were reminded of why they first fell in love with rock and roll. Those in their teens and twenties were seeing it for the first time.
It is unfortunate that Dead Sara arrived in an era when new rock is not very commercially viable. If this was the 1990’s or even early 2000’s they would most likely have a gold album. Maybe two. Maybe a platinum album. Instead they play for several hundred “Deadicated” fans each night and, along with a handful of other bands, are the torchbearers for new rock when unfortunately few people are listening. Hopefully that trend will soon be reversed. Dead Sara is the blood coursing through the veins of rock and roll and American needs a transfusion.
Dead Sara’s tour continues through the end of October so run, don’t walk, to see them live!
Full Photo Gallery of Dead Sara
Full Gallery of Welles