by James Fisk
Photography by Jake Dapper
The theme for my high school senior prom was “Seaside Serenade.” The seaside part requires broad interpretation of the term, given the last time my hometown in central New Mexico had seen a coastline was sometime during the Permian age. Likewise “serenade” feels, in retrospect, a bit of a reach–despite the DJ’s best efforts between his laptop and a catalog of radio-clean edits of the day’s top 40 hits, ranging from Flo Rida to Katy Perry and back again to Pitbull for good measure.
Despite that, as Speedy Ortiz climbed on stage at Barracuda last Saturday it felt impossible to shake that crepe-paper-streamer feeling of being at high school prom without anything resembling actual prom. In a short, rainbow-iridescent A-line skirt and an oversized, bright bow in her hair, Sadie Dupuis led her band in a noisy, fun and playful set from the prom I’d constructed in my mind as a teenager. A band built from some hazy idea that split the difference between Save Ferris in 10 Things I Hate About You and whatever that doo-wop group was at the end of Grease. Speedy’s stock of catchy, winking indie rock tunes caught hold of a winsome teen imagination I’d forgotten, music sardonic and still earnest, playful and still meditative.
Starting the night off, Philadelphia trio Control Top howled through a short but scorching set of post-punk thrashers that belied their slight official output to date, and should inspire eager anticipation for a real debut. Detroit native Anna Burch followed with summery, chill-out guitar rock that could be felt seeping like honey through the heat and stickiness of the downtown Austin night.
By the time Speedy Ortiz took the stage the room had filled enough to reach the back of the bar at Barracuda, but not quite enough for anyone to start piercing that tacit two foot personal space radius that marks the difference between an actual crowd and a loosely affiliated group. It might have been that awkward shuffle or the vintage gymnasium-type wood panelling on the walls at Barracuda that primed the school dance nostalgia, but from the first chord Speedy Ortiz brought the fantasy home.
The band kept their set heavily stacked with the irresistible, hook-heavy cuts from their recent album Twerp Verse. Dupuis’ voice takes a different quality live, a kind of cotton-candy sickly sweetness that sold her wry one-liners with an unexpected, subversive appeal. (My favorite, which I’ve been unable to get out of my head: “I once was lost, but now I’m floundered,” off the lead single “Lucky 88”.) Though not particularly dancey, most in the crowd could not help but give in to a measure of head bopping.
Their loud, driving guitar hooks and gratifying pop sensibility hit a buried feeling of youthful release, but the lyrics hinted at a broader perspective, imbued with a poetic, critical eye that can only be attested to years of distance and reflection. Speedy Ortiz’s set lands in a satisfying spot that hits like nostalgia without the comedown, diffused with thoughts and images that will stick long past the night. It’s a far cry from a New Mexican seaside serenade.