Review: A full-contact night with Marnie Stern, Barren Girls and Little Big League at Johnny Brenda’s

All photos by Chris Sikich |

Shredding the night away, Marnie Stern and her crackling band headlined a night of indie rock awesomeness at Johnny Brenda’s on Friday. The tightness of the openers — phenomenal Philly locals Little Big League and the hard-rock stylings Barren Girls — readied the crowd for the entrancing guitar riffs and sweet yet edgy vocals of Stern, who was joined by bassist Nithin Kalvakota and drummer Joe Wong. By the second song, Wong’s shirt was off and the crowd was thrashing about, tossing their shirts onto the stage and hanging onto Stern’s every shred and her frequent references to her vagina. Though brief, her set, clocking in at under an hour, blasted through exuberant numbers from The Chronicles of Marnia, including the title track and a spirited “Year of the Glad.” And with a flourish of rock mania, the show — her last of the tour — came to a close with guitar theatrics and a drumstick flying at this reviewer’s mouth. After a brief taste of blood, all teeth remain — as well as memories of rock heaven, Marnie Stern-style.


Listen to three new Marnie Sterns from the forthcoming Chronicles of Marnia (playing Johnny Brenda’s on 5/10)

Tap-happy guitarist Marnie Stern is releasing her fourth album – the cleverly-titled Chronicles of Marnia – through Kill Rock Stars Records on March 19th. As always, Stern manages to be mind-bending in her technical proficiency (I can’t even begin to imagine playing guitar lines that complex, much less singing over top of them) but also unusually poppy. Call it ear candy for the masses, as well as the twelve string nerds. Below, check out “Nothing Is Easy,” which made the rounds at Pitchfork and Stereogum earlier today, and give a listen to two other songs from the album – opener “Year of the Glad” and “East Side Glory.” Marnie Stern’s spring tour brings her to Johnny Brenda’s on May 10; ticket on-sale information will be announced shortly.

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Recap: Marnie Stern at The Barbary

Marnie SternWhen guitarist Marnie Stern and her backing band first began playing last night at The Barbary, it took a second to realize that the show had actually started. Stern, along with her accompanying bassist and drummer, went straight from sound check into performance with zero warning. The venue was an unexpected change from First Unitarian Church (where the show was originally slated to be held), and—though Stern played her acutely detailed two-handed guitar riffs with a placid, eased expression—it was hard to shake the night’s overall rushed, disoriented feeling, which was likely the result of the last-minute venue switch.

If you look at Stern’s facts on paper, there would seem to be little doubt that she could sell out at a larger venue with fans of her progressive rock. She’s been celebrated by everyone from The New Yorker to Pitchfork, managed to get signed to a label just by sending in some self-recorded tapes, and has offered three full-length albums since 2007—each fueled on unfathomably skilled guitar tapping (which, by the way, she learned on her own). In what felt like an illegitimate reflection of all the accomplishments to Stern’s name, the performance last night was approximately a mere 30 minutes, with songs bleeding into one another, no introductions, and very few salutary remarks to the small but dedicated crowd of head-bobbing dudes.

Though the reason for the venue change and limited performance time hasn’t been clearly identified, brief remarks from Stern and her bassist, Nithin Kalvakota, made it seem that the band, too, was a little rattled by the whole experience. Stern joked that, usually during a show, she never shuts up between songs—but that tonight there was no time for talk. Toward the end of the show, Stern and Kalvakota deliberated on how many songs they could play with only eight minutes left. During those last few minutes, Stern gave the crowd their last gasp of entertainment, leading them in a mildly contrived clap and chant as she played one of the evening’s final songs.

Listening to Stern’s albums makes it clear how attentive she is to the music she makes; it’s impossible not to be when creating such fleeting guitar solos and balancing between anthems and ballads. Her latest LP, a self-titled album released last year, was praised for its honesty and personal significance. Her performance last night certainly got the attentive part down—the band performed with no discernible mistakes or flaws—but not so much the personal part. In that way, it was as if half of her sound was missing, inevitably creating a show that came off a little haphazard—change in venue or not. —Marielle Mondon


Tonight’s Concert Pick: Marnie Stern at The Barbary (moved from First Unitarian Church)

Marnie SternFemale guitar badass Marnie Stern hasn’t released any new material since her self-titled LP in October of last year. Though she’s touring with no new album to promote, her visits across the US are being commemorated with entries in her self-penned blog, The Vagina Monoblog. Perhaps a blog doesn’t seem as exciting a tour ritual as the short-lived kissing booth she set up after a couple shows in 2008 to raise money for a speeding ticket, but the blog does offer a look into the refreshingly low-key lifestyle she and her band maintains while traveling. For someone with such extraordinary talent, you’d think she’d be beyond getting stuck at the Canadian border or announcing that she would like to offer guitar lessons to any takers in her native New York. This DIY attitude reflects the spontaneity offered in her distorted, fun-house mirror vocals and technical guitar-tapping skills. Marnie Stern performs with No Joy at 7 p.m. at The Barbary; tickets to the all-ages show are $12. [ED. NOTE: This show was originally scheduled to take place at First Unitarian Church; earlier this morning, R5 Productions tweeted that the show had been moved to The Barbary.]



Tonight’s Concert Picks: Purling Hiss at Kung Fu Necktie + Marnie Stern, Free Energy, Carolina Chocolate Drops

Purling Hiss

We’ve shown Purling Hiss quite a bit of love this week, so why stop now? Especially given that the Philly-based rock trio is performing with a pair of other local acts: Watery Love and the garage-goth quartet Far-Out Fangtooth. If you haven’t given Purling Hiss’ Key Studio Session a listen yet, you can do so here. Purling Hiss performs with Watery Love and Far-Out Fangtooth at 8 p.m. at Kung Fu Necktie; tickets to the 21+ show are $8.

Also playing: Marnie Stern + Tera Melos, Many Arms at First Unitarian Church (8 p.m., all ages, $12); Carolina Chocolate Drops + Birdie Busch, The Great Unknown at TLA (8 p.m., $19); Free Energy + The Spinning Leaves, Hezekiah Jones, Toy Soldiers, Kuf Knotz at Drexel University’s Mandell Theater (7 p.m., $10)


Tonight’s Concert Pick: Marnie Stern at Kung Fu Necktie

Marnie SternA good portion of everything you need to know about Marnie Stern can be found simply by Googling “Marnie Stern shreds.” Her oft-noted technical prowess is almost always the first thing mentioned in any write-up (this one included)—which, to a certain extent, is kind of a shame. Because, as amazing as the guitarist/songwriter’s finger-tapping chops are (and believe us when we say they are impressive), it is her songwriting ability that makes everything work. The distractingly long title of her 2008 sophomore release, This Is It And I Am It And You Are It And So Is That And He Is It And She Is It And It Is It And That Is That probably didn’t help matters, either: between the album’s overwhelming title and her guitar-playing skills, a lazy music critic would have more than enough to base a review around, without ever really focusing on the music. Not so with her new self-titled album, released earlier this month on Kill Rock Stars; her knack for complex-yet-accessible songwriting is pushed to the forefront in tracks such as opener “For Ash” and “Transparency Is The New Mystery.” Marnie Stern performs at 8 p.m. at Kung Fu Necktie; tickets to the 21+ show are $12.