When 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