There were many things I didn’t know when I walked into Hi-Dive last night. I was ignorant and full of misconceptions. First off, I was unaware of Erika M. Anderson’s history with Denver. It seems she has been frequenting our Mile High City for quite some time, both as EMA, and with her previous band Gowns. Giving props to our warehouse scene, particularly Rhinoceropolis, and dedicating the Gowns song “Cherylee” to the writer (Tom Murphy) who once compared her to Laurie Anderson, EMA exhibited a connection with Denver that bordered on familial. Secondly, based on Past Life Martyred Saints and its accompanying videos, I was expecting a bleach blonde California chick with a punk rock attitude — wearing her sexuality on her sleeve with a middle finger in the air. What I got instead was a brunette tomboy from South Dakota — a young, goofy, unpretentious girl from the midwest with a lust for life and a huge appreciation for the small, but attentive Denver crowd. When the word ‘fuck’ came out of her mouth, it was never in a ‘fuck you’ sorta way, it was more ‘thank you so fuckin’ much’ and ‘you guys have been fuckin’ awesome’. The only aspects of this show that even resembled the expectations in my head were the power of the performance and the punk rock aesthetic, but with her chopped hair, Snoopy shirt, red shorts, black leggings and an intensity matching the best in punk and noise rock, EMA exceeded even those expectations.
It was about 10:30pm when the lights went down, the rainbow lanterns were lit, and M83’s Before the Dawn Heals Us was silenced. It was a few minutes later when Emily’s 3-piece band started the set without her. Making her way through the small crowd, she climbed onto stage with a large bottle of water, said something about her mom always threatening to leave without her on schooldays, picked up her guitar and joined in with “Marked”. ‘My arms they are a see through plastic, my arms are a secret bloodless, skinless mass‘ “Marked” gave way to “The Grey Ship, which completed my two favorite tracks on the album I’ve had a love-hate relationship with. As much as I’ve wanted to embrace what EMA is doing on her latest album, I’ve had a hard time getting past the harsh, abrasive sounds that sometimes overwhelm her voice — a voice with so much range that I feel she can project the beauty and aggression without the intense auditory cover that blankets so much of the material. But in a live setting, I have gained a whole new respect for the noise rock abilities of this signer-songwriter. That part in “The Grey Ship” when it devolves from a haunting family confession to a manic childish tantrum, only to pull itself back together and end on a mature (if somewhat frightening) note, is where EMA really shines as a live artist; and seeing this for myself elevates the album to a level where I’ve had to admit to friends that I was completely wrong.
The majority of the album was performed (the exceptions being “Breakfast” and “Coda”), along with the aforementioned “Cherylee” and a new (extremely noisy punk) song. The stage banter in between songs was a little scattered and ranged from being on the Matterhorn and catching the Yeti, to Allen Ginsberg, to being a tall white girl from South Dakota with no rhythm, to her voice being fucked, to how much she loves and appreciates Denver.
The set ended with “California”, ‘as you knew it would‘, before the crowd demanded an encore. After a joke about how she would have to hide behind an amp to come out for an encore (Hi-Dive having no backstage), a few chords of “My Sharona” were played in reference to Bradford Cox’s Minneapolis debacle, but on this night we would be spared an hour-long cover. Instead, we got a normal length version of Danzig’s “Soul On Fire”. The set ended at 11:45pm, but a lot of people stuck around to talk to Emily as she worked her own merch booth. From the time I saw her at the bar, through the end of the night, she reminded me of so many people — at times she was a girl I knew in high school, at times she was a forlorn character from a John Hughes film, and at other times she seemed to take on the role of a young Patti Smith, but in reality, there wasn’t a moment she wasn’t 100% EMA.
The Grey Ship
Cherylee (Gowns cover)
Soul On Fire (Danzig cover)