Live: Marnie Stern, Lightning Bolt, et al at Third Ward

Our fearless heroine sneakily flips off the fire marshal.

Marnie Stern, Lightning Bolt, et al at Third Ward Date: Saturday, March 24 More special-guest blathering by Rob Harvilla

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine fine representatives of the police and fire departments file briskly into the Williamsburg warehouse space Third Ward, and you gotta think prodigious noise-rock promoter Todd P’s latest extravaganza is ovah. It’s 12:30 Saturday night/Sunday morning, and terror-rock bass-drums duo Lightning Bolt are pummeling roughly 500 people into euphoric submission; as is their custom, they’ve eschewed the makeshift stage and instead set up camp on the beat-to-shit floor, a ragtag drum kit and a Marshall stack with a smiley face pasted on it blaring beneath one of those giant curved, circular mirrors you see in parking garages, conveniently allowing us to see us trying to see what the hell is going on. The image in that mirror looks like hell as portrayed in modern cinema—Spawn, Constantine, etc. Just a writhing mass of humanity staring at our feet during the wonky ambient parts and slamming dumbly into each other during the thrashy apocalyptic parts. It’s nearly pitch-black and brutally hot. To the casual observer—or, say, a fire marshal—this scene must look just 30 different kinds of ill-advised. But Lightning Bolt’s assault continues unabated. And though a fully agitated fire truck or two greets us as we file out, the show had already died, not a peaceful death, but a natural one.

The show’s appeal is more sociological than musical. Third Ward’s got a perfectly good stage, but three-fifths of the action takes place at eye level, and all of it under garbled-amp sonic circumstances. First the boy-girl duo High Places, she chirping singsong, backseat-of-the-station-wagon melodies, he pounding on a drum pad and triggering all manner of blaring digital effects. Result: “Row Row Row Your Boat” remixed by the Mars Volta. Next comes Baltimore’s Ecstatic Sunshine, two dudes with electric guitars who face each other and gleefully shred for a good 20 minutes or so, as befitting a band named Ecstatic Sunshine with a record entitled Freckle Wars. Lacking a parking-garage mirror, they are all but invisible to anyone not within five feet, but those folks who are bang their heads, happily, in something approaching unison. Later, before Lightning Bolt stomp us into oblivion, comes BARR, a shambling bass-drums-keys quartet from L.A. that strives for the emotional resonance of bad Pavement songs (“Conduit for Sale” in particular) but live just sounds terrible, led by a nasal frontman spewing forth spoken-word meta-commentary a la LCD Soundsystem. Or maybe the B-52s. Wait, wait, got it: Ira Glass. This American Life, the band. Bleagh. OK, you’re the bass player, you wanna crowd-surf, fine. A) Leave your bass behind. B) If you must bring your bass, unplug it.

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Ah, but the real draw this evening is Marnie Stern, beguiling blond guitar-shredder/tapper/mauler whose Yngwie-meets-Le Tigre debut, In Advance of the Broken Arm, has inspired some of the loopiest and most ecstatic reviews yet this year. (The New York Times, in particular, has fallen hopelessly in love.) With spastic accompaniment by drummer Zach Hill (he of the West Coast’s own terror-rock duo, Hella), it’s a bewildering, cacophonic affair, with more station-wagon kiddie melodies, but this time the wagon’s hurtling off a cliff. Stern plays skronky, virtuosic finger-tapping blasts (too psychotic to qualify as “riffs”) as though she has mistaken her guitar for some other instrument, or perhaps an octopus. In my household, this album has earned the coveted iTunes genre tag “WTF.”

At Third Ward, Marnie is accompanied by an iPod Nano. White. At least she used the stage. To replicate the auditory experience of this show, change your own iPod’s EQ settings to “flat,” then add “bass reducer” and “treble booster” and then just see how much fun you have. Shit was shrill. Undeniably fascinating though. Generally virtuosic shredmeister shit is much more impressive than it is enjoyable; Hella’s catalog, for example, is invariably astonishing and mostly unlistenable. But Marnie has a goofy, almost casual air, and her chattery lyrics range from bizarro-word salad to startlingly direct oaths like “This is my ‘Thunder Road’/This is my Marquee Moon/This is my Orthrelm in tune/This is my love for you.” We bang our heads in something approaching unison; the fire marshal is hopelessly smitten.

Still better than the line outside Studio B.

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