Live: EMA’s Wave Of Distortion Floods Mercury Lounge


EMA w/Helado Negro
Mercury Lounge
Wednesday, July 20

Better than: Her Glasslands show a few hours later, I’m guessing.

EMA consists of Erika M. Anderson and three very talented backup musicians (including her sister, Nicole, on drums) and last night at the tiny Mercury Lounge they filled every spare inch of the room with sound. From the opening “Butterfly Knife” until the end of her set, walls of guitars, drums, keyboards, and dual violins (!) assaulted the crowd. And damn, if they didn’t enjoy it. It’s rare for a new act to get as much pop from an audience as EMA did, but that speaks both to the quality of her music and the charisma that she oozes while performing. Despite her album’s gloomier themes and slow-paced tracks, Anderson was upbeat and energetic throughout.

The set hit on every song from EMA’s debut Past Life Martyred Saints (except for “Coda,” which she replaced with another, equally beautiful a cappella), and it hit hard. The brutal “Marked,” which she prefaced by begging the audience to “not take… the wrong way,” showcased Anderson’s ability to be both menacing and pleading; set ender and crowd favorite “California” also shone, with the audience knowing every word and Anderson running around the stage, thrusting herself into the mic stand.

The clear highlight of the show, however, was the epic album opener “The Grey Ship.” Starting as a quiet guitar-led ballad, the song slowly builds up more and more until it explodes into a booming, anthemic melody near its conclusion. Despite only being the third song on the set, the room peaked; some people engaged in headbanging, while more discreet fans threw up the finger-gun salute, EMA’s take on devil horns. As the track faded away into “nothing, and nothing, and nothing,” there was a sense of fulfillment in the room; the crowd had made it through the storm of sound and were all the better for it.

Special mention must go to EMA’s band; while her drumming sister provided excellent thunder and backup vocals, the two forward members most impressed. On the one hand, there was the keyboardist-violinist who swapped between the two (sometimes during the same song), while on the other side (hidden by the softer lights) was the lead guitarist/secondary violinist who started the show by playing a walkie-talkie into her strings, and only got more creative after that. At one point, she played her guitar upside-down on top of the amp.

The openers were Helado Negro, an electro-Latin fusion group led by Ecuadorian Roberto Carlos Lange. They came out sheepishly, and Lange started off by making the crowd laugh via mistaking the days. “Oh, I thought today was Monday. Read the wrong thing… oops!” Their music, however, was no mistake, as the buzzy drone of Lange’s electronics and soft murmurs clashed favorably with his onstage partner’s rhythmic offerings. At point he urged the crowd to dance, despite “it being so soon after work”; a few brave souls replied with some semi-impressive swaying in place.

Critical bias: I really love EMA’s debut.

Overheard: After a rather enthusiastic male patron yelled “You’re worth it!” EMA chuckled and answered, “I’ll join you in the kissing booth after.”

Random notebook dump: Honey jar on top of the amp. Her mug said “Mike” on it. Wrapped the mic cord dangerously around her neck during finale.

Butterfly Knife
The Grey Ship
Red Star
[a cappella solo]