“It’s great to be back at the Empty Bottle,” Mackenzie Scott (aka Torres) told the packed crowd during her headlining set on Thursday night. “This is my third time here. I love this place.” If the extensive applause and cheering from the peanut gallery in response was any indication, the place and the people in it love Torres too. It was two years and seven days since her last visit, and much happened in her world during that gap. An extensive amount of touring helped build Scott into an even more dynamic live performer that only further solidified her fan base. She also found the time to write and record a sophomore album Sprinter, which was released earlier this month to widespread critical acclaim. To say things are better than they’ve ever been in the Torres camp appears to be accurate, and she only further proved that with her set at the Empty Bottle.
Immediately upon taking the stage on Thursday night with her three piece band, Scott pulled out a lighter and set some sage ablaze, waving it around the stage and out into the crowd. It was perhaps the most peaceful moment of the evening, as the music that followed was frought with high emotions that would eventually explode in pure cataclysmic fashion. The intensity began to build from the first notes of opening number “Son, You Are No Island,” which may be one of the quieter and more spare moments from Sprinter but carries with it an underlying threat as the guitar picking gets faster and the vocals become increasingly strained. Throwing the one-two punch of “New Skin” and “Sprinter” early on brought the noise level considerably higher thanks to some heavy guitars, but it wasn’t until “Cowboy Guilt” halfway through the set that things felt like they had truly shifted into fourth gear. That particular song diverted the most from the recorded version, in this case for the better by fully embracing its more aggressive elements and revealing this whole other layer that had otherwise been simmering beneath the surface. With the flood gates open, “Strange Hellos” arrived like the tidal wave it is and much of the crowd quickly tapped into that energy by jumping around for a bit. Some music writers have noted that the new Torres record is reminiscent of vintage PJ Harvey, and in that exact moment the performance also felt cut from that same cloth. Revelatory feels like the right descriptor to use for that mid-set section, a true glimpse into what Scott is like at her most focused and powerful.
After peaking like that, everything else is going to feel a little lesser in comparison. Thankfully “Honey,” the popular single from her 2013 debut, offered up a satisfactory slow burn that acted as a bit of a salve. Perhaps the most tender and beautiful moment of the set came at the very end, with the quiet ballad “November Baby”. For a few minutes it was just Scott and her guitar, with one of her bandmates contributing to harmonies as needed. But unlike the album version, the full band jumped in for a gorgeous crescendo that just felt like icing on the cake. Scott stepped away from her microphone and over to the edge of the stage, cracking a smile as she looked out into the crowd. Once the last notes had been played she quickly asked people near the front if they had a lighter for her sage. And so in perfectly cyclical fashion, things ended the way they began. Of course that doesn’t take the epic single-song encore of “Ferris Wheel” into account, which certainly represented a sobering way to end the night. “There’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do / To show you that I’ve got the sadness too,” Scott sang with pathos and grief. Part of the reason Torres has found success has been because her lyrics feel personal, yet relatable. It was clear as she exited the stage that the entire crowd, myself included, was also afflicted with the sadness. Whether that was due to personal pain or simply because the show was over, everybody felt it on some level. Kind soul that she is, Scott stuck around near the merch table to greet fans and offer up hugs as needed.