It’s been just over eight months since Mackenzie Scott (aka Torres) released her sophomore album Sprinter, and I’m fairly certain she hasn’t left the road since then. At the very least, as of this past weekend she’s played three shows in Chicago over that time period – easily more than most non-local artists. I’d argue it’s the town that keeps drawing her back, but exceptional circumstances such as a tour opening for Garbage likely brought her back sooner than anticipated. This particular time she was asked to return for the Tomorrow Never Knows festival, a multi-day, multi-venue event focused on raising the profiles of up-and-coming bands/musicians. This is also known as “something for Chicagoans to do in the dead of winter when concert season is slow.” For the record, it’s a great way to pass the time with plenty of great live music. The triple bill of Torres, Palehound and Julien Baker is just a small testament to that, as all three left a sharp impression on 2015 with highly personal, emotionally devastating albums. It made me concerned I’d be walking out of Lincoln Hall on Friday night a shell of a human being, my insides shredded from so much anguish. Thankfully that wasn’t entirely the case.
The night began with an opening solo set from Julien Baker. Her debut album Sprained Ankle earned her a place on many “Best of” lists last year, with special attention paid to her powerful and raw lyrics delivered with the nuance of a strong gut punch. In a stunning six song set, Baker wrenched every bit of emotion from each moment. The packed room stood in hushed silence as the weight and beauty slowly became too much to bear. It was an incredibly compelling example of how a performer can fully connect with an audience and even drive a few to tears. My own eyes began to well up towards the end, and that’s a rarity. The 19-year-old Baker is undoubtedly a talent worth following with a long career ahead of her. This was her first-ever show in Chicago, and judging by how many people bought her record at the end of the night, it certainly won’t be her last.
After the delicate sadness that was Julien Baker’s set, it seemed like Palehound wanted to deal with serious emotional fallout in a completely different way. Very few of their songs could be considered delicate, instead opting for a much darker, angrier tone spiked with heavier ’90s style grunge guitars in the vein of Hole or (most accurately) Speedy Ortiz. Ellen Kempner doesn’t take relationships lightly, so getting emotionally wounded after a break-up fosters aggression and resentment rather than clear-cut sadness and depression. That’s what the record Dry Food is all about, and it hits hard. So too does the band’s live show. While Kempner played a few songs solo with just her and an electric guitar, a majority of the time she was joined by a bassist and drummer who helped flesh out many of the songs and give those wounds an extra little twist of the knife. The trio dynamic also allowed Kempner to take some sonic detours on songs like “Easy” and “Molly” with some solos that really gave the crowd a taste of her profoundly excellent guitar skills. While it certainly left me impressed in the first half of the set, things calmed down a bit towards the end, which would’ve been disappointing if this alternate side wasn’t equally as compelling. At one point we were treated to a new song she hadn’t played live before, taking care to note that it was written more recently when someone new had come into her life and changed her outlook in a more positive direction. It was just about the only love song that would be played all evening, and offered a glimpse into where Palehound might be headed next. No matter how things progress in terms of content or subject matter, the band made it pretty clear on Friday night that they are highly talented and a force to be reckoned with now and in the future. Don’t be surprised if you hear plenty about them in 2016 and beyond.
The biggest benefit of touring incessantly is that you develop a much stronger stage presence. That is to say you learn what works and what doesn’t to help create the best, most entertaining and engaging version of your live show as possible. Given that Mackenzie Scott spent a majority of her time on the road in 2015, it makes perfect sense that she’s all the better performer because of it. When I caught her last May, it was mere weeks after the release of Sprinter and there were clear indications she was still feeling things out a bit with the new songs. These are growing pains every artist goes through, and some handle it much better than others. In the case of Torres, eight months ago she sounded great and put on a confident, strong show, but a few small things like the set list could have used some adjustment. Specifically, the overall pacing was a little off, and there were a few moments when it felt like Scott was holding back just a bit. For all I know it could have been the circumstances of that particular day, mixing things up on tour for the sake of variety. No matter the factors, by all accounts the set on Friday at Lincoln Hall represented an increase in consistency and showmanship.
The somewhat ironic thing is that the set list was nearly the same as the previous Torres show last May, just the order of the songs had changed slightly. That served well to even everything out and create a clearer path from start to finish. From the slow burn opening salvos of “Mother Earth, father God” through the clawing descent of “The Harshest Light,” the nine song set felt very much like a journey into and out of darkness. The 1-2-3 punch of “New Skin,” Cowboy Guilt” and “Sprinter” slammed with the force and subtlety of a wrecking ball, leaving destruction and devastation in its wake. The weight of these songs also physically manifested itself through Scott’s body as she visibly trembled during the more intense moments of the set. This was particularly prominent during the back-to-back combination of “Son, You Are No Island” and “Strange Hellos,” the former of which was all underlying dread and the latter of which was all powerful, fiery release. For those few loudly punctuated minutes, everyone in the room was rapt with attention as the walls were painted with sheer ferocity and self-confidence. This was Torres at her most vital, suddenly coming into focus and finding her footing after wandering around lost in the darkness. Such a captivating catharsis contributed to what was the best Torres show I’ve seen to date. Can’t wait for the next one.
“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.
Have you heard the new Torres record Sprinter yet? If not, immediately put that on your list of priorities for the week. This sophomore effort takes everything about Mackenzie Scott’s project and harnesses it into something that’s equal parts intense, spiritual and personal. She’s gotten much louder and more aggressive compared to her folk-centric debut, and her lyrics have gone from vague, possibly untrue stories to very specific diary-like entries. To put it another way, a curtain has been torn down, and we’re now hearing more of the living, breathing Torres than ever before. Throw some credit to producer Rob Ellis for helping turn Sprinter into one of the better things 2015 has had to offer so far. Ellis is best known for his work with PJ Harvey, who’s probably as good of a reference point as any to what this album sounds like.
Prior to the release of the record, Torres played a number of shows primarily during and surrounding SXSW in March. The reason it’s worth mentioning is because not only were those performances offering previews of what Sprinter would sound like, but they also felt like something of a coming out party for Scott, the hype building at a fast and furious rate by catching the attention of all the right people. Simply put, Torres has become a hot commodity. Not that she wasn’t back in June of 2013 when she came through Chicago for a show at the Empty Bottle, but like her new record everything is bigger and the shouts of taste makers are louder this time around. She’ll be making a triumphant return to the Bottle next Thursday (May 21st), and all indications are it will be a very exciting and powerful evening. You should definitely be there if you’re in town. It’s a 21+ show, starts at 9PM and tickets are only $10 in advance. Buy them here and thank me later. And just in case you need a little more coersion, stream a couple of the new songs below.