I walked into the Haunt on a school night stressed, irritated and wishing I’d stayed in instead of spending a good hour securing a ride and a companion to go see, what I was pretty certain, would be a perfectly pleasant and perfectly missable indie rock show: Waxahatchee.
Missable, I mean, in the relative sense, that this is Ithaca, where a line-up as stacked as Monday night’s is not all that remarkable. Ithaca spoils us with such an unrelenting stream of incredible music flooding the bars and basements that my calibration is warped — must-see’s become missable, missables become flimsy “attends” on Facebook, and it ends up being a somewhat monumental feat to get myself out to a group I’ve never heard of before. What I mean to say is, if Waxahatchee is here one month, Angel Olsen or Girlpool or Kurt Vile or Sharon Van Etten will be the next.
The crowd, looking like a Portlandia episode, was predictable; I figured the music would be too. It was a low-energy pack, (an occupational hazard for a Monday night show), but the quiet clusters of friends shuffling around — engaged, but never rising above murmurs and appreciative whoops — would end up being the ideal gathering.
I was late, catching a song and a half of the formidable folk-punk power troupe Misses Bitches. The Bitches are a piecemeal collection of musicians plucked from peer local acts like We are Whaleshark, The Realbads, Mutsu and The Andersons. Their guitar-heavy rock base, aching with just a hint of the blues, and complemented with playful tambourine and a healthy dose of headbashing, was solid. But their powerful harmonizing, like set of gospel sisters wailing together, or a punk visage of the women who sing O Brother Where Art Thou’s “Down To The River To Pray” — was their real strength.
Next, Ithaca DIY darling, endemic to house show basements and homemade music videos, Izzy True took the stage; baseball capped and bolo-tied as usual. An apotheosized fixture in the Ithaca scene, you might recognize her name from every Fanclub and Ithaca Underground show bill ever. She is an utter enigma; just plain weird. Friendly but unnerving, acutely cool but unpretentious, Izzy True might just be the anti-hipster, come to shame us all. Awkwardly mumbling into the microphone, she instructed us all to picture a ball of energy in the center of our chests. “That ball is all the bad feelings you have. And we’re gonna try to get them all out, with rock and roll.”
So she did, playing a couple louder rock pieces, backed up by the talented Jon Samuels on bass and Angela DeVivo on drums; their tight instrumentals occasionally overpowering her peculiar, aerial voice. Following that, she played some of her quieter, more characteristic work. Her songs, a bit like the surreal comics she pens, are trips into her mind; sometimes irreverently funny, catchy and bright, often quite sad, always honest and a little bit perturbing. She groans and broods about working in a coffee shop, then whispers about love. Between songs, she narrated the crowds feelings about her music, and called us out for not laughing at her jokes in such a way that it was never quite clear if she was making fun of us poor losers who adore her, or if she is simply a comfortable-uncomfortable performer. I think the latter.
“Waxahatchee is up next and I know you’re all gonna stick around cause you paid thirteen dolllarrrrssss!” she sang-said before walking off the stage.
The whole time, standing almost in the crowd next to the stage, had been Katie Crutchfield, a.k.a. Waxahatchee. Explaining right away that she’d be playing without a band because of some voice trouble (due to which she just canceled a string of European tour dates), she took the stage, set for a four-piece, alone. This would be the last stop of her current tour, and it showed; she seemed exhausted, although never resentful or unwilling: just tired. She apologized for this, but I was, perhaps morbidly, thrilled — wearied women singing alone with guitars are among my favorite things in the world.
For me, she rendered Monday night unmissable. I think the expression “tour de force” is overused, and becoming rapidly bereft of gravity, however I’ll invoke it here, just in case it’s not yet kaput. Her set was a study in confessional rock: tensely, tremblingly quiet, unyieldingly sad, uncensoredly self-conscious — and just little bit furious. There’s a painful, raw edge to her live performance that you won’t find on her recorded material, which is an all-around dreamier, more relaxed affair.
She played almost her entire set with her eyes closed, or trained on her Fender. Starting off with “Catfish,” (explaining that it’s about an actual catfish, not the MTV show), a slow burning piece of lo-fi melancholic pop off her first album, American Weekend. This would be indicative of the rest of her set, which disproportionately favored her older material, as “Catfish” was followed by “Grass Stain” (the subsequent song on the record): bitter and biting. In the absence of a band, Crutchfield’s lyrics were nakedly exposed, and they’d hang bitterly in the blue light of Haunt; the kind of words and phrases that steal breath and scratch at wounds. Not necessarily poetry, just a lot of blunt lines that hit like “I don’t care if I’m too young to be unhappy,” (“Grass Stain”) and “I’ll keep having dreams about loveless marriage and regret” (“Swan Dive”).
She then went into one of her classic covers, Lucinda Williams’ “Greenville.” This is such an appropriate song for her, because she writes and performs with nods to the generations of that came before her: to Lucinda Williams, Joni Mitchell, Patty Griffin, Alanis Morissette, The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan, as well as the riot grrls, Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill, for whom she’s spoken frequently of her admiration.
Crutchfield continued, introducing “American Weekend” with a casual “this is a song that I haven’t played in a while about doing mushrooms on a school night,” and just when we thought we were going to get a brief respite from her lineup, it turns out to be as burning and spacey as the last few. Then a slight turn upward with a nice bit of breezy whining on “Peace and Quiet,” followed with a time-lapsedly slowed down, calamitously lovely reimagination of her hit “La Loose,” and her quiet, wistful “Summer of Love,” during which she repeats her punch of a line, “the summer of love is a photo of us,” almost too many times.
At this point, Crutchfield paused and without a hint of irony, announced that “now she would play a couple of sad ones,” following with “Be Good,” “I Think I Love You” and “Bathtub;” admittedly, a doozy: “Take my word for it, I’m not worth it … I tell you not to love me / But I still kiss you when I want to.”
If you told me she’d broken up with someone a week ago, and written her set over the last week, I wouldn’t have had to suspend much disbelief. Although she sang with astonishing vulnerability, do not think that I mean to say that she or her music is fragile. Rather, I think that Crutchfield’s particular brand of confession, to share such emotion, so viscerally, at the expense of oneself, takes superhuman strength. No wonder she seemed so fucking tired. She was exhausted, and she exhausted me with her unrelenting, gorgeous bummer of a show. Although she is writing alongside a talented slew of peer indie and DIY acts — who very well might make an appearance at the Haunt or State one of these semesters, and whom I won’t speak to their missability — Waxahatchee is the unmissable real deal, not to be overlooked or underrated.
Jael Goldfine is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].