EMA – 2012 Bonnaroo Thursday June 7th
EMA, who was dressed in a very spiffy Mickey Mouse shirt, came on stage and said that she was “fucking excited,” it was “fucking hot,” and that the crowd was “fucking awesome.” I can’t vouch for the first claim but the next two were complete truth. We took refuge under the shade of a tree, took long gulps of water between cheers but still the crowd was, indeed, enthusiastic. A couple yells of “Bonnaroo!” and the corresponding appropriate wordless response signaled the electric violinist to start up the droning backbeat of “Stand.” EMA whispered the lyrics while the violinist and guitarist quietly pulsed behind her. In fact, they were so effective at creating the gently churning background to “Stand” that Daniel and Tylage fell asleep leaning against the supporting pole adjacent to our group. I quite like “Stand”’s ominous build up and drum freak out on but performed live, or at least in Bonnaroo, the whole song seemed slight and wispy. EMA’s barely audible voice floated above the crowd, never touching or moving the audience, before it simply disappeared or was obliterated by the sound of other bands performing from tents across the grounds.
I had a hard time mustering any excitement even when the guitar growled chords and she sang, “we’d kill them if we could!” Words that could incite riots found me drowsy. Only the violin freak out had my doing anything other than nodding along to the rhythm. It was hard to tear my eyes away from Erika as she sang, howled, and moaned while she bounced, twisted, or bent almost double but the music wasn’t grabbing me. I began to worry a little. Why wasn’t I feeling anything? She certainly had charisma and her band had serious musical chops but in the hot Tennessee heat and the bustling surroundings her gentle music seemed to dissolve before it hit my ears.
Her second song, “Angelo,” opened with a sustained drone as EMA challenged the crowd to “show me what you’re made of” amid screeching guitar. Once again, I admired the violinist’s skill and the thunderous drums throughout the song but EMA’s singing was too low to do anything but get in the way of the instruments that backed her. She put on a guitar for her song “Greyship” and whispered the song over the sound of brushed cymbals and bristling guitar. While I dug the drone and meticulous soundscape of the song, the song was so downbeat that I began to lose interest pretty quickly. Even as the band kicked into an echoing jam at the end of the concert, I was apathetic about the whole song. I didn’t think EMA was bad or the show was subpar but rather that the music that they were playing was not totally appropriate to listen to at one in the afternoon in the hot sun. I couldn’t get into EMA’s downbeat and moody music in Bonnaroo just as I can’t listen to The XX in the middle of the day. Her music just didn’t suit the time/place I was hearing it. Maybe the problem was a case of a bad time slot or bad set selection or even my mood but I just couldn’t muster any energy for “Marked’s” cool, cold self-abuse and drug addiction while sweating under the Tennessee sun.
“Milkman,” however, pulled my wandering attention and eye right back to the stage. The drums, which continued to be my favorite part of the show, sound like Sleigh Bells and EMA finally raised her voice above a breathy whisper to practically scream, “I’m gaspin’.” The violin howled behind her while the rest of the band swirled and crunched with every drumbeat. Halfway through the set, she had finally made me sit up and notice her. Unfortunately, she was a little too late. “Butterfly Knife” had the same problem as the rest of her set: she sang too low, the guitars were sludgy without any real drive behind them, and the best part of the song, “Twenty kisses with a butterfly knife,” wasn’t distinct enough from the rest of the song to even get me to notice. “Butterfly Knife” is a great song. On the album, the sense of dread, doom, and pain is almost palpable. Her lyrics are so in your face and realistically delivered that the song is claustrophobic and very, very unpleasant. I came away from the album version feeling soiled and shaken. I came away from the concert mildly annoyed. EMA is a powerful artist but all of her song-writing power was watered down or even absent from her live show. Even when she announced that she was “gonna rock” and pulled out a cover of Samhain’s “Archangel” (Danzig Legacy played Bonnaroo later), the band’s noise was appropriately massive but the song was lifeless even when she could even hit vocal peak of the chorus.
EMA’s “California” is an excellent song but her monologue disguised as lyrics did not have the strength to reel in my waning attention. The song’s confessionary nature and violin whine create an intimate atmosphere that didn’t materialize in the festival. EMA’s scared, wounded “I’m just 21 and I don’t mind dying” makes me shiver with unease and pain when she confesses it in my earphones but live it sounded like a boast, or worse, just empty words. “California” is a devastating, honest, and immensely raw song and I was dismayed to hear it so dead and utterly void of the feelings of terror, dislocation, and engulfing panic that makes it so powerful. EMA closed with the Gowns’ “White Like Heaven.” The noisy outros’ feedback-laden guitar solo over EMA’s wails was the first time I felt the familiar dread that I associate with Past Life Martyred Saints in the whole set. “White Like Heaven” put an exclamation mark on what would have been a wholly monotone set.
EMA put on the most disappointing set I saw all Bonnaroo, despite her charisma, her band’s tight playing, and her song’s high-quality lyrics and singing. Her intimate and dark subject matter along with the music’s reliance on atmosphere burned up in the heat, crowd, and bustle of Bonnaroo at one in the afternoon. Tyler and Dan couldn’t even stay awake for her set and I couldn’t get excited to hear her moody, chilly songs in the heat.
I worried that all of Bonnaroo would be like her set and wondered how I could do four days of boredom with brief spurts of excitement in high heat and crowds. However, the next act, The Cave Singers, erased all those worries within two songs. After a brief delay, Bonnaroo was about to begin.
Despite the review, I recommend “California” and “Butterfly Knife” from EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints. They touch on fears that are personal and painful in a way that is scary, honest, and intimate. They are uncomfortable songs for their unflinching portrayal of unpleasant realities, not because they are unpleasant music. I was most disappointed by the concert because of the time. As I mentioned, it’s hard to take songs about death, abuse, and drug addiction seriously in the bright afternoon sun directly after grabbing a slushy and walking to the stage. If she came on later that night when the moon was out and the energy of Bonnaroo had mellowed a bit, I know I would have been much more susceptible to her set.