Live at The Root Cellar one fine May evening, 5/16/18, indie rock and hip-hop/punk — courtesy opening act Nnamdi Ogbonnaya—ruled, okay!
BY JENNIFER KELLY
An odd pairing, the hyper-verbal, slant-riffed, feminist indie pop of Speedy Ortiz and the complicated hip hop/punk/math rock adventures of Chicagoan Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, but that’s what’s on tap at the Root Cellar on a mid-May evening in bucolic Greenfield, Massachusetts, and we’re lucky to have it.
I arrive with Ogbonnaya already mid-set, bouncing antically through the first few rows of the audience with a mic cord trailing. Ogbonnaya made a big splash last year with his full-length Drool, a slinky, slippery, verbally dexterous set of songs anchored around the performer’s voice, but lavished with all manner of instruments and samples. It seems to have been a rule, somehow, that all writers, no matter how much they liked the record, had to include the word “weird” in the lede, so let’s just get it out there, Ogbonnaya has carved out a very eccentric niche.
Sadie Dupuis explains later on that Drool was one of her favorite albums last year, but that Ogbonnaya set is very different — equally wonderful, but its own thing— and indeed, for much of the set, what Ogbonnaya and his band are doing is more like math-y punk rock than hip hop. It is complicated and frenetic, anchored by a good drummer and bass player and with one guitar and sometimes two (Ogbonnaya plays guitar sometimes), very much in the rock idiom. Because of the acoustics, it’s hard to hear the lyrics, and so, hard to pinpoint which songs he played, but the set gains momentum as it goes and the last three songs are awesome.
Then it’s on to Speedy Ortiz, whose Twerp Verse, released in late April, is a sharper, sweeter, more pop-friendly iteration of the band’s off-kilter art. It’s a home field, more or less, for Sadie Dupuis, who earned an MFA in poetry at nearby U. Mass Amherst and lived for a while in Northampton. As always she channels the vibe of liberal arts prof crossed with the smartest tweener you ever met, long pigtails trailing, short shorts and pink and aqua tinted guitars at the ready. Her band includes bassist Darl Fem, her long-time drummer Mike Falcone and new guitarist Andy Monholt (Devin McKnight has gone on to form Maneka).
The set begins as Twerp Verse does with the churning, buzzing bass of “Buck Me Off,” that’s tall, striking Fem, who midway through the cut joins Dupuis in exultant full-body hops, straight up and down. It’s as good an introduction as any to Speedy Ortiz’s latest album, with its meandering verse and big pop pay-off, the whole thing knocked silly and sideways by the way that Falcone whales on the drums. Dupuis nimbly injects feminist discourse and cultural references into her effervescent songs, skewering digital dating mores in “Buck Me Off” and giving Sheryl Sanders the side-eye in “Lean in When I Suffer.” Yet though politically pointed, the songs are anything but didactic. In the big single “Lucky 88,” Dupuis trades vocals with Fem, her acerbic asides punctuated with the bassist’s high girlish counterpoints.
The set borrows heavily from the latest album, but takes a detour towards the past with “The Graduates” from 2015’s Foil Deer and “Plough” from her long-player debut Major Arcana. This latter song she wrote while living nearby in Northampton, she explains, though it was mostly about drinking at the Boston pub, The Plough and Stars.
The rest of the show mixes old and new, the simmering vulnerability of “No Below,” the stretchy tempo’d snap and pop of “I’m Blessed,” the blaring punk rock fuzz of early single “Taylor Swift” and the off-balance tunefulness of Twerp Verse’s “You Hate the Title.” Heard side by side, the old songs sound leaner, tougher, less ingratiating than the new material; the new songs are giddier and more euphoric. And yet, even at their fizziest, Speedy Ortiz’s songs carry a sting. They’re smart, articulate and absolutely onto male/female foolishness, even as they bounce and entice.