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Sheer Mag’s exhilarating live show is the punk scene at its finest

| Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Andrea Savage | The Observer

There is a lot of evidence behind the idea that contemporary music, despite constantly seeming to push forward, is at the same time cyclically repurposing the sounds of 30 and 40 years ago. For rising Philadelphia band Sheer Mag, the mix of three guitars producing loud, infectious riffs and frontwoman Tina Halladay producing louder, even more infectious vocals will occasion comparisons to 1970’s hard rock bands like Thin Lizzy. While that reference is admittedly lazy, it doesn’t help that all but one band member sport hair past their shoulders. When it comes to lyrical content, however, there is no mistaking that Sheer Mag is a band of the present. Protest politics are everywhere in its music, from the way the riffs make you want to get up and move to the many calls to arms in its lyrics.

Last Friday night, when Sheer Mag headlined at Thalia Hall in Chicago, the scene was reminiscent of a protest environment. On most nights, Thalia Hall is a normal concert venue; the refurbished concert hall has the ordinary stage, balcony and general admissions floor space. But for Sheer Mag, the floor was turned into the stage itself, with a circular stage set up in the middle of the room that allowed the crowd to watch from all angles. It was something I’ve never experienced before with live music. With the stage in the middle of the room, the crowd formed all the way around the circle, and the event really did feel like a public gathering. The dimensions of the stage forced the band members to face inwards at each other, which was at first disorienting and then began to feel like an intimate viewing of a practice session. The only drawback was that the context hardly allowed for much between-song banter with the crowd, but the sacrifice was small.

Opening for Sheer Mag were Chicago band Negative Scanner and San Francisco band Flesh World. I hadn’t heard much of either band before the concert, but appreciated seeing two more female-fronted punk acts in addition to Sheer Mag. Negative Scanner played first to what wasn’t yet a full crowd, a strange contrast against their full-throated sound. They reminded me of both Screaming Females and Priests — which is pretty good as far as comparisons go. Flesh World played next and were equally impressive. Their post-punk sound was reminiscent of Protomartyr but rendered a little more dreamily. Both openers were four-piece outfits with two guitars; this wasn’t a show for anyone wary of loud guitars.

Sheer Mag are on tour promoting their recent debut full-length record, “Need To Feel Your Love,” released in July. When I last saw Sheer Mag, two years ago, they had only two EPs from which to choose tracks, so I was curious about how the band would balance its catalogue, now that they have tripled it. In the end, they played eight songs from the new record and five from their EPs — a good mix. The crowd was enthralled the whole time, although the audience was older than expected. About halfway through the show, a group of college-aged audience members started a mosh pit. Most of the crowd around them were not very pleased, even though it looked like one of the most affectionate attempts at a mosh pit ever seen at a punk show.

The band’s new album distinguishes itself from the earlier EPs by swapping out lo-fi charm for more stylistic experimentation. “Need To Feel Your Love” doesn’t have the same shouts-per-minute of previous Sheer Mag works, but you wouldn’t know it from their live show; every song was played as big as you could hope. Album deep cut “Turn It Up” was stretched out to be the longest song of the night and the added guitar soloing made it the show’s highlight.

Shows like these are a welcome reprieve from the stressful outside world, while also providing the invigoration to get back out there.

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