Review: Speedy Ortiz at Rough Trade – a punchy, indie rock distraction from the bullshit (23/2/24)

As the Philadelphia four-piece crash into opener ‘Ghostwriter’, they feel like the perfect type of band to be playing host in such intimate spaces. Rough Trade’s 180-ish capacity gig room only feels about half full but, with the audience squeezing in as close to the stage as possible, the classic rock n roll assault of drums, bass and two guitars has never sounded so good. Speedy Ortiz have only ever been a cult indie-rock band – and they’re now beyond the height of said cult status – but they’re the sort of act that continues to put on a show and finely execute their particular sonic brand, irrespective of venue size.

Aside from observing that drummer Joey Doubek is none too phased about giving his kit an absolute battering, the first thing one notices is lead singer Sadie Dupuis’ adroit playing of circling riffs while simultaneously delivering her vocals. The choruses to both ‘Ghostwriter’ and ‘Ballad of Y & S’ require Dupuis to navigate her fretboard while singing, and ‘Buck Me Off’ sees her mimicking her vocal melody with a descending lead motif.

The fact that Dupuis temporarily fronted a Pavement tribute band called Babement may tell you all you need to know about her 90s alt-rock influences. Standout track ‘Raising The Skate’ contains a Stephen Malkmus-esque opening riff which evolves into a tuneful, two chord crunch of a chorus before Doubek’s machine-gun drumming brings it home to a scintillating coda. Later, ‘The Graduates’ – another tune from album Foil Deer – nicely employs quiet/loud dynamics and makes a case for their 2015 oeuvre being their strongest.

After an initial volley of five swiftly performed tunes, Dupuis is more than comfortable engaging with the audience. She declares the UK a “trade union heaven” after she reveals that guitarist Andy Molhalt has recently unionised his Philly workplace. This provides a segway into ‘Scabs’ (don’t let them change your workplace” she says in introduction) wherein Dupuis’ displays some dextrous arpeggios while, again, nailing her vocal parts. This offers some insight into why Rolling Stone Magazine listed her at 176 in their ‘250 Greatest Guitarists of All Time’ (sandwiched between Rodrigo y Gabriella and Rory Gallagher).

She also gives an earnest speech in directly addressing emergency support act Johanna Warren who impressed earlier with lyrically sharp, love-gone-wrong fingerpicked folk songs. Earlier, Warren had thanked Dupuis for her support in helping them (preferred pronoun duly noted) finally procure a record deal. Dupuis returns the sincere gratitude and expresses thanks for Warren’s last minute traipsing over from Wales after scheduled support act Ray Aggs bowed out through sickness.

In a set that leans fairly heavily into most recent album Rabbit Rabbit, ‘Silver Spring’ – from 2012’s Sports EP – is the night’s oldest surviving song and provides Dupuis with her biggest guitar hero moment as steps from off stage and shreds its solo from among the audience. ‘Taylor Swift’, a tune with no obvious lyrical connection to the mega-famous singer, is a grungey wash of muddied power chords and has Dupuis, Molhalt and bassist Audrey Zee Whitesides raise up their guitars ahead of an emphatic finish.

Molhalt then addresses the crowd saying “the world is really fucked right now.” There is such truth in that statement that one wonders which particular current global catastrophe he has in mind. “We’re living through a genocide” he continues, before calling for donations in support of charity ‘eSims for Gaza’ (this helps people within Gaza to connect to the outside and communicate with their families). The world is certainly in a dark and dangerous place right now. I’m cynical enough to be convinced that, ultimately, music can’t change a thing. However, it’s no small thing that a cosy live show, performed by a well-oiled rock band, is a temporary salve and escape from the bullshit.

Scott Hammond